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A Lesson in Diversity

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hanukkah came a little early this year for about 70 Los Angeles kindergartners through fifth-graders Monday. And they are not even Jewish.

The children, mostly newly arrived immigrants from Mexico, Central America and South Korea, are enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Emergency Immigrant Education Program.

The program, which runs during vacation breaks at year-round schools, teaches supplemental English to children who seek extra help.

One of the sites where classes are offered is the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, one of Los Angeles’ oldest synagogues. As a result, some students are getting something extra. They are learning about the diversity of their community.

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“Most of these kids come from countries with one dominant culture,” said Lila Silvern, a school district coordinator. “We are taking advantage of the situation and exposing them to other cultures.”

And in the spirit of the season, program coordinators, working with the synagogue’s representatives, decided to teach the children about Hanukkah.

Silvern, towering over the sea of little faces, told the children that Hanukkah was a holiday that “little Jewish children celebrate instead of Christmas.”

“Una fiesta especial,” she said, alternating between Spanish and English.

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Rabbi Alfred Wolf later demonstrated the lighting of a menorah as the children oohed and aahed.

“This was lovely,” Wolf said later. “Kids are so open to instruction. They are really with it.”

But these are children after all, and after the demonstration they were sent back to their classrooms, where they played the old Jewish game of dreidel.

Similar to the game of tops, children spin a cube to decide who gets a mound of candy in the middle.

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“Gimmel! Gimmel!” yelled Phillip Kim, 8, of Hobart Boulevard School, calling for the Hebrew symbol that would mean he could take all the candy.

It wasn’t his lucky spin.

“I am the loser,” he said with a sigh.

“This is the best way to teach children,” Silvern said. “Give them something to talk about.”

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Hyeon Hee Shin, who enrolled her daughter, Jin Sun, 6, and son, San Hyun, 9, in the program, said she likes the classes at the temple because her children not only learn and practice English, but they do so by learning about other cultures. Back in Korea, children would not have that kind of exposure.

“It is much better than staying at home,” she said.

Some of the immigrant children have chilling stories to share. Words and sketchy drawings on the temple classroom wall told where some of the children came from.

“My life in El Salvador was very bad, because the soldiers came and destroyed houses,” one 8-year-old wrote.

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Another child drew her family crossing a river near a fenced border with a helicopter hovering above, shining its menacing light. The pencil drawing hung under the theme: “How did I come to the U.S.A.”

The possible categories were plane, bus, walking, car, boat and train. Three of the students and their families had walked.

Children enrolled in the immigrant education program are bused in the morning from area schools and taken back just before lunch.

Each session is three weeks long and open to students who have been enrolled in any school three years or less and speak a foreign language at home.

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Schools that have enough classrooms conduct the classes on campus. But California’s efforts to reduce class size in elementary schools have resulted in a shortage of classrooms, forcing the 12-year-old program to lease non-district sites.

Lucy Campos, a school district advisor for the program, said the classes are also about survival skills.

“Many of these kids,” she said, “serve as translators for their parents.”


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