August 24, 2010
How Jewish are Hebrew charter schools?
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“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.”