November 18, 2018

Milken’s Middle School Builds on Future of Education

A teacher and students in an X-Learning class at Milken Middle School. Photo by Andrea Smith

How should students in the 21st century be educated? It’s a question that Milken Community Schools educators are taking seriously, particularly in their Middle School curricula.  

“Traditional education worked for hundreds of years. It doesn’t anymore,” Milken’s middle school Principal Limor Dankner told the Journal. “We’re preparing students for jobs that haven’t been imagined yet. Studies have shown that everything we’re doing now will be obsolete by the time these [middle-school] children [graduate] from university,” she said. “So the only thing we can give them are those life tools that they can then adapt to whatever situation they’re in.”

For Dankner, that meant creating the school’s X-Learning program. Now in its sixth year, X-Learning is a blend of traditional and progressive teaching practices that allows students to connect what they learn to their interests, address real-world problems, engage in action and cultivate their problem-solving skills.

“We are anchored in those core tenets,” Dankner said, “but we keep tweaking [the approach], based on feedback [and] the shifts in the needs of students.”

At the heart of the X-Learning philosophy is that creativity is learned, immersive learning is key, curiosity must be reignited, innovation requires risk-taking and rigor, and design is at the center of it all.

When kids are very young, they often don’t hesitate to ask questions, Dankner said. However, she added: “As they get older, schools teach children to stop asking questions and to start answering them. They are so accustomed to giving the right answer, they are stumped when you ask them a question and say, ‘There isn’t an answer. You have to be a divergent thinker, you have to think out of the box, you have to work with other people, you have to keep iterating, you have to persevere if you’re ever going to come up with an answer to this question.’ ”

An example of Milken’s X-Learning approach can be seen in how it goes beyond traditional geometry classes. Geometry students are put into teams to build and test bridges, because that’s one of the real-world application of geometry. “They are immersed, creative, engaged,” Dankner said. “They’re owning their learning.”

There are four components of the X-Learning process:

Identification: Allowing students to pursue curiosities they have about their world.

Exploration: Interviews, research, collaboration, team-building, articulation, writing and speaking.

Purposeful Play: For students to be successful, they have to experiment in a space that is low-stakes/no grades

Connection: Learning to connect with content, areas of study, peers and adults.

“Ultimately, middle-schoolers are defined by the connections that they make or fail to make,” Dankner said. “Those are so important to shaping their identity. We want them to find like-minded people their age and older in the community. We want them to find areas of study or things in the world that are meaningful to them, because that’s what’s going to motivate them to do something.”

Every year, Milken participates in The X Project. The first semester is skill-building and the second semester is spent in exploration and research. Every middle-schooler identifies something they want to know more about or a problem that they want to solve. In March, they turn the entire campus into a conference center to showcase their work. Students have started businesses, developed apps and created gadgets, Dankner said. 

 “Not only are we fulfilling the curricula, but we’re

 going over and above the requirements.”

 — Limor Dankner

However, although innovation is key, Milken still teaches the basics.

“It’s not that we’re not teaching geometry, algebra or U.S. history,” Dankner said. “Not only are we fulfilling the curricula, but we’re going over and above the requirements. It’s the way in which we are reaching [and engaging] students that makes the material relevant, that gives them choice, that puts them in the driver’s seat and equips them with those skills that they will need to then utilize in future years.”

The students’ high standardized test scores and assessments indicate the school’s methods are working. “We keep raising the bar [in terms of academic rigor], and they keep rising to the occasion,” Dankner said. “And the test results are blowing us away. The more these kids are engaged in what feels like [and is] playful learning, the better they are doing academically.”

X-Learning also applies to Milken’s Jewish Studies department, too. 

“Our whole spiritual practice and our holiday programming is designed with X-Learning in mind. So, it’s student-driven. It’s student-generated and there’s ample choice,” Dankner said. “We don’t herd all 200 students for a Friday morning Kabbalat Shabbat or prayer. We have multiple minyanim and multiple choices for students, which they have self-identified as relevant and inspirational.”

Milken also has developed an entire course on Israel, called Innovation Nation.

“The course tracks the history of Israel, but looks at it from the perspective of Israelis as innovators,” Dankner said. “The students are not only learning about Israel’s history, culture and philosophy, but they’re understanding it in a very relevant way. They are looking at California innovations and where those innovations are aligned with Israeli innovations.”

Dankner said she gets requests from other schools in Los Angeles to share Milken’s X-Learning information. “They want to send their teams here, they want to learn more about it,” she said. “We’re definitely making a name for ourselves. People are recognizing the value in this.”

However, if other schools look at this type of teaching as an adjunct or extracurricular process, it’s never going to work, Dankner said: “We don’t teach anything here in addition to, we just teach students, and this is how we teach them,” she said.

 “You won’t find the Jewish Studies teachers doing their own shtick while the humanities teachers are doing theirs,” Dankner said. “Everyone is talking about how to integrate, how to present situations where students see the world as interrelated and not as separate compartments. It’s been an incredible ride.”

This story appeared in the 2018 Education Guide of the paper. 

Texas High School Curriculum Blames Arab World for Israel-Palestinian Conflict

Photo from PxHere.

The Texas State Board of Education voted on several changes on Friday to the high school curriculum in the state, including teaching students that the Arab world is to blame for the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The Dallas Morning News reports that “Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict” has be re-inserted into the Texas high school curriculum; students will have to explain why the “Arab rejection of the State of Israel” is to blame for the current Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Additionally, Texas high school students will be taught that Moses was an influential figure on the American founding, as were Judeo-Christian principles.

Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller were among the notable figures who were taken out of Texas curriculum.

The vote is preliminary; a final vote will be held in November.

The Jerusalem Post notes that Texas “leads the textbook industry in approving content, curriculum standards and supplemental materials for public schools.”

According to Jewish Virtual Library, the Arabs rejected the Peel Commission’s 1937 proposal to establish a Jewish state and an Arab state and rejected the United Nations partition plan to establish two states. In 2014, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that the Palestinians “will never recognize the Jewishness of the state of Israel.”

If you educate a woman, you educate a whole nation

World's first secular school for Muslim girls was opened in 1901 in Baku, Azerbaijan

World’s first secular school for Muslim girls was opened in 1901 in Baku, Azerbaijan


I just finished reading “Malala’s Magic Pencil”, an autobiographical picture book, written by Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, together with my daughter, who is going to return to school next month. It is an incredible and fascinating story of a girl who is fighting for education and peace, and delivers a powerful and inspirational message not only for kids, but for everyone.

Today unfortunately in many parts of the world women’s rights are still being suppressed, and millions of women are out of school and cannot get basic education. I feel lucky and proud that my daughter grows up in a majority-Muslim country, where women get free, compulsory and quality education, and play a significant role in the political, economic and social life of the country.

Education of women in Azerbaijan has evolved significantly since the beginning of the 20th century. In 1901, the very first secular school for Muslim girls in the entire Muslim world was opened in Baku at the initiative of the great Azerbaijani philanthropist Haji Zeynalabdin Tagiyev. This pioneer project inspired Muslim communities in other parts of the Russian Empire, which Azerbaijan was part of then, to establish similar secular schools.

In 1908 Hamida Javanshir, great-great-grandniece of the Karabakh region’s last ruling Khan (Ibrahim Khalil Khan) and wife of the famous Azerbaijani writer Jalil Mammadguluzade, founded a coeducational school in her home village of Kahrizli, which became the first Azerbaijani school, where boys and girls could study in the same classroom.

By 1915, in Baku alone there were 5 schools for Muslim girls. Also around this time, a women’s newspaper called “İşıq” (Light) was published in Baku to support women’s rights and promote education among women.

Moreover, Azerbaijan was the first majority-Muslim country in the world to grant women equal voting rights – in 1919, an entire year before the United States and decades before many Western European nations. It happened after Azerbaijan gained its freedom from the Russian Empire in 1918, establishing the first ever secular democracy among Muslim nations.

In the later decades of the past century, Azerbaijani women got new opportunities to realize their potential and be successful in various fields. During these decades Azerbaijani women pioneered many “firsts” for women in the Muslim world: First female opera singer Shovkat Mammadova, first ballerina Gamar Almaszade, first female pilot Leyla Mammadbeyova, first professionally educated composer Agabaji Rzayeva, etc.

After restoring its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, women’s rights further prospered in Azerbaijan. We have laws in place that assert the protections and respect for women across Azerbaijani society. For example, Article 25 and 34 were added in 1993 to Azerbaijan’s Constitution, ensuring full equality between men and women generally, and equality of men and women within marriage specifically. In 2006, Azerbaijan passed a Gender Equality Law which guarantees that women receive equal pay at work and prohibits discrimination in hiring and promotional practices.

The past 27 years have seen a steady and uphill growth in Azerbaijan, as both the economic, financial and social wellbeing of the country has significantly improved. The country currently boasts a 99 percent literacy level. School enrollment rates for women are at 99.8-100%. Comprising 50.1% of Azerbaijan’s entire population, women constitute about 80% of all employees in education and 65.7% in healthcare. Moreover, 56% of all PhD degree holders, 48.2% of university students, 6 university presidents, 15 college presidents and 1244 school principals in Azerbaijan are women.

The judicial branch of the government has many female judges, comprising around 15 percent of all judges in the country, including Tatiana Goldman, who is Jewish, and Justice at Azerbaijan’s Supreme Court. Goldman is one of the 7 female Supreme Court Justices of Azerbaijan.

The legislative branch is not lagging behind in this regard: there are 20 women in Azerbaijan’s Parliament (out of 125 total), including Bahar Muradova, the Deputy Speaker.

First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva, the highest-ranking woman official in the history of Azerbaijan, is a true inspiration for Azerbaijani women. Her activities in promoting gender equality and women’s education in the country and beyond are tremendous. The First Vice President is known for her tireless humanitarian efforts in Azerbaijan and internationally as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and for her advocacy for health, women and children, among so many areas she works on to make the world a better place. The Heydar Aliyev Foundation, led by Mrs. Aliyeva, has built and rebuilt hundreds of new schools in Azerbaijan in a short period of time, even in the most remote villages of the country. The Foundation has also implemented a vast number of international humanitarian projects, including the construction of a new girls’ school in Pakistan for 500 students.

Education of women is a milestone in the development of any society. It is education that can help millions of women around the globe realize their potential and empower them to change the world for the better. A country, a nation cannot progress without women’s education. As Malala Yousafzai mentioned in her famous speech at the UN Youth Assembly, “One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world”.

Also there is an old African proverb that says: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation”.

Rob Long: Hollywood Writer Talks Trump

Award-winning Hollywood showrunner Rob Long talks about happiness, craziness and, of course, Donald Trump.

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Loving B’nai Mitzvahs

Photo from Vimeo

In American pop culture, the words “bar mitzvah” don’t exactly prompt religious awe. Instead, a cocktail of humor, pathos, anxiety and cost comes to mind.

And while these are certainly part of the picture — there’s nothing to be done about the brutal realities of being 12 — I see the whole process from a very different angle.

I’ve been tutoring bar and bat mitzvah students continually for 18 years. Most of my adult life I’ve been teaching kids to sing the tropes for Torah chanting, to lead prayers, to write their commentary on the weekly portion. I often officiate the ceremony, too, for unaffiliated families.

I don’t have to think about catering, invitations or the social intricacies of eighth grade. Instead, I have the luxury of thinking about the ceremony as a tribal initiation, a passing-down of traditions and knowledge, a confirmation of the continuation of our people.

From this point of view, I offer this small ode to the beauty of bar and bat mitzvah.

I want to invite these young Jews into the great human journey of mystery.

Sometimes my students come to the Torah Hut, a little free-standing office in my backyard lined with holy books. Often, we meet online. But it hardly matters; either way, week after week, ancient melodies come to life in the air between us.

We step into our archetypal roles as teacher and student, one of us passing on the tradition, and one of us receiving it, and each of us being changed in the process.

Our vocal cords vibrate with the same frequencies of our ancestors, our lips pronounce the same letters. We wrestle with the issues raised by the Torah portion — and invariably, my students’ questions about the text echo those of the rabbis, written a thousand years before.

But teaching Torah is only half of my job. The other half is to help strengthen the student’s spiritual life. What do they believe about the Divine? What does Judaism mean to them? How do these ancient traditions carry over into our contemporary lives? At 12, a young person is finally able to ask these questions.

These conversations have no right answer, of course. Whether a student is a passionate believer in God or a committed atheist makes no difference to me; I am here to be their guide in discovering what it is they believe.

At first, my students often have great difficulty articulating thoughts about spirituality. I explain that it’s not their fault. Life in secular America does not offer us many opportunities to talk about our own personal spirituality, and as advanced as we are with technology and academics, spiritual intelligence is underutilized in our daily lives.

So, we start with baby steps. In one of my favorite assignments, students write interview questions for their families — about “spiritual” matters but not including the word God, since that word often shuts down conversation entirely. They report the answers back to me; then I interview the students with their own questions. The resulting two hours of conversation are a window into the inner lives of the entire family, and a beautiful acknowledgment of their diversity of beliefs — simply as humans, beyond their roles as parent or grandparent or sibling.

I want to invite these young Jews into the great human journey of mystery, wonder and a place beyond intellectual knowing.

In order to stand in that sacred place, we have to remove our shoes, as Moses did at the burning bush. To be at once carefully attuned to our intuition and utterly inexpert — a skill I hope my students will remember long after their Torah portion has been forgotten.

So, when I think about a bar or bat mitzvah, I think not about cracking voices, or slideshows or theme colors. Instead, I think about the end of childhood, the very beginning of adulthood, and families in the slow, exciting, heartbreaking process of that transition.

I think about communities gathering to affirm the beautiful traditions of our tribe, the sacred words we have carried over ages and exiles, which have improbably made it to this very day and are now our responsibility to pass on.

I think about how lucky I am to get to spend an hour with a 12-year-old discussing ancient alphabets, modern social justice and the meaning of life.

And I think about how lucky we Jews are, to be given this path to walk together through one of the great transitions of human life.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

The Meaning of Cool

Photo from Pixabay

“That’s cool,” I said somewhat offhandedly to my son after he showed me something, well, cool.

It’s not a word I use very often. In fact, I probably hadn’t used it for at least a decade. But he had said it a couple of times, so I thought that maybe it’s made a comeback among the ninja turtle set.

“What does that mean?” he responded.

I paused. I frowned. I think I even looked around to see who else was listening.

“Well,” I began promisingly. “Cool means …”

How to begin? How to sum it up? Why was it so much easier to define coolness 10 or 20 years ago, before everything changed? Before I began to feel completely out of sync with the group of people and ideas that I had associated with coolness?

My introduction to coolness didn’t come till high school. Like most teens in suburban America, I was fairly rebellious. At 14, I believed that meant: Do what other teens who seem rebellious are doing. I let my hair grow long and wild, wore the most bohemian clothes my mother would allow, and spouted the “benefits” of socialism.

At 16, my first real boyfriend introduced me to the works of Ayn Rand, and my entire world was turned upside down. After devouring every word the Jewish-Russian author wrote, I stopped copying what everyone else was doing and began to look within, to look for me.

It was liberating and inspiring. I stopped caring whether the other girls thought I was pretty enough to be part of their clique: I didn’t want to be part of anyone’s clique. I began to seek out the most interesting, thoughtful friends, and we had endless discussions about literature, philosophy and art.

This nonconformist rebellion continued throughout college, shaping and cementing my classical — now called universal — liberal views.

This has not always led to happiness. One of the flaws of capitalism is that it often rewards people who know how to “work a room” over developing innovative ideas. But it has led to a sense of inner peace. If I wasn’t always as successful as I would have liked, at least I knew that I had never sold my soul to the highest bidder.

The illiberal leftism that high school and college students are devouring today makes my initial conformity look almost cool. Students are taught not how to think, but what to think — about politics, film, art, even fashion. Nothing is left to individual choice. In fact, nonconformity is frowned upon. The closer one adheres to the leftist agenda, the higher one’s status.

What would I tell teens who have been brainwashed by their Marxist professors into thinking that following leftist orders is the definition of cool?

We are the artists of our lives. Resist fashions, both political and aesthetic. Listen to Maajid Nawaz, the Muslim reformer fighting against radical Islam; to  Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the ex-Muslim feminist activist fighting against genital mutilation and other forms of female oppression. Listen to Ben Shapiro even if you disagree with him.

The rebels today are rebuilding liberalism, after a quarter century of identity politics, intersectionality and victimhood. As Bob Marley put it: “None but ourselves can free our minds.”

It’s a little harder to talk about this with my son, now 8. He’s already dealing with peer pressure to wear a certain type of clothes and talk in a certain manner. He has learned that being bad equals cool. In fact, he’s already moved on from cool to sick, monster, beast. But he still wants to know what it means.

Students are taught not how to think, but what to think. … The closer one adheres to the leftist agenda, the higher one’s status.

“There’s a difference between questioning things and being bad,” I’ve told him. “You should question things all the time. But being bad is actually uncool. It means you’re trying to get the approval of your friends, instead of following your heart.”

He looked at me as if he was going to cry; he didn’t understand.

I tried again. “Do you know what’s really cool? Creating something incredible. Becoming an awesome artist or athlete or scientist.”

The cry face went away. I continued. “But do you know what’s the coolest thing of all?”

I whispered in his ear: “Just being yourself.”

Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and author living in New York.

Smash the Tablets: Get iPads Out of Our Schools

Recently, investors who own roughly $2 billion in Apple stock wrote an open letter to the corporation expressing concern that iPhones and tablet computers were harming the minds of children. Studies cited in the letter detailed a startling drop in students’ ability to focus on educational tasks.

One study found that “67% of the over 2,300 teachers surveyed observed that the number of students who are negatively distracted by digital technologies in the classroom is growing and 75% say students’ ability to focus on educational tasks has decreased.”

This is not the first alarm to sound over children’s use of tablets and iPhones. The Wall Street Journal and Atlantic Monthly this year profiled the striking addictiveness of iPhones and iPads and linked their use to a precipitous drop in users’ ability to concentrate. In 2013, Time magazine reported an “epidemic” of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which had surged 50% above the previous decade to 6 million diagnosed children. It noted ominously: “The rise in ADHD has coincided with the rise of mobile devices.”

Correlation alone cannot establish causation; it will take some time for the science to settle. These devices are still new. Our little lab rats likely have at least another decade to scorch their retinas and sizzle their minds before researchers are prepared to issue conclusive findings connecting the use of tablets and iPhones to the attention crisis in our young. Until then, permit me a question: What in God’s name are these devices doing in our schools?

I’ve been nervous about these devices for years and haven’t permitted my kids to use them. I operated on a simple theory: Anything that absorbs children completely and causes them to wail like junkies for a crack pipe when it is pried from their hands just can’t be good for them. So, my husband and I endured awkward conversations with relatives who begged to FaceTime with our kids, and the insistence of other parents that many apps were “educational.” We toted activity books and DVD players along on flights with movies we’d chosen.

When our boys were ready to enter preschool, we toured many yeshiva schools only to find that the children whose attention spans we’d fought to preserve would be handed computer tablets by their teachers. Why?

I’ve never gotten a clear answer to this, and believe me, I’ve asked. An educator at one school said that children need to learn to use iPads to “keep step with a changing world.” A lousy rationale if ever there was one. Anyone who has witnessed the miraculous feat of a developmentally disabled child or toddler successfully manipulating an iPad knows how easy these devices are to use; that is their genius.

I’ve heard a teacher boast that an in-class curriculum app enables him “to monitor students’ work in real time.” While I’m puzzled by the reluctance to check on children’s progress face to face, I’m wholly befuddled by “making-a-teacher’s-life-easier” as a rationale for any significant curriculum change, particularly one that further adheres children to screens.

So, why is this a Jewish problem? Why not just an American one? Because Jews should know better.

Perhaps Jews’ greatest achievement on the world-historical stage resides in our ability to educate our children. Without the benefit of a single iPad, the classroom has served as a unique laboratory of quirky Jewish exceptionalism.

One might think this would give us the confidence to ignore the sultry flash of glowing glass. Instead, we hunger for it. Our day schools are rapidly replacing textbooks with iPads, classroom lectures with apps. Kids swipe and tap through class while a teacher monitors like a researcher observing a line of robots. All before gaining solid proof that these technologies will help — or even proof that they won’t hurt — our children’s ability to learn.

I’m not suggesting a Mosaic smashing of tablets, not really. All I’m suggesting is: wait. A great experiment is being conducted across America on its young, for better or worse. Why not see how it pans out before committing our children to the result?

Abigail Shrier is a writer and graduate of Yale Law School living in Los Angeles.

Searching for Hebrew in America

Organi Daycare. Photo courtesy of Organi Daycare.

Organi Daycare in Reseda has all the trappings of a typical preschool — and then some. Tricycles are stationed out front, and the rest of its half-acre property features a tree house, a vegetable garden and even a bonfire area.

But what really sets the facility apart is a certain vibe that makes it particularly attractive to Israelis. Not only is everything done in Hebrew, parents say it feels like a kibbutz.

“Once you get there, you feel like you are in Israel,” said Sherri Elizam, who sent her daughters Ella and Shaya there before they turned 5. “The Hebrew part was important for me, but we speak only Hebrew at home, so I knew they are going to know Hebrew regardless. What I was looking for was the Israeli culture and the freedom to run around and express yourself.”

Many Israeli parents living in Los Angeles don’t think twice about which day care center they should send their kids to — as long as it’s an Israeli-owned center where the children speak in Hebrew and celebrate the Jewish holidays Israeli-style. Such facilities are common around the city and the San Fernando Valley, mostly in private homes.

Organi allows the 14 children in its care — all of whom are ages 2 to 5 and come from homes with at least one Israeli parent — to roam about the place to pet and feed the animals, collect chicken eggs, play with bunnies and a guinea pig, or care for the garden.

Ori Nottea bought the place two years ago to house the day care center she ran previously in Tarzana.

Born in Israel, Nottea arrived in Los Angeles in 1999 and studied child development and yoga for children at Santa Monica College and Pierce College. She taught yoga and was a teacher at Stephen Wise Temple and the Jewish Community Center at Milken before opening her own day care center, with 11 children enrolled, nine years ago.

As a mother of two boys, 11 and 9, she knew exactly how she wanted her day care facility to look — with an emphasis on its “Israeliness.”

“Once you get there, you feel like you are in Israel.” — Sherri Elizam

“I speak to the kids only in Hebrew and all of our activities are in Hebrew,” she said. “But we also expose them to some English during the day because, after all, they are going to continue from here to a school where they will need to speak English, and we want them to be ready.”

Parents at Organi say they want their children to have the same childhood experience they had while growing up in Israel, including the country’s unique Hebrew songs and holiday activities.

“On Israel’s Independence Day, the kids simulate a flight to Israel and dress up like soldiers,” Nottea said. “We eat and prepare Israeli dishes such as falafel, tahini and Israeli salad. The kids cut the salad themselves and participate in all the preparation of the food. I have a tabun oven in the yard where we prepare pita bread. On Tu b’Shevat, I invite the parents to plant trees. On my first year here, the parents and the children planted together all the fruit trees you see here.”

It’s hard to distinguish between Nottea’s home and the day care center. Her house looks like an extension of the center at the rear, with playful murals on the walls.

Not far from Organi, in Winnetka, Hadas Kamry operates another Israeli-style day care center in her home, called Hadas Day Care. Israeli-born, she has lived in the United States for 25 years, first in New York, where she also ran a day care center, and the past 13 years in Los Angeles.

Like at Organi, all of the children at Hadas Day Care speak Hebrew and come from Israeli homes.

“It’s important for the parents that their kids will speak Hebrew, in part in order to maintain their connection to Israel and their roots, and in part so they will be able to talk to their grandparents and family in Israel,” Kamry said. “I make sure to talk to them only in Hebrew. All of the songs we learn are in Hebrew. We will never sing, for example, “Oh, Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,” during Chanukah, but instead, “Sevivon, Sov Sov Sov.”

While other day care children learn their ABCs, children at Hadas learn their Aleph Bet and the names of colors and seasons in Hebrew. Kamry said she hopes that once the children graduate and move on to elementary school, they will still remember their Hebrew.

Eyal Shemesh from Tarzana sent his two sons, Oz and Lior, to Hadas.

“I wanted that my children’s first language would be Hebrew and that they would be able to communicate with our family in Israel,” he said. “Once they have graduated and moved to kindergarten … in order to maintain their Hebrew language and connection to Israel, I enrolled them in the Israeli scouts and to AMI School, an afterschool program, where they learn Hebrew once a week.”

Throughout the years, Kamry said, she has found that many of the parents have developed close friendships that started with play dates between their kids and continued with getting together during weekends and holidays.

“Many of the parents don’t have their extended families here, so they are looking for connections with other Israeli parents, and they find them here,” she said. “I arrange for gatherings with the parents, like Shabbat dinners, activities in the park during Passover, Purim parties.”

What Does Jewish Literature Have to Do With Jewish Education?

When I graduated high school, I chose to go to University of Toronto. It was close to home, and one of the best universities in the country. That said, it had more than 80,000 students, and I did not know a soul.

I felt out of my depth and out of place until, on a whim, I signed up for a Jewish literature course. I was hoping that my years of Jewish education would give me an upper hand in the class, but was shocked to discover I did not have answers to any of the fundamental questions underlying the course: What does being Jewish mean? Can a piece of literature be Jewish if it is written by a non-Jew? Is Judaism primarily a religion or a culture?

How had I gone through 12 years of a Jewish education and never thought about these questions?

While I completed my undergraduate and master’s degrees in English literature, that first-year Jewish literature course made more of an impression than any other class I took in college. Being introduced to Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick gave me new giants to look up to as both cultural and Jewish icons. Later, when I became a teacher, it saddened me that so many students graduated Jewish high schools with strong religious textual backgrounds, but little sense of their rich cultural Jewish heritage.

Intent on remedying the issue, last year I taught a yearlong Jewish literature course to seniors at Shalhevet High School. The students, however, were not as enthusiastic as I’d hoped.

When, at first, the students did not immediately love the Yiddish literature unit, I tried not to panic. I was only a year older than them when these texts were introduced to me. I had been floored by the sincerity and wit of the Yiddish stories, but perhaps my world was different?

As the modern Jewish literature unit began, however, it soon became clear that my students were struggling with the material. They were frustrated that there was no clarity in answering questions about what being Jewish means.

I surveyed my students at the year’s end and the results were illuminating: I had misidentified the point of the class. I had even misunderstood the effects that the earlier university course had had on my own identity.

As the teacher, I had my students analyze whether the texts had a Jewish identity, but had neglected to make them think enough about how these texts impacted their own Jewish identities. Instead of putting a text on trial to prove its Jewish roots, I should have been forcing my students to unearth who they were as Jews and how their personal identities connect to Philip Roth’s “Eli the Fanatic” or Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated.”

For me, college was a Jewish wasteland, compelling me to search for a way to connect my secular studies to my Jewish life. Most Jewish texts are about a Jewish character who lives as a minority in a majority culture, which is how I felt in college. It became important for me to understand that I was part of something culturally larger.

My students, on the other hand, are surrounded by Judaism and not looking for these connections during their senior year. In their current lives, in a Jewish high school, their Judaism makes them part of the majority. But one day, that will not be the case. Later, whether in Jewish or non-Jewish environments, they will need to think about what their Judaism means to them.

As I prepare to teach the class this coming year at Shalhevet, I think about what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his book, “Radical Then, Radical Now”: “If Jewish survival is problematic, it is because Jewish identity itself is problematic.”

The way to reconnect my students to the material will be to have them face what is problematic about their own Jewish identities and use the texts to face those problems head on.

My students might not connect to every text, but they will at least be reading and asking these questions. If I can teach them how to build confusion stamina, hold on to these eternal questions and keep asking, that could be the most important lesson I can give them.

Na’amit Sturm Nagel is a writer who teaches English at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles. 

Lashon Academy Plans Appeal of Charter Denial

Lashon Academy students participate in a program in which they learn modern Hebrew and Israeli culture.

A Hebrew-language charter school in Van Nuys plans to appeal to the Los Angeles County Board of Education the denial of its charter renewal by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

On Oct. 3, the LAUSD Board of Education voted, 6-0 with one abstention, to deny the renewal of Lashon Academy Charter School’s charter.

Of the school’s 350 students, about 40 percent are Hispanic, 50 percent are white and 10 percent come from other backgrounds.

In 2013, the LAUSD board approved Lashon Academy’s charter status, and the school opened the following year. The school submitted a renewal petition this year because, like all charter schools, it was required to have its charter status reviewed and approved every five years.

The curriculum of the publicly funded, tuition-free school includes Hebrew and Israeli history and culture. Lashon (Hebrew for “language”) has been the only LAUSD-authorized, Hebrew-language charter school.

In an Oct. 3 report, LAUSD administrators recommended the denial of the school’s charter because, among other reasons, the school’s demographics did not reflect the makeup of its immediate surrounding area.

Of the school’s 350 students, about 40 percent are Hispanic, 50 percent are white and 10 percent come from other backgrounds.

Lashon Academy’s Executive Director Josh Stock said the school is more diverse than the data indicated because the school’s white students include immigrants from Russia, Iran, Israel and elsewhere who are learning English as their second language.

Because a school featuring Hebrew-language instruction draws a significant population of white students, he said, it’s unrealistic to expect the school’s population to mimic its surrounding area.

“We’re not getting students from a mile, two-mile radius. Our average kid is driving 10 miles to get to our school,” he said. “To compare us to the school next door is unfair.”

The LAUSD report also said the school had demonstrated an intent to avoid providing special education services in accordance with LAUSD policies and procedures.

Stock said the school wanted more flexibility in purchasing special education services because it was not satisfied with the services LAUSD providded.

Since opening in 2014, Lashon Academy has added a grade every year and now has students in kindergartern through 5th grade. It plans to continue adding a grade each year until it has grades K-8.

At the LAUSD board meeting, District 6 Board Member Kelly Gonez, whose district includes Lashon Academy, said she considered it a high-performing school.

Nick Melvoin, the board’s only Jewish member, said in an interview that he voted against renewing the charter because the school had not been able to resolve its differences with the school district.

Stock said he is confident the school will continue to operate. “I don’t think we’re going to close. I think we’re going to appeal to the county and be successful.”  If the appeal to the county fails, he said the school would appeal to the State Board of Education.

“There is no reason why [students who] have a passion for the Hebrew language or Israeli history should not have an option to get a public education that represents that,” Stock said.

Tarzana resident Sara Dagan said she enrolled her three children in Lashon because she wanted them to feel connected to their Israeli heritage in a public school environment.

“It’s not like I have an alternative,” she said. “I won’t be able to afford taking them to private school, to day school, so anything other than Lashon would be a compromise for me.” 

Teaching the Aleph Bet: Where Hearts and Traditions Meet

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Ever since I was a child, I have been terrified of rooms full of children — a strange trait for a Hebrew-school teacher.

Yes, I adore kids one-on-one, but large groups of them scare me.

I thought this fear would abate when I had my own children. I thought that giving birth must endow a woman with some sort of motherly comfort in rooms full of children. I was wrong.

So why do I love teaching Hebrew school?

Two reasons.

First: The fear lasts only a moment until we begin making an aleph with licorice, approximating bet with our bodies and forming gimel in our mouths.

By the time class is over, the kids know the first four letters and how to sing “Happy Birthday” in Hebrew. And we are no longer strangers.

In this mystical view, these letters are the DNA of our universe, a double helix of 22 beautiful shapes that constitute all of existence.

I love teaching children because in that room we do the sacred work of building a community and creating a bridge across which our traditions can be handed down, as so many before us have done.

At some point during the class, magic happens: We begin to see one another not as inscrutable little kids and inscrutable hulking adults, but as people, as Jews — little Jews and big Jews — across the broad divide between our ages.

Second: I love our traditions, and for me the Hebrew letters are where they all start.

Don’t get me wrong; I am a real Diaspora Jew. I write my songs and poems and essays in English. If you put me on a street corner in Tel Aviv, I would sound like a 5-year-old.

But open a page of Torah or the Mishnah and a whole world springs to life for me. I can almost feel the centuries of eyes, hearts and minds focused on these very same words. Whether the people reading them lived in the Middle Ages, the 1980s or today. Whether they went to bed every night in Spain, Africa, Russia, Iran or — like me — the Pacific Northwest.

Wherever and whenever we live, our hearts meet in these sacred squiggles, these letters that contain our stories beyond geography or time.

According to tradition, God looked into the Torah and created the world. It’s a psychedelic idea: The Torah existed before Creation. The world is literally made up of Hebrew letters — the same Hebrew letters we pronounce, haltingly or fluently, whether building aleph out of candy or standing at the front of a congregation, leading prayers.

In this mystical view, these letters are the DNA of our universe, a double helix of 22 beautiful shapes that constitute all of existence. And in practical terms, the alphabet connects us to Jews who have lived before us and will live after us.

And so, for these reasons, I will continue to teach the Hebrew alphabet and the stories our Torah contains, so that these kids can guard this treasure in their turn.

I’ll teach until my body can no longer carry me into the room, until my mouth cannot form the letters, until my ears cannot hear my students’ small voices shouting back to me in chorus: Gimel! Dalet! Hey!

If some of these kids grow up and never enter a synagogue again, if they never say another Hebrew prayer, if they leave the aleph bet behind and never look back, I bless them on their path. But I hope maybe a couple of them will feel called to walk into a room of small children, armed with a guitar, some aleph-bet yoga poses and the wisdom of Hebrew-school teachers before them.

So, I keep teaching.

Every time we teachers and our students enter the classroom, we are doing holy work. We are building a family, welcoming the next generation into the tribe, and giving them the greatest gift we have: the Hebrew alphabet — 22 beating hearts that carry us, generation after generation, through our beautiful, brief lives.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

Educators go to head of the class: four women win prestigious Milken Family Foundation

Cheder Menachem General Studies Principal Yehudis Blauner hugs her son, a Cheder Menachem student, after she is named one of four recipients of the 2017 Jewish educator award.

When Yehudis Blauner was 5 or 6 years old, she lined up the dolls and teddy bears in her bedroom, set a whiteboard in front of them and wrote out the day’s agenda and lesson plan.

Three decades later, Blauner still has that whiteboard, with some of her words stained into it, a reminder of the little girl who dreamed of becoming a teacher.

On Sept. 25, Blauner, 36, the general studies principal of Cheder Menachem, became one of four Los Angeles-area Jewish school educators to win a $15,000 Jewish Educator Award for 2017 from the Milken Family Foundation in recognition of outstanding work.

The others were Adrienne Coffield, director of academic technology at Brawerman Elementary; Melody Mansfield, a Milken Community Schools English and creative writing teacher; and Jenny Zacuto, a language arts teacher at Yavneh Hebrew Academy.


Adrienne Coffield, Brawerman Elementary School director of academic technology and a 2017 Jewish Educator Award recipient, addresses the assembly gathered in her honor.


“Oh my goodness, it’s still not real,” Blauner said in an interview several days after receiving the award. “I was very surprised. I was not expecting it at all. I work in a place where there are so many talented educators.”

What the winners have in common is a desire to prepare their students for succeeding in life beyond school.

Blauner, whose son is a third-grader at Cheder Menachem, an all-boys, kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school, said she considers her responsibilities as far more than a means to a paycheck.

“It is definitely more of a lifestyle than a job. I don’t look at it as coming in for a 9-to-5 job. I have a goal in mind,” she said. “It doesn’t end. It’s not about time frame or hours of operation; it’s more this never-ending need and desire to make sure my son and everyone’s son here have access to, I want to say, a respectable education, but it’s more than that. It’s an educational experience very meaningful to them that will help them and give them tools to do amazing things and change the world.”

Mansfield has been teaching at Milken Community Schools since 1998. She said she loves teaching about myths and sonnets and the importance of creative writing. In a phone interview, she said she hopes her winning the award will bring more attention to her work at the school.

“For me, what I hope it’s going to mean is it will bring more visibility to the creative writing program because my vision of the program is something that is helpful for all students, whether or not they are going to become writers,” she said.

Mansfield, who isn’t Jewish, has found gratification working with students whose Judaism emphasizes learning, challenging and deconstructing texts.

“The whole Jewish tradition is so welcoming and interesting to me because I am a non-Jewish person and the more I learned the more I loved being here,” she said. “The idea of God wrestling and everybody gets a voice, the idea of uniqueness of the individual, the kids are so respectful and generally so eager and, regardless of their ability level, they are all readily here. It’s just a real joy.”


Milken Community Schools English and creative writing teacher Melody Mansfield is overwhelmed upon hearing she is a 2017 Jewish Educator Award recipient.


As a K-6 teacher at the Reform Brawerman, Coffield has used technology to teach students about Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In accepting her award, she thanked her fellow educators.

“I work with a very talented group of teachers,” she said during a Sept. 25 school assembly. “To even be in this room among you I feel very honored.”

Coffield also has her parents to thank for inculcating in her a love of education and technology. Her mother, Donna, was a teacher at the Temple Aliyah preschool for more than 30 years, and her late father, Michael, was a genius when it came to electronics, she said. 

“There were so many stories people told me after he passed away,” Coffield said. “During the great power outage in the 1950s in New York, New York City went dark, and the way my family members tell it, [everywhere went dark] except for my father’s bedroom. I don’t know if he was a teenager at that point but he had rigged up some kind of generator and made light.”

Zacuto, whose Orthodox K-8 yeshiva-style school balances Torah learning with secular studies, said she owes her success to her students.

“I want to thank my students from the past and the present and the future because, truly, you are my greatest teachers,” she said. “You help me grow every day.”

Zacuto told the Journal she believes strongly in the power of feedback. That’s why she covers her students’ essays in comments and criticisms, both positive and negative. She has found that the more she has done so, the more students crave that kind of response. 

“I have found if you give students back papers covered in comments they, over the course of the year, start to hunger for that feedback. They want that feedback, because they realize they are changing and growing,” she said.


Milken Family Foundation Executive Vice President Richard Sandler names Yavneh Hebrew Academy language arts teacher Jenny Zacuto a 2017 Jewish Educator Award winner.


The Milken Family Foundation, established in 1982 by brothers Michael and Lowell Milken, created the Jewish Educator Awards in 1990 in partnership with Builders of Jewish Education (BJE), an umbrella organization for the Jewish day school community. Three years earlier, the foundation established the Milken Educator Award, which recognizes outstanding public school teachers nationwide with an unrestricted $25,000 prize. 

The Jewish Educator Award recognizes Jewish day school teachers in the Los Angeles area from kindergarten through 12th grade who teach a minimum of 15 hours per week and have taught for a minimum of seven years in a BJE-affiliated school. Winners are selected from approximately 800 eligible teachers at the 37 accredited BJE schools in the L.A. area.

Lowell Milken, chairman of the foundation, said the award recognizes the important work Jewish day school educators have done in the hopes they will continue.

“This is not a lifetime achievement award. This is a validation for all the good work they’ve done in the past but they are also receiving the award to encourage them to do their great work and achieve even higher levels,” he told the Journal.

The Jewish Educator Award differs from other initiatives in the Jewish community in its ability to bring together leaders from all of the denominations of Judaism, Milken said, pointing to the annual luncheon recognizing the winners.

“It’s one of the few events in our community where you will have all these members of the diverse Jewish community together and supporting education and supporting educators, and that’s very important because we often have differing views on different matters,” he said. “When it comes to education, we all want to join together because it is so important to students, and the financial demands are so great to send kids to Jewish day schools. Anything we can do to galvanize support for the Jewish day school is important.”

This year’s luncheon, the 28th annual, will be held Nov. 30 at the Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel.

Typically, a winner’s identity is kept secret until an announcement at a school assembly. Milken said the surprise is an important part of the initiative.

“The element of surprise creates drama where people have a memory of the event and it may impact them in a different type of way,” he said, adding that people are more impressed when a financial reward is attached to an honor.

“Unfortunately in America today, if you don’t say things with money, a lot of times nobody pays attention,” he said.

He added, “I think in connection with the Jewish Educator Award, I don’t view the financial award as the key element of it. It’s the recognition, the honor, celebration and the validation — the validation that all your efforts are noteworthy, have made a difference and will continue to make a difference.”

Focus on Israel: The ABCs of educational apps

Smartphone apps can help with everything from putting on tefillin correctly to finding a minyan to locating a kosher restaurant. Illustration by Lior Zaltzman

Whether you want to teach your kindergartner the alef-bet or have your high-schooler brush up on ancient history, there’s a plethora of smartphone and tablet apps available for students of all ages and abilities who are interested in Israel. All apps can be downloaded from either iTunes or Google Play.

Eye On Israel

Before your high-schooler spends a semester abroad in Jerusalem, have her brush up on her Old City history and geography with EYE ON ISRAEL. The free app enables users to search for important historic, cultural and religious sites by map or drop-down menu, while also providing real-time information on the area. The app for iOS and Android devices also includes other features, including a timeline and general history of Jerusalem.


Birds of Israel

Spending school breaks in Israel can be fun and educational with BIRDS OF
. Nature-loving teens can use the free app for iOS devices to identify more than 529 species of Israeli birds during hikes and walks around town. Detailed descriptions of each bird accompany colorful photos that make avian identification easy.


Kids Puzzles In Hebrew: First Words


Intended for children ages 3 to 8, KIDS PUZZLES IN HEBREW: FIRST
($1.99) for iOS devices is a collection of 48 puzzles to help nonnative speakers learn basic Hebrew words while also exercising their spatial recognition and matching skills. The beautiful illustrations and professional voice-over will help keep your child engaged while learning proper pronunciation of new vocabulary.


HebrewVision: To Count


Kids of all ages can benefit from learning numbers and basic mathematics in HEBREWVISION: TO COUNT ($1.99). Besides teaching users how to pronounce and write numbers, the app for iOS and Android devices also teaches practical application of numbers, such as counting and telling time in Hebrew. The app uses a combination of interactive animations, touch-based narration and video demonstrations.


Hebrew Bubble Bath


With more than 600 words and phrases, HEBREW BUBBLE BATH is perfect for language-learners of all ages. The free app for iOS and Android devices uses a variety of games — aural and visual — in 63 categories with multiple levels in each to help your child hone language skills before the next family trip to Israel.

If you build it, they will come: Valley Beth Shalom confident its new community center will serve its synagogue, students and beyond

Renderings of the Howard and Levine Community Center at Valley Beth Shalom show the 18,000-square-foot building, which will feature a gymnasium.

Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) broke ground Sept. 7 on a new addition to its Ventura Boulevard campus, a community center that will include meeting rooms, a gym, a music room and a library — all to be used by the synagogue and its adjacent day school.

The Howard and Irene Levine Community Center, set to open in fall 2018, “gives VBS a chance to be a true community center for this part of the San Fernando Valley,” said Bart Pachino, executive director of VBS.

“We expect it to be a 16-hour-a-day building that we use after school hours for adult recreation, community events and adult education,” he said.

The 18,000-square-foot building will feature meeting spaces on the basement level, along with a ground-level gym with ample court space. It will replace an outdoor play area abutting Ventura Boulevard.

Pachino said the Conservative synagogue and the attached K-6 Harold M. Schulweis Day School have not seen major upgrades to their Encino location since the early 1990s.

Plans to expand and renovate the campus began to take shape some 15 years ago. By 2011, a master plan had been approved by the city of Los Angeles, Pachino said, but construction was put on hold because of the Great Recession. In 2015, with positive trends in the synagogue’s size and demographics, its leadership decided the time had come to modernize, Pachino said.

“Despite some of the larger negative demographic trends in Conservative Judaism, our community is getting younger and our membership is even up a bit over the last several years,” he said.

The synagogue’s membership now stands at more than 1,500 families, and 750 children attend the day school, preschool and Hebrew school operated by VBS.

“We believe in the Encino community as a key location for young Jewish families to continue to live in,” said Nancy Sher Cohen, a VBS past president and co-chair of the synagogue’s building committee. “And because of our location and our size, we think we can serve as a Jewish community center for the larger Valley.”

When VBS leaders began to approach potential donors in late 2015, community members “responded overwhelmingly,” she said.

Image courtesy of Abramson Teiger Architects.


Image courtesy of Abramson Teiger Architects.


“Our community understood the idea that we are planting the future of our Jewish community here in Encino in particular and Los Angeles in general,” she said.

By the time it broke ground, VBS had raised $26 million, with further fundraising planned for a slew of future building projects. After finishing the community center, the synagogue plans to renovate its entry pavilion, as well as its chapel and main library, according to Pachino.

Many of the leading donations came from young members, Cohen said, a sign of the synagogue’s continued health.

“Our view is if you provide what families want, they will be there for you — they will be there for each other,” she said.

VBS Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein was optimistic about the synagogue’s future.

“We’re growing younger,” he said. “And we’re seeking to build facilities that will accommodate this new gen of young members and their families.”

Feinstein attributed the synagogue’s demographic trends to the welcoming environment it provides as well as the increasing isolation amid Southern California’s urban sprawl. The new community center at VBS aims to double down on that growth.

“Life in suburbia can be kind of lonely,” Feinstein said, “And there’s something to be said for a lifetime of community affiliation, and people have a sense, they have an intuition for that.”

A need filled: Two determined moms take action to give students with special needs a Jewish education

Students Tzvi (left) and Iva comprise the inaugural two-student class at what will be known as Learning Circle of Los Angeles.

On a recent overcast morning, Chaya Chazanow arrived with her 5-year-old son, Tzvi, at a sleepy Pico-Robertson storefront that has barred windows. Once inside, he sat quietly on the floor of a cozy classroom, playing with colorful blocks and Hebrew alphabet cards. A smiling behavioral therapist looked on.

“I toured a bunch of Jewish day schools, public schools, other nonpublic schools, and I just couldn’t find the right setting for him,” Chazanow said.

But now she has — the city’s first Jewish day school for children with special needs.

Tzvi was born with a rare genetic disorder that Chazanow declined to identify, but it resulted in physical disabilities, like trouble walking, as well as cognitive processing and executive functioning issues. Tzvi also is mostly nonverbal.

The nonprofit Friendship Circle Los Angeles (FCLA) operates out of the storefront, providing weekend and after-school Jewish and secular programming for children with special needs. Behind the unassuming facade, there’s a sprawling 17,000-square-foot facility with five classrooms, a shul and a wheelchair-accessible playground. Thanks to a Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles grant awarded last year, a sensory room for therapy is under construction. It will have matted floors and swingsets. Most of that space currently is rented out by a preschool.

At the moment, Tzvi and one other child are the only students in the new day school, which will be known as Learning Circle of Los Angeles. It occupies only one classroom, but there are plans to expand once the school attracts more kids. The staff is made up of a full-time behavioral therapist, a secular studies teacher, a Judaic studies teacher and other part-time therapists who pay weekly visits to the school.

FCLA’s educational director, Doonie Mishulovin, who puts together curriculum and teaches Judaic studies, has sympathy for parents like Chazanow who have trouble finding a day school for their children. 

“The pain of Jewish parents who don’t have a day school is so deep and so raw,” she said. “They’ve been kind of swept under the rug a bit by the community for a long time.”

Los Angeles has 37 accredited day schools recognized by the nonprofit Builders of Jewish Education (BJE). Not one of them specifically caters to students like Tzvi with moderate to severe disabilities. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Los Angeles Unified School District schools have to provide resources that day schools don’t. But after visits and research, Chazanow concluded that those resources constitute more of a “one-size-fits-all approach.”

Besides, she wanted her son to have a Jewish education. “It’s part of our family, rooted in our belief system,” she said.

Other major cities, including New York, Miami and Boston, offer heavily funded options, such as Boston’s Gateways: Access to Jewish Education program.

“Most parents have a choice where they send their kids to school,” Chazanow said. “For us, we weren’t really given a choice.”

Sarah R’bibo, a corporate lawyer living in North Hollywood, also was left without much of a choice. She said that after sending her first three kids to Emek Hebrew Academy in Sherman Oaks, she was told by Emek administrators that they couldn’t meet the special needs of her fourth and youngest, Iva, who was born with cerebral palsy.

“I just thought my daughter deserves a Jewish education. There’s no reason why my other kids can go to a Jewish day school and she can’t,” R’bibo said. “It’s astonishing something doesn’t exist here. So, we decided to try to start something.”

Now, Iva shares a classroom with Tzvi, filling out the inaugural two-student class.

Their moms share a mission — to make sure the school succeeds. 

“We’ve wanted to do this for a long time, start a full-time school like this,” Mishulovin said. “We gave up for a while, until [Chazanow] came in here in April and said, ‘You have to do this for my son.’ Now, we’re doing it.”

R’bibo volunteers, handling legal matters and the lion’s share of fundraising. Chazanow, who also volunteers, runs the administrative side of things, while Mishulovin does a bit of everything, including teaching. 

Betty Winn, BJE’s director of its Center for Excellence in Day School Education, said she and others recognize the “tremendous need for something like this.” However, this isn’t the first attempt at having such a school, and Winn made it clear what the main obstacle will be.

“It’s challenging, mainly because it’s extremely expensive,” she said. “Facilities have to be developed. It needs a very organized initiative with heavy funding.”

So far, Chazanow, Mishulovin and R’bibo have raised $100,000 through donations. They estimate they’ll need $200,000 to cover all the costs of running the school for the first year. Beyond that, they’ve set goals to make the school unique and financially sustainable in its capacity to accommodate different special needs. They are working to compile a staff with more volunteers, teachers and therapists to form at least a 2-to-1 student-to-staff ratio; getting L.A. Unified home-school charter funding; and getting nonprofit status (currently, they are accepting tax-deductible donations at

They estimate tuition will be close to $18,000 per year.

By comparison, Emek, where R’bibo’s other children go to school, charges more than $12,000 in annual tuition. The tuition at some other day schools in the area is well over $20,000.

Chazanow said there are about 10 prospective families monitoring the school’s progress. The target is mainly elementary school-age children. 

“Many parents are apprehensive about sending their kids to a new school, a new program. So it looks good to show people the program as it’s running,” she said. “It’s going fantastically well, and we’re confident we’ll have a good group next fall.”

According to the U.S. Census, roughly 1 in 5 Americans has a disability. Some, like Jennifer Mizrahi, president of the national advocacy group RespectAbility, believe the Jewish community might be hit particularly hard by disabilities. In a 2014 article published in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service, she wrote, “It is likely that the percentage of Jews with disabilities is higher than the national average,” basing her observation on genetic risks Jews carry and the fact that Jews have children later than many other demographic groups.

Still, in many of her meetings with potential donors, R’bibo has been met with responses like, “Do we need this?”

“A huge part of our mission, beyond offering these kids a Jewish education, which is fundamental, is educating these people who think there isn’t a need,” she said. “It isn’t good enough to say public schools can do this. If you want to send your kids to public school, that’s fine, but there should be an option.”

R’bibo also said the issue leads to alienating Jewish special needs children from religious engagement. Before this year, Iva was in state-subsidized preschool and wasn’t getting much Jewish education. Now, after just a few weeks at her new school, R’bibo already is noticing a huge difference.

“She came home from school for High Holy Days and knew more about the shofar, knew an apple-and-honey song. She participated in Rosh Hashanah in a most meaningful way, more than she ever has before,” R’bibo said. “It was in incredible experience for our family.”

Winn noted that the geography of Los Angeles might be a hurdle. There are day school options in every part of the city, but having only one option for special needs kids could make for some long commutes. Chazanow lives in the Fairfax neighborhood — not very far — but R’bibo commutes from North Hollywood. However, R’bibo said, it’s still preferable to the alternative, and she’s confident other parents will agree. 

“Having everything in one central location where they get a secular education, a Jewish education and therapies, that’s ideal for me and other parents,” she said. “It eliminates so much chaos and travel time. It’s an integrative approach and a really great model.”

Chazanow took several trips to the East Coast to visit special needs schools in the New York-New Jersey area. She looks to those experiences and what she found there for motivation.

“At so many of the places I visited, people told me it all started with a storefront,” she said. “They told me all it takes is one parent to get it started.”

Seated next to Mishulovin inside the otherwise empty Friends Circle shul, she looked around and shrugged.

“Well, here I am.”

Transgender Jewish Educator Shares Her Rebirth in Torah

Yiscah Smith Photo courtesy of Yiscah Smith.

Chana Rosenson first saw Yiscah Smith from across the room at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where Smith was teaching and Rosenson was spending a year visiting as a rabbinical student.

Something about Smith struck Rosenson. She turned to a friend and said, “I don’t know who she is, but whatever she’s got I need to get for my soul.”

Smith soon became Rosenson’s teacher and mentor, and on a recent late-June evening she sat in Rosenson’s living room in Calabasas to lead a class on Chasidic wisdom and Jewish text. There was no institutional sponsor or promotional message for the event. Instead, Rosenson explained to her guests, “I just wanted to share her with as many people as I possibly could.”

Just over 25 years ago, when Yiscah Smith was still Jeffrey “Yaakov” Smith, with a long beard and six children, she left a life as a Chabad educator in Jerusalem. After 10 years living a secular life in the United States, Smith returned to religious life as an observant transgender woman and a nondenominational Jewish educator.

At the recent gathering at Rosenson’s home, Smith sat in front of a semicircle of about a dozen people from various L.A.-area neighborhoods and congregations, wearing an ankle-length blue dress that matched her eyes, her dark hair falling to her shoulders. For two hours, she wove together Torah passages, Chasidic teachings and her own personal journey in a lesson that was part Torah study and part self-help seminar.

“Authenticity is a process,” she said. “Trust the process — that God does not want you to live anybody else’s life.”

Underscoring her sermon was the idea that making peace with oneself is a prerequisite for fully understanding Jewish wisdom.

“God, Torah and the truth are aligned only when one is honest with oneself,” she said.

Smith came by that lesson the hard way. In an interview shortly before her lecture, she spoke with the Journal about her personal journey.

Jeffrey Smith grew up in a nonobservant Jewish household in New York. After visiting Israel for the first time as a college student in 1971, Smith became inexorably attracted to Jewish spirituality.

“I began to encounter my soul, and I really, passionately wanted to inquire more and practice more,” she told the Journal.

But she had known from early childhood that she identified more as a female than as a male. Delving deeper into traditional Judaism, she faced a spiritual paradox, trapped between her gender identity and her religious one.

“The more I started to access that place of inner truth, the more I felt like a fraud,” she said.

Back in the United States and studying toward a master’s degree in Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, Smith soon discovered the Chabad Lubavitch movement and became a regular at its headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Smith recoiled from the movement’s strict gender roles but was attracted to the community it provided.

“The day I put on a black fedora and long black coat, the day I stopped shaving my facial hair to grow out a beard was one of the saddest days I can remember,” Smith wrote in her 2014 book, “Forty Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living.” “I looked in the mirror and all I could think was, ‘What have I become?’ ”

Still living as a married man, Smith moved to Jerusalem but soon found she no longer could keep up the charade. She built a home “that outwardly looked like the model Orthodox Chasidic family,” regularly hosting dozens for Shabbat dinner. Meanwhile, Smith said she felt increasingly isolated and alienated as a woman living inside a man’s body.

“There was no place for a transgender,” she said. “There was no place for me to go to the rabbis and engage them in the narrative of, Where do I fit in as a woman who senses I’m in someone else’s body? Where does Jewish law identify me? Where do I sit — what side of the mechitzah? Who do I study with? Who do I dance with?”

Smith went through a divorce in 1991m moved to the United States, and spent a decade living a secular life, languishing without community or direction.

“I felt I had the key out of the prison, but I did not yet have the wherewithal to actually put it in the door and let myself out,” she said.

She was working as a barista at a Starbucks in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2001 when her 50th birthday came around and she decided she’d hit her “spiritual rock bottom.”

“That was the day that I decided, ‘I can no longer breathe any more breath into someone else’s body,” she said. “I had no more energy left to live a lie.”

Smith resolved to live as the woman she’d always known she was. One of her first acts after beginning her transition was to light the Shabbat candles, an act traditionally reserved for women. Though Smith’s childhood home had been mostly secular, both her mother and grandmother had lit Shabbat candles.

“I didn’t even have to really think about it — where else do I begin but light the Shabbat lights?” she said.

After that, “it just all came back,” she said. “That’s the road I’ve been on since.”

For the past 16 years, Smith, 66, has made “a daily commitment” to “becoming faithful to my inner core, my inner self, the image of God.”

These days, Smith teaches Chasidic texts at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and lives in Nachlaot, a warren of cobblestone alleys with a large population of American expatriates.

Though she no longer defines as Orthodox, she observes Jewish law as best she can. She hopes to carve out a new understanding in halachah that will account for a transgender woman living a Torah lifestyle. Despite the challenge, she’s confident that hers is a winning battle.

“The halachah has a flexibility to it,” she said. “It’s like a rubber band. It stretches, it contracts, it expands, with time it moves. And I didn’t trust that process because I myself was so insecure. Now, I’m able to say, ‘The rabbis need to address what’s really going on.’ And if it means a different interpretation, if it means an addendum, then that’s what we do. The halachah is strong enough. It has weathered 3,400 years of changes.” 

Focus on Educators’ Qualities, Not Titles

Photo courtesy of Pexels.

Who should educate our children? 

As a head of school of a Modern Orthodox high school, I raise this issue because I fear we too often adopt a wrongheaded approach in answering that question.

This wrongheaded approach has, to my mind, been particularly on display during a recent — and largely manufactured — controversy at my own institution, Shalhevet High School, over the appropriate title for a newly hired, and female, member of my Judaic Studies faculty.

As is all too often the case, the controversy devolved into a discussion of what title to give the new faculty member, with some pressing my school to break with our current practice and use a clergylike title for a female faculty member. And while predictable volleys from outsiders were lobbed back and forth, the whole affair struck me as, by and large, a distraction.

My obligation when I wake every morning — not only as a head of school but also as a Jew and father — is to identify people with the right qualities to educate our children. Communally, we should focus less on what we are calling our educators and instead spend more time on ensuring we have educators who are following the calling of great education.

Communally, we should focus less on what we are calling our educators and instead spend more time on ensuring we have educators who are following the calling of great education

Limited school budgets, combined with preferred and more lucrative career options for prospective teachers, make Jewish education a tough sell to some of our best and brightest. But these challenges cannot serve as a crutch or an excuse.  Jewish education can — and must — provide our children with the right environment to become 21st-century Jews, leading lives infused with Torah values as well as both professional and personal satisfaction. To do that,  Jewish day schools must identify the right people to serve as the front line in this holy endeavor.

I raise this issue now because the challenge inevitably pulls us into hot-button topics like rabbinic authority and egalitarianism. But the truth is that even these weighty topics are, by and large, a distraction. If we are going to fulfill our communal responsibility, we must focus on the qualities of great Jewish educators.

So what are the essential qualities of a Jewish educator in a Modern Orthodox day school? It’s hard to narrow the list, and there are some really important qualities that I don’t have room here to mention. But if pressed, here are the three that I can’t live without: a love and passion for Torah and Jewish values; a constant and insatiable desire to improve as an educator; and a deep-seated love for our students.

Candidates with all three are hard to come by because attaining all three requires a range of personal experiences and professional training. But even that isn’t enough. I set aside a significant portion of my budget for professional development for each faculty member because I know that if I want faculty committed to professional growth, I need to put my institutional money where its mouth is and make that possible. All of this is a prerequisite to creating the educational environment that we desperately seek for our children.

But here is one thing that isn’t on my list: I’m not focused on what I’m going to call them. In recent years, I have hired an aspiring musician, an electrical engineer and a would-be lawyer. For each of them, the litmus test was not whether he or she had rabbinic ordination. To be sure, being a rabbi is a huge plus in that it is one of the best proxies for deep love and passion for Torah. But in the end, it is only a proxy. And as a head of school, I cannot become obsessed with proxies. There simply is too much at stake in Jewish education to abandon the ultimate objective — identifying educators with a deep knowledge of and passion for Torah, who are committed to refining their craft with unbounded love and care for our students.

Let me close with one last point. Lurking in the background of our perceptions about educators is an underlying assumption that non-rabbis are somehow second-class Jewish educators. And so when a particular Jewish educator isn’t called rabbi, there’s an unspoken assumption that he or she is lacking.

But here’s the truth: These clergy expectations are corrosive to Jewish education because they ask our educators to focus more on collecting a title than becoming a first-rate educator. And these expectations of our Jewish educators, in turn, serve to divide our community, pressuring Jewish educators to strive for clergylike titles and forcing educational institutions to make choices about those titles in a highly charged environment.

The reality is that our schools need educators more than they need clergy. Of course, it goes without saying that every Orthodox Jewish day school needs to have first-rate rabbis to provide halachic direction for  students and the school community. But the focus on rabbinic titles puts all the wrong pressures on our educators and distracts them from developing the tools they need to make our schools successful.

It is high time that we stop focusing on what our educators are called and start a far more thoughtful discussion about who we want our educators to be. Ultimately, if we stop worrying so much about what we are calling our educators, we’ll have more time to focus on education’s calling.

RABBI ARI SEGAL is head of school at Shalhevet High School.

Large gift will bring new name, tuition assistance to Sinai Akiba Academy

Sinai Akiba Academy is being renamed in honor of donors Alice and Nahum Lainer. Photo courtesy of Sinai Akiba

School officials at Sinai Akiba Academy in West Los Angeles are hailing a recently announced gift as “transformative,” something that will help ensure its future for years to come.

That future will feature a new name.

Beginning in the upcoming 2017-18 academic year, the school officially will be known as Alice and Nahum Lainer School in honor of the large donation — officials declined to disclose the exact amount — made by the Lainers, longtime supporters of the school who have sent three children, all now adults, as well as three grandchildren there.

“This is huge news,” said Head of School Sarah Shulkind. “I wrote to colleagues, other Jewish day school heads, that this is a win for all of us. It says that there’s a significant investment in Jewish schools being a critical part of Jewish continuity and Jewish sustainability in the future.”

Shulkind said the gift will help the school continue funding academic programs such as JSTEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math through a Jewish lens), as well as tuition assistance.

Nahum, a real estate developer, and his wife, Alice, live in Beverly Park. The Lainers were one of the first families to send their children to the school when it was still known as Akiba Academy. In the past, they’ve given generously to Jewish philanthropic causes such as the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. 

In a joint public statement, the Lainers expressed their desire to encourage other families in the community to follow their lead.

“With this endowment gift, our goal is to ensure that more Jewish families have access to such a wonderful education,” they said. “We hope that our leadership will inspire our old friends, our new friends, the parents of today, and the whole community, to join us in donating to the financial stability and sustainability of a great and important place of learning and creativity, for generations to come.”

According to Shulkind, accessibility for Jewish families has been an issue of late in the world of private Jewish education, with many Jewish schools around the country experiencing dips in enrollment numbers or even shutting their doors after the 2008 recession. Shulkind said her school hasn’t seen a noticeable drop in enrollment, partly due to its widespread tuition assistance program.

“We give 30 percent of our kids tuition assistance,” Shulkind said. “I’m extremely proud of our commitment to our central mission: making the school accessible to any Jewish family seeking a quality Jewish education. In order to sustain that and to continue to grow the excellent academic programming we’re known for, we had to have this kind of endowment gift.”

The school, a Sinai Temple school that is a member of the Schechter Day School Network, opened in 1968. It now serves students from birth to eighth grade and has more than 600 students. Annual tuition for its lower school is $26,195; for the middle school, it is $29,480, according to its website.

In 2015, Shulkind and the school’s board passed a strategic financial plan to raise $40 million. When they thought about how to get there, the answer seemed obvious.

“We talked about families with a passion for Jewish education and philanthropy that had the interest and the capacity. The very first family on everyone’s mind was the Lainers,” she said.

Shulkind said the Lainers’ gift made up “a significant portion” of the school’s $40 million goal and that it already has helped raise interest in making contributions from other prominent philanthropic families tied to the school. She also referred to the Lainers’ donation as a “lead gift” in the school’s upcoming 50th anniversary fundraising campaign.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple reacted to the gift by saying, “We are grateful and blessed — and strengthened in our resolve to inspire the souls of our students.”

Gary Lainer, board chair of the school, and his wife, Lisa, have sent three children there. But in this case, he’s more than a school leader — he’s a proud son.

“I am grateful that our school has received such a consequential gift, a lead gift to begin our celebration of the school’s 50th anniversary, and I am excited that this gift will help secure the school’s future.”

Similar to actions taken by deToledo High School officials after its renaming from New Community Jewish High School in 2014, Shulkind said her school has hired a marketing firm to help with rebranding. By this fall, the school’s website and campus signage will reflect the name change, but it still may take some getting used to.

“There will be a transition time. You can’t just flip a switch,” she said. 

For questions about Jews, just ‘rent’ one for answers

Nirit Bialer, an Israeli expat, speaks with seventh-graders in Berlin as part of the “Rent A Jew” program. Photo by Gregor Zielke

The subject sat there, surrounded by 23 nursing students from the School of Health and Healthcare at the Alexianer St. Hedwig Hospital in the former Jewish quarter of eastern Berlin. They examined her as if she were an endangered species, ready to be dissected. Some had never encountered such an organism before. After all, in Germany, her type had been endangered for some time.

The center of curiosity was Juna Grossman, a 40-year-old Jewish woman born in the former East Berlin. Her grandparents survived the Holocaust, saved by a German family who hid them in southern Germany. With her long, dirty-blond braids and hazel eyes, she sat there, smiling and patient, ready to take questions, as a Jew “rented out” through a German-Jewish program called Rent a Jew.

With its controversial name, Rent a Jew both objectifies and at the same time humanizes what for many young Germans is a novelty: a living, modern Jewish person.

“It’s a bit ironic, but we thought we would embrace the irony in the situation,” said Alexander Rasumny, coordinator of Rent a Jew.

The name, he said, is a provocative description of a speaking bureau of Jews from all walks of German life who are available to German schools and institutions to educate non-Jews about Judaism and to dispel stereotypes and prejudices that have been linked to Jews for centuries.

“We were thinking how to try to change the image of Jews in Germany for the better, and we thought direct contact is the best way to do that,” Rasumny said.

Rasumny co-founded Rent a Jew in 2015 while working as a project manager for the European Janusz Korczak Academy, a Munich-based partner of the Jewish Agency for Israel that seeks to reinforce Jewish identity in German-speaking countries. Rent a Jew has conducted more than 30 sessions across Germany. The 50 to 60 Jewish participants represent a cross section of the German-Jewish population and undergo a screening and training process.

The Rent a Jew website explains its rationale this way: “Talk to us, not about us. We don’t give lectures on Jewish history or religion as experts but talk about what it’s like for us to be a Jew in Germany. Above all, we encourage people to ask questions and yes, voice those stereotypes like: Are all Jews rich? Do they control the media? Or are they really the chosen people? Most importantly, people can talk with Jews instead of only talking about them.”


Photo by Orit Arfa

Rent a Jew is not the first effort to market Jews playfully as a product. A 2013 exhibition on Judaism at the Jewish Museum in Berlin drew criticism when it exhibited “Jew in a Box,” in which alternating Jews sat in a display case to field questions from the public.

Dani Kranz, a Cologne-based anthropologist and expert in Israeli migration to Germany, applauds such tongue-in-cheek attempts to educate Germans about contemporary Jews and Judaism.

“I would say the mere attempt to represent oneself, to take charge, and to communicate as an individual Jew and individual human being is direly needed because Jews are exoticized,” Kranz said. “In some respects, it’s painful to see because it makes the assumed difference between Jews and non-Jews blatantly clear, but it should be addressed.”

And not only for Jews. Kranz, a German-born Jew, said the Arabs and Muslims in her social circle also encounter prejudices and misconceptions.

“There should also be a program for Rent a Muslim or Rent a Palestinian,” she said, although she conceded that the Shoah makes some Germans believe they must handle Jews with special gloves.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, half a million Jews lived in Germany, more than 150,000 of them in Berlin. While the 500,000 accounted for less than 1 percent of the country’s population at the time, many stood out as leaders in academia, banking, media, industry and business. Early 20th-century Berlin was home to some of Jewry’s leading minds, including Albert Einstein, philosopher Martin Buber and scholar Gershom Scholem. They built on a Jewish-German intellectual tradition started in the 18th century by celebrated philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.

After the Nazi atrocities of World War II, fewer than 20,000 Jews remained in Germany, about 8,000 in Berlin. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the country’s Jewish population had grown to nearly 30,000.

After Germany’s official reunification in 1990, the new government welcomed Jews from the former Soviet Union to re-establish the community Hitler had decimated. Russian immigrants and their children, such as Rasumny, form the bulk of Germany’s Jewish population, which today stands at more than 100,000 — maybe as many as 200,000. (Precise numbers are elusive because the German government does not require citizens to reveal their religious affiliation, and the dogged question of “Who is a Jew?” further complicates an accurate count.)

According to Grossman, the Jew who visited the nursing students at Alexianer last month, most German students today do not learn the full history of Jewish life in Germany and, instead, focus on the attempted Nazi genocide.

“When you ask Germans what they think when they think of ‘Jews,’ you always have the Holocaust or the typical ‘black-hat Jew,’ ” Grossman told the Journal before her talk at the hospital. “That’s not the reality, is it?”

She said she believes Holocaust education is diminishing in some German curricula as instruction about this time period competes with that of the Cold War era.

Born under communism, which suppressed religious practice, Grossman “returned” to Judaism after the fall of the Berlin Wall, studying at the historic Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue in the former East Berlin, led by a female rabbi and best known for its restored golden dome.

As a program speaker and blogger on Jewish life in Germany, Grossman invites questions from German students that don’t dwell on the Holocaust. In fact, she said, she looks forward to when the Holocaust plays less of a role in Jewish identity and perceptions in Germany so she can feel the ease and normalcy she felt as a Jew living in Boston for several years.

“Here, when you meet somebody not Jewish and you ‘out’ yourself as being Jewish, you get reactions like: ‘Oops, how do I behave now?’ ” she said. “It’s a strange glaze in the eyes, and sometimes they say something about their grandparents.”

Julia Engelhardt, a nursing instructor at Alexianer, heard about Rent a Jew on German television and immediately decided to try it for a class on world religions.

“We thought it would be good for them to know things they should or shouldn’t do if they have Jewish patients,” Engelhardt said before the class with Grossman.

Grossman began her session with an introduction about her German-Jewish background. Across from her on the wall was a statuette of Jesus on the cross; to her left, a model skeleton.

Students slowly raised their hands to ask questions about Jewish life and death, unrelated to the actual life and death of Jewry in the neighborhood of the hospital — a former Jewish quarter, something most students did not know.

Just a few blocks away, on Grosse Hamburger Street, is the memorial site for the Jewish Home for the Aging that the Nazis converted to an assembly camp for deporting 55,000 Berlin Jews. Behind it is the Jewish cemetery that dates back to 1672, where Mendelssohn was buried.

The class included some foreign students, including one from Poland who asked: “What do Jews do when someone dies?” Grossman explained burial and shivah mourning rituals.

“Why do Jews step on a glass cup at a Jewish wedding?” asked an African student. Grossman explained it commemorates the destruction of the Temple.

Grossman’s favorite question came from a German man to her left: “Do Jews believe in an afterlife?” She explained that Judaism differs from Christianity in its lack of emphasis on heaven and hell, although the student said he is comforted by the idea of a paradise in the next world.

“I liked it the most, as he was very respectful and just accepting my other view on things,” Grossman told the Journal. “That’s not really common for Christians, I mean for real active ones. Usually, they seek to convince you of their belief.”

Not all Rent a Jew sessions run so smoothly.

Nirit Bialer, founder of Habait (The Home), a Berlin-based organization that seeks to expose Germans to Israeli culture, was taken aback by some of the stereotypes and misconceptions she encountered from a seventh-grade class at a school in Neukölln, a Berlin district with a large immigrant population.

“There were a lot of kids there with Muslim backgrounds, kids with parents coming in from the Middle East,” Bialer said. “That was a different experience. A lot of politics involved; people confused ideas about Judaism, Israel. Everything was intermingled together. There were many facts they were not sure about.”

She recalled how one student asked if Hitler and the Zionists worked together, while another asked what the Palestinians did so wrong to the Jews.

“It was not an easy situation for me personally, since you are being pulled into the Middle East conflict when trying to talk to a class about Judaism,” Bialer said.

Her previous Rent a Jew appearance had occurred at an adult education class in which participants — curiously and courteously, she said — asked about her experience living in Berlin as an Israeli. Bialer represents a relatively new but significant component of Jewish life in Germany: Israeli expats, although the number of them living in Berlin is difficult to determine. Estimates range from 7,000 to 20,000.

The turning point during the Neukölln session came when her fellow “rented” Jew, a Russian-born woman named Esther Knochenhauer, told the class that she works as a booking agent for German rappers.

“Some of the kids that were talking to her were like, ‘Wow. That’s a cool Jewish girl.’ ”

That’s when the ice broke and the class’ Jewish visitors truly were humanized.

Esther Knochenhauer, a Russian-born Jew who accompanied Nirit Bialer on her school visit in Berlin, writes on the classroom chalkboard. Photo by Gregor Zielke

Increasingly, the Rent a Jew program is bringing knowledge of Judaism to a population generally untouched by the Shoah: first generation and nonnative Germans.

“The students in Neukölln, now, demonstrated a pattern of seeing Jews only through the lens of the Israeli-Arab conflict, which is not uncommon in migrant communities, particularly with an Arabic, but also Turkish, background,” Rent a Jew coordinator Rasumny said.

These communities initially encounter anti-Jewish and anti-Israel propaganda at home, through Arab-language television or Islamic and Turkish nationalist youth organizations.

“So we have to reach them while they’re in the school and at least somewhat open to arguments,” Rasumny said. “The same goes for students who grow up in households with parents holding populist or far-right views. The number of such households should not be underestimated. And, of course, there also is a very distinct left-wing anti-Semitism, which is mostly Israel-related.”

A recent report from the German parliament found that 40 percent of Germans hold anti-Semitic views expressed by hostility toward the Jewish state. Most program participants, however, as with the Alexianer students, were apolitical and limited in knowledge.

Nursing students Elise Senst and Kate Kalhol, both 21, said they came out of the Alexianer session feeling intellectually enriched.

Both grew up in Brandenburg, one of Germany’s 16 federal states, on the outskirts of Berlin, and neither has Jewish friends. At first, they were confused by the program’s name, Rent a Jew. Kalhol had been to the Jewish Museum in Berlin, while Senst received general knowledge of Judaism as a youth. As third-generation Germans from the Nazi era, the Holocaust is not necessarily their immediate association with Jews.

“In my circle of friends, it [the Holocaust] is not even there,” Senst said, although her grandmother lived through the Nazi period and told her stories of Jews fleeing. “I have a couple of friends who did social work in Israel, but they didn’t go because of the Holocaust and that part of German history, but for the country itself. It’s there. We can’t forget about it, but it’s not on top anymore.”

Senst was most surprised to learn that Jewish identity is not dependent on belief in God, as Christianity is.

“I really enjoyed the communication, but the strange thing to me is that if you decided to believe in the Jewish religion, that all the following generations will be Jewish even if they don’t believe in it,” Senst said.

Kalhol said she is inclined to separate Judaism from Israel, while Senst associates Israel with the Jewish people. By showcasing both Israeli and Diaspora Jews, Rent a Jew seeks to discuss the distinction between Judaism as a religious identity and a national one.

“If I meet an Israeli, I’m going to ask what the country’s like, what life is like there, maybe I would also ask if he’s Jewish or what kind of religion he belongs to, but that’s another stereotype,” Kalhol said.

At Alexianer, Engelhardt, the nursing instructor, said she was pleased with the program, especially for clarifying differences between Jewish rituals and practices and those of other religions.

“For example, Juna [Grossman] said that if a Jew dies, don’t lay their hands like a cross the way Christians do, and this is a kind of sensitivity you could have also with other religions,” she said.

Engelhardt said Alexianer will be a repeat customer. She already has booked Grossman again, proving that the name of the program can succeed in challenging another stereotype: Jewish greed.

Rent a Jew Jews are “rented” for free.

We need a poverty summit

Photo via WikiCommons

If we can land a man on the moon, we can end poverty. The Jewish community has been grappling with the issue of the impoverished, the other, for thousands of years. We are taught that “There shall be no poor among you” and “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”

Communal service networks have helped knit together organized Jewish communities for generations. Our ancestors, whether escaping Russian pogroms or surviving Nazi death camps, came to the United States in conditions of abject poverty, carrying our legacies with them. Social service efforts have helped hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of our own.

If any community has the history to help launch a “moon landing” to defeat poverty, it is ours. We can’t do it alone, nor should we, but we can convene our neighbors, our friends, our hearts and our intentions to do something unprecedented. We can bring together the minds and the expertise to craft a comprehensive plan to end poverty as has never been done before. We can harness the minds, the will and the resources that resulted in “one giant leap for mankind,” thereby marshaling the tools needed to affect the lives of the poor in the most far-reaching and profound way imaginable.

We must call a summit. The United States Poverty Summit would devote attention and resources unseen since Neil Armstrong made an entire country believe in itself when he stepped on the moon. Approaching the issue of poverty from a variety of disciplines, led by an array of experts, the summit will launch a national dialogue that can lead to a comprehensive plan to attack this suffering in all the many ways that are needed.

There is no single path into or out of poverty. Assembling experts from different fields who can talk to one another, interact with one another and make symbiotic their disparate approaches, is the way forward. The tools are there, the programs exist and the people with the knowledge are available.

We, as a community, can supply the key, otherwise missing, ingredient: the will. We can help cast aside gridlock. There is too much at stake, too many lives on the edge, to avoid the opportunity that can lead, together, to a historic societal change.

What shape would a weeklong poverty summit take? On Day One, an agenda will be set.  Days Two and Three will be spent in intensive group discussions, led by designated experts, with invited representatives from each represented community. On Day Four, each group will draft its own 10-point plan that can be implemented to alleviate the trauma of poverty from its perspective, and then, on Day Five, all of the groups will reconvene for a general convocation at which all of the plans will be reviewed and integrated. The result will be a week to define the concrete steps that will change the lives of the poor in a way never before attempted.

A number of key components need to be amassed. With apologies to all those inadvertently omitted, the summit has to begin with a community ready to lead and a designated leader to help bring so many diverse experts together. We are that community. 

The leader

For a generation, former Sen. and Vice President Joe Biden has been the conscience of our government’s policies affecting the most vulnerable. He authored the Violence Against Women Act, he championed numerous access-to-justice initiatives for the poor, and he oversaw the launch and growth of the national IMPACT Project, an unprecedented national pro bono program that has brought heightened legal services to the poor in 11 cities around the country. His experience, his insight, his moderation and his ability to reach across party lines make him the moderator, leader and voice of this effort.

The legal community

Acknowledging that lawyers are the unsung heroes in the battle against poverty, understanding that only the justice system can address the immediate needs of those most vulnerable, a number of key attorneys must be at the poverty summit. Expert attorneys in civil rights, poverty law, government funding, homelessness prevention and the pro bono delivery of legal services need to be part of the summit.

The advocacy community 

Understanding that without forceful and skilled advocates, no plan would be complete, several key voices need to lead one of the most crucial discussions. Leaders in children’s rights, authors addressing race and poverty, homeless community advocates, senior protection organizations, those involved in advancing the cause of affordable housing, and experts in making the welfare system work efficiently all need to be invited. 

The economics of poverty

Leading economists and academics have devoted their considerable scholarship to the economics of poverty. Tax experts, those who have worked around the world on issues of extreme poverty, and political leaders who have devoted significant thought and legislative efforts to combating poverty can be assembled to attend and advise. Professors, governors and lawmakers will bring a perspective and expertise needed to move forward with proficiency and influence. 

Politicians and the political system 

Not many elected officials have dared to discuss poverty and make it a critical part of our national discourse. The late Robert Kennedy, who served as a U.S. senator and attorney general, was the prototype but, sadly, few have claimed his mantle. Others, however, at various levels of government actively have tried to bring the issue into our political dialogue. Particular mayors, city attorneys, state legislators, governors, senators and Cabinet members have initiated legislation, used their bully pulpits, encouraged anti-poverty development, and should be a key part of this discussion. 

Homelessness advocates 

In various communities around the country, there are advocates who have devoted their lives to being immediate with those whose situations have forced them into life on the streets. These advocates take to the streets, literally, to know and understand the people who are living in this kind of poverty. They and others have launched on-the-ground projects that are feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and clothing and training the job-seekers. Invited to join these dedicated leaders will be representatives from the most effective on-the-ground organizations in the country, those who actively are engaged in innovative anti-poverty programming.


Addressing the intersection of race and poverty has been assessed directly by a number of authors, to one degree or another. Their examinations and experiences will add to the summit discussion. They have addressed the impact that increased incarceration followed by difficult parole policies have on the cycle of poverty. They work with former convicts who find re-entry to be increasingly difficult as they are denied jobs, housing and voting rights. Others have written about the need for our communities to create more ways for the poor to earn decent wages. Still others have lived among the poor and written about the precarious poverty precipice over which families fall when they lose their homes.


Well-funded private foundations, led by influential nonprofit and business pacesetters, have provided billions of dollars in grant-funding, goods and services to combat the trauma of poverty. A national network of community foundations is impacting low-income neighborhoods and programming on a daily basis. Bringing together private foundations, with collective resources and missions meant to make an impact, will be a part of this particular group. 

The business community

Individual philanthropists from the business community offer important leadership. Representatives from the banking, real estate, investment and entertainment industries bring a perspective, as well as resources and gravitas, needed to overcome the ways that established systems sometimes work against the interests of the poor. Bringing a business sensibility, an industrious approach to uplifting the needy, and crafting a strategy for private industry to pursue will be a critical part of the plan to be drafted.

Faith communities

Throughout the history of the United States, communities of faith have been the primary line of defense for the poor. The Jewish Federations of North America bring together a vast network of Jewish communal organizations that have been serving the poor on a nonsectarian basis for more than a century. Other religious groups have done similarly admirable work. They all need to be at this table and they all need to bring their constituencies with them. They collectively would bring to the summit a wide swath of experience and a deep pool of experts and volunteers.

Food insecurity

More than 42 million people in the U.S. live in households that are food insecure. (That figure is from the 2016 report from the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) Organizations across the country are working and advocating for effective anti-hunger measures.


Poverty is awash in generational cycles. Education is the single most important weapon in breaking through a historical, cyclical morass of lost hope. Secretaries of education, on the state and federal Cabinet levels, can lead this part of the discussion. Innovative educators from universities, public grade schools, support organizations and private funders would bring great experience and wisdom to the discussion. Leaders of teachers unions, private school professionals and carefully chosen elected school board representatives need to round out the list of participants.

There are many other groups whose participation and experience would be valuable additions to the summit. Union leaders, job-creation organizations, local governments, housing departments, builders, welfare advocates, mental health professionals, environmentalists who focus on the degradation of our low-income communities, medical personnel and community health organizations would be important contributors. The bottom line is that we have an occasion to address the overriding issue of our generation.

As leaders of a Jewish community that for generations has argued about, debated and taken action to help the impoverished among us, we have the will to address issues of poverty as never before. With the right people in the room, one week of uninterrupted focus is all we ask. It could change our nation forever. 

David A. Lash is the managing counsel of pro bono and public interest services at O’Melveny & Myers LLP. To join him in this effort, email

Israelis to teach choreography, media arts at UCLA

Royce Hall at UCLA

UCLA students will have the opportunity this spring to study with two leading Israeli artists who combine science with the movement of bodies.

Choreographer Shahar Biniamini and media artist Daniel Landau are among 14 top Israeli artists coming to major U.S. universities during the current academic year, as part of the Schusterman Visiting Israeli Artists Program.

Biniamini has danced with Batsheva — The Young Ensemble and Batsheva Dance Company during the past decade. Since leaving it in 2013, he continues to teach and produce the Batsheva repertoire around the world.

Biniamini is a teacher of the movement language Gaga, improvised dance developed by Batsheva’s artistic director Ohad Naharin that sometimes appears spastic, grotesque or even silly as a way to unlock thoughts and emotions.

Biniamini, 28, says he first became interested in dance when he was 17 years old, after seeing the Naharin-choreographed piece “Shalosh.”

“I remember the sensation I had. Not necessarily that I wanted to be a dancer, but I wanted to be part of that thing that I saw,” Biniamini said in an interview over tea at Melrose Umbrella Co.  “It came out of nowhere, and my life changed completely.”

The other visiting Israeli artist, Landau, studied music composition and new media at the Royal Conservatory in the Netherlands. His artistic installations examine the relationship between the body and technology, and he’ll work with students in the UCLA Department of Media Arts using virtual reality.

The Visiting Israeli Artists program is an initiative of the Israel Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based academic institute. The program was founded in 2008 to bring modern Israeli artists and cultural leaders to North America for residencies at cultural organizations and academic centers. Since the program began, there have been 68 residencies featuring 78 artists at colleges and universities.

“There are universities that we’re interested in bringing artists to, and sometimes that university wants to bring a specific artist or an artist in a certain field. And other times I meet an artist that has the talent and the teaching experience,” said Marge Goldwater, director of arts and cultural programs at the Israel Institute. “Sometimes I describe myself as a matchmaker.”

Soon after leaving Batsheva, Biniamini co-founded a research group, Tnuda, to explore the connection between science and movement. Composed of dancers, choreographers and scientists, it is based at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, a town south of Tel Aviv. He founded the group with Weizmann professor Atan Gross, who studies apoptosis, or programmed cell death.

“[Gross] sees a link between the process of dance, with bodies transferring information from one body to another, and it gives him inspiration for new directions in research on why cells commit suicide for the benefit of the whole unit,” Biniamini said.

As an independent dancer and artist, Biniamini choreographs new pieces for theaters and companies. In one piece, “Flat,” created for Frontier Danceland in Singapore, he covered one dancer with blue dots. In another,  “Yama,” he covered Japanese dancers with red dots.

“When I work with dancers, I like to see the body. I like to see the muscles, to see the body exposed,” he said. The idea was “to create a kind of uniform without disturbing the body.”

After working with UCLA students on an original choreographed piece this spring, he plans to work with GöteborgsOperans Danskompani in Gothenburg, Sweden; followed by a collaboration with Gauthier Dance, an ensemble in Stuttgart, Germany; and a workshop in Italy’s Tuscany region.

Biniamini has also produced videos, installations and sculptures that have been presented in theaters, museums and galleries around the world.

“It’s always a running joke between us when we talk on the phone,” Goldwater said. “I say, ‘What continent am I talking to you on?’ ”

While in Los Angeles, Biniamini will also choreograph a new piece with former Batsheva dancer and artistic director Danielle Agami and her L.A.-based ensemble, Ate9 Dance Company.

Biniamini says his goal is to found a collective of choreographers and dancers and to continue bringing innovative dance to people all over the globe.

“It’s healthy, and it can save the world,” he said.

Landau, in addition to his artistic work, led the media studies department at Beit Berl Academic College near Tel Aviv from 2012 to 2016. At 43, he is a doctoral candidate at the Aalto Institute in Finland and a senior research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya. At UCLA, Landau will work alongside Eddo Stern, a world-renowned game designer and director of the UCLA Game Lab.

Landau’s work has been featured at international venues, museums and festivals. He is the founder of “Oh-man, Oh-machine,” an art, science and technology platform that has included a conference, a laboratory and 36-hour-long “durational workshops” in which researchers, meeting in an
airplane hangar, talk about and experience the relationship between bodies and technology.

While in California, Landau will conduct a public lecture and performance at UCLA, Caltech and Stanford called “Time-Body Study,” which he describes as a “virtual reality experiment.”

“A person from the audience is invited on stage, and not only is he placed somewhere else, as virtual reality does, he is being re-embodied,” Landau said. “He finds himself in a body of a 7-year-old, a 40-year-old and an 80-year-old.”

The project, he said, is meant to show how virtual reality may change our relationship with our own bodies and how our “physical identity can be shifted into something else.”

Another of Landau’s areas of interest is post-humanism, which he describes as “an amazing philosophical framework to reconfigure this relationship between nature, humans and computers.”

One output of that interest is a short film about Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman whose cancerous cell lines have been used by researchers for decades to develop cures for various diseases.

Another of Landau’s projects is called “One Dimensional Man,” a theatrical piece that combines projections of faces onto masks with dancers performing alongside them.

There is a political component to his work as well. Landau contends that the goal to become a more connected society has resulted in a surveillance state, with major corporations controlling the flow of information online. The “power networks” at play in social and political structures remains a major theme of his work since returning to Israel in 2006, after studying and making art in The Hague, Netherlands, for a decade.

Living abroad for that long, Landau said, allowed him “to see different horizons which you just can’t from within Israeli society.”n

What’s wrong with Jews’ emphasis on intellect?

Photo courtesy of Facebook.

Question: In life, which is more overrated — looks or brains?

I would argue that it’s a tie.

But there is a difference. For better or for worse, valuing beauty is built-in to human nature. Notions of beauty may differ from culture to culture, but every culture values beauty. Tests done with infants show that even they are drawn to faces most adults deem beautiful.

But the valuing of intellect is much more of a cultural matter. And no culture values brain power more than Ashkenazi Jewish culture.

There certainly is anecdotal evidence to support this.

Take, for example, the famous Jewish joke about a birth notice: “Jacob and Sarah Birnbaum are proud to announce the birth of their son, Dr. David Birnbaum.”

Today, of course, the announcement would apply equally to a daughter.

Another example: I only exaggerate a bit when I tell audiences: “When you ask a Jew, ‘How are you?’ you will often receive this answer: ‘Great. My daughter is at Dartmouth.’ ”

Likewise, I tell audiences, “When a stranger recognizes me and approaches me — a somewhat frequent occurrence — unless the person is wearing a kippah, I have no way of knowing if the person is a Jew or a non-Jew. But there is often a giveaway: If the person tells me what college their son or daughter goes to, I know it’s a Jew.”

To demonstrate how cultural the Jewish preoccupation with the intellect is, the different reactions these lines receive from Jewish and non-Jewish audiences are telling. There is loud laughter in Jewish audiences but only a few chuckles from non-Jews.

Jews completely relate to what I said; to non-Jews it is just odd. Non-Jews rarely tell anyone, let alone a stranger, what college their kid goes to, no matter how prestigious. But for many American Jews, their meaning in life and social status are predicated on getting their child into a prestigious college.

Now, to be sure, this preoccupation with prestigious colleges is not only related to Jews’ valuing the intellect. It is at least as related to a preoccupation with professional success and the future earning power of their child. And, yes, ego. In Jewish life, what college one’s child attends is often seen as the single greatest proof of achievement as a parent.

This preoccupation begins at the birth of one’s children and grandchildren. Is there any Jew whose 2-year-old child or grandchild isn’t “brilliant”?

What’s wrong with all this preoccupation with brains?

First, it often overshadows the far more important trait of goodness. I am certain that for many Jewish (and, increasingly, non-Jewish) parents, their child’s brilliance is more important than his or her goodness. This is easily ascertainable: Compare how much time and effort parents spend working on their child’s moral character as opposed to their child’s intellect.

Here’s a test. Ask your child, no matter how young or how old, this question: What do you think I most want (or wanted) you to be — happy, smart, successful or good?

Here’s another test. Would you tell your high school-age son or daughter, “You need to know that I’d much rather have you attend a local state college than cheat on even one test and get into Stanford”?

And how many parents speak to others about their children’s intellectual achievements as compared with their goodness? Jewish parents who speak about how fine a person their child is usually are assumed to have a loser for a child.

The fact is, there is no correlation between intellect and goodness. In fact, a disproportionate number of intellectuals, in the 20th century and today, have been, to put it bluntly, moral idiots — and therefore disproportionately supported the greatest evils of their time. Almost all the support in the West for Soviet Communism came from intellectuals, not hard hats. Within Germany, the university was one of the most passionate pro-Nazi institutions. In America today, a Christian plumber is far more likely to support Israel than a Ph.D. in sociology, or in any other subject (including Judaic studies). And the number of bright, even “brilliant,” college students whose moral compass is broken is enormous.

Finally, intelligence not only is not as important as goodness, it is not nearly as important as common sense. A person of average intelligence with common sense will navigate life far better, by making far more intelligent decisions, than a brilliant person who lacks common sense. According to Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, in at least one important area — binge drinking and getting drunk — more intelligent people actually have less common sense. They do both more.

Parents who overemphasize brains to the detriment of other positive values, such as character, common sense and the ability to deal with life’s vicissitudes (think of all the bright college students who need “safe spaces” because they can’t deal with speakers with whom they disagree) are doing long-term damage to their child. And, to return to my opening question about looks and brains, they are not doing their daughter any favor if they neglect looks. In real life, they matter, too. But you need common sense to acknowledge that.

‘I got my bearings on a community college campus’

As a youth I was not a model student in public school nor in Hebrew school.

But I was redeemed by education, at a community college. And now, more than 30 years later, as president of the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) Board of Trustees, I am paying back the system that helped me get my bearings.

I won't beat around the bush: our community college system – the largest in the nation – now needs the help of voters, including Jewish voters who deeply value education, so LACCD can provide its 21st Century students with a 21st Century learning environment.

In order to achieve that goal I have been working day and night to make sure LACCD earns the voters' trust and allegiance so that on Nov. 8 they will support Measure CC.

Measure CC is a $3.3 billion bond measure and plan for funding the modernization of campus buildings and infrastructure at all nine LACCD campuses. Those campuses are East Los Angeles College, Los Angeles City College, Harbor College, Mission College, Pierce College, Los Angeles Trade-Tech College, Valley College, Southwest College and West Los Angeles College.

Measure CC will help LACCD complete an ambitious and much-needed overhaul of its facilities that began several years ago. Not a dime of Measure CC funding will be used to pay for the salaries or pensions of administrators, staff or faculty. It will all go into brick and mortar projects.

Measure CC will produce new job-training centers to better prepare students for good, local jobs as nurses, firefighters, law enforcement officers, plumbers, electricians and carpenters. It will pay for upgrading and building libraries, math and science labs and classrooms, and it will be used replace aging sewage and electrical systems. New buildings will be secure, safe and environmentally friendly.

Measure CC would result in a tax levy of about $75 a year on the average property valued at $500,000 (or about $15 for every $100,000 of assessed value), a small investment to ensure that tens of thousands of young men and women get a top-notch community college education to help them become productive citizens.

This is an exciting time for the LACCD.  

Last month, with encouragement from President Obama’s administration, Mayor Eric Garcetti teamed up with the LACCD Board of Trustees to announce a program to provide one-year of free tuition to Los Angeles Unified School District graduates who maintain good grades. The LA Promise Plan is our local version of President Obama’s national College Promise Plan, whose work is being guided by an advisory board, chaired by Jill Biden, the vice-president’s wife. I am honored to sit on this board myself.

LACCD students are among the most diverse in the nation. Eighty percent of our 200,000 students come from underserved communities. Fifty percent work part-time. Many are older workers seeking to train for new jobs. Others are military veterans, adjusting to civilian life. Some are displaced workers trying to get their feet on the ground.

Of course, very large numbers of LACCD students are recent high school graduates who are preparing to transfer to a four-year college or universities.

LACCD is a place of great, youthful hopes and aspirations. I love it.

It is significant that Mayor Garcetti, the LA Chamber of Commerce, BizFed, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, the LA County Democratic Party and the Los Angeles Times editorial board are already supporting Measure CC. They know an educated community is stable, civic-minded and productive.

I know first-hand that our community college system can work wonders.

After passing the state high school proficiency exam I enrolled at Pasadena Community College. Frankly I wasn’t well prepared for the academic rigors of college.  But my previous involvement in Jewish activities (as a teenager, I had been the Social Action Tikun Olum Vice President of the Far West Region United Synagogue and the youth co-chair of the Israel Walk Festival)  helped me find a place in the college’s social and political life.

After only a brief time on campus, I became deeply involved in student government. I was elected student body vice-president and served two terms as student trustee on PCC’s Board of Trustees. It changed my life. I had a mission. I had recognition, a purpose. After several years at PCC, I went on to earn my bachelor’s degree at Cal State Northridge. But I have never forgotten how my community college experiences were so transformative.

Now, I want to ensure that future generations of young people have the best opportunities to grow, excel and achieve their dreams. That’s why I strongly support Measure CC. I hope your readers will join me in this effort.

Scott Svonkin is President of the Board of Trustees of the Los Angeles Community College District. He lives in the San Fernando Valley with his wife and two children, and he and his family are active members of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center.

The stories behind the team nicknames and mascots of Jewish high schools

Every high school with an athletics department has a nickname and a mascot for its teams. You see them represented on team jerseys, painted on courts and gym walls, and roaming the sidelines with a student inside a mascot costume, pumping up the crowd.

But how well do you know the mascots of local Jewish high schools? Shalhevet, Harkham-GAON Academy, YULA (boys and girls), Valley Torah (boys and girls), de Toledo and Milken Community Schools all have different mascots with different meanings. Here they are, along with some background about them provided by school officials. See if you can match the mascots to the schools (answers at bottom left):

Jaguars: The Jaguar was voted on by the school’s pioneering class. The decision was a teaching moment as it went against the vote of the head of school. His respect of the democratic process is evident as the Jaguar still stands as the mascot after all these years.

Panthers: The Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series in 1979, and everyone liked their colors, black and yellow. The school baseball team used the Pirates’ caps, and the “P” on the hats was designated as the Panthers. The Panther’s fierceness and intensity serves as an example of how the school approaches athletics, learning and students’ growth as Jews.

Firehawks: The school name means “flame” in Hebrew. The Firehawk’s flames represent intensity and passion, and heat and friction, which is related to the school’s educational model — grappling with issues and approaching learning passionately.

Lions: With the strength, dignity and heart of a Lion, we go forth, B”H!

Wildcats: The Wildcat stands for strength, power and wisdom.

Wolfpack: The school’s website quotes Rudyard Kipling on its athletics home page: “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”

A BDS survival guide

Students at UCLA’s iFEST celebrate Israel.

Most high school graduates who head off to college expect to be confronted with something new — new living quarters, new roommates, new classes and maybe even some cool (if overpriced) school merchandise. 

But Jewish students these days likely will experience something else, too: the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

From groups holding Israel Apartheid Week activities on campus to formal votes by student groups in favor of divestment from Israel, the movement has become an in-your-face element of many of today’s colleges. This is especially true in the University of California system, where all but one of the campuses have voted to support BDS at some point in the past four years.

It can make for a hostile environment at times as tempers flare over passionately different ideologies pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether incoming Jewish students have a firm position on the issue or haven’t even thought about it, they should be ready to be in the middle of it. Here are some tips to help.

Brush up on your history

You may hear activists talk about Resolution 242 (the so-called “land-for-peace” resolution adopted by the United Nations Security Council in 1967) and the massacre of Deir Yassin (a 1948 attack on a Palestinian Arab village by Zionist paramilitary groups). If those terms are hazy or nonexistent in your memory, then it may be in your best interest to learn more about the conflict. Read, watch debates online and ask questions. 

This applies to everyone, since even those who do not intend to fight BDS should be prepared to form a position on the conflict and deal with the controversy. 

StandWithUs (SWU), a pro-Israel education organization based in Los Angeles that provides support and guidance to campus organizations opposing BDS efforts, has numerous resources for students to educate themselves on the conflict on its website, But students should also seek other perspectives by following current events and talking to those in the middle of the conflict when possible, according to SWU Director of Research and Campus Strategy Max Samarov. 

“I encourage people to take classes on the conflict and to read news from many different perspectives,” he said. “The reality is that depending on the news source you read, you’re going to get a different bias or point of view, so what has helped me a lot was staying in touch with current events from a lot of different perspectives. Also, get to know Israelis and Palestinians and try to hear personal narratives.”

Talk through disagreements

Instead of trying to talk over the other side, try talking to them.

 “People, especially students, should always seek to gain more understanding,” said Rabbi Aaron Lerner, executive director of Hillel at UCLA. “Dialogue doesn’t equal agreement. But the alternative is fighting and narrow-mindedness, and the Jewish tradition rejects closing ourselves off from people who dissent. In fact, the very basis of our tradition, the Talmud, is based on the conversations between people who disagreed.” 

It’s important to educate the vast majority of students who don’t know much about the conflict. Even a casual dining hall conversation might make a big difference.  

Lerner added, however, that staunch supporters of BDS — such as members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) — comprise only a small minority of students on campus and changing their minds teeters between difficult to impossible. 

 “Be strategic, don’t waste time yelling at people who can’t be convinced,” he said. “On our campus, there are only a handful of dedicated SJP members. With their allies, they might constitute a few hundred students. Focus instead on the other 29,800 students. When SJP does something that warrants a response, respond forcefully.” 

So while it’s OK to let criticism on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians slide, don’t sit idly by as debate about BDS blends into anti-Semitism or questions Israel’s right to exist.

“Where I would draw the line is when someone in SJP or someone who supports BDS comes from a place that’s malicious,” Samarov said. “Where they don’t believe Israel has the right to exist or Jewish people don’t have right to self-determination. That’s the important thing to establish from the get-go.”

Join Jewish groups on campus 

Get involved in the local Hillel or Chabad, as well as other Jewish or pro-Israel groups your campus offers. These groups help students maintain a connection to Judaism and Israel, and also are sources to combat anti-Israel sentiment. 

Rachel Quinn, president of Southern California Students for Israel (SCSI) at USC, encourages all Jews on campus to join for a variety of reasons. “It is a huge educational and leadership benefit,” she said. “It is fun and you can meet other Jewish students, and we are all working toward a common goal, which is education about and celebration of Israel.” 

At USC, Quinn plans pro-Israel events throughout the year, often coordinating with leaders of other ethnic clubs through the university’s International Student Assembly, and other pro-Israel groups on campus. She also tries to involve Jewish students with Israel advocacy through “whatever their strengths or interests may be.”

According to Quinn, SJP and BDS are not very active at USC, especially when compared with UC colleges. There was a fear last year that SJP would hold an apartheid wall on the week of Yom HaShoah, she said, but it didn’t happen. For SCSI, the goal is for these groups to remain mild, Quinn said, while developing good relations with groups like the Muslim Student Union. 

Other schools have their own pro-Israel groups — such as UCLA’s Bruins for Israel (BFI)  — as well as their own challenges. 

At UCLA, for example, two separate BDS resolutions have been brought to the Student Association Council, failing the first time and passing the second. The experience shifted BFI’s approach to adversity on campus, according to its president, junior Arielle Mokhtarzadeh. 

In countering the first resolution, she said, “[We] mobilized the community to lobby members of the council before the meeting, to make public comments the night of the meeting, and to remain united, strong and respectful after the meeting.”   

This approach left the Jewish community emotionally exhausted, Mokhtarzadeh said. When another BDS resolution was brought to the council a year later, BFI decided to use a more collaborative tactic rather than a divisive one, through different projects that brought both sides together. 

An Israel “apartheid wall” at UC IrvinePhotos courtesy of StandWithUs.

“We rededicated ourselves to our community, to our values,” she said. “We taught the community about how they could get involved with several projects and initiatives that were working to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, in contrast to the BDS resolution, which was tearing our campus apart.” 

The pro-Israel group also dealt with a three-day Palestine Awareness Week, which included a panel with a sign reading “Zionism Is Racism.” During that span, BFI sought to ensure that Jewish students felt supported on campus and organized its own campaign titled #OneWishForPeace involving a social media campaign where students added banners to their profile pictures reading, “This Is What a Zionist Looks Like.”  

Look on the bright side

The Palestinian conflict is not the defining characteristic of Israel, nor should it be. Israel is a world leader in technology, cybersecurity, water, agriculture, and much more. For Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg, lasering in on Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians undermines all of the country’s accomplishments.

“When it comes to Israel, to focus only on the conflict and to allow that alone to define what Israel is and stands for completely misses the mark,” he said. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a complex and sensitive issue that needs to be addressed and resolved, but there is far more to Israel. Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East, the only country in the region that has true freedom of speech, freedom of press — vibrant and open media — freedom of religion, women’s and LGBT rights, rule of law, and regularly scheduled elections where all parties accept the outcome. 

“Israel stands for tolerance, equality and respect for all cultures. We are very proud of our people and their accomplishments and the many lifesaving discoveries that are being continuously achieved in the fields of medicine, high-tech and innovation, and more. To speak of Israel only within the context of the conflict is to give only a fraction of her true picture and story, which is so much more.”

No matter how you decide to approach the subject, much is at stake, according to Shoham Nicolet, CEO of the Israeli-American Council.

“BDS is pursuing an agenda that extends far beyond Israel and the Middle East conflict,” he said, adding that BDS propagates anti-Semitic stereotypes, spreads anti-American ideas, and targets Israeli and Jewish students who have nothing to do with politics. “This is why I believe that getting educated about BDS is mandatory for any Jewish student and why it’s important that we communicate to the broader American public how this affects every citizen of the U.S.” 

Nonetheless, openly advocating for Israel on campus is not dangerous or risky, according to Lerner. 

“There is a proliferation of scary videos and articles on Facebook which lead our community to believe the campuses are somehow dangerous for Jewish students, but those posts are often recycling a handful of truly offensive incidents which have occurred on campuses over the past five years,” he said.

Moreover, it’s important to remember that many actions taken in support of the BDS movement are purely symbolic. What matters, Mokhtarzadeh said, is how to respond as a community. 

“BDS passed on our campus, and, no, the sky did not come tumbling down,” she said. “UCLA did not divest, nor did the UC. And the pro-Israel community is stronger today than ever before. BDS cannot and will not define us.”  

Netanyahu opens school year with visit to Arab town

More than two million Israeli children headed to school for the 2016-2017 school year.

Thursday was the first day of school for most Israeli children from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett welcomed students to their first day of school at Tamra Haemek public elementary school in Tamra, an Israeli Arab town in northern Israel.

The lawmakers were welcomed during an opening ceremony  by the school’s approximately 200 pupils in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

Netanyahu told the students to listen to their teachers and to listen to their parents.

“I want you to learn – learn to write, learn to read, learn Hebrew, Arabic and English. I want you to learn mathematics. I want you to learn science. I want you to learn history – history of the Jewish People, the history of your public. I want you to learn the truth, and the truth says that we were destined to live together,” Netanyahu told the students according to his office.

“I want you to be doctors, scientists and writers, and be whatever you want to – and are able to – be. I want you to be loyal citizens, integrated into the State of Israel; this is your state,” he said.

Of the 2.2 million Israeli students who started school on Thursday, some 159,000 are entering first grade and 123,000 are entering their last year of high school.

There are some 180,000 educators working in the Israeli school system, including 9,000 who are teaching this year for the first time.

All in the family: Israeli teachers join Maimonides

Rabbi Shachar Naim is in his mid-30s, but this year marks the first time he ever left his native Israel. He has landed in Los Angeles, where he will be teaching classes at Gindi Maimonides Academy for the next two years, along with his wife, Zimrat. 

The Naims are shlichim l’hora’ah, or teaching emissaries; they live in a house in Pico-Robertson with their five children and teach grades 3, 6, 7 and 8. While Zimrat will focus on the chagim (holy days), Humash (Torah) and halachah (Jewish laws) with the elementary school students, Shachar’s cirriculum includes Mishnah and Gemara (study of Talmud, including rabbinical analysis). Both teachers are going to encourage students to learn about Israel and forge their own relationship with the Jewish state. 

“We want them to be connected to Israel, even though they are far away,” Shachar said. “They may not be living in the land, but it’s in their hearts.” 

According to Rabbi Aharon Wilk, principal at Maimonides, the school wanted to expand its Judaic studies program and looked to hire more teachers. He attended a job fair in the United States but found only applicants with backgrounds similar to his current staff. 

While there are already Israeli bnei akiva and bnot sherut (emissaries, also known as shlichim) at the school, who serve as associate teachers and teachers’ assistants, the Maimonides administrators had never before brought in Israeli educators whose job it was to teach about their culture. Wilk said when he found the Naims, at first it didn’t make sense to hire them. 

“It was so funny because they give you all these rules to find a good shaliach couple, and Rabbi Shachar goes against all the rules,” Wilk said. “They say try to get teachers who have done it before, so they’re accustomed to American culture. They should be a couple without kids, so you’re not taking on an enormous expense. The only time Rabbi Shachar was on a plane was when he was a paratrooper for the Israeli army, and they have five kids.”

However, after the Naims came to Los Angeles for a brief visit, Wilk knew he had found his new teachers. “He touched people with his smile and his middot (character). He knew 100 kids’ names in two days,” Wilk said of Shachar. “I said this is the guy they need. I thought that the Naims were going to lift up our school for the next number of years.” 

In Israel, Shachar works as an engineer and Zimrat is a teacher. Zimrat said they decided to take the positions in L.A. because they wished to give back to their people. “We thought that if we can do something else to contribute more to Am Yisrael, this would be a good way.”

So far, the Jews of L.A. have shown their appreciation for the Naims. The family arrived on July 27 to a fully furnished house and invitations. “We emailed the school and asked if anybody had furniture,” Wilk said. “Now we literally have enough furniture to fill three or four homes. Some parents gave them food or dishes. This creates a sense of community. It’s a unifying thing.”  

Though being here is nevertheless an adjustment, Shachar said he sees that “there is a very loving community here. They invite us for dinner and Shabbat. It’s very exciting.” 

Inviting shlichim to teach, whether young men and women fulfilling their national service duties or families just moving to Los Angeles, is a very common practice among Orthodox schools in L.A., according to Miriam Prum Hess, director of donor and community relations at Builders of Jewish Education. She said that doing this “really helps connect students to Israel and to Jewish life in Israel. The shlichim serve as role of models of Israeli Jewish life.” 

The Maimonides administration wanted to invite shlichim to their school because it promotes more authentic Torah learning. “In the Talmud, there is a saying that there is no Torah like the Torah of Israel,” Wilk said. “I think what that means is obviously the Torah comes out in Israel and the word of HaShem is in Yerushalayim.”

Since the students can’t go learn in Israel, bringing Israel to the students is the next best thing. “A lot of rabbis recall their studies in Israel as their best years of learning, and it makes them so passionate and inspired,” Wilk said. 

Personally, the Naims hope that their own children, who are 1, 5, 7, 10, and 12, will be motivated by their time in L.A. to serve the Jewish people, as well. “We told them they would be shlichim, too,” Shachar said. “They have a very big responsibility on their shoulders to be good examples of Jews who come from Israel. I think they can have a big impact on the students in Maimonides and in the neighborhood.”

Seeing and interacting with Jews here also will benefit their children, Zimrat said. “It’s a good experience to meet many kinds of Jews in different cultures. When you’re an adult, it gives you a wider point of view of the Jewish world, and you can make better decisions because of it.”

Though they will miss the comforts of home and their friends and family, the Naims said already they don’t feel like strangers here. “We feel like we belong here, and our kids are really enjoying it,” Zimrat said. “And when students from Maimonides visit Israel, they can come to our house, and we’d be happy to host them. We’re a big family.” 

Beyond connecting with Israel and delving deep into Torah learning, Wilk said his students can learn a crucial lesson about Judaism from the Naims. 

“I hope my students are going to see people who never left Eretz Yisra’el that stopped their lives at an important time, when they’re building the future for their family, to give back to the Jewish community,” he said. “Students will see that life isn’t just about you. You’re deeply connected with the Jewish community at large. I want them to see the Naims as role models. I think the Naims will teach the students to care a little more and always reach a little higher.” 

Israeli combat soldiers to receive full college scholarships

Israeli combat soldiers will receive full scholarships from the military to pursue a university degree or professional certification.

The scholarships will be funded by the Israel Defense Forces, as well as the Friends of the IDF and the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers, the Israeli Hebrew daily Yediot Acharonot reported.

In a recent meeting, IDF Chief of Staff Gen. Gadi Eisenkot asked Israel’s Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to help him find the funds to offer such scholarships to only to combat soldiers, but to all soldiers after their service, according to Ynet, the English-language sister publication of Yediot.

Soldiers who are new immigrants, minorities or from disadvantaged families also will receive scholarships for higher education, according to the report.

The scholarships for combat soldiers are expected to cost about $60 million a year, and an additional $130 million a year if all released soldiers are included, according to the report.

A little coffee and a lot of talk

A handful of people sit around a table in a café in downtown Jerusalem – their espressos and lattes in front of them. They are chatting in Spanish – every few minutes laughter bubbles up from the table.

It looks like a group of friends meeting for coffee after work. But it is a meeting of Talk Café – a drop-in language learning program that aims to get people talking in whatever language they wish to speak more fluently – Hebrew, Arabic, English, French, Spanish and German are all offered in Jerusalem.

“Talk Café is a way we found to allow people who know a language, either because they’ve lived in a country to know it from home, to improve in an informal way in a social setting,” Moshe Beigel, the founder of Talk Café told The Media Line. “It gives people the ability to talk without making a fool of themselves.”

Students pay $13 per class to Café Talk, as well as order at least a cup of coffee in the restaurant. The drop-in idea is to accommodate busy schedules, Beigel says. The restaurants benefit as well from customers in the slow periods of the late morning or early evening.

Each class starts with a sheet of vocabulary words about a certain topic. A recent Arabic class, for example, offered driving words including intersection and roundabout. Missing were the curse words that most Israelis already know in Arabic.

The “moderator” S., who asked not to use his name because he works for other NGO’s, is a Palestinian who grew up in Jerusalem, and has a BA and an MA from US universities. He says he enjoys helping students achieve more fluency in Arabic.

“To be honest, it’s exciting,” he told The Media Line. “I’ve always been fond of languages and once you learn the language you learn the culture. I am lucky to have a job to be able to facilitate learning about language and culture.” 

In Israel, while all Jewish students are supposed to study at least one year of Arabic, most do not learn much more than the alphabet. Some Israelis also see Arabic as the “language of the enemy” and prefer not to study it. While the Arabic group at Talk Café is usually small, it brings together people who would not usually meet, says founder Beigel.

“We’ve had American Muslims who know Arabic from the Qur’an but don’t speak it, coming to the class with a full hijab (a scarf covering their hair),” he said. “And we had someone who worked in Israeli intelligence, and someone else who is a settler (lives in the West Bank). They all sat down, had a plate of soup, and spoke Arabic together.

In the Spanish group, one woman is brushing up her Spanish for a job interview. In the German class, one woman is on her way to visit her daughter who lives in Berlin, and wants to be able to speak to her grandchildren.

It is, however, Hebrew, that has the most demand, with at least seven classes a week – three in Jerusalem and four in the West Bank community of Efrat, heavily populated by English speakers. Many of the students are immigrants to Israel from North America, and while the Israeli government will fund and pay for an “ulpan” or intensive Hebrew language course, many student say they have trouble speaking, even if they understand Hebrew well.

“Talk Cafe is not intimidating and that is the key for me,” Renee Atlas-Cohen, a lawyer and tour guide who moved to Israel from Chicago 14 years ago told The Media Line. “No one calls on you, subjects are fluid and therefore usually interesting. For a few hours after Talk Café I feel more confident speaking Hebrew and that is huge for me.”

The teachers, who are called moderators, say their biggest challenge is how to involve students with different language levels. Talk Café is not for beginners, and not for someone already fluent, but there is a large gap between someone who can speak a few sentences in Hebrew, and someone who speaks well, and just needs a little confidence.

“I teach Hebrew in other places as well and most places they teach grammar but students don’t get a chance to talk,” Talia Huss, a graduate student who teaches both Hebrew and Spanish at Talk Café told The Media Line. “It is a challenge to keep conversation at a level that is not too easy, but that involves everyone in the conversation.”

Beigel says that Talk Café was born of his own experience.

“I moved to Israel from England 35 years ago,” he said. “In English I sounded quite intelligent, but in Hebrew I sounded like a fool. The idea of Talk Café is that people can stop sounding like fools.”

Hasidic school in London reprimanded for not teaching about sexual orientation

A Hasidic school in London was reprimanded by Britain’s Office for Standards in Education for not teaching its students about sexual orientation.

The inspection report released last week praised the Talmud Torah Machzikei Hadass in Stamford Hill for making strides in some areas, but it criticized the school for avoiding teaching subjects related to gender or sexuality.

“The school’s ethos is based on its founding principle of ‘unconditional adherence to the Shulcan Aruch (code of Jewish law).’ This means that pupils are shielded from learning about particular differences, such as sexual orientation,” the report said. “In practice, across the curriculum this means that the explicit teaching of all the protected characteristics, specifically those that relate to gender or sexuality, is avoided.”

Inspectors noted in the report that the school had made progress in literacy and numeracy schemes, although the planned revisions of science and physical education had yet to be implemented, and had improved its career guidance.

“The last inspection reported that the school failed to meet a number of the independent school standards relating to promoting pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. Leaders have taken action towards addressing the unmet standards” in this area, it said.

The report said that students “continue to show respect towards themselves and to others in their community.”

It also said: “During visits to classrooms, pupils were observed discussing confidently respect for one another and for those of different faiths and religions.”

In May 2015, the Belz-run school said in a letter that allowing women to drive was against the Hasidic sect’s traditional rules of modesty and students would not be allowed to enter school if their mothers drove them there. The school later retracted the rule after Britain’s education secretary ordered an investigation.