The Boom Years

If you look out the window of Room 120 at Sinai Akiba Academy, you\'ll see a hole. The hole is the size of a city block.
May 29, 1997

If you look out the window of Room 120 at Sinai Akiba Academy, you’ll see a hole. The hole is the size of a city block. It goes four stories deep into the earth, near where Wilshire and Beverly Glen boulevards cross. One year from now, the hole will be fitted with a parking garage to accommodate 462 cars. Atop the garage will sit two new school buildings, whose new classrooms, play areas, labs and staff rooms will serve 772 pre-school and day-school students. Remarkable as the scope of this $25 million construction is, consider this: there’s more.

Across town, Wilshire Boulevard Temple is steaming toward completion of its $22 million Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus. This four-and-a-half acre oasis of open space and Jerusalem stone-banded buildings, at the intersection of Olympic and Barrington, will serve more than 600 children from pre-school through eighth grade, and offer state-of-the-art programs and facilities for all ages.

These two massive projects are but the latest in a construction boom that has forever changed the face of Jewish Los Angeles over the past 10 years. Stephen S. Wise Temple is putting the finishing touches on its $30 million Milken High School. Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy, which moved into its new building in 1995, has doubled student enrollment in its K-8 program, from 120 to 250 students in just three years. The Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, which began as a day school in a room at Congregation Beth Jacob, has moved into a multi-million dollar facility at Olympic and Doheny, while its enrollment has swelled to 700. Shalhevet Academy has gone from zero to 130 students since it was founded in 1992.

Several factors underlie the demand and expansion, according to Dr. Gil Graff, director of the Bureau of Jewish Education. The most mundane may be that there are simply more school-age Jewish children out there. “We are in the echo of the baby boom,” says Graff. Recent influxes of Russian, Persian and Israeli Jews have only swelled the number.

But Graff also notes that the deterioration of public schools, the increasingly high-quality education that Jewish schools offer and the sense among parents that the Jewish aspect of these schools gives a “values-added dimension” to education all play a role in raising enrollment.

The day school allure hasn’t been lost on synagogues. They have built and enlarged their schools in order to serve their members’ needs and to bring in young families as new members. These calculations have played out against a larger Jewish communal sense that, in the words of Sinai Temple’s incoming Senior Rabbi David Wolpe, “Education is the salvation of American Jewry, even though it’s a slower salvation than all the other salvations we’re used to.”

The building boom is the clearest sign that salvation may be afoot. But the structures themselves are only part of the story.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple Senior Rabbi Harvey Fields delights in taking visitors around the new Irmas Campus. He has done it countless times — for donors, potential donors, members, even journalists. First stop is an architectural model inside a temporary bungalow. The finished campus, built on the site of a medical tower destroyed by the Northridge earthquake and a former psychiatric hospital, will boast park-like open space surrounding gently curving main buildings. The chapel will double as a screening room. There’s to be an arts center, three stories of classrooms, a gymnasium where parents can work out after they drop their children off for school, a dining hall that spills out onto a quad, a pre-school playground designed down to the tiny tricycle track that threads around the jungle gym.

In the surest Wrightian sense, the form of the new campus reflects this new kind of function. Where the old temple, built in 1928 near Wilshire and Western boulevards, is a looming monument protecting a peaceful inner courtyard, the Irmas Campus is open and turned outward. It is, in a word, welcoming.

“We didn’t need to build another temple,” says Fields, who stresses that the temple’s main synagogue and rabbinical offices will remain at the imposing mid-Wilshire location. “We wanted a combination between a community center and a religious center. It’s a campus for Jewish education for all ages.”

The temple’s Westside Task Force began polling members several years ago to determine what they wanted in a new site, and consulted numerous educational experts, according to Temple President Mark Siegel. What emerged is basically this: The Jewish schools of the future will no longer be just for children. “We built a campus for the entire congregation,” says Siegel.

The temple’s task force put as much thought, effort and fund-raising into developing programs for the campus that would educate every Jew, from toddlers to the seniors. The campus’ Mann Family Early Childhood Center will offer classes for grandparents, mommies, daddies, single parents, divorced parents, multiple- birth parents, interfaith couples, working parents and older, “delayed” parents.

“It’s a different breed of parent today,” says Betsy Brown Braun, the Mann school’s founding director. Parents want a strong Jewish component, and they want, and need, to be part of their child’s education. “They want their children to feel joy about their Judaism,” says Braun, a mother of triplets. “And they want to feel it too. It’s about an identity.”

The larger campus will offer a similar range of educational programs. A task force chaired by Evon Gottlieb came up with a 13- page wish list, most of which seems to have been granted. Alongside its nursery and day schools, the temple will offer inter-ethnic Mommy and Me classes, arts centers for children, adults and seniors, outreach programs for singles and couples, computer labs and a social-action center.

Such an expansive notion of the idea of a Jewish school, says Fields, is the whole idea. “The Jewish future is about creating opportunities for community and education,” he says. “This is the next step.”

Sinai is taking the next step too. Its new construction offers much-needed space for a school that has grown to take over almost every available room in the existing synagogue structure. Along with the parking, there’ll be a two-story multi-purpose room, a lot-sized rooftop play area and a total of 80,000 square feet of classroom space. With its new elbow room, the school will be able to offer family education, parenting programs and extensive religious and study programs for all ages, according to incoming president Jan Zakowski, who has shepherded the project since its inception. Such programming, she says, “changes a family’s level of observance.” Zakowski is confident the demand for such services already exists. “People will come when they know it’s there,” she says.

The construction and programming at Wilshire and Sinai represent a nearly $100 million investment in a philosophy of family education — making room for baby as well as for mommy, daddy, the grandparents — everyone. Synagogue schools such as Valley Beth Shalom and Stephen S. Wise helped pioneer the idea, and now it has become doctrine, in part because synagogues see education as the first step toward active synagogue life for most young families. “They’re rethinking Jewish education beyond just dealing with kids,” says Ron Wolfson, director of the Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life at the University of Judaism. Sinai and Wilshire both looked to the Whizin Institute for advice in drawing up plans and programs. “They see the connection between family, education, work and intake into synagogue life,” says Wolfson.

Of course, no one is saying that these new programs — or the new buildings that will house them — will address all the issues facing Jewish education. Parents still complain about what they believe is too-high tuition and too-few scholarships. According to the Cato Institute, the national average for combined elementary/secondary private schools tuition is $4,266. This year tuition for Sinai Akiba day school will cost parents between $7,500-8,500. Preschool at Wilshire Boulevard will cost members $3,975, non-members $5,275. At Sinai, about 9.5 percent of the students receive some sort of financial aid. (Since building projects at both institutions are being funded by donations, neither expects tuitions to increase as a result.)

Other issues the schools face include low teacher salaries and striking the balance between secular and religious studies.

But concerns like these hardly staunch the demand, which Graf says he expects to remain high. Indeed, no one has raised the spectre of the Jewish education boom some day petering out, leaving all this new construction underused.

“I’m optimistic,” says Graff. “As Jewish education builds deeper roots in the community, demand will only grow.”

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