Rabbis Block and Sufrin call for unity after skit mocking Shalhevet and social activism

Teacher involved apologizes in interview with the Boiling Point

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BP Photo by Evan Beller

TOGETHER: Rabbi Block (facing camera) and Rabbi Sufrin hugged before the Shalhevet vs. YULA soccer game March 19 in a display of public unity.

By Tali Liebenthal, Community Editor

At a Shalhevet soccer game against YULA on March 19, YULA Head of School Rabbi Arye Sufrin apologized to Shalhevet students, parents and faculty for a Purim skit gone wrong on March 15. 

As he began to speak to the crowd of about 215 people, Rabbi Sufrin first requested that people not record what he was saying, to keep the moment “intimate between the two communities,” he said.

The YULA leader then apologized to the Shalhevet community for a mock Town Hall, which had been a part of his school’s Purim celebration and costume contest.  A teacher and his 11th-grade Gemara class wore earrings and hair dye and held up signs with sayings including “They/them can also love Hashem,” “#I can’t breathe #Free George Floyd,” “#Black Lives Matter,” “Free the gays,” and “#Stop Asian Hate.”

Other signs, which read “Let me wear my earrings” and “Today’s discussion is bigger than black and white, are earrings kosher?!,” referenced discussions around student appearance policies that occurred at Shalhevet at the start of this school year.

OPPORTUNITY: Using a guide titled “Tools for Tolerance,” experts at the Museum of Tolerance will conduct sensitivity training for students and teachers in both the boys and girls division of YULA campuses, an email from YULA leaders said. (Obtained by the Boiling Point)

Although Rabbi Sufrin was not present during the Purim costume contest, he asked for mechila, forgiveness, from the Shalhevet community. The Boiling Point obtained a recording of the speech a week later from someone who is not a member of the Boiling Point staff. 

“What happened this week at YULA, was nothing short of a heartbreaking disgrace, and was embarrassing…,” said Rabbi Sufrin.“And it’s more than just about YULA-Shalhevet, it’s about the greater community, and society, and humanity.” 

Although the skit was meant to be in-house only and poking fun at a rival school would seem well within the bounds of Purim satire, Rabbi Sufrin also suggested that the class’s actions showed insensitivity to different races and ethnicities beyond the YULA and Shalhevet communities.

“It’s clear that there needs to be real soul searching,” Rabbi Sufrin said.“Soul searching on our part as a community, our being the YULA community, on how we can take the word ‘our’ being the YULA community, and make ‘our’ be the greater Los Angeles community.”

“[When] we all stood at Har Sinai,” or Mount Sinai, he continued, “we didn’t stand there with YULA jerseys, we didn’t stand there with Shalhevet Jerseys, and we didn’t stand there with other communities. Regardless of their race, their ethnicity, it makes no difference. And what happened was wrong. Unequivocally one hundred percent wrong.”

Students and teachers of both the boys and girls divisions of YULA, will be required to attend sensitivity training, according to an email sent out by Rabbi Sufrin to the YULA community on March 24. 

“From an education perspective, we have partnered with the Museum of Tolerance and their nationally renowned experts who will provide transformative and meaningful sensitivity training, especially geared for teens, through their Tools for Tolerance program,” wrote Rabbi Sufrin in the email.

“Our students at both divisions will participate in full day programming over the coming weeks,” he wrote. “Additionally, the YULA staff will participate in an even more robust two-day program as well.”

The students involved in the Purim skit have faced no additional consequences, according to multiple YULA Boys students who shared information on the condition that their names would not be used. 

But the teacher whose class it was, Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, has since been dismissed by the school.

 

In an interview with the Boiling Point March 23, Rabbi Shoff apologized to anyone who may have been hurt by his actions and the actions of his students.

Rabbi Shoff was dressed in rainbow pants and wearing a tallit at the costume contest, and took part in his class’s costume as well as introducing the “Town Hall” to the rest of the student body, offering them “complimentary oat milk.”

“I’m sorry,” Rabbi Shoff told the Boiling Point. “It was bad judgment and it was a mistake and I hurt people and I’m really sorry for doing that…I’m sorry that it came across in a way that was hurtful because that was a terrible mistake, and I would never do that again.” 

Rabbi Shoff said he and the class had collectively agreed that the goal of their costume would -be to “poke fun — in a gentle way — at the extremes that happen within progressivism,” he said.

I’m sorry that it came across in a way that was hurtful because that was a terrible mistake, and I would never do that again.

— Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Former Judaic Studies Faculty

It was unclear if Rabbi Shoff was aware of the signs in advance or whose idea it was to write social justice slogans. He said he suggested the students write phrases like “cancel everyone” or “that’s offensive” on the posters. 

When asked if he thought the outrage from the Shalhevet and overall Jewish community toward his class’s Purim costume was warranted, Rabbi Shoff said he was unsure, but understood it. 

“I don’t know,” Rabbi Shoff said. “I understand it. I understand it. That’s all I could say.”

Rabbi Shoff was put on administrative leave just hours after the costume contest, and said he was officially let go on March 23.

Students who were in Rabbi Shoff’s classes were notified that he would no longer be teaching at YULA on  March 24, in an email sent out by YULA Judiac Studies Principal Rabbi Joseph Schreiber. 

“Because it was my group of students and I did have a role in planning it, you know, I was let go,” said Rabbi Shoff. “And again, I stress, like I understand it, I’m not – I don’t walk around with negative feelings towards, towards YULA for, for, for letting me go. I walk around with extreme gratitude for all the days I did spend there.”

Rabbi Shoff and the students involved also publicly apologized in front of the entire school on the day of the skit, hours after it took place, according to multiple YULA Boys students. 

 

At Shalhevet, many students first heard about the Purim skit through social media, where they saw photos and videos of it posted by students at YULA Boys on their Snapchat stories. 

Other members of the Shalhevet community found out through a video of Rabbi Shoff introducing the group costume, taken by someone at the Purim costume contest, which quickly circulated through Shalhevet student and parent group chats.The Boiling Point was unable to determine who had taken it.

 Pictures of YULA boys students posing with their signs also quickly went viral.

Hours after the costume contest, Shalhevet Head of School Rabbi David Block wrote a message on Schoology to students and faculty in response.

“Chevra, I know there’s a video that’s going around re: what’s happening right now at a different school in town. Don’t think twice about it,” Rabbi Block’s message said. “We should be extremely proud of who we are – our values, our conversations/dialogue, and especially our LOVE and support of every single student/Jew/person.”

SKIT: Students in Rabbi Elchanan Shoff’s 11th-grade Gemara class stand with their teacher in the courtyard of YULA Boys High School. (Photo Obtained by the Boiling Point)

“Know, without a doubt – and despite what others might want you to believe – that those are TRUE Torah, Jewish values,” he wrote. 

Rabbi Sufrin sent an email to the YULA community later that night.

“Today, our pillars, especially that of character development, were compromised by highly inappropriate and insensitive behavior that was unfortunately disguised as a poor attempt at humor,” wrote Rabbi Sufrin. “These actions are not a reflection of our schools mission and views, and they constituted a Chillul Hashem,” or a desecration of God’s name.

At the soccer game, Rabbi Sufrin said sports had always been something that united the notoriously rival Jewish high schools, located a few miles apart and sharing most of the same feeder schools. He said he hoped that evening’s game would present the same opportunity to unite the communities after days of division.

“We have to move forward in a way where we can make an impactful change in a positive way,” said Rabbi Sufrin. “And here’s a great opportunity. Sports is unfortunately, sports is what really brings the YULA Shalhevet community together.”

“And yes, we all cheer for our teams,” he continued, “And we cheer for our schools, but what’s beautiful about a soccer field is that it brings those schools together. And tonight, has to be the night where we create an opportunity to change, and create that arena where we can all come together in a positive way.”

It appeared that regaining unity with the Shalhevet community was a priority for Rabbi Shoff as well.

Rabbi Shoff said that hours after the Purim event, he was in contact with former Shalhevet Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal, who now serves as the school’s Chief Strategy Officer.

He said he spoke to Rabbi Segal via text on the day of the event, and wishes to gain his insight on the progressive Jewish world. 

“I want to get his perspective if there’s anything in the world that he thinks I ought to do,” said Rabbi Shoff. “Because he understands especially the Shalhevet, but just in general the more progressive Jewish world.”

Rabbi Segal declined to describe their conversations, telling the Boiling Point that “any conversation between me and Rabbi Shoff was between me and Rabbi Shoff.”

 

At the soccer game parents and faculty from both Shalhevet and YULA were apparently mostly polite, as students from both schools cheered only for their own schools’ teams, not against the other. 

This may have been as a result of Shalhevet administration’s push for peace and reconciliation between the two schools in the days before the game took place.

It’s clear that there needs to be real soul searching… on how we can take the word ‘our’ being the YULA community, and make ‘our’ be the greater Los Angeles community.

— Rabbi Arye Sufrin, YULA Head of School

In a chain text sent less than an hour before the game to all four Shalhevet grade-wide Whatsapp group chats – consisting of every student in each individual grade along with some faculty members – Rabbi Block included a list of rules for the upcoming soccer game.

“NO edgy chants. Nothing about YULA,” Rabbi Block wrote in the list of rules. “Nothing putting them down. Nothing about oat milk. Nothing about being better than anyone else. Just super Shali pride.”

He also wrote that Shalhevet students needed to go the extra mile to display their menschiness. 

“In every way. Above and beyond. Show them the best of us,” he wrote.

Editor-in-Chief Benjamin Gamson contributed to this story.