New York: State Weighs Approval of School Dedicated to Hebrew

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Jan 12 15:41:24 UTC 2009

January 12, 2009
State Weighs Approval of School Dedicated to Hebrew

Nearly two years after a wave of protests over New York City's first
public school dedicated to the Arabic language and culture, state
education officials are expected to consider greenlighting a
Hebrew-language charter school in Brooklyn this week.  The school
would open in the fall if it is approved, first by a committee of the
State Board of Regents on Monday and then by the full board on
Tuesday. It would begin with 150 kindergartners and first graders and
be in District 22, which includes the Sheepshead Bay, Midwood and Mill
Basin neighborhoods. The district is 45 percent black, 13 percent
Hispanic and 15 percent Asian. It also has a substantial population of
Jewish immigrants from Russia and Israel.

The State Department of Education staff has recommended that the
Regents approve the school, and such recommendations are generally
heeded. But at least one regent said he planned to raise questions
about the proposal. Charter schools are publicly funded but
independently operated. The proposed school is backed by
philanthropists including the former hedge fund manager Michael H.
Steinhardt, who has given tens of millions of dollars in recent years
to programs dedicated to boosting Jewish identity among young people.
One such program, Taglit-Birthright Israel, has sent more than 200,000
Jews ages 18 to 26 on free trips to Israel since 1999.

Sara Berman, Mr. Steinhardt's daughter and a former parenting
columnist for The New York Sun, is the charter school's lead
Organizers are taking pains to assure state officials that the school,
called the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, would not cross the
church-state divide. They have hired Dan Gerstein, a communications
consultant, to smooth the way politically and to handle public
relations. They are also in negotiations with a candidate for
principal who is not Jewish but who has experience in dual-language

The application states that students will receive daily, hourlong
Hebrew lessons, and that Hebrew will be woven into some art, music and
gym classes — with children learning the Israeli folk dance Mayim in
gym, for example. In addition, the social studies curriculum will
include lessons on "Hebrew culture and history in the context of both
American and world history," according to the application.
"The H.L.A. planning team understands fully that no instructor or
staff member can in any way encourage or discourage religious devotion
in any way on school premises," the application states. "We also
understand that the full study and exploration of any language
necessarily includes references to the rich cultural heritage
inextricably tied to that language, including elements touching on

Planners say they envision a student body that reflects the district's
diverse demographics. Though Ms. Berman declined to be interviewed for
this article, she said last year, when the application was first
submitted, "I hope that we're very clear that this is not a Jewish
school," adding, "There will be in no way any religious devotion at
this school." If approved, the academy would join a growing collection
of charter schools nationwide whose curriculums center on an ethnic or
cultural group, even though by law they must be open to all students.
A recent review by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a
Washington advocacy group, found that of more than 4,600 charters
nationwide, 113 have mission statements speaking to a particular
cultural theme. Those include the country's first Hebrew language
charter school, Ben Gamla, which opened in Hollywood, Fla., in 2007
amid heated public discussion, and the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy in
Minnesota, which has generated debate over whether it encourages the
practice of Islam.

In Brooklyn, the Hellenic Classical Charter School is focused on the
"classical study of the Greek and Latin languages, as well as history,
art and other cultural studies," according to its Web site. Throughout
the city, there are 81 schools run by the Education Department that
offer dual-language programs in Chinese, Russian, Korean and Haitian
Creole, for example. In New York, the only such school that has
generated an outcry is the Arabic language Khalil Gibran International
Academy, whose founding principal was forced to resign after a
controversial newspaper interview.

The Hebrew school, which the city approved in October, has not
generated much debate, but some fear it could. "It has the potential
to attract a lot of negative attention," said Christopher Spinelli,
the president of District 22's Community Education Council. Adem
Carroll, the executive director of the Muslim Consultative Network, a
community group, said that he would "be watching to see that due
diligence be done, that the school is inclusive of New York City kids
from all backgrounds and that it doesn't pander to any national

Saul B. Cohen, a member of the Board of Regents, said that he would
raise questions at the committee meeting on Monday about the need for
such a school in a relatively high-performing district, and how it
would steer clear of church-state issues. "There are youngsters who
study Chinese who are not Chinese in origin, but they want to study it
for linguistic purposes, business purposes," he said. But he
questioned whether Hebrew was similarly useful. In Israel, he added,
English was "completely widespread."

Karen Brooks Hopkins, another regent, described the charter
application as "first class," adding that she hoped it would be
Some critics of the Khalil Gibran school said last week that they also
objected to the Hebrew school. "I don't think it's the business of a
public board of education to be creating these segregated,
hermetically sealed schools with specific cultural adaptations," said
Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a trustee of the City University of New York. "You
want a special school for that; you can go to an archdiocese school,
you can go to a school under the aegis of the Greek Orthodox Church,
you can go to a yeshiva."

Mr. Wiesenfeld said that he would not actively protest the Hebrew
school as he had the Khalil Gibran school because he did not have the
time and did not think it posed the same "potential threat to the
society."  Michael Meyers, the executive director of the New York
Civil Rights Coalition, described the proposed school as "inconsistent
with the purposes of public schooling." "They will not say they're
exclusionary; they will not say the school is not open to everybody,
blah, blah, blah," he said. "They found the formula now for getting
around and skirting the civil rights laws."

Mr. Steinhardt and the founder of Ben Gamla, the school in Florida,
have spoken of the possibility of creating a network of Hebrew
language charter schools across the country, a concept that is
attracting attention from sociologists, educators and community
leaders focused on strengthening Jewish identity and culture. "It
seems to me that if it's successful, it's the type of thing that could
grow," said Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew Union
College-Jewish Institute of Religion. "With enough charitable funds to
kick it off and government funds to support it in Jewishly dense
areas, I think there's a population that would want to use the

Still, he said, navigating the church-state divide could prove tricky.
"They're going to have to walk a very fine line between Jewish as
culture and Jewish as religion, and there will be people who are
looking to disqualify the school for teaching religious practice," he
added. Dr. Cohen noted that in Israel, nonreligious Jews "can learn
Talmud, Bible, Jewish religious customs and regard it as a secular
activity." He said, "Is that possible in the United States of
America?"  "The problem is that Jewish religious practice is part of
Jewish culture," he added. "So how does one make a sharp division
between religion and culture?"

According to the application, the history of Jewish communities around
the world will account for, at most, 20 minutes of class time a week,
while the study of modern Hebrew will provide "both motivation and
link to the culture and physical land of Israel as well as to the very
special archaeological treasures and historical legacy that land
represents." The school is designed to eventually serve 675
kindergartners through eighth graders. Students will be chosen by
lottery, with preference for district residents.

Mr. Steinhardt, a millionaire who has given away $200 million since
retiring 13 years ago, much of it to Jewish causes, holds such passion
for encouraging young Jews to marry one another that he offers his
villa in Anguilla to honeymooners who met on Birthright trips. He
declined to be interviewed, referring questions to Mr. Gerstein.  "I
think his hope is that Jews who are completely turned off by religion,
by rabbis, by Jewish texts, religious texts will find their identity
within this school," said Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American
Jewish history at Brandeis University. "I think he does deeply care
that there be a Judaism for another generation, and his sense is that
if we just go business as usual, that won't happen."
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