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Jewish Scholastic Press Association

Jewish Scholastic Press Association

Mrs. Keene, who led Boiling Point and Choirhawks for 21 years, leaves to boost journalism in more Jewish schools

WORKING%3A+Mrs.+Keene+perched+at+her+desk+in+the+Boiling+Point+office.+She+keeps+a+photo+of+her+father+with+Reverend+Dr.+Martin+Luther+King+Jr.+%28at+right%29+for+inspiration%2C+as+well+as+mugs+with+slogans+and+various+newspapers.
Gabe Mittman
WORKING: Mrs. Keene perched at her desk in the Boiling Point office. She keeps a photo of her father with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (at right) for inspiration, as well as mugs with slogans and various newspapers.
VIRTUAL: The Choirhawks spring concert in May of 2020 was online only due to Covid. The group presented a compilation of videos made during the previous year and newly recorded pieces filmed in Zoom boxes and edited by 2020 seniors.

After 21 years of leading the Boiling Point, directing the Choirhawks, and teaching classes, Mrs. Joelle Keene is leaving Shalhevet to continue and expand her work at the Jewish Scholastic Press Association, an organization she founded at the school over a decade ago to strengthen news media in Jewish high schools around the U.S.

Mrs. Keene is the current longest-serving faculty member in the high school (Ms. Michal Davis-Bryski taught at Shalhevet’s former middle school a year or two before she arrived). She transformed the Boiling Point from dormancy to an award-winning, internationally read and recognized high school newspaper, while leading the choir and contributing to what she described as an “ascent of Jewish a capella in the West.”

She announced her resignation on Schoology on April 3, following the precedents of Ms. Emily Chase and Mr. William Reusch, who also both wrote Schoology posts that they were leaving Shalhevet this year.

I’m stepping away so that I can respond to needs facing Jewish high school journalists and journalism programs around the U.S.

— Mrs. Joelle Keene

“I’m stepping away so that I can respond to needs facing Jewish high school journalists and journalism programs around the U.S.,” Mrs. Keene wrote in her post. “JSPA is in a position to catch a moment when the importance of Jewish presence in newsrooms has become clearer to many, and ​the organization therefore can help many more students and programs.

“But it needs much more time than I can give it while being part of the faculty and co-curricular community of Shalhevet. It’s become obvious to me over the last few months that I would have to step up with significantly more time and personal focus, or risk the organization’s future at precisely the moment when it is most needed and able to reach so many more.”

 

Mrs. Keene built up the Boiling Point from a photocopied opinion journal to an award-winning student newspaper – one of the most frequently awarded in the country, and the only Jewish high school newspaper operating at its level. The paper won its 10th Gold Crown in hybrid news from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association this year – its 12th consecutive Crown since 2012 – along with numerous other top awards from national journalism organizations.

“We just got ranked this year the number one newspaper for writing in the entire country by Quill and Scroll,” a journalism honor society and division of NSPA, said Tali Liebenthal, Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Boiling Point this year. “All of these awards that line the walls of this school are as a result of Mrs. Keene and her teaching and her leadership at the Boiling Point.”

Tali, along with alumni from the Boiling Point and  choir, said Mrs. Keene affected her students’ growth as people in high school and beyond.

“From Mrs. Keene, I learned what it means to be a citizen of this world..,” Tali said. “Mrs. Keene taught me that putting work into something, something that you care about, something that will affect people for the better, putting in that work is so gratifying on the other end.

“She taught me how to think about things differently, how to think about things that are obvious, how to read a news headline and think critically about it, how to listen to a presidential campaign and think critically about it, how to ask for different opinions and open up my mind in search of truth.”

I think Mrs. Keene really took what it means to be part of a Just Community very seriously and imparted that passion onto us. We would work late hours into the night because we were pursuing truth.

— Alec Fields '17

Tali said the Boiling Point looks at issues in the community and beyond in order to bring light to them and keep readers informed. She said the paper would not have had the effect that it had on the school without the leadership and teaching of Mrs. Keene.

Along with Shalhevet news such as new and departing teachers, Firehawk sports, Town Hall meetings and Just Community controversies, during Mrs. Keene’s years the Boiling Point regularly covered public health news including measles and pertussis outbreaks and vaccines; the opening months of the Covid pandemic; national, state and local elections; and changes in Modern Orthodoxy such as kol isha (women singing), LGBTQ inclusion, and the titles of highly trained female Judaic Studies teachers.

Former Co-Editor-in-Chief Alec Fields ‘17, currently in medical school at Dartmouth University, said Mrs. Keene made every student on the Boiling Point feel that they had the ability to change what needed changing at Shalhevet and beyond. With her guidance, he said, they understood they were part of something bigger than themselves, and that they each played a role “in the development of Modern Orthodoxy.”

“We covered serious topics within Judaism we wouldn’t have thought we would be able to cover, but with her guidance we were able to find angles to write about those topics that made the stories worthwhile,” Alec said.

“I think Mrs. Keene really took what it means to be part of a Just Community very seriously,” he said, “and imparted that passion onto us. We would work late hours into the night because we were pursuing truth.”

JSPA came about partly to spread those skills more widely in the Jewish world. It started after then-new Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal stopped letting Boiling Point staff attend National Scholastic Press Association conferences, which operated half on Shabbat, and so she wanted to create a similar program for kids who were observant. Then Mrs. Keene realized that most Jewish high schools did not have newspapers at all.

“It was clear pretty soon that my vision [for JSPA] had to be to have more schools with real papers in the Jewish world,” she said. “But my original vision was that Jewish high school media should have a Jewish ethical underpinning for the work that they did.”

She said JSPA now has 16 member schools and hopes to grow to 20 this year.

 

Former Choirhawk Sabrina Jahan ‘20, who graduated from USC this year, described how Mrs. Keene built a space with the choir that allowed kids to escape the stress of high school and everyday life.

“If I didn’t have the choir and the arts that Mrs. Keene really championed at Shalhevet, I would have had a much more difficult experience getting through high school,” said Sabrina.

CHOIR: Leading choir practice with soloist Emily Klausner in Room 308,  2019.
(Maia Lefferman )

Mrs. Keene inspired former choir member Evan Rubel ‘20 to start arranging choral music, and because of his experience of both singing and arranging, he continued to study music after high school. He just graduated from MIT, where he was a leader of their a capella group, The Logarhythms.

“Mrs. Keene taught all of us, not just me, that beyond just an appreciation for the arts, that the arts really have a healing power,” Sabrina said. “You could tell how the music moved her.”

Mrs. Keene said she learned very early on when she started teaching that high schoolers can be taught anything. Kids who never had never sung or worked with music joined the choir and were able to sing the most challenging music in a sincere and professional way.

“Choir – I can’t even describe the level of joy it was, and still is,” Mrs. Keene said, “when you have a bunch of kids and they’re all learning their notes, and then suddenly it turns into this magnificently beautiful thing that couldn’t possibly happen if they weren’t all there doing their separate things.

“It’s partly a metaphor for life, and it’s partly just on its own an immersion in beauty that is indescribable.”

The most formative experience and skills Evan learned from four years of music with Mrs. Keene were how to listen to others and blend the choir’s voices together in harmony. He was the first student to arrange music under Mrs. Keene; she arranged about half of the music the choir sang overall, usually from songs requested by seniors.

Choir has my heart and journalism has my head. Of course, one can’t exist without the other.

— Mrs. Joelle Keene

She said she couldn’t say which was more important to her, music or journalism.

“Choir has my heart and journalism has my head,” Mrs. Keene said, adding with a smile. “Of course, one can’t exist without the other.

“One thing I’d say applies to both journalism and music – I hope I’ve convinced kids that there’s an incredible reward to…work on something that’s really difficult and challenging, and not give up,” she said.

“What you get when you push through that difficulty and stay with it, what’s on the other side of that effort is something so wonderful, and that really uses all of these capacities that God’s given us.”

When the paper is getting ready to print – when BP staff are in “production,” as coined by the students – Boiling Point staff often spends late nights at school finishing stories and layout with Mrs. Keene, sometimes staying past midnight and occasionally until dawn.

Before Covid slowed things down, every winter on the Sunday before their Chanukah concert, the choir would go to Mrs. Keene’s house for a last rehearsal. They’d have hot apple cider and coffee cake, and then go Chanukah caroling around the neighborhood.

Mrs. Keene taught all of us, not just me, that beyond just an appreciation for the arts, that the arts really have a healing power.

— Sabrina Jahan '20

The group also went on performance tours in Seattle and Northern California during Mrs. Keene’s time, singing both English and Hebrew songs at schools, shuls and community centers. The group also sang at Jewish- and Israel-related events around Los Angeles and community appearances of Shimon Peres and Judea Pearl.

Both for the Choirhawks and the Boiling Point staff, alumni and current students said, time with Mrs. Keene outside of school was when they learned the most from her.

“We could talk to her about life and hear the lessons she had to impart,” Sabrina said.

 

Mrs. Keene first joined Shalhevet in 2003 as Music Appreciation teacher, choir director and orchestra director. She became Boiling Point advisor the following fall after the General Studies Principal at the time, Nat Reynolds, asked her to revive the newspaper, which had been dormant.

“We were kind of still writing the book on building the Shalhevet community..,” said Seth Samuels ‘06, who did choir, the Boiling Point and the orchestra; he currently works for a Los Angeles city council member.

“We had a lot of extracurriculars, but from year to year you never knew if it was going to stay,” Seth said.” When she came to work at Shalhevet she really solidified those extracurriculars and the other institutions, and hopefully they will continue with the same verve and enthusiasm she brought with it.”

Alumni said that Mrs. Keene’s dedication to her students and to her job is unmatched, and she often had a different way of teaching that just worked.

Former Editor-in-Chief  Leila Miller ‘12 – now a journalist based in Mexico City, former foreign correspondent for the LA Times and a Pulitzer Prize nominee as part of a team who covered a fatal ship fire in Oxnard Harbor – said that she was set to do an interview with a high ranking official one summer in high school for the Boiling Point, but told Mrs. Keene she didn’t think she was qualified.

“She responded saying, ‘Of course you’re not qualified. But you can do this,’” Leila said.

Several alumni said they felt empowered by the amount of responsibility they had.  Seth Samuels felt that in the choir, orchestra and

“She gave me a lot of responsibility,” Seth said, “which was very empowering.”

One thing I’d say applies to both journalism and music – I hope I’ve convinced kids that there’s an incredible reward to…work on something that’s really difficult and challenging, and not give up.

— Mrs. Joelle Keene

Mrs. Keene said that was partly deliberate. She said she had always made a point to not learn how everything worked in the InDesign layout software or the website, so if kids don’t know how to do something, she can’t answer and they have to figure it out themselves.

When asked what she would have missed if Mrs. Keene hadn’t been at Shalhevet her four years, Leila said “my journalism career.”

“I’m a professional journalist now, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s completely Mrs. Keene’s doing,” Leila said.  “I wouldn’t be a journalist if it weren’t for Mrs. Keene. I remember that she had so much energy at the BP. She was always so excited.

“Sometimes it was a combination of excitement and anxiety, but it energized all of us regardless. Her passion for journalism just really came through.”

At least three other BP alumni are also working in journalism: Gaby Grossman ‘08, Director of Editorial Operations at New York Magazine; Anna Gordon ‘15, a reporter for Time Magazine in London; and Louis Keene ‘08 – Mrs. Keene’s son – who covers religion, sports and the West Coast for The Forward.

 

Looking ahead, Mrs. Keene is afraid that divisions in the Jewish community will make it harder to do good journalism freely and independently, something she plans to fight for at JSPA.

She is also worried that people are starting to only want journalism that affirms what they already know.

“When things are very black and white and people are divided,” Mrs. Keene said, “journalism is the cure for that. You don’t retreat from journalism at that moment, you lean into journalism, because only journalism can illuminate for each side the position of the other side.

When things are very black and white and people are divided, journalism is the cure for that. You don’t retreat from journalism at that moment, you lean into journalism, because only journalism can illuminate for each side the position of the other side. Without that bridge and understanding, the center is empty, and the center needs to be strong to hold a community together.

— Mrs. Joelle Keene

“Without that bridge and understanding, the center is empty, and the center needs to be strong to hold a community together.”

Part of the coverage of the Boiling Point is reporting on challenges, and sometimes problematic behavior, in Shalhevet and the local Jewish community, but also outside of it, she said. Those types of stories are among what Mrs. Keene is most proud of from 21 years.

She gave three examples: an report on a basketball game, by Benjamin Gamson ‘23 last year when fans behaved badly on both sides; a breaking news story by Benjamin and Jacob Lefkowitz-Brooks ‘20 about the first Covid cases to arrive in Los Angeles, some of which came from an AIPAC meeting; and a breaking news story by Noah Rothman ‘17 about a Modern Orthodox high school in New York allowing girls to put on tefillin.

On the music side, she is hoping choral music will revive as society moves further away from Covid, when it was impossible.

 

Leila said working at the Boiling Point felt like working in a professional newsroom.

“Mrs. Keene made you feel like what you were doing was really serious,” Leila said, “like you could have an impact – and also just make you love doing it.”

Alec said everything he learned at the Boiling Point applies in his life.

Mrs. Keene made you feel like what you were doing was really serious, like you could have an impact – and also just make you love doing it.

— Leila Miller '12

“I learned not only how to write articles, but how to openly approach conversation in an effort to truly listen to others and hear what they have to say,” he said. “She taught us not how to ask questions, but how to listen, and ensure that we learn as much as we can from a single conversation.”

Tali echoed his sentiment.

“I would not be the person I am today if I had not been with Mrs. Keene these past four years,” Tali said.

Evan said Mrs. Keene had this effect on generations of alumni.

“It was truly an honor to be a student of Mrs. Keene,” he said.

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