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Skirball Cultural Center

2022–23 Recipient of The Friedman Prize

Perspectives on American Jewish Experiences

Erin Faigin

The Skirball Cultural Center has awarded the 2022–2023 Howard I. Friedman Memorial Graduate Essay Prize (The Friedman Prize) to Erin Faigin for her essay, "The Right to Choose and the Housewife Who Got Elected." 

In her essay, Faigin reflects on her choice to attend the Performing Arts Magnet program at Van Nuys High School, made possible in part by US Representative Bobbi Fiedler who—as an American Jewish housewife and small business owner in the 1970s—campaigned for voluntary desegregation programs, including magnet schools, as a matter of personal choice.

As the winning entry in this nationwide competition, Faigin has received the prize of $5,000 and recognition in the Skirball's Oasis magazine. Faigin was also recognized at a dinner reception and public program, Perspectives on Black-Jewish Relations in the Fight for Civil Rights, featuring civil rights icon Rev. Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr. in conversation with Los Angeles Councilwoman Katy Yaraslovsky. 


"Fiedler succeeded in perpetuating ... segregation, while championing the idea of choice, a right which is somewhat novel in Jewish history. It is precisely the freedom to choose—where to live, where to work, who to marry, how to raise your children, where to pray, how to pray—that defines so many American Jewish stories."

—Erin Faigin, "The Right to Choose and the Housewife Who Got Elected"


The Right to Choose and the Housewife Who Got Elected

In 2000, my parents enrolled me in the Math and Science Magnet at Vintage Elementary in North Hills California, a suburb of Los Angeles in the western part of the San Fernando Valley. Come high school, I decided to attend the Performing Arts Magnet at Van Nuys High School. Magnet schools were a foundational part of my educational experience. The primary feature of the magnet school program was that of choice. While it would be difficult (often impossible) for parents to uproot their lives and move to a different neighborhood to determine school assignment, the magnet program allowed parents to choose where their child would go to school. Officials hoped this could lead to racial integration. And that was certainly my experience. My parents did actually move so I could attend a different high school. Had we remained in North Hills, I would have attended Kennedy High School. But my family moved five miles west on Lassen Avenue so I could have the option to attend Granada Hills High School, one of the most competitive high schools in the north San Fernando Valley. But my parents also allowed me to choose where to attend high school, and as a devoted theatre kid, Granada did not appeal to me.  Van Nuys High School hosted three magnet programs (Performing Arts, Math and Science, and Medical), as well as a residential school. I chose Van Nuys because of their impressive auditorium and the variety of advanced placement classes they offered. My best friend from Nobel Middle School, where we were both in the Math and Science magnet, also entered the lottery to attend Van Nuys. We both got in. Buses from across the city converged daily on Kittridge Street, bringing students from as far away as Koreatown and Highland Park. I took a bus from Northridge (it started in Chatsworth) that picked me up every morning at half past six. It was my choice—a choice that is a part of the legacy of Representative Bobbi Fiedler, another Jewish woman from the San Fernando Valley—without whom, my life might have looked entirely different.  

Brown and Los Angeles Public Schools 

In the 1954 landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the United States Supreme Court ruled that state-sanctioned racial segregation of public schools was a violation of the fourteenth amendment and was, therefore, unconstitutional—the effects of which would be felt in every major city across the country. The situation in Los Angeles in 1954 was different than the situation in Topeka. Unlike school districts throughout the South, which employed dual schools (one school for white students, one school for Black students), the Los Angeles Unified School District employed a neighborhood school assignment policy. For the most part, students went to school in their neighborhood. This meant Los Angeles was not the subject of the first enforcement actions implementing the Brown decision. But Los Angeles was far from racially integrated, because in Los Angeles neighborhoods were racially segregated, and so then were their schools.  

In 1970, Judge Alfred Gitelson ruled that the Los Angeles Unified School District had deliberately segregated students by race, that in doing so they had violated federal and state law, and that they had to prepare a plan for desegregation. We often think of school integration in terms of students, but the district’s first priority wasn’t students, it was teachers. Following the 1970 ruling, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) in Washington had notified Los Angeles school officials that nearly $100 million in federal funds would be withheld if the city’s teaching staff wasn’t adequately integrated by the beginning of the 1975-76 school year.  

Initially the district proposed a voluntary teacher integration plan. But if teachers did not volunteer themselves, then the district would have to forcibly reassign them. This caused alarm across the district. Teachers throughout the city refused the changes ordered by the district: there were threats of mass resignations should a mandatory system of integration be put in place. The district acquiesced, and proposed a five-year plan under which current teachers would not receive mandatory assignments, but new teachers (and those who volunteered) would. By the end of the 1975-76 academic year, a teachers’ organization in Los Angeles, the Professional Educators of Los Angeles (PELA), sued to prevent the mandatory reassignments. PELA maintained that the mandatory transfers were “a violation of teachers’ individual civil rights.” The California Supreme Court disagreed and ruled in 1976 that regardless of the reasons behind Los Angeles school teacher segregation, the school district was responsible for taking “reasonable and feasible steps to eliminate segregated schools.”

Bobbi Fiedler leads the opposition 

In 1976, Bobbi Fiedler was a mother of two children who had recently attended Lanai Road Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley. Her youngest daughter, Lisa, had just graduated the sixth grade. The kids went to school in Encino and the family lived in Encino, one of the fastest growing Jewish neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley. According to Bruce Phillips, one of the foremost Jewish demographers, between 1959 and 1979, the Jewish population in Encino increased nearly 400%. Fiedler and her husband moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1966, seven years after they were married. Devoted to raising her children, Fiedler also managed a pharmacy she co-owned with her husband, and volunteered at Temple Judea, a Reform synagogue in Tarzana.  

Fiedler was an active parent—she had been a member of the Parent Teacher Association at Lanai Road Elementary School—but she wouldn’t have described herself as political. That all would change. Within five years of the mandatory teacher reassignment plan, she would be elected to represent California in the United States Congress. Fiedler made her name fighting school busing, but in Congress, she defended women’s access to abortion, supported the Equal Rights Amendment, and maintained the Republican party line on spending and tax cuts. She described herself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. But the issue that catapulted her into politics - her position on school busing – was neither. Labels aside, Fiedler represents an atypical, remarkable, example of political engagement rooted in Jewish identity and American civil liberties.  

Lanai Road Elementary School, where Fiedler’s children attended grade school, was overwhelmingly white, but the Los Angeles school district was not. Even though Fiedler’s children no longer attended Lanai Road, when the parent association called an emergency meeting in response to teacher reassignments, she attended. Fiedler found out that there had been several teacher changes due to the teacher integration plan formulated by the district. “Our sixth-grade class had three changes in less than a matter of several months. Parents were up in arms about it,” Fiedler remembered. When those parents went to confront the area superintendent, they were told to get used to it: not only was teacher integration here to stay, but student integration would follow. 

White parents at Lanai were not satisfied with this explanation. Fiedler was appointed head of the Fact-Finding Committee for the school’s Parent Teacher Association; her task was to figure out what exactly was happening. They came to see the teacher and student integration efforts as bigger than just one school’s experience. Members of the committee began to meet privately, outside the context of the PTA. They formed an organization of their own. They called themselves Bustop, Inc. (BUSTOP). 

BUSTOP fights integration with privacy 

The parents involved in BUSTOP, like the teachers involved in PELA, described preventing mandatory integration (and the method being considered by LAUSD involved mandatory busing) as an issue of protecting their civil rights.  

Though most Angelenos remember BUSTOP for their agitation against mandatory busing, their first target was the Racial Ethnic survey. The district had been implementing these surveys since the early 1960s; the data from the surveys helped determined if the district was racially segregated. The district had released the 1970 survey in early 1971 with little fanfare, but the survey planned for 1976 was hotly contested. While the 1970 survey collected the birthday, race, sex, language spoken at home, and ability to speak English of each student, the 1976 survey linked this information with the name and address of each student. Teachers were to collect this information in class, determining, to the best of their ability, the racial status of each student.  

Parents and educators contended that the survey collected too much information, arguing it could be used for nefarious purposes. Dr. Richard Ferraro, a member of the Board of Education, signed onto a letter with concerned parents, invoking comparison to the Nazis. He told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, “I think the parents who spoke before the Board of Education stated the case most eloquently. Hitler started mass genocide with information compiled through such surveys.” Fiedler felt similarly, “One need only look at history to see the abuses of such information. I object to the loss of privacy in any form.”  

Supporters of the survey contended that those who opposed it were really masking their opposition to integration. But a BUSTOP parent argued that, “objections are purely constitutional. Because of my children’s ethnicity, I don’t see any likelihood of their being bused under any desegregation plan. Whenever race and ethnicity is [sic.] mandated for identification purposes it is inevitable that the loss of rights follows for those so identified.” BUSTOP parents described the Racial Ethnic survey not as tool to aid desegregation, but a threat to their civil rights.  

Opponents of the Racial Ethnic survey maintained that the names and home addresses of children were not necessary to fulfilling the district’s desegregation plan; the district agreed that the information wasn’t necessary, but it would certainly be useful. It would be easier to redraw the boundaries for a given neighborhood school if the committee knew where students of a given race lived. It would also be easier to notify parents of changes to their child’s school assignment if the children were identified in the survey.  

BUSTOP took the district to court. BUSTOP formed a multiracial coalition—“Jewish, American Indian, black, Spanish-surnamed and white”—and argued before the Los Angeles Superior Court that the survey violated privacy rights guaranteed in the United States and California Constitution. The coalition of parents and teachers behind BUSTOP succeeded in preventing the district from implementing the Racial Ethnic survey as devised. 

This debate took place during a broader national conversation about the right to privacy. The right to privacy had first been enumerated by Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren in an article published in the Harvard Law Review in 1890. Brandeis and Warren identified the right to privacy as part of a broader right to life, inherent in the common law. “Now the right to life has come to mean the right to enjoy life—the right be let alone,” they wrote. Brandeis and Warren were writing in an age of expanding technological intrusions into daily life; they were especially concerned with the proliferation of paparazzi and the notion that one’s private life could be captured and disseminated without the consent, or even knowledge, on the part of the individual. This principle was considered by the Supreme Court in several cases (Olmstead v. United States, Katz v. United States, Griswold v. Connecticut). California voters had taken a stance on the right to privacy in 1972, when they voted to amend the state constitution to include the right to privacy as one of the inalienable rights of people. The Federal Privacy Act of 1974 established a national code of fair information practices that regulated the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of personal information maintained by government agencies. Significantly, the law required that any personal information collected by a federal entity must be “relevant and necessary to the agency’s purpose.”  

By the end of 1976, Fiedler won a seat on the Los Angeles School Board campaigning against the Racial Ethnic Survey and for student privacy and individual choice. She quickly formed a coalition to prevent the implementation of district wide busing. Instead Fiedler favored voluntary desegregation programs, especially the magnet school program. Magnet schools hoped to entice students of different backgrounds to attend schools outside their neighborhoods by offering specialized interest-based programs. Most often, magnet schools were placed in majority-minority neighborhoods, with the intention to attract Anglo students with specialized programming and additional resources. Her advocacy was successful, mandatory busing never materialized, and Los Angeles’ magnet school system remains in place still today.  

Fiedler’s political identity 

In 1980, Fiedler was elected to Congress on an unusual policy platform. She ran as a Republican, opposed to busing and mandatory school integration. But as a representative of California in the House of Representatives, Fiedler broke with the Republican party over two major issues: abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1981, Fiedler voted against a bill that prohibited federal employees’ from using their medical insurance to pay for abortions. She maintained throughout her career that women should be able to decide for themselves, based on their own “personal, ethical, and moral convictions,” whether they wanted to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Despite her vote, the bill passed, and federal employees were prevented from accessing abortion through their health insurance. Then in 1983, Fiedler voted in favor of the ERA, though that too was defeated.  

In most other matters, Fiedler maintained the Republican party line. She secured a position on the Congressional Finance Committee and defended Reagan-era tax cuts (though she did support expanded federal support for women and children). Reagan endorsed her for reelection in 1984. To the contemporary observer, these positions can be hard to see as part of a single consistent political identity. But to Fiedler being a feminist, a conservative, and a Jew, did not seem contradictory at all.  

Fiedler, like many of those who agitated against the integration policies outlined by the Los Angeles School District, had not been exceptionally politically active before motherhood. The extent of her previous political involvement was limited to elected positions in the National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), she once noted in an interview. But as an American Jew, Fiedler could lay claim to a long, politically active tradition. Indeed, her Jewish identity informed much of her political ideology.  

To Fiedler, her Jewish identity raised the stakes of individual choice and personal privacy. But that didn’t mean she didn’t understand the desperate need for racial integration. According to Fiedler, “I always had pretty strong feelings about segregation [and] I am also Jewish, so I was strongly opposed to segregation and felt that it…did have to be eliminated and that decision was one that was appropriate in terms of its primary focus of trying to eliminate separate but equal.” Magnet school choice, was her answer to this set of conflicting priorities.  

Though I grew up in a post-Fiedler Los Angeles, I lived in her legacy, voluntarily riding the school bus cross-Valley. My education was better for it. Van Nuys was diverse, and it did successfully bring students of different races from all over the city to learn together, even as neighborhoods and neighborhood schools remain highly racially segregated. Fiedler succeeded in perpetuating that segregation, while championing the idea of choice, a right which is somewhat novel in Jewish history. It is precisely the freedom to choose—where to live, where to work, who to marry, how to raise your children, where to pray, how to pray—that defines so many American Jewish stories.  

Erin Faigin

Erin Faigin is a scholar whose work has previously focused on Yiddish writers and the community that forms around them. She is now writing a dissertation on the history of the Valley Girl and her relationship to the Jewish American Princess. Though she was raised in and writes about Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, she lives in Wisconsin. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Donor Support

The Howard I. Friedman Memorial Graduate Essay Prize and related programs are made possible by generous support from the following donors:

Pamela and Jeffery Balton 
Howard Bernstein
Alyce and Philip de Toledo 
The Friedman Family 
Marcie and Cliff Goldstein 
Dennis Holt
Jessie Kornberg and Aaron Lowenstein 
Madeline and Bruce Ramer
May and Richard Ziman