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Lessons in Division

An enthusiastic young teacher finds an Orthodox Jewish school full of moral purpose and wide-open debate. But then he starts talking about the Middle East....

August 03, 2003|Barry Siegel | Times Staff Writer

'Come in, it's warm inside," beckoned an ad for the Orthodox Jewish school Shalhevet, and that's just what Alexander Maksik did.

It was a shock at first. There he was, a young sometime actor, a secular Jew uninterested in religion, newly installed as a middle school English teacher. In the hallways, girls and women walked by in long skirts, boys and men with yarmulkes on their heads. At 7:30 each morning, students gathered to daven. In the afternoon came more prayer, everyone standing, bending at the waist. Shalhevet had a kosher kitchen and no Christmas break, not even on Christmas Day. Maksik had never seen such loyalty to Jewish culture.

He loved this school's pride. Even more, he loved its wide-open spirit.

Students sprawled on beat-up sofas in the central foyer, shouting and giggling and whispering. Students constantly challenged teachers and one another. Students sat on a fairness committee that judged everyone. Students had weekly town halls where they spoke their minds.

Oh, those town halls.

"This is a community," argued a small, sallow boy, wrestling one day to keep the roving microphone after his allotted time had elapsed. "We're not supposed to be making distinctions between student and faculty. There's supposed to be equality."

"I want to empower all the girls," an English teacher declared later that hour. "You don't have to let males tell us about our dress code. You can respectfully object."

Shalhevet was modern Orthodox, unusually modern. Boys and girls sat together in class. Students took risks, engaged the outer world. The school, a rambling one-story former hospital in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles, called itself a "democracy," a "just community." Shalhevet encouraged students to see complexity, to consider moral dilemmas, to recognize multiple perspectives.

In his early days there, Maksik embraced this approach. It fit well with his own ideas. Shalhevet no longer shocked him. Despite the yarmulkes and prayer schedule, he believed these students were just regular kids.

Then came what he'd later call "the first sign of a problem."

Visitors from the Israeli Consulate arrived on campus one morning in October 2000 to talk at a town hall. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had just paid his controversial visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Maksik raised his hand. He asked what he thought was an obvious question: Had Sharon been intentionally provocative?

The room fell silent, as if an electrical plug had been pulled. Some of the rabbis turned and glared at the new young teacher.

Maksik saw in their eyes that he had missed something about this school.


Free-Spirited Founder

As much as anything, Shalhevet represents its founder Jerry Friedman's chance to fix the past -- his own past. As a boy, he was considered too active, too much a free spirit -- a bonditt -- at the Jewish day school he attended on Manhattan's Lower East Side. He couldn't sit still. Who could? The school day was so long. You couldn't breathe. Once, while they were singing a song in first grade -- night is here, night is here -- Jerry switched off the light. That's when he learned the Hebrew expression "tayn li es hayad" -- "give me the hand." The teacher whacked it with a ruler.

He finally went at one abusive rabbi with his fists, which got him suspended from school. Still, raised Orthodox, he wanted a religious life. He found it at a Jewish summer day camp. There he could run around, make noise. Once he'd married, settled in Montreal and started earning big money in real estate development, he wanted to buy a camp, for he saw mistakes that needed fixing. That's also what he saw when he visited his daughter Karen's Jewish day school. One night he took his wife Jean's place at a parents association meeting. How did it go? she asked when he returned. "I don't know," he replied, "but I got elected president."

After tiring of Montreal's French-English cultural clash, Friedman moved to Los Angeles in 1971 and began reading heavily in the field of education. So did his daughter. She ended up enrolling at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. When he arrived there to attend her graduation from the master's program, Karen kept talking about "Larry," kept saying how much her father would like "Larry." Friedman thought she was talking about a classmate. No, she explained: "Larry" was professor Lawrence Kohlberg, the noted social psychologist.

"You call him Larry?" Friedman asked.

At one gathering that weekend, he heard Harvard's president urge people from other fields to consider becoming educators. He raised that notion with his wife. She said, "You're not serious."

He was. He applied to the Graduate School of Education and was accepted. "Dad, oh, no! You can't do this," his daughter protested. She was still a doctoral student there, after all. She had boyfriends.

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