West Hills’ Kadima Day School survives location changes, 2008 recession and, now, the pandemic

As a youngster 25 years ago, Yoni Blau was thrilled to celebrate his school’s anniversary and from a child’s perspective new sweatshirts, new shirts and a whole new logo was not only the cat’s meow it was a time to party.

Today as a father of two sons attending his alma mater, Kadima Day School in West Hills that is celebrating its 50th anniversary, Blau is open to reminiscing about the educational experience that cemented his Jewish life, culture and career perhaps leading to his path today as an orthopedic surgeon at his Encino practice.

“I think it’s amazing it’s been here for 50 years,” Blau, 36, said. “I was there for the 25th anniversary so I remember that as a kid. It was a really big deal. That’s what Kadima is about; that’s what it is still about which is the family of Kadima, the community of Kadima and … that’s what really shaped my entire childhood and I hope it will do that for my children. So it does mean a lot to me? I think it is a testament to the importance of this type of institution in the West Valley.”

Kadima Day School faculty and staff at the private Jewish school has had to scale back and nix most crowd-gathering festivities initially planned to commemorate the occasion because of the coronavirus. But, they didn’t drop the idea of marking the occasion with a few other ideas.

The small but mighty school that has survived several location changes, the 2008 recession and now the pandemic, continues to chug along its tradition of educating thousands of children and children of alumni who are now community leaders and others who came back to their roots and work at the school.

One of the commemorative activities include a TikTok style dance to an original song, “Kadima is the Way.”

Michael Pelavin, the school’s music director for the past six years, co-wrote the song with his colleague Cherie Friedman.

The translation of the Hebrew word Kadima means to move forward so that was the initial inspiration for the song’s lyrics based on the school’s taught values.

“What we focus on as far as teaching the kids are life values, protecting the Earth, the values of Judaism,” Pelavin said. “We wanted to kind of let all of it shine, one verse and pre chorus at a time. Most of the song is in English except the pre chorus which is in Hebrew (and) comes from the Torah and means to sanctify the 50th year.”

Besides co-writing the lyrics, Pelavin wrote the music and recorded and produced it at his home studio. He also plays all of the instruments and sings background vocals and harmonies.

“Verse one is pretty much about working together as a team,” Pelavin said. “Verse two is about our connection to Israel and Jerusalem and verse three is about Torah and protecting the Earth. We aren’t allowed to sing together now, so we are doing it separately and I can’t wait for the day that we can all sing it together. That will be remarkable.”

Kadima has struggled for years to keep its doors open and get to this year’s milestone.

Enrollment is down about 50 to 70 students following the coronavirus.

“Tuition is a big expense and some families can’t easily afford a private school,” said Dikla Kadosh, director of admissions and marketing. “We have donors and philanthropists who are passionate about education and got us through the harder times.”

Several years ago, the school lowered its tuition and continues to be one of most accessible Jewish schools in the Los Angeles area, Kadosh said.

But the pandemic sent many of the families into chaos and they were looking at their ability to pay the annual $14,000 tuition because they were losing their jobs or businesses and their ability to offer tuition was marginalized.

The school accepts children starting at 2 years old and goes through 8th grade.

Students primarily live in the southern portion of the San Fernando Valley from Calabasas to as far away as Studio City.

It is not an orthodox school where genders are separated and uniforms are the dress code.

The students spend two hours a day on Judaic studies and learning Hebrew.

Kadima opened for in-school learning this fall, but shuttered for the winter holidays during the most recent surge in coronavirus cases. Monday was the first day back for kindergarten through second graders. The older students, like many throughout Los Angeles County, remain learning online.

Hannah Sinai, a 7-year-old first grader, was anticipating the excitement of seeing her friends on Monday and isn’t bashful about saying she thinks everyone should go to Kadima.

“The best thing about school is we learn so much and every time I get back from school, I always explain everything and I always keep the words in my brain,” she said.

Her mother said while her daughter did well online and the school’s program has been great for distance learning, she knows Hannah is glad to be back at school.

“Nothing can replace in-person learning,” Margaret Sinai said.

The preschool operations at Kadima never closed and has been open all year long without any interruptions.

Alisha Sela, the director of the early childhood education center and a Kadima alum, was hoping for some bigtime celebrations this year, but realized the challenge of running a preschool in coronavirus times was limiting.

“The kids are wearing masks and we are keeping them socially distanced as possible,” said Sela, 43, who first attended Kadima when she was 5 years old. “It isn’t easy … that is the hardest thing for kids ages 2 to 4. The teachers constantly remind the kids to keep their mask on. It is a lot easier now than it was in August and September but the teachers keep reminding them.”

Sela said teachers read books about masks, created books with the kids and did fun art projects to reinforce the importance.

“We talk about superheroes wearing masks,” she added. “The distancing is still a challenge. We try to spread (learning) centers around the room that only have one chair so that kids know that only one person can be in that area at a time. There’s constant reminding. It’s a lot of work for teachers this year. A lot of extra work above everything else they do.”

While the coronavirus has disrupted operations at Kadima, it cannot take away Sela’s childhood memories,

“I loved going to school. (At Kadima) our teachers were like our parents,” she said. “Half of the teachers were actually parents of my friends so not only did I see them at school I saw them when I went to my friends’ houses. It was a very close-knit relationship.”

Sela said attending Kadima gave her a feeling for education and an impression of what it can be and how schooling is important not just for the education, but also for the environment that the school creates.

“I’m still in touch with a lot of my friends from elementary school,” Sela said. “They are still my best friends today, even though some of us are spread out all over the country. We still talk to each other on a regular basis and see each other whenever we can. So, I think it created who I am. It created what I give back as an educator because all of those memories are something that I want to create for the next generation.”

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