By Alisa Roberts.
I’m sitting in the office of Rabbi Shlomo Harrosh, Principal of the Rachela Silbur Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy. Sitting next to me in a chair much too large for her, feet dangling, is a small girl. She’s explaining a picture she drew to Rabbi Harrosh, pointing out the angels and Moshe. There is no anxiety about being in the principal’s office; on the contrary, she seems to be talking to an old friend. When she asks if she can start another drawing, Rabbi Harrosh gently explains that it’s important she go back to class so she doesn’t miss out on learning. She nods and gets up to leave, taking a copy of her picture to bring to her teacher. “Just amazing, isn’t she?” asks the rabbi. And she is. But I get the feeling he feels that way about all of his students.
A quarter century of change
Rabbi Reuven Huttler, Founder and Dean of the school, describes how it all began: “One day in the late summer of 1989, as I was coming back from my daily walk in Pan Pacific Park, I was stopped by Rabbi Uri Mayerfeld, who was then attending to the new Jewish emigres from Iran. He said, ‘Do you want to open up a school for 17 Iranian children of all ages – from kindergarten to 8th grade?’ I agreed.” And so, almost overnight, Rachela Silbur Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy came into being. It was initially housed in Rabbi Huttler’s shul, Congregation Etz Jacob on Beverly Boulevard. “We had absolutely no resources,” remembers Rabbi Huttler, “but here we are, a little over 25 years later, and Rachela Silbur Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy still flourishes.”
When the school began it was intended for immigrants – first the influx from Iran, and then those from the former Soviet Union. But the demographics shifted long ago. “Today the school is a virtual melting pot of boys and girls whose parents are locals as well as representation of every ethnic segment of the Los Angeles Jewish community,” says Rabbi Huttler.
“It’s very mixed. We serve a wide spectrum of the community,” says Rabbi Harrosh. “Our policy is that we don’t reject kids for financial reasons.” This might seem like a simple statement, especially from a Jewish school, but it isn’t. There are more than a few students attending school at Rachela Silbur Perutz Etz Jacob whose families cannot afford to pay tuition – and so they pay no tuition at all. While the rest of the student body pays some tuition or full tuition, the deficit is made up by donations from the community. Bernard Suissa, the president of the school, has devoted extraordinary time and energy into meeting the school’s financial needs. His efforts haven’t stopped at business hours; he even asked that the gifts for his upcoming wedding be donated directly to the school. In addition, a group of local young men are launching a fundraising program to help the school continue to provide Jewish education for every child who seeks it, making sure that no Jewish child is left behind. The program consists of 613 individuals in the city, each donating $26 on a monthly basis, creating a tree of life that will support the school. As appreciated and beautiful as these fundraising efforts are, the plan for the future does not rely entirely on fundraising, but also on bringing in more students. And they certainly have much to offer them.
Whole child education
Half the day is focused on Hebrew studies, the other half on English studies, and the core curriculum is the same offered by California public schools. There are teams from the Los Angeles Unified School District and Title I to ensure that every child is on level in Language Arts. There is a concentration on skills, but more than that there is a focus on giving each child what he or she needs. “We have a special niche,” says Rabbi Harrosh. “We look at the whole child.”
And that means something different for each student. The kids get a lot of one on one attention; the school prides itself on differentiation and individualization. For example, one of their 1st grade boys was recently moved up to 2nd grade for general studies, while remaining in 1st for Torah studies. This arrangement allows the best of both intellectual and social worlds for that student, and he’s thriving as a result. Another bright girl who was struggling in a larger school is comfortable here, and is now one of the most popular in her class. Perutz Etz Jacob has students who need more support academically, many who are on level and above, and gifted students as well – and they all get the same attention. “Children need love and attention. It solves a lot of problems,” says Rabbi Harrosh, whose open-door policy is illustrated by the children who peek in for a wave and a smile as our interview goes on.
“Because we’re small, we can give personalized attention, and bring out the best in kids,” Angie Jalakian, English Principal, explains. “It’s a nurturing environment.” Whether a student needs a conversation, some one on one time, or a curriculum change, the staff are there to notice and provide. “We adjust ourselves to the kids.”
This amount of individualization can be challenging for teachers at times, but they are happy with the results. The staff meet regularly to discuss both the curriculum and the kids. Communication between teachers and administration is very open, and both principals describe the teachers as insightful and dedicated. Rabbi Harrosh, himself a long-time educator who has worked at several other local Jewish schools, sums his thoughts on his teachers up very simply: “I trust them.” His trust appears well-placed; most of the staff has been here for years and is well-loved by the students. In fact, two staff members, including Rabbi Harrosh, have been at the school for 19 years. “I couldn’t leave,” he explains with a smile.
“The dream is a school that serves everybody: rich, poor, gifted children, children with difficulties, and everyone in between. In a way that is comfortable, and not stigmatized. Isn’t that what basic Jewish values are?” explains Rabbi Harrosh. They are already moving toward this dream; parents who brought their children to the school to find a better fit for their kids are spreading the word to friends, which is beginning to bring in more students.
Culture of tolerance
How are they planning on creating this comfortable, accepting environment? Well, they already have it. Their teachers and staff are compassionate and well-trained, and the students seem to pick up on those cues, resulting in a happily well-integrated student body.
Mrs. Jalakian has one more theory on why it works: “It trickles down from the top. Rabbi Harrosh has a vision and a style that’s all about the human touch. It’s very easy to lose that and start treating students as numbers. He treats every child as an individual and a person.” It is Angie Jalakian’s first year at the school, and she herself has enjoyed the warm environment here. “Being welcomed and accepted is the greatest reward,” she says.
Rabbi Harrosh doesn’t see this as anything exceptional. His philosophy focuses on figuring out what issue is causing a child to act out or to struggle and helping the child, rather than simply punishing the behavior. As an example, he tells a story of a student who had an emotional issue which led to motion difficulties. This student couldn’t even walk to class without holding onto the walls. After a year of attention in a comfortable environment, he was walking normally. “Kids need a human touch and a sense of success,” says Rabbi Harrosh.
Rabbi Huttler agrees. “One of the most moving characteristics of the school is the visibly warm environment that envelops each student from the moment they cross our doorstep,” he says. “Even years later, when I meet alumni, their appreciation never ceases to amaze me. There is not a week where I don’t bump into young professional men and women who graduated from the Rachela Silbur Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy, and who recall how their lives changed for the better as a result of our TLC.”
They aren’t the only ones who believe in the school. Former students will be the first to tell you how much the school has benefited them. Rabbi Harrosh shared a letter written to him by three former students, one of whom is learning in Jerusalem while the other two are attending law school. Among many lines of gratitude and happy memories were these words: “Although we may have moved on from Rachela Silbur Perutz Etz Jacob, rest assured that we carry with us – as we will always do – a piece of your school deep within us…We are truly indebted to you and your school.”
These students are just a few of many successful graduates. Rabbi Harrosh is happy to tell me about the studies and professions of his former pupils. He talks about a 6th grade student who came from the public school system, with no Hebrew background, who is now a rabbi and educator in Lakewood. “He said that the way he teaches there is what he saw here,” says Rabbi Harrosh proudly. Another story is of a woman who couldn’t find a school for her three daughters. They came to Perutz Etz Jacob, and they are now all Jewish educators. One of the girls was so eager to express her gratitude that she even retroactively paid the tuition that her mother had been unable to pay.
Rabbi Huttler also has a collection of these stories. “Over a year ago, I met a young woman at Cedars Sinai Hospital,” he tells me. “She recognized me, but I did not know who she was. She explained that she was a graduate of Rachela Silbur Perutz Etz Jacob and is now a pharmacist. It happened to be her day off and she was spending it doing chesed, a mitzvah, visiting Jewish patients at the hospital – a value that she said she learned at our Academy. This is what I call real nachas.”
Nachas is the word. Rachela Silbur Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy manages to not only educate students, but to inspire tolerance, empathy, and real appreciation in their graduates. The same letter written by former students closes with these lines: “We understand how hard your jobs can be; but rest assured your hard work does not go to waste, for the system works. We are living examples. You instilled within us a sense of Jewish pride, acceptance of others, and last but certainly not least a great Jewish and secular education that has served us well in everything we do… We are the products of your hard labor, love, and dedication.”
Who could say more than that?
To learn more about the school, donate, or join in the 613 Campaign, please visit http://www.perutzetzjacob.com