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Their School Has It All--Except Maybe a Future : Education: Herzl, a non-Orthodox Jewish high school, has small classes, individualized course work and enthused students--and a daunting fund-raising task.

June 27, 1993|LOIS TIMNICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WEST HOLLYWOOD — On a hot, muggy day last week when most kids were shifting into summer mode, fully half the student body at the Herzl School huddled in the basement of a West Hollywood synagogue to brainstorm ways to keep their tiny Jewish secondary school alive.

No matter that the school had dwindled by 85% to 25 students, most of them on partial scholarships. Students, teachers, parents and alumni insist that the decades-old school is worth saving as one of only two non-Orthodox Jewish high schools in Los Angeles.

"We don't know how they are going to get the school to reopen in September, but none of the parents has applied to any other school," said Sima Monkarsh, whose son, Ari, 15, heads SOS, an acronym for "Save Our School."

"My son went from being a problem student (at other schools) to the honor roll here. We found out he had some learning disabilities that needed to be addressed. He asked me the other day, 'Did you ever think in my life during summer vacation I would say I want to go to school?' "

Herzl barely made it through the school year, and does not expect to reopen in the fall unless at least $100,000 surfaces within the next few weeks, according to director Sonia Berman. Its 13-member staff worked without pay this month, and Berman recessed classes two weeks early.

It seems ironic that a school that offers small classes, an individualized study program, a sense of family and sends 100% of its graduates to college (two-thirds of them to four-year universities), would be foundering on the brink of insolvency, particularly when applications to private schools in Los Angeles are at an all-time high. In fact, Herzl once had about 170 students and classrooms both in the San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles.

But Berman says Herzl's downward spiral is due to a combination of factors not shared by most other schools: It was forced to move from its original site and now rents basement space in a declining neighborhood. It is an independent community school not affiliated with or supported by any synagogue. Its feeder schools have added their own seventh and eighth grades. Its board of directors is not in the mainstream of Jewish philanthropy. And although tuition is a hefty $8,500 a year, 75% of its students get financial aid. Add to this a troubled economy and the unwillingness of parents to enroll their children in a school of questionable viability, and its fate may be sealed. "People donate to large, glitzy things like buildings," Berman said. "It's the 'edifice complex'--we don't have a building for someone to put his name on."

But Berman, a teacher at Herzl since 1977 and its principal for the past 13 years, says Herzl fills a special niche: "We are not elitist, not the Harvard-Westlake of the Jewish community. We are looking to take students and prepare them for life as Americans and Jews. We take the academically enriched, the at-risk, Americans and immigrants. No Judaic background is required; our students range from the Orthodox to the non-affiliated and all in-between, and we would be open to non-Jews." (She said none have ever applied).

The school's woes have spurred students and alumni to action. Former student Alan Abrams--who says it was at multiethnic Herzl that he first gained an awareness of being part of a world community--attended a recent reunion and now finds himself spearheading a fund-raising effort.

Current student Monkarsh says he couldn't sleep after learning of the school's plight. "I had to do something about it." He met with more than a dozen other students last week to explore how they--not their parents--could raise money over the summer. Their first effort, a combination car wash and bake sale, is scheduled for today from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in a bank parking lot at Pico Boulevard and Doheny Drive. The students also agreed to speak at their individual temples and at meetings of Jewish organizations.

Critics within the Jewish community have suggested that Herzl should be allowed to die. But supporters say there is no place for Herzl students to go--Los Angeles' only other non-Orthodox high school (Stephen H. Wise) is full and the kind of student who attends Herzl would fall through the cracks of the city's large public school system, they fear.

*

So last week, amid balloons, banners and SOS T-shirts, Herzl students and alumni vowed to devote their summer to saving the school, using modest profits from student activities to pay for larger fund-raising ventures. A temporary infusion of money could tide the school over while it explores possible affiliation with a local synagogue.

A final decision on the school's future is scheduled for June 30, but board co-chairman Marilyn Berger said the deadline can be pushed further if there are any signs of financial life by then.

As time begins to run out for Herzl, architect Eyal Perchik, a 1980 graduate, reminded the small but dedicated group of the words of Theodore Herzl, founder of Zionism, from whom the school takes its name:

" 'If you will it, it's not a dream.' We can make it reality together."

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