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 on Mulholland Drive in the Sepulveda Pass, previously known as the Stephen S. Wise Community Middle/High School. The school is being developed by the synagogue, which is one of the largest in the nation, with nearly 3,000 member-families.
Principal Bruce Powell said there have been a range of comments from parents and questions by students at orientation sessions held this week for the seventh through 12th grades.
“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 answers the objections by noting that the cash-heavy Milken family foundation makes donations to organizations as varied as the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese, the Los Angeles Unified School District and the University of California--which accept them. The foundation also gives $25,000 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.
Powell said he is convinced that Michael Milken was “tried and convicted in the press by innuendo and a politically ambitious prosecutor.” Powell credited a book published this year--"Payback” by Daniel Fischel--with providing evidence that exonerates Milken.
Although touted one year ago as a $25-million building project that would overlook the soon-to-open Skirball Museum, a Jewish cultural and art showplace, the high school project was later trimmed to between $10 million and $12 million by Senior Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin.
That increased the significance of the $5-million Milken foundation gift, which brought the total of available funds to $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, trying to solicit a gift large enough to warrant renaming the school. “The Milken foundation came forward and took the offer,” Powell said.
“I think the students are aware of the ethical issues that the name raises,” the principal said. “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 Fall, 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 the late father of Michael Milken.
“We feel it is a non-issue,” said Shoshana Hirsh, planning director for the San Fernando Valley Jewish Alliance.
“The Milken family is very philanthropic and has helped a lot with Jewish education.” she said. “The Milkens are still part of the Jewish community and they’re still doing good work.”
Editor Robert Bleiweiss of Jewish Spectator, a quarterly journal published in Calabasas, said he had mixed reactions to the school’s renaming.
"[Michael] 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 is an active speaker and writer on Jewish ethical issues, said he 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, on the high school campus, not all of the 440 students are caught up in the 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 or Honey--as in “Milken Cookies” or “Milken Honey.”