“None of us lives in the world alone. We all share it. [Mr. German] is a great example of bridge building, and God knows we need more of that.”
Rabbi Steve Leder, Wilshire Boulevard Temple
It was a Friday afternoon and the auditorium at Brawerman East Elementary School was buzzing.
The school’s student body—just under 100 children from kindergarten through sixth grade—filled the first several rows with their teachers for the final welcoming Shabbat service of the calendar year. They wore kippot with the school’s logo and beaming smiles on their faces.
Four members of the faculty and clergy led the students on stage. They sang in English and Hebrew. Two stroked guitars. Another banged a tambourine, producing the rhythm that had all the children dancing. They posted light-hearted questions between prayers to students to keep them engaged. The delightfully innocent answers incited laughter from the adults in the room.
Near the end of the hour-long celebration, one of the clergy on stage took the mic for a Shabbat story. The moral: It’s always best to share your light with the world.
Isai German, one of the teachers in the audience, was sitting behind the students. He was among the parents who arrived to enjoy the Shabbat service and pick up their children for the weekend.
“Sometimes,” German said, “I tear up listening to these Shabbat stories.”
Brawerman East is a Jewish day school on the Koreatown campus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the oldest Jewish congregation in Los Angeles. An older sister school, Brawerman West, is located 10 miles west. An early Shabbat service is held every Friday for the students—usually inside the sanctuary, the majestic synagogue on campus, when available—as a festive finish to the school week.
It was all foreign to German not too long ago.
German, 39, isn’t Jewish. The son of Mexican immigrants, German was raised Christian and attended public schools in Bakersfield 100 miles north of Los Angeles. Now, six years since becoming a full-time teacher at Brawerman East, he’s entrenched in the tight-knit community and beloved by students.
“Not only do I think it’s important, I think it’s essential,” Rabbi Steve Leder, the senior Rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, said of German’s background. “None of us lives in the world alone. We all share it. He’s a great example of bridge building, and God knows we need more of that.”
“There’s not much to say other than he’s awesome.”
German handles two subjects at the school: Innovation and Science. He’s in his second school year teaching Science after a colleague abruptly departed and left the school scrambling for a replacement. He volunteered as a temporary solution. The transition was so seamless he was asked to continue permanently. He said he uses his Science class to generate love of learning, give students scientific skills and content, and build the foundation for students for his passion down the hall on the second floor, where he’s eschewed elementary educational norms to unlock children’s minds.
German’s Innovation classroom was a computer lab when he became a full-time teacher in 2016. It wasn’t what he wanted. He envisioned a different, hands-on experience to stimulate creativity and initiate practical life skills for students.
So, instead of a computer lab, his classroom resembles a high school shop class. Drills, levels, hammers, and pliers are stored along one wall. Jars of nails and screws sit on counters. There are hand saws of all sizes and two power saws. His students use them all.
“I’m actually at Home Depot a lot,” German said with a laugh.
German incorporates pragmatic problem-solving by having older students canvass teachers throughout the school for needs and constructing the necessary products to help. The list of problem-solving projects includes step stools and walkie-talkie organizers. On Wednesdays, there’s a woodworking club after school.
Students learn coding (German hosted an online coding camp when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the school to pivot to virtual learning). They can explain artificial intelligence. Some have joined the school’s new Robotics team. Their imaginations run wild in the physical and digital worlds.
“Their creativity levels are really high,” German said. “And this is where they can cultivate and expand on them. This is their fun space. If they could be here all the time, they would be.”
With the younger students, he distributes $10 in play money and creates budgetary constraints for projects to add a financial education component.
“They talk to their peers and have to barter and share,” German said. “They start thinking about it. It’s hilarious. It’s fun doing it with the kindergartners.”
“He allows them to fail safely. If you don’t fail, you’re doing something wrong.”
Carrie Scott, Parent
All the while, German’s ability to connect with his students, to make them feel like peers and not subordinates, empowers them. One of those students, fifth-grader Malin Scott, nominated German for the Honored National Teaching Award. Their story, a partnership between teacher and pupil, epitomizes German’s impact.
The connection originated when Malin was in first grade. It solidified around her idea to help others the next year. During the pandemic, when the school was shut down, Malin and her father, Ben, would drive around and fill Little Free Libraries around their community with books. The activity inspired her to have one at The Karsh Center, an outreach space affiliated with the Wilshire Boulevard Temple that provides multiple services for the surrounding community.
People turn to The Karsh Center for dental care, vision care, mental health services, pro bono legal services, grief support, groceries, clothing vouchers, baby supplies, and more. Malin wanted to add free books to the contributions, but she needed some help. Enter German.
“He was just like, ‘Sure,’” Malin said. “He didn’t even give it a second thought. He was just like, ‘Yeah, why don’t you come over during snack today?’”
Malin and German collaborated to build the Little Free Library during snack time, lunch, and after school. The project took two weeks to complete.
“I remember the day that we finished it and we put it in,” Malin said. “I was so proud of myself. I didn’t even know what to say. And Mr. German believed in me.”
Four years and a pandemic later, the Little Free Library remains at The Karsh Center and Malin’s love for Innovation class hasn’t wavered. She’s known in her house as the “maker” of the family. She draws and creates crafts off videos she finds online. She wants to take coding as a foreign language in middle school. The enthusiasm awes her parents. They credit German.
“He allows the students to fail safely,” Carrie Scott, Malin’s mother, said of German. “If you don’t fail, you’re doing something wrong.”
While German’s background provides a different perspective, his global travels attach another dimension. He regularly visits Mexico to see family and explore other parts of the country. He’s traveled to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Berlin, Barcelona. and Copenhagen to name a few locales. Sometimes alone, sometimes with friends and family.
The experience is ideal for Brawerman East, a school that prides itself on being in the center of Koreatown, one of the most diverse communities in the world. German, who lives in an apartment near the school, serves as a link to the bustling urban neighborhood.
Last summer, he traveled to Israel for the first time to teach English in Jerusalem. He plans on returning next summer after establishing intimate connections there at a time when antisemitic rhetoric has exploded in the United States—and in Los Angeles—recently.
“I’m spending a lot more time standing up to hatred than I ever imagined would be required of me,” Rabbi Leder said. “I’m spending a lot more time reassuring my own community that all roads do not lead to Auschwitz, that America is different. But we have to be vigilant to be sure America remains different.”
Nadine Zysman, the principal at Brawerman East, explained that safety and security have always been a priority at the school. Drills accounting for everything from earthquakes to airborne threats are frequently conducted. “The building is a safe haven for us—students, faculty, and families. It is part of who we are.”
German said faculty don’t initiate conversations about specific antisemitic incidents unless the student raises the subject.
“We definitely have that communication with families,” German said, “to ensure that school and home share a common message.” Additionally, the students learn about the history of antisemitism in the older grades, through carefully planned and implemented curricular units about the Holocaust.
It’s a challenge German never imagined encountering. Teaching—at any school, in any community—wasn’t in German’s plans when he left Bakersfield for Los Angeles 17 years ago. Growing up he thought teaching was “the worst job ever.”
He became an architect but quickly found toiling at a firm boring. In 2011, he left to work for non-profit organizations. It was through a non-profit in South Los Angeles, based out of the University of Southern California, teaching science and engineering that he found his way to Brawerman East. In six short years, his impact has proven unique, limit-pushing, and profound.
Just ask Malin.
“There’s not much to say,” Malin said, “other than he’s awesome.”
Photography by Christina Edwards
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