September 17, 2019

Hebrew High Parents Accept The Shlep

West Side and South Bay parents who send their teenagers to Los Angeles Hebrew High School (LAHHS) had to contend with some extra miles and a longer school day this week as the program moved its Sunday classes from the University of Judaism (UJ) to Pierce College.

With growing enrollment at LAHHS — the region’s largest Jewish supplementary school program for eighth- to 12th-graders — and a reduction in classroom space at UJ, last spring the board of directors decided to leave its long-term berth in the Sepulveda Pass and move its Sunday program to the Woodland Hills community college. LAHHS will continue to hold weekday instruction at Conservative synagogues throughout the Los Angeles area.

To ease the commute, LAHHS offers bus service from Congregation Ner Tamid of the South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes, with a stop in Redondo Beach, and from Temple Beth Am in the Pico-Robertson area, stopping at the Federal Building in Westwood, along with two Santa Clarita sites. Until this year, students traveled to UJ by car.

"The move to Pierce is a big part of our future," said LAHHS principal Bill Cohen, explaining that UJ was offering fewer classrooms for the coming school year than the 20 LAHHS had used in 2002-2003. At Pierce, he said, the Hebrew High program has 30 classrooms, allowing the school to offer more courses, adding that the LAHHS board wanted to keep a projected 550 Sunday students together on one campus.

Mark Bookman, UJ’s senior vice president and chief operating officer, told The Journal that the school’s growing Department of Continuing Education limited the number of classrooms it could offer LAHHS on Sunday mornings.

Bookman and Cohen both noted that the LAHHS decision to leave UJ was strictly about space, not about money or any other conflict between Hebrew High and the university.

"The relationship’s been very positive," Bookman said.

Staying at UJ would have required LAHHS to limit enrollment below last year’s 500, Cohen told The Journal.

"Our board was very clear that our mission was to give a quality education to every kid who wants it and not have a 200-student waiting list," he said.

Over a two-month period earlier this year, Cohen scouted possible locations for Hebrew High, including Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple, across the freeway from the UJ, and Valley College in Van Nuys, as well as a number of large synagogues and public and private schools. Pierce, Cohen said, stood out as the best site.

"Our needs of 30 classrooms with big desks are not easy to meet," he said. "It took a college to be able to handle the cars and the buses."

The choice of a Woodland Hills site reflects the burgeoning numbers of Jewish families in the Conejo Valley as well as a high concentration in the West San Fernando Valley.

"If we were going to go off the hill, which we really didn’t want to do, we had to go where the greatest numbers of students were," Cohen said.

LAHHS also considered and rejected the idea of splitting the Sunday program into Valley and Westside campuses. That would have destroyed the cohesiveness of the school and limited the number of courses that could be offered at each site, Cohen said.

Families were notified of the move in April. Bus service will cost LAHHS about $300 per student, but the school will subsidize half the cost, charging families $150 a year.

"We didn’t make the move to save money," Cohen said.

Westside and South Bay parents who see Hebrew High as important to their children seem to be taking the move to the Valley in stride.

"We’re not thrilled about it, but we understand why they need to do it," said Robin Siegal, a Westside mother of two LAHHS students. "We like the school, so we’re going to shlep."

"In general, people who are really committed to Hebrew High won’t mind," said Cheri Ellowitz Silver, who has a child in 11th grade. "I think families who are saying they’re not sending kids because of the move have other issues."

Silver, education director at Congregation Ner Tamid, praised Cohen for consulting South Bay parents about the need for a South Bay bus and said her main regret was that the Sunday program was being removed from the Jewish environment of UJ.

Other parents are accepting the change more grudgingly.

"I thought the UJ was far enough," said Ann Steinberg, a Westside parent whose two older children went through LAHHS and whose youngest daughter is in 10th grade. "They said it’ll take another 10 minutes, but I don’t believe it; on the way back, they’re going to be sitting in traffic."

She also believes that with the move to Woodland Hills, "they’ve really made it more of a Valley thing, at least catering to the people out there."

Cohen, however, insists that "we do not want, nor is it our vision, to be a Valley Hebrew High School. Our board wants [LAHHS] to be a school for the entire city."

Robin Franco, a South Bay mother of two LAHHS graduates and a 10th-grader, also worries about the the longer commute, although she noted that the noontime car traffic out of UJ used to add time to the school day, too. However, Franco said, her children’s commitment to Hebrew High outweighs other concerns, like security and atmosphere.

"No way would they not go," she said. "Their friends from Camp Ramah are there, and that’s where they see them once a week."

Cohen concedes that the Pierce location isn’t perfect, but he believes the elbow room will make up for the shlep from points south.

"Nobody’s crazy about the move," he said. "What we’re crazy about is the extra classrooms."