School for Sephardic Jews Seeks Place in Sun : It Has Adapted to Social, Cultural Life but Not to Cityscape

Times Staff Writer

It's the only place of its kind west of New Jersey.

Cynics might say that this is hardly a notable geographic distinction. But to those who have discovered it, the Sephardic Hebrew Academy in West Hollywood is a religious and cultural oasis on the shores of the Pacific.

It is also a place of contrasts.

One of the administrators is an elder in a Lutheran church, for instance. At least one of its supporters, Screen Actors Guild president Patty Duke, is a Catholic who until recently didn't know enough about Sephardic Jews to "put in a thimble."

And its ramshackle buildings and playground house a fair share of the Los Angeles melting pot. Students from India, Israel, Morocco, Iran, Argentina and the Soviet Union, 15 countries in all, fill the classrooms--as well as children from local families interested in preserving the customs of a "minority within a minority."

Many of these students and their families have fled religious persecution and political turmoil, as did the original Sephardic Jews, who were ordered out of Spain in the year Columbus discovered America. Many of those who left Spain dispersed to North Africa and the Middle East, acquiring over the centuries a patina of customs and culture from the new, more Oriental environment, especially when compared with the other major cultural and social branch of Judaism, Ashkenazim, which includes Jews who settled in Northern and Central Europe.

The school is dedicated to preserving the customs, arts, teachings and ways of Sephardic culture, as well as instructing students in such familiar subjects as science, math and language.

Yet while it has made apparently harmonious adjustments to the social, cultural and religious diversity of Southern California, the school is having a tougher time adjusting to the physical changes of its evolving neighborhood.

The preschool through eighth-grade academy is part of a diversifying cityscape that may make it a Los Angeles anomaly--a place with a sunshine deficit. A couple of blocks away stand the Beverly Center towers. And construction is expected to start soon on the new 11-story Ma Maison Hotel, which will loom just across the street on what is now a vacant lot. It is this last project that has upset some at the school who see the hotel and restaurant as a thrower of shadow and fountain of traffic that will impinge on the school's environment on a quiet street, Huntley Drive.

"It's a real concern for us," said Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, the school's executive director. "It puts a cloud over us, literally. And the second thing is the safety of the children. At the drop-off and pick-up times there's tremendous traffic congestion and if you add to that delivery trucks, taxis and people using this street for access to and from the hotel, it's something to be concerned about."

By a twist of boundary lines, the hotel is located in Los Angeles while the school is in West Hollywood. The city of West Hollywood lost in legal action against the hotel. School officials are still pondering their options.

One of the hotel's architects denies that the hotel is going to cast the pall its critics foresee. Olivier Vidal also noted that the building's design was modified to meet objections from the school. Specifically, an exit from the hotel's garage was eliminated to cut down on traffic on the school's street, Vidal said.

"If I could design buildings that don't cast a shadow, I would be delighted," Vidal said. He also said that the hotel will occupy a lot formerly covered with "microbusinesses" in run-down buildings and that he considers the hotel an upgrading of that particular piece of property.

There is apparent disagreement between Vidal and Kupfer over how much the school itself may be at fault in the area of shadows. Vidal maintained that a new two-story preschool building now under construction will, because of its location to the east of the playground, be more of a shadow generator than the hotel, which is to the south.

Kupfer disagreed but added that he does try to see the other side of the issue.

"I understand the feelings of the developers," he said. "A lot of our supporters are in this business. They've got to get their projects going and they have to be economically viable . . . but they've got to try to see, too, that they don't disrupt a school that's been at this location eight years."

Turned Away Students

Last year the school turned away about 60 students because it didn't have room, Kupfer said. Its student body of 196, including about 75 preschoolers, is about 40 more than the ideal number, he added.

However, the academy's $3.5-million expansion program, which got a hefty boost last month at a fund-raising dinner attended by Mayor Tom Bradley, will eventually expand the school's capacity to 400 or more students, the rabbi added.

While Kupfer and others may bridle at the commercial growth of the city, the school has been adept at enlisting the power and glamour in Los Angeles to raise money. And in the process it has won over those who were unfamiliar with Sephardism.

Actress Patty Duke says she lent her name and time to the school's fund-raising efforts even though "what I knew about the Sephardic Jews you could put in a thimble." But she quickly became an enthusiast of the school because of the motivation of the students and the general atmosphere of cooperation, which includes such sights as three basketball games being played simultaneously, without even minor collisions, on the one basketball court.

However, Duke said she was taken aback by the school's facilities, adding that the buildings reminded her of huts she had seen in the famine-stricken areas of Africa.

"I went there and thought, 'Oh my God, this is depressing,' " Duke said, "but then I saw that every kid was participating and that excited me to see children caught up in their own education. . . . I just found it moving."

Standing on the playground the other day, Kupfer declined to take such a harsh view of the school's physical assets. He said he'd describe the school as "a bit run-down" rather than seedy. But he acknowledged that the dilapidated air of the buildings occasionally has been detrimental.

"We are aware that people have come who have expressed an interest in this type of education and didn't pursue it because of the facilities," he said. "I'm not saying they (left) because they're stuck-up . . . a lot of people assume that this (the appearance) is a reflection of the education, that if the facilities are shabby physically, the education can't be much better, or the people feel that we can't offer a proper environment for children. Fortunately, that's not the case, but impressions are important."

Split Down the Middle

Academically, the school is split down the middle. It has principals for religious and secular instruction and students whisk from learning Hebrew and Sephardic culture to math, English and other secular topics. It's a long day, too. Students in the higher grades begin classes at 8 a.m. and aren't finished until 4:15 p.m. School officials proudly claim that students score on average two years higher on standardized tests than other California students.

Over the last decade Los Angeles has attracted thousands of Sephardic Jews, bringing the Los Angeles population of Sephardics to an estimated 40,000 to 50,000, or about 10% of the region's Jewish population, Kupfer said.

In the sprawling, "live and let live" atmosphere of Los Angeles, Kupfer sees the school as a kind of community glue.

"Our feeling is that we can't afford a generation gap," Kupfer said. "We're talking about, particularly in the Sephardic community, a minority within a minority and it's essential in this type of tradition that one generation be able to relate it to the next and to hand down their culture and heritage without interruption."

Tuition at the academy is $3,000 per year. Kupfer estimated that 75% of students receive some financial assistance but only 20 to 30 attend on full scholarship.

"We try to get something, not so much because the $20 makes a difference to us but it means more of a commitment from the parents," he said. "They should know it's not a free ride and some kind of sacrifice is required. If $10 a month is all they can afford, fine, but let them participate, let them be a part."

Despite its adherence to Sephardism, the school has welcomed non-Jews into its secular program.

Ralph Natale, the school's "English" or secular instruction principal, has been at the academy for five years and has worked at Hebrew day schools for 12 years. Before that he taught in public schools for about eight years.

Natale said he left public schools because he was told he would "have to wait until somebody dies or resigns" before he could move into the administrative ranks.

As an elder in the Lutheran church, Natale said he sees no conflict or paradox in his role at the school. Neither do other members of his Protestant congregation.

"They're kind of amazed and awed," Natale said. "There's no conflict at all. We're all working for the same boss, we're just using different roads to get to the same gate."

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