May 21, 2019

De Toledo High School: Hub of Community and Hope

Children whose families had been evacuated during the fires found comfort, arts and crafts, singing and fun activities at de Toledo High School. There was an overflowing number of students and volunteers to facilitate.

For over a month now, de Toledo High School (dTHS) in West Hills has opened its doors and its arms to those in need.

Head of School Mark Shpall told the Journal that de Toledo has been busy since the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting on Oct. 27. “It was about our communal and also educational response to Tree of Life, and all the feelings that it brought up in our students: the sense of fear for their safety, fear for being Jewish, and how we dealt with that as a community,” he said. 

“As that started to wane, you had the Borderline Bar & Grill mass shooting, in basically our backyard,” he added. “And [less than] 24 hours later, the fires popped up.”

The go-to for organizations with no place to go as a result of the Woolsey Fire, dTHS has hosted leaders and community members from Ilan Ramon Day School, Camp JCA Shalom, Congregation Or Ami and Temple Aliyah, providing them with office and event space. 

And the communities have responded to dTHS’ gestures in record numbers. When Ilan Ramon held a Havdalah service for its community at dTHS, organizers expected around 100 people, but close to 250 showed up. Camp JCA Shalom also held a gathering at the school and organizers had set up the space for 400 people, yet 550 arrived. Congregation Or Ami took advantage of dTHS’ hospitality and immediately set up a camp with activities for displaced children. 

“I’ve sent at least one daily update to my community, just letting them know what we’re doing, how we’re looking at things,” Shpall said. “In addition, we’ve been on daily conference calls with the Jewish Federation to make sure there are resources for families who now need to rebuild.”

dTHS made the decision to reopen their doors to students on Nov. 13. “Looking through our ZIP codes, we figured close to 40 percent of our families were affected or in the evacuated zone,” Shpall said. But after evacuees began returning, “we made the decision that the quicker we can get these kids back into a sense of a normal routine, the better for them.”

“Because, we’re able to say yes to people, why wouldn’t we? It’s an honor to be able to help out our community because we know they would help us out.”  — Mark Shpall

Shpall said the school made it clear to parents “if either your student can’t come or isn’t as prepared as usual, there is going to be nothing held against them.”

On that same day, Temple Aliyah of Woodland Hills held its early childhood education and preschool on dTHS’ campus. “Their teachers said if our kids had free periods and wanted to help out, they could,” Shpall said. “They ended up having to turn my students away from the door, because too many of them were volunteering. It’s really a nice problem to have.”

While Temple Aliyah was able to return to its campus the following day, Shpall said Jewish organizations affected by the fire are welcome to utilize dTHS’ premises for as long as they need.  

“We love having them there,” Shpall said. “It only adds to the Jewish life that’s in our building. Moving forward, we’re going to do what we do every other day of the year — just be there as a support for our students.”

Shpall dismisses the kudos the school has received in the wake of the fires.  “Because, we’re able to say yes to people, why wouldn’t we?” he said.  “It’s an honor to be able to help out our community, because we know they would help us out. Our original name was New Community Jewish High School. ‘Community’ was our middle name. It is as deep in us as the ‘Jewish’ is in us.”