Scott Westle

Rabbi Westle is the rabbi-in-residence at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, California.

Rav Bet Sefer

For the past nine years, I have been the rabbi-in-residence at Heschel in Northridge, California, a community TK-8th grade school. My time is split between working with the administration and overseeing and teaching Judaic studies in the middle school. I also design our Shabbat tefillot and festival celebrations with a cohort of colleagues.

As a member of the administration, I attempt to bring Jewish life and wisdom to the forefront in the school whenever possible. I attempt to provide spiritual care for those who might need it within the school community, families and faculty included. I weigh in on the ways we teach and engage with Israel. I am proud that my role also lets me collaborate with professional and lay leaders to envision Heschel as a community center, where we are able to host Shabbat and holiday tefillot and programming for families. 

The primary role of a school rabbi is to connect with students in order to help them during the earliest years of their Jewish journeys. My rabbinate has shown me that our families are also looking for connection. I am grateful to be their rabbi, too.

Sparking Amazement in Kindergartners 

One of our school’s kindergarten programs is “Abraham’s Hospitality Tent,” where students get to sing and share about welcoming guests. It is a cute morning; our students dress up like they too are traveling through the desert, and our gym is decorated in Mesopotamia’s finest regalia. As the students sit in their tent, I walk in dressed as Avraham Avinu: robe, beard, walking staff, head covering like a kaffiyeh. I make a few puns, reference events in the Torah, and tell the students how wonderful it is to see them honoring “my legacy.” 

I race out to change back to my normal work clothes and return as just Rabbi Scott. The kindergarteners and I then go to their yard, where we affix 3D-printed mezuzot on the doors of their playhouse. I exclaimed how wonderful it was that we all just saw Abraham. Some five-year olds gave me the side eye, clearly not buying the ruse. Others are less sure; maybe, just maybe, they witnessed something truly wondrous. Who better than kindergarten students to embody our school namesake’s understanding of “radical amazement”?

Teaching Middle and Elementary Schoolers

I teach Judaic studies classes in our middle school. Along with the colleagues in my department, we have created a curriculum that speaks to the hearts, minds and souls of our students. We have incorporated Zionism, Israel and Shoah studies with classic text study, philosophy and parshanut. Our students grapple with ancient texts as well as modern ethical dilemmas. We look at our liturgies of siddurim, mahzorim and haggadot as we all attempt to make them freshly relevant again, each day. 

On Fridays, the entire middle school gathers for a Kabbalat Shabbat service. Sometimes I lead, and sometimes I merely facilitate student participation in song, story and dance. Our celebration of community and Shabbat seems to get better each and every week. Of course, middle school students can take their toll on you; how fortunate that we have a wonderful elementary school to once again raise spirits. Working in tandem with a Judaic music specialist and my elementary school Judaic coordinator, we create beautiful Friday Shabbat services for our younger students, sending them into the weekend with a song and a smile on their lips. During the rest of the week, I drop into elementary classes. I might teach Parshat HaShavua or Pirkei Avot. Sometimes, I lead discussions about kindness and friendship, steeped in Jewish values. I aim to help all our students see the joy and comfort in Jewish life.

Serving Families Beyond School Hours 

From the time I arrived at Heschel, I knew I wanted to be more than just a rabbi for the students. I have taught adult education to our parent and grandparent community. I have led Jewish rituals for birth, bnai mitzvah and death for Heschel families, alums and faculty. I have put on a brave face while I sat with students who lost a loved one, and then immediately after, cried with their parents. I celebrate my community’s successes and myriad victories, and I show up to be a shoulder on which to cry and a crutch to lean on when things head south. I make sure to remind my community that in both life’s highs and lows, we show up for one another. 

I take pride in redefining my role at Heschel as we grow together. I decided that I wanted to offer bar and bat mitzvah training and officiation to our families; many still belong to shuls, but those who don’t, and see Heschel as their Jewish home, understand what these relationships mean. For many, I am their only rabbi, and that is a role I take seriously. 

Recently, a mother of two alums (who both continued into Jewish high school) reached out to me when her mother got sick and passed away; despite them not being a current family in our school, I was still their rabbi. Connections like this reinforce for me why I happily dress up as Abraham for the kindergarteners. Like his journey, ours also begin with small steps, one after the other. 

Lovingly, I claim we have flipped the paradigm that is written about in the Ve’ahavta: here at Heschel, it is often Vishinantam lehorecha, and you shall teach this to your parents. Our students benefit from an immersive Jewish experience at the school; we are not a halachic institution, yet all our ways are imbued with the spirit of our tradition and people. Our students come home excited to share what they learn, do and experience at school; that love trickles up, inspiring families to take on more and deepen their own connections to Jewish wisdom, tradition and community.

My Torah at Sports Games 

I am often seen on the sidelines of our middle school’s sports games. I love being my students’ cheerleader. Pregame I encourage them to play their hardest, and I inquire how they did postgame. They default to a win or a loss, but I insist that is not what I actually asked. 

I also earn their ire, and do so with a smile on my face. I will congratulate the preteen on the other school’s basketball team who makes a free throw, or applaud a great play in soccer. My students (and sometimes our families) will get annoyed at me. “Rabbi! That’s our opponent!” I know, oh, I know. This too is my Torah.