What Can the History of Day Schools Teach Us? Part 1

Screenshot: Private School Review

By Sara Smith, Ph.D

The history of Jewish day schools in Los Angeles can provide lessons that are widely applicable to the future of Jewish education. The number and variety of non-Orthodox day schools in the city surged in the late 1970s through the 1990s, creating the contemporary landscape of day schools. However, it is the first few schools, established before the number of day schools exploded due to court-ordered busing and other factors, that illustrate an important lesson for the future of day schools in Los Angeles and across the country. Though the model that dominates the non-Orthodox elementary school scene today in Los Angeles is the synagogue-based day school, the schools discussed below predate those schools. These first elementary schools came about as a result of collaboration and partnership between communal institutions both within one denomination and across denominations.

In 1967, when a number of Conservative families wanted to send their children to day school but could not find an appropriate option they decided to start their own school on the city’s west side. The first planning meeting included rabbis from a number of local Conservative synagogues, each of whom pledged support for the collaborative effort that would become Akiba Academy. Members from several synagogues made up the board of the school (something that continued until the school merged with its host synagogue eighteen years later). While the school was housed at one synagogue, it was publicized in the bulletins of other synagogues. Its supporters viewed Akiba as a communal Schechter institution. True to this culture of collaboration, a few years after its formation, when the Jewish community in the San Fernando Valley expressed interest in starting its own school, the headmaster of Akiba Academy consulted with them to facilitate the process.

Heschel, the first true community school in Los Angeles that did not affiliate with a particular denomination, began in 1974 as a collaborative effort among several Reform and Conservative synagogues that shared a vision and passion for Jewish education. Leaders of these synagogues reached out to leaders of neighboring synagogues for support, regardless of their affiliation, recognizing that the goal was more important than institutional lines.

The early years of Akiba and Heschel teach that sometimes eliminating silos is necessary to accomplish communal educational goals. Instead of competing for a share of the synagogue or day school market, the charismatic and visionary rabbis who founded these schools pooled their passion and drive. Individually influential men – they were all men – understood that by working together they could become even more formidable. Most importantly, perhaps, they did not allow natural and customary competition between their synagogues to inhibit collaboration.

In addition, partnerships between professional and lay leaders were crucial to the founding of these schools. Some have argued that these schools were propelled by grassroots lay efforts. Other say that the rabbis drove the agenda. As I have studied the records of these schools, neither party would have succeeded without the other. Schools require a committed parent-body who share the vision and live and breathe the importance of Jewish education. They also require strong professional leaders who are willing to utilize precious institutional resources of time and money to work toward creating educated Jewish children with strong identities.

In contrast to Akiba and Heschel, Herzl Academy stands out as a school that did not succeed. Founded in 1972 as a junior high school and high school by Rabbi Jacob Pressman of Temple Beth Am in West Los Angeles (also a founder of Akiba), Herzl failed to garner support from the Conservative community even though Herzl hoped it would be the obvious choice of junior high school for many, and especially for Akiba graduates. At various points through its almost twenty year life, Herzl did enjoy reasonable enrollments and even briefly opened a second location in the San Fernando Valley. Mostly, however, it was plagued by low and falling enrollments, a reputation as a school for immigrants, and nonexistent support from community members, including leading Conservative rabbis who would not even send their own children there, perhaps because they felt that their children needed larger and stronger junior high schools to better prepare them for the demands of top colleges.

Today Los Angeles boasts two flourishing community high schools, Milken and deToledo. Their spectacular success, in contrast to Herzl’s failure, can at least in part be attributed to the fact that they recognized from the beginning that they not only needed to adopt the collaborative community model but at the same time had to develop an academically rigorous curriculum along with superb physical facilities. Part of the reason for their success may also be that, unlike Herzl, they had far more than two feeder elementary schools to provide them students and their geographical locations – Milken is located between the Westside of Los Angeles and San Fernando’s heavily populated Jewish communities and deToledo is in the West Valley with its rapidly expanding Jewish communities – made them at least somewhat convenient to families in specific parts of the city.

We can learn from the history of the early Los Angeles Jewish day schools the importance of non-siloed institutions and the ongoing collaboration and partnership both within institutions, between professional and lay leaders, as well as among institutions across a city. A benefit of this approach also lies in the potential for sharing resources, financial and otherwise, especially because relying on one source alone for support can be dangerous for an institution. While the synagogue-school model in Los Angeles may have been necessitated by a number of unique external local factors, not the least of which were court-ordered busing and the sprawling geographical expanse of the area, the success of Los Angeles’ community high schools can also be models of how, under the right circumstances, the collaborative approach can successfully be utilized.

Sara Smith is the Assistant Dean of the Graduate Center for Jewish Education at American Jewish University. She received her PhD in Education and Jewish Studies at New York University, where she studied the development of non-Orthodox Jewish day schools in Los Angeles.