June 18, 2019

YULA’s Innovative New Nagel Family Campus

Photo courtesy of YULA Boys High School.

On a recent afternoon, in a special classroom on the Nagel Family Campus at Yeshiva University Boys High School in Los Angeles (YULA), loud machines whirred as students produced 3-D printed and laser-cut objects. YULA Boys’ Director of Innovation Rabbi Michael Cohen explained that the students were creating three-dimensional etchings of some of the monsters depicted in Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey.” 

The classroom is one of three in YULA’s new Gelman Hall devoted to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics), where students focus on state-of-the-art subjects including innovation, 3-D design, coding and robotics. 

“These are the rooms where you get prepared for jobs that don’t yet exist,” said Rabbi Arye Sufrin, a 10-year faculty member who became Head of School two years ago. “We have been around since 1979 with the mission to be consistent with the Torah values and hashkafah (religious perspective) of Yeshiva University, valuing and prioritizing Torah growth but also a synthesis of academic, general studies, co-curriculars and of course, character development. Our new facility takes our program to the next level.”

“High school years are very formative years in your life,” said David Nagel, president and chairman of the YULA Boys board for the past 11 years. “It’s a really important time to receive an impactful education. I am most proud of the fact that we built a campus that feels collegiate,” he added. “It’s hard to motivate high school kids in general. This gives them a jump. It’s an energizer.”

Touring the renovated campus, Sufrin pointed out three new buildings. Gelman Hall is a wing of experiential learning spaces, including the Schlesinger STEM and Entrepreneurship Center. The Samson Center, donated by Lee Samson in memory of his late wife, Anne, and including the Yoni and Lisa Wintner Family Court, is a multifunctional gym that can hold up to 700 people. It will also be used for theatrical productions, graduation and other special programs. And the Kestenbaum Commons is a collaborative learning center and student support center, which includes the Mintz Family Resource Center, where walls are transparent on both sides because, as Sufrin says, “there’s no stigma to student support.” He also noted that in the outdoor Robin Family Plaza, students get together between classes, right near the two batei midrash (centers of study), one of which houses a Sephardic minyan.

The $17 million project — a decade in the making, and under construction for the past two years — was spearheaded by the Nagel family, especially philanthropist Jack Nagel, who died in October at 96, and his wife, Gitta. (David is one of their four children.) Around 450 people attended the campus’s rededication on Dec. 9.

“This will be a type of educational center that will spearhead so many things beyond what normally would have been thought by YULA faculty.”  — David Nagel

The renovations were designed to encourage the school’s 178 students to learn and achieve, Sufrin said. Modular furniture and walls enable faculty members to expand their classrooms and students to gather in whatever study configuration is needed. “We don’t want to give you the idea, we want you to come up with the idea,” Sufrin explained. “We set up the infrastructure [so] that you’re able to use your creativity and your passion.” 

“Have you ever seen a school like this?” Gitta Nagel asked. “You can look far and near and you won’t find one. It’s very important for other schools and other cities to emulate this state-of-the-art high school.”

YULA is built on three pillars, Sufrin said: the primacy and relevancy of Torah, uncompromising general studies and character development. Students know these goals because a framed mission statement hangs in every room, and because Sufrin can pop-quiz them in the halls, as he did to one student during the tour. 

While about 40 percent of graduates feed into Yeshiva University in New York,  and 90 percent of graduates do a gap year in an Israeli yeshiva, Sufrin said that the school wants students to go to the college where they can grow the most. 

“We want to create mature thinkers who respect what others have to say even though you don’t agree, and who live a life of Torah values. Part of that is prioritizing and loving Torah as something that’s a part of who you are but also being a mensch,” he said.

“This was my husband’s and my dream for the last 19 years,” Gitta Nagel said. “We worked every day [on it].”

“The Nagels’ response to the Holocaust was to build Torah institutions, and they are role models for all of us,” Sufrin said. 

David’s parents gave the lead gift in 2003, enabling students to move from trailers into a real building. Once the Nagel name was on the campus, David became the lightning rod for complaints. The only way to get things fixed for good, he realized, would be to become board president. More than 60 donors contributed to the construction project, David said. Additional funds will be raised to modernize the existing building.

“This will be a type of educational center that will spearhead so many things beyond what normally would have been thought by YULA faculty,” David said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for the school for generations to come.”  

“Of all the charities I am involved with, No. 1 every year is education,” Gitta Nagel said. “I always say, Jewish education is the spine. If we didn’t have a spine, we would crawl like animals on the floor.”

At the dedication, emotions ran high for the Nagels, particularly David, feeling the loss of his father. 

“He had the real vision,” David said. “He was the one who pushed me initially to get the campus finished. Seeing it completed but him not being at the dedication ceremony made it a very emotional day for me but, at the same time, it was a celebration. The last and most important thing that my father wanted to accomplish in his life for the L.A. Jewish community was done.”