The nation's only Reform Jewish high school will move to temporary classrooms this month on what eventually will be a $25-million campus hugging a hillside in the Sepulveda Pass amid a cluster of Jewish institutions.
The school was launched three years ago by the 3,000-family Stephen S. Wise Temple of Bel-Air, the second-largest synagogue in the country. But the impending move is a big step upward for the temple's ambitious effort to demonstrate that a relatively liberal, non-Orthodox high school can fill the Judaic education gap for teen-agers who might otherwise drift away from Jewish culture and faith.
"Teen-age education is critical to the future of Jewish life in America," said the temple's senior rabbi, Isaiah Zeldin.
Many Reform and Conservative synagogues "have day schools up to the age of 13, but we do very poorly beyond the bar and bat mitzvahs," Zeldin said, referring to the Jewish coming-of-age ceremonies for adolescents.
"Orthodox synagogues have had high schools for 50 years," Zeldin said, "but with our elementary, middle school and now high school classes, we have the only non-Orthodox K-through-12 school west of Chicago."
The Stephen Wise Community Middle/High School has not only a well-to-do congregation behind it but also a culturally rich location--"a little piece of Jewish heaven," in the words of Headmaster Bruce Powell.
The elongated, 9.7-acre campus runs along Mulholland Drive just west of the San Diego (405) Freeway and up from the Skirball Cultural Center under construction on Sepulveda Boulevard.
The cultural center is being built by Hebrew Union College, another Reform Jewish institution. Slated to open next fall, the center will feature a museum and an academic conference center devoted to the theme of "exploring the American Jewish experience," said Executive Director Cindy Miscikowski. Across from the center on the eastern side of the freeway, also off Mulholland Drive, is the Conservative-aligned University of Judaism, and farther up the hill, the Stephen S. Wise Temple.
The high school students, who now take classes in rooms at the temple, have library privileges and access to a science laboratory at the University of Judaism, and that will continue, Zeldin said.
The Los Angeles City Council approved the building project in February, after modifications were made in the plans last year to meet objections by some neighbors worried about school-related traffic.
The school will be limited to 165 students for several years while classes are held in temporary modular buildings on the site. Although current enrollment is 195 students in grades nine through 12, Powell said that at any given time about three dozen students will be at the old site in science or physical-education classes.
The second phase of construction, to be completed by 1997, will permit an enrollment of up to 650 students, including seventh- and eighth-grade students who now meet in temporary buildings farther west on Mulholland Drive.
Permanent facilities at the east end of the campus closest to the freeway will include a three-story building for classes and offices as well as library, gymnasium and multipurpose facilities.
"The (roof of the) building can't be more than 15 feet above Mulholland Drive, so the main building will only be three stories at the base of the hillside," the rabbi explained.
Also, as stipulated by the city, the school will plant bushes and trees along a narrow, 2,000-foot stretch between Mulholland and the school property.
To alleviate traffic, the school will continue to shuttle many students by bus from parking lots in the San Fernando Valley and the Westside.
Powell said that the temple's schools draw equal numbers of students from north and south of the Santa Monica Mountains.
"We've had a middle school for close to 15 years now," Zeldin said.
For Zeldin, 74, the synagogue's schools have been a major accomplishment for Jewish education during his 31 years as the congregation's spiritual leader.
But he also demonstrated the more mundane enthusiasms associated with high school spirit. Only minutes into an initial interview, Zeldin marveled over the 14-7 water-polo victory by the Stephen Wise Wildcats over Calabasas High.
An upset, he boasted.