COVER STORY:Good heavens!

Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

A Jewish family has a real hellion for a kid; every public school they send him to kicks him out after a couple of weeks, tops.
When they ran out of public schools, they sent him to a Jewish high school. Same thing. Then a military academy. Same thing. Finally, they sent him to a Catholic school. And, two weeks later, he’s getting good grades, starring in the school play and volunteering in the library.
His parents are mystified. “Irving, how can this be? What’s come over you?” they asked.
Irving took a deep breath and nodded at the figure of Jesus hanging on the wall.

“You see what they did with THAT Jewish guy?”

Har-de-har. Very funny (or not).

But certainly not very accurate. In fact, Catholic schools in both the Bay Area and the nation at large are not places where Jewish students are unwelcome — or even uncommon.

Informal estimates put Jews at five to 10 percent of the student body at various local Catholic high schools, as Jewish parents lose confidence in the public school system and take up parochial schools as “relatively affordable” alternatives.

And, to the best of our knowledge, no one is being nailed to the wall, or paddled, rapped on the knuckles with rulers or any of the other stuff you saw in the movies.

In fact, if the Jewish students at Bay Area Catholic high schools j. tracked down are to be believed, they’re having more fun in high school than any high-schooler ought to.

“I loved high school. I still go to visit, usually at the beginning of the school year. Every winter break, I see my teachers,” said Zach Smith, 19, a sophomore at U.C. Santa Cruz and 2002 graduate of Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, where he grew up attending Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation.

“Being at college, I enjoy college a lot. But I really miss high school. College is fantastic, but senior year of high school was even better.”

Wow. Keep in mind that students from other universities flood to UCSC to spend the weekends there. Think about that.

But Smith’s exuberance isn’t out of the norm. Even Christmas at a Catholic school — seemingly the prickliest December dilemma imaginable — isn’t a problem for Jewish students.

“Actually, that’s kind of funny. I’m in charge of the Christmas drive this year. I’m co-leading it with another girl,” said 17-year-old Mira Stern, a junior at San Francisco’s St. Ignatius High.

Stern assures that “I love Chanukah. I live for Chanukah. Holiday season is, like, my favorite,” but she still has taken the initiative to organize the school’s food and gift gathering drive for local underprivileged families. For her, it’s all part of “being in the community,” and a few bits of tinsel on the walls don’t take away from that.

In fact, like many Jewish students at Catholic schools, Stern has gotten used to tuning out the symbols. After all, “that Jewish guy” is on nearly every wall.

“For a couple of weeks my freshman year, I noticed it in every room. But, after a while, I didn’t even notice,” said Daniel Koss, 19, a 2004 graduate of Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo.

Koss was one of three Jewish siblings who attended Catholic schools; his older sister, Rachel, 22, graduated from Notre Dame High School in Belmont in 2000, and his oldest brother, Adam, 25, spent his first two years at Serra.

The reasons behind Richard and Diane Koss’ decision to send their children to schools with crosses on the walls and priests on the faculty are similar to those of most Jewish parents who send their kids to Catholic schools.

The Kosses were concerned about the quality of the public schools in their San Carlos neighborhood. Then, balancing academics and finances, they discovered that Catholic schools are often half the price of Jewish as well as secular private institutions. (Other reasons families gave for passing on Jewish high schools were inconvenient locations and extremely small student bodies.)

Still, the money is not insignificant. Richard Koss estimates he may have spent $60,000 or more educating his three oldest children, and even he took out a loan to finish out Daniel’s schooling after he lost his office supply business in 2002.

Serra even gave the Kosses a 35 percent break on tuition, which Richard said was a particularly generous offer.

“They look at a Jewish kid going there and they know they’re not going to get much out of me afterwards,” he said.

Zach Smith’s father, Michael, sent his 16-year-old daughter, Joanna, to Bishop O’Dowd as well. This was largely due to Zach’s glowing review, but also because Oakland schools such as Head Royce and College Preparatory can run more than $20,000 a year.

“That’s more than at U.C. And that’s not cheap! But at least there you’re getting room and board,” he said with a laugh.

“We found that a Catholic education is affordable. Right now, my daughter’s tuition is [about] $8,500 a year.”

Now, $8,500 a year buys a lot of school supplies, but Michael Smith decided it was worth it. He didn’t want to deal with Oakland’s public school system, and sending his two children to O’Dowd has been cheaper than moving to Piedmont.

Still, the decision to send his children to a Catholic school wasn’t a no-brainer for the Beth Jacob congregant who describes his own religious convictions as “Conservadox.”

He consulted Rabbi Howard Zack, then Beth Jacob’s spiritual leader, and Zack gave the move his blessing. Of course, Smith wasn’t the first congregant to send his child to O’Dowd, and he was greatly reassured when he learned more than a few of the school’s faculty have studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Zack, now in his fourth year in the pulpit of the Orthodox Main Street Synagogue in Columbus, Ohio, recalls his discussion with Smith, and affirms that Bishop O’Dowd was “the absolute right call for this family.”

Still, he refuses to give a carte blanche approval of any Catholic school, instead making an individual choice based on the student, the family and the parochial school.

Hypothetically, Zack might recommend that one student attend a specific Catholic school while suggesting that another seek alternatives based on the respective families’ knowledge and commitment to Judaism.

“You don’t want to send child to a school that will take away from their Jewish roots,” he said.

Meanwhile, Stern’s father, Charlie, is the president of the board of Menorah Park senior center in San Francisco. His cell phone rings “Hava Negillah.” His family attends Congregation Sherith Israel, and Mira graduated from Brandeis Hillel Day School in the city, which her younger brother still attends.

But, like other Jewish parents, he wanted to send his daughter to a smaller, academically outstanding high school. And, when he walked through the halls of St. Ignatius, it reminded him of his own student days at Washington High (minus the decor, of course).

Yet while Zack was understanding, others in the Jewish community aren’t. In fact, the Jewish students contacted for this story said they receive way more flak from fellow Jews than from the non-Jews with whom they sit shoulder to shoulder in the classroom.

“I feel kind of shunned in the Jewish community,” said Joanna Smith with a nervous laugh.

“Sometimes, when I go to temple retreats, I get so embarrassed when people ask me what school I go to. When I say Bishop O’Dowd, they say ‘What’s that?’ I say it’s a Catholic school in Oakland and they say, ‘Why do you go to a Catholic school?’ It’s embarrassing. I was raised in shul and then I go to Catholic school.”

Perhaps the No. 1 assumption is that the teachers push religion on non-Catholic students. Not so, say the kids.

“Nothing has changed. I still go to High Holy Days, I still go to Shabbat sometimes,” said Jacqueline Burbank, a 16-year-old junior at St. Mary’s College High School in Berkeley.

“You want to show people that being a Jew is a really cool thing.”

Zach Smith, meanwhile, said he became more religious in high school, and he now keeps partially kosher.

Other students, especially Joanna Smith, were surprised to find they enjoyed the comparative religion classes mandated in Catholic high schools, and especially enjoyed being used as a reference. Smith gritted her teeth, however, when her freshman-year religion instructor “called tefillin ‘phylacteries.’ And she called the Sh’ma the ‘shee-ma.'”

Burbank and other students, meanwhile, got on so well with St. Mary’s principal and religion instructor Brother Kenneth that they dubbed him “The Big BK.”

And as far as Catholic school uniforms — again, that’s mostly a thing of the past. The majority of Bay Area Catholic schools simply require neat, modest attire (Mira Stern’s outfit on the cover is typical) or, perhaps, a polo shirt.

Rachel Koss, though, had to wear an outfit her father described as “godawful” at her all-girls’ school.

Still, the 22-year-old Millbrae resident manages to pull a silver lining out of the dark cloud of an unflattering white uniform.

“By senior year, I was ready to never put it on again. But I got up at 7:45 and I was at class by 8:15. I didn’t have to worry about finding matching clothes or impressing anybody,” she recalled.

Bad clothing aside, not every aspect of Catholic school rubbed or rubs Jewish students the right way.

Rachel Koss managed to connive ways to get out of mandatory Mass. In fact, her mother sometimes contributed the odd note claiming a doctor’s appointment.

Masses didn’t go well for Adam Koss either. When everyone else was kneeling and taking communion, he recalls “twiddling my thumbs for an hour.”

Adam Koss also had problems being told “what Jews believe” in religion classes, and felt constricted by the strictness of Catholic school culture more than the actual religion. After two years, he left Serra and transferred to the secular, private Menlo School in Atherton.

Catholic school “wasn’t horrific at all. Most of my good friends from [Serra] are still my friends. It just wasn’t always the best thing for me. I didn’t like it that much,” he recalled.

Also, at Menlo, “There were girls. That was a big plus.”

There are girls at Bishop O’Dowd — Joanna Smith is one. But she, too, has found religion classes to be hit or miss. And “Christian scriptures” isn’t doing it for her.

“I’d say a third of our class is Jewish, and we all sit in the back and roll our eyes,” she said with a laugh.

Now that sounds more like high school!

“High school itself wasn’t easy,” recalled Rachel Koss.

“But as far as being Jewish in a Catholic high school, that was easy.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.