November 20, 2018

A school with attitude

If Barack Obama and John McCain wanted to elevate the level of discourse of their presidential campaigns, they could do worse than check out the last election campaign at Shalhevet High School.

You would think that typical teenagers would be the ones poking fun at each other to try to gain an advantage — you know, like recent McCain ads that mock Obama’s rock-star status by associating him with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, or Obama ads that mock 72-year-old McCain’s “senior moments.”

You would think.

But check out 17-year-old Kevin Birnbaum’s message at Shalhevet’s Town Hall last May — as covered in their award-winning Boiling Point newspaper — when he ran for Agenda chair:

“I have a dream that one day this school will rise up and have full Town Hall attendance, interesting topics and complete student involvement.”

Or what one of his competitors, Mark Rad, promised: “To redo the ugly and plain non-functional Agenda bulletin board and to enforce the Shalhevet constitution.” Or what another candidate, Penina Smith, said she wanted: “To bring Shalhevet back to the golden age, when (during a 1999 heat wave), students were able to pass a proposal for boys to wear shorts.”

OK, those are not ideas that will fix global warming, but it’s nice to see that, unlike the grownups in Washington, the Shalhevet candidates didn’t need to attack each other to get ahead. They were all business.

“All business” would be a good way to describe the mood at Shalhevet these days. I know, because when they invited me last week to come see the school, they ordered lunch from my favorite restaurant (Shilos).

After getting a tour of the renovated space, I sat down for lunch with a few of their key players: Efrem and Kendra Harkham, the community angels who have spearheaded the renovations; Esther Feder, the board president and a passionate ambassador for the school; Phu Tranchi, the beloved motorcycle-riding principal of general studies; and the new head of the school, Rabbi Elchanan J. Weinbach, a graduate of Yeshiva University and an educator from the East Coast.

This will be Shalhevet’s first year without founder and longtime leader Jerry Friedman at the helm. Friedman, who retired from the school last May, started Shalhevet 17 years ago to fill a need in the local Jewish school scene: A coed Modern Orthodox high school that would empower individual students to think for themselves and grow morally in a Torah environment.

Opposition to the school from right-leaning Orthodox circles came early, and still lingers. Although coed Orthodox high schools are common on the East Coast, the idea never went down smoothly out here, where the all-girls and all-boys YULA High Schools have been the dominant presence. But Friedman persevered, and over the years it became clear that there are more than enough Jews in Los Angeles who want a progressive Modern Orthodox school like Shalhevet (which now includes kindergarten through 12th grades).

In fact, I can tell you from personal experience that for parents whose kids graduate from Orthodox elementary schools like Maimonides or Hillel, it’s one of the annual hot topics of conversation: “YULA or Shalhevet?” Many parents agonize over this question: How far should one push the boundaries of Orthodoxy?

It’s a debate that’s playing out nationally within the movement itself. On the left, you have “Open Orthodox” leaders like Rabbi Avi Weiss, of Riverdale in New York, and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, who struggle creatively within the Jewish law to be more open and inclusive; while on the right, you have groups like the “Black Hat Orthodox” of Yeshiva University who fear the halachic slippery slope and are pushing for a more inward and stringent direction.

Shalhevet’s delicate balancing act, however, goes beyond the issue of Jewish law and touches on core issues like how to educate and nurture independent-thinking moral Jews; Jews who will lead and not just follow; Jews who will know when to respect the establishment and when to challenge it.

But like all high-wire acts, there have been stumbles. Shalhevet has gone through some rough patches over the years, with periods of high teacher turnover and questions about its financial solvency. But throughout the ups and downs — and my lunch group impressed on me that Shalhevet is now trending “up” — one thing has remained constant: Students are encouraged to open their minds, speak up, engage their teachers and stand up respectfully for what they believe in.

This is not a coincidence. Student involvement is the soul of the school. Teachers who can’t stomach it don’t last. Teachers who thrive on it run classes that regularly turn into lively debates on modern-day dilemmas.

Their new leader, Rabbi Weinbach, calls it Jewish education for “10 years down the road.”

The school’s concern, he says, is “what kind of Jews will our graduates be when they’re 27, not simply when they graduate at 17.”

When I heard the number 27, I got an “Aha!” moment. You see, someone at lunch had hinted that it would be great if I could give Shalhevet some advertising ideas (apparently, the little detail that my daughter happily goes to YULA didn’t seem to bother anyone).

Anyhow, I suggested that since they’re so proud of their alumni, they should run ads that play them up. And a good start would be someone like Zvika Krieger, a journalist with The New Republic magazine who reports from faraway places like Saudi Arabia. (Headline option: “I used to go to Shalhevet. Now I pray mincha in Mecca.”)

Who knows, maybe in a few years they’ll be promoting alumni like Kevin Birnbaum, Mark Rad and Penina Smith.

And I can tell you they won’t need anyone to write the headlines — unlike most of the grownups in Washington, the Shalhevet graduates will already have written their own.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at