What did I learn from my trip to LA?

Sivan Rahav-Meir ,

Sivan Rahav-Meir
Sivan Rahav-Meir

This column is being written in Los Angeles. It is quite strange to be without Jerusalem's election campaign advertisements for Lion, Elkin, Deitch and Berkowitz for a few days. During my stay I met students in ten Jewish day-schools in the city. If we neutralize arguments such as: "Why don't they make Aliya?" and "Why are they trying to interfere from afar?" we will discover that we can learn a lot from our brothers living in the Diaspora.

* Jewish education here is expensive. Parents pay a lot for their children's Jewish education because it is an issue close to their heart. They can send their children to Public School, and many parents do so because there is no cheap Jewish option. But those parents who can afford it, send their children to Jewish schools and pay $15-20K per year in tuition at elementary schools and $25-30K for high school. A family with a few children will spend a few hundred thousand shekels a year for what they can get for free in Israel. Families who make Aliya will suddenly discover that a major item in their budget has disappeared.

Once the initial shock of the high cost of Jewish education here has worn off, we can also be slightly envious of a society that puts education at the center. In this community, teachers are paid a really good salary (this is so important). The cream of the crop compete for a teaching position. To paraphrase the saying from Ethics of Our Fathers "If there is no flour (money), there is no Torah", here in LA there is flour and there is Torah. The educational options are unlimited. For example, we visited the state-of-the-art Innovation Laboratory at the Yeshiva University (YULA) High School. Rabbi Aryeh Sufrin, the Principal told me: "People always say that students are being trained for the professions that will no longer exist in the future. Here, we train our students for professions that do not yet exist."

* Each school has its own Cellphone Policy. For example, Apple has designated 400 schools worldwide as Apple Distinguished Schools. One of them is the Hillel Hebrew Academy. The giant hi-tech company's logo is seen everywhere in the school. I was certain that all the students I was going to meet would be glued to their smartphones. Yet, I did not see one such phone for the whole duration of my visit. Eliram Algerbeli, a teacher at the school explained: "If a student even brings a smartphone to school, he puts it away in his locker.

Each student has a locker and they are forbidden to use smartphones on school grounds, even during recess. So, they prefer to leave their phones at home. The rules here are strictly enforced. If a student is found holding a smartphone, it is confiscated until the end of the day. If the offence is repeated, the parents are summoned to school." Despite these rules, students work in class with iPads. "Students are not permitted to leave the closed school server and network, and we employ two workers to monitor this. Teachers sometimes complain that they cannot use the internet freely, but this is school policy."

And what happens in after-school hours? At the school I met David Shlecht, one of the parents. He showed me how he easily regulates the number of hours his children are allowed to be online, directly from his smartphone. "After 9.00 pm, my children can no longer access the internet. During the day, they are allowed to play online games for one hour.

However, later on in my visit, I heard another two people talk about the cellphone issue. One of them is a Hillel graduate who was wearing an Apple wristwatch. "It wouldn't bother me at all to leave my smartphone in the locker, if I can text all day long from my watch."

The next day I met David Block, one of the Principals of Shalhevet High School. He told me that iPads had been used in class for several years to teach Jewish Studies. This year, he went back to the book, students have returned to studying Mishna and Talmud from actual books. "Students must touch and feel the book, turn the pages, see the letters, become familiar with the layout of the page and to study the Talmud the same way as our predecessors have done for thousands of years."

* Most of the students I met come to Israel for a gap year after high school. Information Fairs are held to let the students know about the countless number of programs available for them in Israel. The students come for a year of learning, volunteering and content. Some of them will make Aliya later, most of them will return to Ivy League colleges. They all realize, however, that this is not a "waste" of a year, and quite the contrary, it is a meaningful life event.

* Once again, the annual Rabin Memorial Day has turned into a day of disagreement about how it should be commemorated. We have not yet figured out how Israeli society as a whole can formulate the lessons to be learnt from this tragedy. Visiting the Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles this week, I saw how a resounding educational message can be taken from a tragedy. Several times a day a Holocaust survivor gets up on stage in the museum and tells his or her story.

Every single day, six days a week, ever since the museum first opened its doors 25 (!) years ago. A quick calculation shows that people have heard witness testimony about the Holocaust some 7500 times here in Los Angeles. Within earshot of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, survivors stand up and tell the painful historical truth, from their personal experience.

Every single day policemen and women, teachers, social workers, judges, students and millions of tourists listen to a verbal "eternal flame" that burns and passes on the message to combat ignorance and Holocaust denial. Liebe Geft, the Museum's director is particularly proud of the new volunteers who come to tell their story: "Around 10,000 Holocaust survivors live in Los Angeles. Our team consists of 60 speakers, who are getting older. Yet I am so impressed by survivors who are coming forward now and requesting to join our team. For years they remained silent and never told their children, or even grandchildren, what they endured. And now, all of a sudden, they request to get up on stage here and tell their story to the world."