2 Jewish high schools planned for Sept. 01

The year is 2006 and 22 sweaty players are shaking hands in the middle of a soccer field somewhere in the Bay Area: Kehillah Jewish High School has just played to a 4-4 tie against the Jewish Community High School of the Bay.

A fantasy scene? Apparently not.

Two groups are working feverishly to make it a reality by launching plans for separate Jewish high schools.

Responding to the hue and cry of parents and Jewish leaders who lament the need for a non-Orthodox high school in the Bay Area, each group wants to have its school up and running by September 2001.

One group has staked out the Peninsula and is calling its institution Kehillah Jewish High School, based on the Hebrew word for "community."

The other group, targeting San Francisco, Marin or the East Bay, is founding the Jewish Community High School of the Bay.

As of yet, however, neither has a site picked out — actually, both are struggling to find available, affordable real estate.

Both groups want to have their headmaster hired by this summer. From there, it will be full systems go as they race to raise the needed funds, anywhere from $25 million to $50 million.

So why the sudden urgency for two, let alone one, non-Orthodox Jewish high schools?

"It's the only thing we don't have in this Jewish community," said Jan Cook Reicher, vice president of the Jewish Community High group. "It's really the only thing missing — and it's time."

Jacqueline Bocian, the president of the Kehillah group, agrees. "We want to have an academically brilliant school where [Jewish] values are taught," she said. "The community needs this."

Many Bay Area parents have been clamoring for years for a Jewish community high school that would embrace the many streams of Judaism.

Wanting a top-notch education for their teens, some parents have felt compelled to send them to private high schools, in some cases Catholic high schools.

"From the groundswell of support we've seen so far, we are blown away," said Noah Alper, the founder and former owner of Noah's Bagels and the president of the Jewish Community High group. "We keep getting calls from parents asking 'When is the school going to open? We want to send our kids there.'"

There already is one Jewish high school in the Bay Area, but Hebrew Academy of San Francisco is a "traditional school with very strong emphasis on Judaica," according to its dean, Rabbi Pinchas Lipner.

Hebrew Academy's 80 high school students are only "10 percent Orthodox," according to Lipner. Still, approximately 180 minutes per day are devoted to Torah, Talmud, Hebrew and other Jewish subjects.

The emphasis on Judaic topics is likely to be less at a non-Orthodox Jewish high school. At the 10-year-old Milken Community High School in West Los Angeles, for example, its 497 ninth- through 12th-graders are taught Judaics and Hebrew for 80 minutes per day.

"We're trying to take the best of the yeshiva world and bring it into a communal setting," said Rabbi Ed Harawitz, the dean of student affairs at Milken.

"When people see the word 'community' in the name of a school, they know it's not affiliated with any movement," said Cook Reicher. "It's not geared toward teaching or practicing any one form of Judaism. Hebrew Academy is an Orthodox school geared toward Orthodoxy."

Praising Hebrew Academy as a school that "does great work" and "gets [its] kids into great colleges," Bocian also said many parents shy away from sending their kids there because of its strict Orthodoxy.

"It has a different curriculum for boys and for girls, and for me, that's completely unacceptable," Bocian said.

Representatives from both Bay Area groups say they are striving for a more egalitarian approach. "What we're offering is a community alternative," Bocian said.

Kehillah's search committee is focusing on the southern Peninsula, somewhere between San Jose and Redwood City, said Bocian. They are looking for 10 acres and would be willing to either take over an existing facility or build from the ground up. More information is available by calling (650) 369-4277.

So far, there have been few leads. "There is hardly anything," Bocian said. "Land is extremely expensive."

The group behind the Jewish Community High School of the Bay is looking for a site in San Francisco, Marin or the East Bay. Anyone seeking more information can call (510) 528-0422.

"We're looking at every possible scenario you can think of," Cook Reicher said.

The two groups started out as one, but split several months ago due to geographic considerations.

"It would have been nice to think that we could have created one institution that served everyone's needs," said Bob Sherman, executive director of the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education. "But that seems to be an impossible thing. It's a huge area we're trying to cover."

Both groups are willing to buy land and operate temporarily out of portable buildings while a permanent structure is being funded and then built.

Each has a similar plan for kicking off: opening its doors to ninth-graders (and perhaps 10th-graders) in September 2001, and then adding one more grade per year until there are grades nine through 12.

Organizers plan to offer a full lineup of extracurricular activities, including most interscholastic sports.

Tuition will be in the range of comparable institutions around the country, somewhere between $15,000 and $25,000 per year.

When all four grades are in place, each school expects to have an enrollment of about 250, although Milken started with a mere 70 high-school students 10 years ago and now has almost 500.

"We are the largest non-Orthodox [Jewish] high school in America," said Bruce Powell, the school's founding headmaster. "Wildly successful doesn't even begin to describe our school in terms of growth and, more importantly, in terms of excellence and Jewish content."

Organizers from the Bay Area groups have made a case study of Milken, which was born as an extension of a Reform synagogue and was called Stephen S. Wise High School at its inception in 1990.

Things didn't take off until the Milken Family Foundation, headed by former junk-bond king Michael Milken, stepped in with an initial gift of $5 million in 1995 and then added $10 million more.

Until two years ago, students spent their day in cramped rows of portable bungalows.

Now they are enjoying a $40-million state-of-the-art facility on the side of a Bel Air hill next to the freeway. The campus includes a 600-seat gymnasium, a broadcast studio and six science labs with fiber-optic hookups so each student can plug in a laptop.

"That's kind of an L.A. experience," Bocian said. "We envision something a little more traditional."

Then again, Bocian said, "our eventual goal is to put in a state-of-the-art building, with a theater, labs, everything…We live in the right area, and the high-tech community has shown a great deal of interest in this school."

A deep-pockets scenario like what happened in Southern California could easily happen here as well, Sherman said.

"There seem to be people who really care about this and want to make serious investments in this," he added. "They're willing to put up the money."

Alper said his group has so far raised about $1 million, although all of it has come in unsolicited. "We're not actively in the fund-raising mode right now," he added.

The Peninsula group is just getting going on an initial campaign and hopes to raise $1.5 million by the end of the summer. But that's just the start, Bocian said, envisioning it as a $50 million project.

"This will not be a money-making proposition for several years," she said. "We expect to run at a loss for four or five years."

At the outset, much of the funds will go toward hiring teachers. Harawitz boasted that the faculty at Milken is the "best and the brightest," and that "we've been able to attract a really high caliber of teacher."

Bay Area organizers envision the same scenario. Saying they will offer excellent salaries, they plan to hire teachers from public and private schools alike.

"I think the investment in teachers is probably the most important thing we can do," said Nancy Zimmerman Pechner, the executive vice president of the Jewish Community High group. "They'll be the ones to carry the academic excellence along."

Academic excellence will be emphasized, which seems to be the case at all Jewish high schools. Harawitz noted that a "vast majority" of last year's Milken graduates went on to Ivy League and University of California campuses.

Lipner said Hebrew Academy of San Francisco annually sends graduates to "very prestigious colleges." Of last year's 22 graduates, two are at Stanford, two are at Ivy League schools and six are at U.C. schools, he said.

Currently, there are 12 non-Orthodox Jewish high schools around the country, with plans in the works for 11 more. Five years ago, there were only five non-Orthodox Jewish high schools nationwide.

"A lot of people have jumped on the bandwagon," Leora Isaacs, director of research and evaluation for the Jewish Education Service of North America, said by phone from New York.

"They're saying that these are very important institutions for the [Jewish] community to have [in order] to ensure the survival and growth of Judaism into the next century."

Moreover, she added, third- and fourth-generation Jewish Americans are no longer banging the drum for assimilation as their parents did. "There is more comfort within the Jewish community of not having to be totally in the mainstream," she said.

At South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale, rumors of adding a high school to the modern Orthodox institution have been floating around for the last year or so.

According to Rabbi Charles Abramchik, the headmaster of the K-through-8th grade school, there are no such plans by the school itself, although there is an outside "initiative group."

Then again, he added, "It's just scuttlebutt right now. The [formal] group doesn't exist. It's just people getting together talking."

Lipner, meanwhile, said he didn't fear losing any students or teachers to the new high schools.

"Our teachers are committed to a certain outlook and ideology," he said. "We have teachers who have been here for 25 years. I don't see them going anyplace."

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Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.