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What's in a Name? : Philanthropy: Wise Community School is now Milken High, thanks to a $5-million gift from a family that includes a famous felon.

September 09, 1995|JOHN DART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The largest non-Orthodox Jewish high school in the country was renamed Milken High this week in exchange for a $5-million donation from the Milken Family Foundation, as administrators braced for protests against giving a religious school a name associated with a convicted felon.

The Milken family's most famous member is former junk bond king Michael Milken, who served 22 months in prison for securities fraud and was ordered by the court to pay $600 million in fines and restitution. In 1991, Milken and his brother Lowell consented to a settlement barring them from participating in the securities industry except as customers.

Milken Community High School of Stephen Wise Temple is the new full name of the campus in Sepulveda Pass, previously known as the Stephen S. Wise Community Middle/High School. The school is being developed by the synagogue, whose nearly 3,000 member families make it one of the largest in the country.

Principal Bruce Powell said that so far there had been a range of comments from parents, and questions were raised by students at orientation sessions held Tuesday for the seventh through 12th grades.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 12, 1995 Valley Edition Metro Part B Page 3 No Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Milken school--An item in Valley Newswatch on Saturday incorrectly reported the renaming of the nation's largest non-Orthodox Jewish high school in the Sepulveda Pass. The new name, Milken Community High School, refers to the Milken family, not specifically to convicted felon Michael Milken, a family member.

"Frankly, I would have been disappointed in our kids if no one said anything," Powell said. "One of the things we try to do here is raise moral sensitivity."

But Powell said he feels that the objections can be answered, noting that the cash-heavy Milken Family Foundation makes donations to organizations as varied as the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese, Los Angeles city schools and the University of California--which accept them. The foundation also gives $25,000 surprise gifts to outstanding teachers each year.

"We are not naming the school after a convicted felon," Powell said, but after the entire Milken family, which is affiliated with Stephen S. Wise Temple.

Not only that, Powell said. He is convinced that Michael Milken was "tried and convicted in the press by innuendo and a politically ambitious prosecutor." Powell cited Daniel Fischel's "Payback," published this year, as clearing the former Wall Street whiz. Milken was credited with inventing the market in high-yield "junk" bonds as an executive with Drexel Burnham Lambert in Beverly Hills.

Although touted a year ago as a $25-million project on Mulholland Drive overlooking the soon-to-open Skirball Museum, a Jewish cultural and artistic showplace, the project was trimmed to between $10 million and $12 million by Senior Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin.

With that scaling down, the $5-million donated by the Milken foundation brought available funds to about $8 million. The Milken donation was "the largest single gift to any Jewish school in the history of Los Angeles," Powell said.

The principal said that Zeldin had talked to several potential contributors about obtaining a gift large enough to rename the school. "The Milken foundation came forward and took the offer," Powell said.

The school has now surpassed--with an enrollment of 440 students--the nation's second- and third-largest non-Orthodox Jewish schools, located in Philadelphia and Rockville, Md., Powell said.

"I think the students are aware of the ethical issues that the name raises," the principal added. "We will have a five-day encampment with students and that will be one of the topics of discussion."

Although Stephen S. Wise Temple has long been a part of the liberal Reform wing of Judaism, its secondary schools' faculty and curricula reflect the teachings of both Reform and the centrist Conservative branch of Judaism, Powell said.

Milken High students now meet in temporary classrooms at two sites on Mulholland Drive west of the San Diego Freeway. A few classrooms are in the synagogue complex on the east side of the freeway. The permanent building may be ready by the fall of 1997, Powell said.

The school would not be the first Jewish facility to bear the Milken name. The West Valley Jewish Center in West Hills opened in 1987 on what was called the Bernard Milken Campus, named after Michael Milken's late father.

"We feel it is a non-issue," said Shoshana Hirsh, planning director for the San Fernando Valley Jewish Alliance. The Alliance and other Jewish agencies were moving back to the repaired Milken campus this week after earthquake damage forced their relocation to temporary offices in Woodland Hills.

"The Milken family is very philanthropic and has helped a lot with Jewish education," Hirsh said. "The Milkens are still part of the Jewish community and they're still doing good work."

Robert Bleiweiss, editor of Jewish Spectator, a quarterly journal published in Calabasas, had a mixed reaction to the school's renaming.

"Milken certainly paid his debt to society, but the fact is that he is not necessarily a terrific role model for young Americans," Bleiweiss said. "However, it's a good use of the money."

Radio commentator Dennis Prager, a member of Stephen S. Wise Temple who speaks and writes on Jewish ethical issues, saw no problems with the decision.

"If one member of a philanthropic family does wrong, and if that invalidates the family name, then clearly the Kennedy Center, Stanford University and the Carnegie Foundation all should change their names," Prager said.

Meanwhile, back on the high school campus, not everyone is caught up in ethical debate.

Some Milken High students, according to Powell, have been joking about whether the school's sports nickname, the Wildcats, should be changed to Cookies as in "Milken Cookies" or Honey, as in "Milken Honey."

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