Jewish Journal

How Jewish are Hebrew charter schools?

by Jonah Lowenfeld

Posted on Aug. 24, 2010 at 11:56 pm

Albert Einstein Academy in Santa Clarita. (Photo by Dan Kacvinski)

Albert Einstein Academy in Santa Clarita. (Photo by Dan Kacvinski)

On Aug. 30, the first day of classes at the new Albert Einstein Academy charter school in Santa Clarita, some of the 200 entering seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders will be singing “Havah Nagilah.”

“Hebrew is ‘havah nagilah,’ ” — come let us rejoice — said Nehama Meged, chair of the school’s Hebrew department, noting that the words embody the spirit of the language. Before coming to Einstein, Meged taught Hebrew for eight years at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, and she called the song the perfect way to introduce beginners to the language. “It’s a lot of happiness,” Meged said. “Let’s be happy. It’s a joy, it’s a celebration.”

Although the school would have, at one point, required all of its students to study Hebrew, its mission has shifted so that students may opt to study Spanish or Hebrew. Nevertheless, Einstein can be counted as part of a growing movement to establish public charter schools offering intensive Hebrew programs. Some are celebrating this development, but many others are asking questions: Is it possible to teach Hebrew without teaching Judaism? Do publicly funded Hebrew-language charter schools violate the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state in schools? What impact will Hebrew charters have on their Jewish students? What about on their non-Jewish students? How will tuition-free Hebrew charters impact Jewish day schools?

With a movement so new, it’s hard to tell. One year ago, just two Hebrew elementary charters were up and running — one in Florida, the other in New York. A third such school is set to open in New Jersey this September.

At least 20 more are in planning stages nationwide, and it likely won’t be long before the effects begin to be felt here in Los Angeles. Einstein Executive Director Rabbi Mark Blazer, 42, who is also spiritual leader of Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, is applying for charters to create three Hebrew-language elementary schools in three Los Angeles-area school districts in the coming year, using the Santa Clarita school as the model. Rabbi Yossi Mintz of Chabad of the Beach Cities is also preparing a charter, hoping to open in the fall of 2011.

“We need to start talking,” said Phil Liff-Grieff, associate director of BJE, formerly known as the Bureau of Jewish Education. “Because these schools are coming.”

“Boker tov, yeladim v’yeladot.”

“Good morning, boys and girls.” That’s how Principal Maureen Campbell starts every day at the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn, the best known of the Hebrew charters thanks largely to a June article in The New York Times. The school opened in 2009, offering a dual-language program that incorporates Hebrew across the curriculum, and it looks to be succeeding. Last year’s first-graders have progressed to the second grade, and the school had three applicants for each available space in this year’s incoming kindergarten class.

The Brooklyn school is also the model for most of the Hebrew charter schools now in development. Its founder, Sara Berman, is a former journalist, a mother of six and the daughter of philanthropist Michael H. Steinhardt. With support from Steinhardt and other major Jewish donors, Berman is applying lessons learned in Brooklyn across the nation. She is chair of the Hebrew Charter School Center (HCSC), a New York-based nonprofit that is assisting 18 separate groups in setting up Hebrew charters. The center is funded by the Areivim Philanthropic Group (co-founded by Steinhardt) and has, so far, awarded $1.6 million in grants to help establish schools based on the Brooklyn model.

That model is one of “partial immersion,” which entails having two teachers in each classroom, one teaching in English, the other only in Hebrew. Math and science are generally taught in English; Hebrew is woven into most other subjects, including arts, music and gym classes. And the social studies curriculum, according to the school’s Web site, “emphasizes the study of world Jewish communities and Israel.”

Last year, about one-third of Hebrew Language Academy’s kindergartners and first-graders were African American. A few were Latino. A spokesman for the school said that he doesn’t expect the diverse demographics to change.

Why is Steinhardt supporting these schools?

“It’s a primary purpose of our philanthropy to bring Hebrew and Israel knowledge, understanding and fluency into the public sphere in America,” said Rabbi David Gedzelman, Steinhardt Foundation’s executive vice president, “and the mechanisms of public education are the best way to do that.” Gedzelman serves on the Brooklyn school’s board and is a board officer with the HCSC. “The vast majority of Jewish children in America are in public schools, and we see a great value in bringing Hebrew knowledge and literacy to children of all backgrounds,” Gedzelman said.

Many of those involved in the Hebrew charter school movement offer some variant of this reasoning. Others, like Einstein Academy’s principal, Edward Gika, emphasize the value of learning a second language in general. “Whether it’s Urdu or Mandarin, it really doesn’t matter,” Gika said, “because the higher order of learning is what we’re focusing on.”

In short, most backers of charter schools focusing on Hebrew-language instruction speak of the schools they are establishing as they would of any language-intensive school. And, indeed, that idea is not new: The Los Angeles Unified School District has at least 10 dual-language or immersion charter schools, according to Jose Cole-Gutierrez, director of LAUSD’s charter schools division. “We’ve got German-English, Mandarin-English, Spanish-English,” Cole-Gutierrez said, and that’s not counting the 30 or so additional dual-language programs — in Spanish, Mandarin and Korean — housed in neighborhood (i.e., noncharter) public schools across the district.

But because modern Hebrew derives from biblical and rabbinic sources, and because it is so intimately connected to the Jewish people, Hebrew-language charter schools tend to raise more alarms among those who monitor the boundary between church and state than, say, Mandarin dual-language charters. (Dual-language charter schools with Arabic immersion programs, another language strongly associated with a particular religion, have been met with similar questions.)

Last year, the student body at Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn, N.Y., was about one-third African American. Starting its second year this fall, the school does not expect its demographics to change. Photo courtesy of Hebrew Language Academy.

“It’s always tricky because there’s a fine line between preaching and teaching,” said Amanda Susskind, Pacific Southwest regional director in the Los Angeles office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “You can teach about various religions in a public school,” Susskind said, but she explained that there is a point at which the curriculum becomes problematic. “Teaching the history of religion is on the right side of that line,” Susskind said. “But promoting one religion to the exclusion of others, or religion over nonreligion, is not.”

Advocates of Hebrew charters contend that Hebrew can be taught as a language like any other. “All languages are rooted in tradition, history and culture — including religious forms [of culture],” Steinhardt Foundation’s Gedzelman said. “The Hebrew language has undergone a 120-year process of secularization and modernization,” he said. Gedzelman added that the Brooklyn-based Hebrew Language Academy’s founders consulted with the ADL and the American Civil Liberties Union in writing their charter.

Berman likened the Hebrew curriculum at her charter to the one she experienced in her six years of French classes in school. “I learned about Bastille Day, and I learned about Noël [Christmas], and I learned about buying a baguette in a patisserie. Similarly, [at Hebrew Language Academy] we’re creating a state-approved social studies curriculum about the different communities in Israel that makes the Hebrew language come alive.”

Practically speaking, it means that the Brooklyn school is closed on Yom Kippur — like all New York City public schools — but that no special mention is made of the Jewish holiday in the classroom. As a civic holiday, Israeli Independence Day is a different story. Last year, principal Campbell said, “Children in our kindergarten and first grade knew about the birthday celebration for Israel, and we had a parade around the block.”

Neither Blazer at Einstein nor anyone at Hebrew Language Academy could say what percentage of their students come from Jewish families. As people running public charter schools, they are prohibited from asking. But whether or not one believes that Hebrew can be separated from Judaism in the classroom, it is clear that schools like these will have a significant impact on the Jewish community.

Today, private Jewish day schools can charge nearly $10,000 in tuition for kindergarten and more than $20,000 for high school. Charters might seem like an affordable alternative to many parents — a fact that has not escaped those heading Jewish day schools. 

“I am completely against this charter school movement,” said Jason Ablin, the head of Milken Community High School. “I do not see it as a benefit.” He said that the Hebrew charters are a response to the rising cost of day school education and the growing number of Jews assimilating into American culture. “It’s like Jewish education lite for now,” he said. In Ablin’s view, the schools’ merits — offering Hebrew-language instruction with some cultural content in a school with a significant Jewish population — isn’t enough.

“If we think that [Hebrew charter school education] is a substitute for Jewish education in the most profound way — and I’m speaking from a high school perspective — I think that we are fooling ourselves,” said Bruce Powell, the head of New Community Jewish High School.

But the proponents of Hebrew charters don’t deny this. “This is not Jewish education,” BJE’s Liff-Greif said, “and that’s something that the HCSC people will say themselves.”

And, indeed, Berman — who sends her own children to private Jewish day school — does. “I always say: These aren’t day schools. There’s a huge difference between a day school and a charter school.”

Berman did note that the Hebrew skills taught at schools like Hebrew Language Academy could give Jewish students a head start on the road to religious education. “In the past, Hebrew schools have spent a lot of time teaching the Alef Bet,” Berman said. “All of a sudden, you will have these kids who speak wonderful Hebrew but have had no Jewish education.” In the communities around these schools, third-party organizations have set up programs of after-school Jewish instruction to meet the specific needs of this new breed of Jewish student.

The Brooklyn model, which has been approved for two elementary schools so far, did not pass muster with Santa Clarita’s William S. Hart Union High School District, about 40 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

Blazer developed the first version of the charter for Albert Einstein in conversation with HCSC, which had awarded the school a $50,000 planning grant. And had its first charter application been approved last February, Einstein would have been the first Hebrew-language charter school in the country to enroll high school students. Einstein students would have had to study Hebrew for four years, plus another foreign language for at least two years. The school was also to be part of the proposed Southern California Center for Jewish Life, a project that is to include a new home for Blazer’s synagogue.

The Hart district turned down the charter application, citing concerns that the school would attract a mostly Jewish student body and thus not serve the general population of the district.

“In order to approve a charter school, we need to showthat the school made its best efforts to reach out to students who will mirror the diversity of the district,” said Vicki Engbrecht, assistant superintendent for educational servicesfor the Hart district.

Blazer — who estimates that only 5 percent of Santa Clarita is Jewish — scrapped the Hebrew requirement and found a vacant 16,000-square-foot building in an office park. The revised charter was approved by a unanimous vote in March.

With Hebrew optional, HCSC withdrew its funding offer. And while Blazer said he was “disappointed” that the funding did not come through, he said that Einstein’s change — from being a Hebrew-language charter school to being a charter school that offers Hebrew as a second language — wasn’t that significant. “It doesn’t change the spirit of the school,” Blazer said. “It doesn’t change what really happens on the ground.”

Einstein students who elect to study Hebrew this fall — and about two-thirds of those in the ninth grade have — will also take a “cultural component” that Blazer called “Judaism class from the secular perspective.” But otherwise, the school looks a lot like any other charter school.

Except that after classes are over, the Einstein building will play host to Jewish-themed enrichment classes, which, Blazer said, will be offered through his planned Southern California Center for Jewish Life. “It could be Israeli dance, it could be Israeli politics, it could be Jewish texts,” Blazer said.

And, unlike Gedzelman and Berman, Blazer speaks much more frankly about his vision of Einstein as an alternative to Jewish day schools. “If we wanted to make sure that every student in our community could go to a Jewish day school,” he said, “we would have done it. We didn’t do it. We didn’t think it was a priority or we didn’t think it was a problem. So, for the 90 percent of kids who aren’t going to Jewish day schools, this is an alternative.”

Rabbi Mark Blazer, founder of Albert Einstein Academy in Santa Clarita.

New Community Jewish High School principal Powell believes the best way to strengthen Jewish identity is not through Hebrew charters but by strengthening day schools like his own. He pointed out that the Jim Joseph Foundation, which funds Jewish education, recently allocated a total of $12 million over six years in grants to five Los Angeles-area day schools (including New Community Jewish High School and Milken) in an effort to help the schools build their endowments. (The Jim Joseph Foundation was invited to join Steinhardt and others in supporting the Areivim group that funds Hebrew-language charter schools, but declined, according to the foundation’s president, Alvin Levitt. They are not considering supporting Hebrew charters at this time.)

For now, neither Powell nor the Milken school’s Ablin know of any families who considered enrolling in their schools but opted instead to send their children to Einstein. Both schools are about 25 miles from Einstein, so distance might be a factor — although Blazer said that 20 students (or 10 percent of Einstein’s student body) had signed up for a daily bus from the San Fernando Valley.

A better indication of the impact Hebrew charters might have on Jewish day schools might be found in the experience of East Midwood Hebrew Day School, a Solomon Schechter elementary school about one mile from the Hebrew Language Academy in Brooklyn. “The first year, I believe it had an impact on our enrollment,” Executive Director Eugene Miller said. “We lost about eight families to the Hebrew charter school, a couple of which came back. This year, our kindergarten class has grown by about 30 percent. That says to me that the charter school has become more clearly defined as a public school that is offering Hebrew and not a tuition-free Hebrew day school, and I think that there was some confusion about that.”

The debate over Hebrew-language charter schools has been going on mostly within in the Jewish community. But the funding of these schools raises much broader — and equally important — questions about charter schools, school choice and the role of publicly funded education.

Part of this involves charter schools competing with private schools. “In the independent-school world in general,” Ablin said, “there’s a feeling of significant challenge from the charter school movement, because they are marketing themselves specifically to [families who would otherwise send their children to] independent schools.”

Einstein Academy is no exception. “The Albert Einstein Academy fuses the best of public school — which is really the fact that it doesn’t cost any money — with the best of private school,” Blazer said to a room full of parents at an information night in July.

Then he noted the school’s tax-deductible status and asked parents to donate. “It’s an investment in your child,” he said.

Parents collectively have donated almost $100,000 to Einstein in 2010 (Blazer hopes to reach $200,000 by the end of the year), and many have volunteered their time. Blazer acknowledged that the school will need “some major funds” for its first few years but was emphatic when he said the school “is not going to be built on the backs of the families.” He said he will announce two major gifts, one from a philanthropist “who is totally outside of our community.”

All of these charter schools spend more per pupil than they get from public funding. Einstein plans to spend approximately $10,000 per pupil this year, $8,000 of which comes from the state. (“We’re spending $30,000 on computers,” Blazer said. “That’s our choice.”) Schools like the one in Brooklyn that require two teachers in each classroom rely on philanthropic donations — and the HCSC expects to award just over $1 million in grants to the Hebrew Language Academy and the schools modeled after it this coming year.

That might be good news for the students attending these schools, but it has real implications for local school districts. Every student who opts to attend a charter instead of a neighborhood public school takes his funding with him to the charter. And for school districts facing fiscal austerity, every dollar lost makes an impact.

The public high schools in Santa Clarita’s Hart district will be funded this year at $5,671 per student. The district, which is responsible for educating about 23,000 pupils, had to cut $15 million to balance the coming year’s operating budget. They have eliminated more than 40 support positions and are in negotiations with teachers over a proposal to shorten the school year by four days.

“At this point, we don’t have an educational foundation,” Engbrecht said, speaking of the nonprofit organizations that some school districts have established to allow individuals to make tax-deductible donations to public schools. “Although it’s something that we might be exploring in the future.”

The jury will be out for some time on schools like the one in Brooklyn and the one in Santa Clarita. But Blazer, for his part, is betting on Einstein. His daughter will be entering the school as a ninth-grader, which will put her in the school’s first graduating class. That’s as good a testament as any to his confidence in the new school.

Tracker Pixel for Entry


View our privacy policy and terms of service.