New York approves plan for first public school with Hebrew focus

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Jan 19 15:47:35 UTC 2009

New York approves plan for first public school with Hebrew focus
By Anthony Weiss, The Forward

The movement for publicly funded Hebrew language and culture charter
schools took a giant step forward as a new charter school for New York
City received final approval and plans emerged for a national center
to back Hebrew charter school efforts across the country. On January
13, the New York State Board of Regents approved the application for
the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, a school that would teach
the Hebrew language and aspects of Jewish culture, largely with public
funds. Michael Steinhardt, a former hedge fund manager who has
championed a number of high-profile Jewish causes, funded the
application. Sara Berman, Steinhardt?s daughter and a former editor at
The Forward, was the lead applicant.

Hebrew charter schools have become a hot item in the world of Jewish
identity and education, but it is difficult to tell what the latest
development will augur. By law, the school must be open to all
applicants and be devoid of religious content. Berman has insisted
that the school will welcome children from every background, and that
its priority is to teach Hebrew to anyone who is interested rather
than to instill Jews with a Jewish identity.

?This vote today affirms our belief that learning modern Hebrew, like
many of the other vibrant languages and cultures being taught in New
York?s public schools, can help prepare students of all backgrounds to
succeed in today?s world,? Berman said in a statement released
promptly after the school was approved. ?The same is true for the
values of cultural diversity, community responsibility, and respect
for others that will pervade this school.?

But Steinhardt has spoken publicly about using a national network of
Hebrew charter schools to instill Jewish identity without the private
expense of Jewish day schools.

In fact, Steinhardt has made significant progress in that direction,
and the Brooklyn school, scheduled to open in the fall of 2009, may be
only the first step. The Forward has learned that a Steinhardt-led
group of philanthropists is putting together plans to create a
national support center to assist local groups that want to put
together applications for Hebrew charter schools in their own

The group, called Areivim, consists of 15 multi-millionaires (out of a
projected total of 20) who have each pledged $5 million to support the
mission of promoting Jewish education and identity. Steinhardt is
co-chair, along with Detroit philanthropist William Davidson. Sources
close to the organization, speaking on condition of anonymity to
preserve Areivim?s low profile, said that although plans had not yet
been finalized, it was expected that the center would offer grants and
technical expertise to the local groups.

The prospect of a new Hebrew language charter school in New York City,
home to the nation?s largest concentrations of Jews and national media
outlets, combined with the prospect of a support system for new
schools, represent a major leap for the Hebrew charter school
movement. But some Hebrew charter school boosters are taking a
wait-and-see approach.

?I?m very excited about it. I think it?s fantastic,? said Peter
Deutsch, founder of the Ben Gamla Charter School, the country?s first
Hebrew charter school, which opened in the fall of 2007 in Hollywood,
Fla. But, Deutsch added, ?What?s the purpose going to be? Is the
purpose going to be to educate gentiles about the Hebrew language, or
is it going to be to educate Jews about Jewish history and Jewish
culture and Jewish language?? Deutsch favors the latter.

The news may also bring a sharper edge to ongoing debates in the
Jewish community about the wisdom and efficacy of Hebrew language
charter schools. Critics have variously argued that Hebrew language
charter schools impermissibly erode church-state boundaries,
potentially balkanize Jews from the rest of society, and create a
false dichotomy between Jewish religion and culture.

?The idea here is to strengthen Jewish identity, but you can?t do it
in an open way because you run afoul of the law,? said Rabbi Eric
Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and a critic of
Hebrew charter schools. ?So you end up having rabbis and Jewish
educators involved, and in all probability promoting Jewish commitment
is exactly what they are looking to do, but they can?t do it openly.
It simply will not work.?

Yoffie said the idea would not even work on its own terms to promote
Jewish identity. ?There?s absolutely nothing in 4,000 years of
experience to suggest you can separate out religion and culture and
simply teach culture to the exclusion of religion,? he said. ?Those
two pillars are inextricably intertwined.?

An irony in the approval of the Hebrew Language Academy is that it
will open in the same borough as the Khalil Gibran International
Academy, a public school (though not a charter school) dedicated to
Arabic language and culture that ignited a firestorm of controversy in
early 2007 when it was first proposed. Though some criticized the
notion of the Gibran Academy on the grounds that it would balkanize
the public school system, the loudest protests were from critics -
many of them Jewish - who warned that the school would indoctrinate
students into radical Islamist ideology. One of the most prominent
venues of criticism was the Steinhardt-backed New York Sun newspaper.

The controversy raged for months and eventually culminated in the
school?s principal, Debbie Almontaser, resigning in August of 2007
before the school opened. Almontaser has since sued New York City for
infringing her right to free speech, and the school has reportedly
foundered since opening.

So far, the Hebrew charter school has not been similarly inflammatory.
Those who have criticized the school have done so on policy grounds.
For example, Saul Cohen, the lone member of the Board of Regents?s
charter school committee to vote against the application, said that
his main concern was that the school was not efficaciously organized
to help the largely minority students of the school district where it
would be located. The district does include a number of Russian Jewish
and Israeli immigrants, as well as Orthodox Jews, but they constitute
a small minority of the district?s public school students.

Cohen, who is himself Jewish, argued that the Hebrew language program
wouldn?t be of much assistance to the district?s students in learning
English and would not reflect the ethnic composition of the
surrounding district.

If anything, the application for the Hebrew Language Academy
demonstrates the power that a wealthy, politically savvy backer like
Steinhardt can infuse into the movement. Charter school applications
are typically long, cumbersome and technically complex, which may
account for the fact that despite widespread interest in the concept
since the 2007 launching of the school in Florida, no other efforts
beside Steinhardt?s have yet gotten off the ground.

The Steinhardt application was assembled by an expert team of
consultants. Another consultant handled media and political relations,
and the team carefully cultivated community support. Education
officials praised the application for its high quality and rich
At roughly the same time that the Steinhardt group submitted its
application, a similar application for a Hebrew charter school was
submitted in Englewood, N.J., by Raphael Bachrach, a printing
consultant and local school parent. Bachrach said he and his wife did
most of the work on the application themselves.

?I can?t even clarify in my mind how much work we put into it. A lot
of late nights,? Bachrach told the Forward. ?We didn?t have any
funding from anybody to work with, or really any support, initially,
from anybody except for Peter Deutsch down in Florida, which was more
moral support and ideas.?

Bachrach?s application ultimately wasn?t approved, and though he
doesn?t know exactly why the application was rejected - he suspects
people were wary of church-state issues - he concedes that he
struggled with the technical aspects.

When told about Areivim?s initiative to create a national support
system for charter school applicants like himself, Bachrach was
?Having a group that has funding and a mission of getting [Hebrew
charter schools] started would be great,? he said. ?I hope they call
me and ask me if we need their help.?

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