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June 19, 2008 - Image 5

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2008-06-19

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Editor's Letter






Emboldened Opportunity


earning is a core root of the American Jewish land-
scape. We nurture it in so many ways. One of the new-
est concepts is the Hebrew-language charter school
funded by taxpayers. The idea isn't new, but it gained traction
when Jewish America's most provocative mega-philanthropist
lent his financial s upport recently.
The immediate prevailing concern
was whether Conservative dayschools
would bear the brunt of the effect
should a national network of publicly
funded Hebrew-language schools,
which aren't Jewish schools, catch on.
At issue is an application to open the
Hebrew Language Academy Charter
School in a district of south Brooklyn
by fall 2009. A coalition of investors,
with the backing of the Steinhardt
Foundation for Jewish Life headed by
New Yorker Michael Steinhardt, filed
the application June 4 with the New York City Department of
Education and the New York State Board of Regents, acOrding
to the Forward.
Key is the intent to
have a secular elemen-
tary-school curriculum
where modern Hebrew
is taught and spoken,
although not exclusively.
Classes would include
a focus on Israeli his-
tory, culture and society
and those who use the
Hebrew language: Israeli citizens and diaspora Jews. The-cur-
riculum would have to meet New York charter school standards.
Though Israel's language and culture would be central to
its curriculum, the school would not be Zionist. Nor would
it offer religious studies like Torah or talmudic study, thus
assuring compliance with federal law separating church and
state. Jewish holidays might be studied culturally, but not
The K - 5 school would be open to all, initially with kinder-
garten and first grade. It would add a grade each year until
attaining 450 students. News accounts describe the neighbor-
hood as ethnically rich. It includes Orthodox families, Russian
and Israeli Jewish immigrants and other ethnic groups; some
of the kids are educationally at risk.


language charter schools as a better option than Jewish day
schools; they're not in terms of straight-line learning for
Jews. But charter schools are taxpayer funded, making them
instantly more attractive to middle-class families, Jewish or
not, who have opted out of the local public school system.
Funding is always a charter-school issue. In the case of the
Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, the city and state
would provide most of the funding. It's likely the Steinhardt
Foundation and other private fenders wooed by Steinhardt
would supplement that. I'll leave to the courts the overriding
question of whether culture- and language-oriented charter
schools are legal.
I wonder if it's possible to teach Hebrew and Israeli cul-
ture void of religious context given their inextricable link to
Judaism. I also wonder about continued dilution of our public
schools. I think about the role of U.S. public schools in general
and their historic importance as ladders for Jews to reach the
American dream.

Day School Competition
Further, the impact on Conservative day schools remains to
be seen. The movement is
undergoing a metamorphosis
in thinking and practice to
prevent continued erosion
of followers to the growing
Reform and Orthodox move-
It's proper to worry about
Hebrew -language charter
schools encroaching on the
traditional and more expen-
sive turf of Solomon Schechter schools. Hillel Day School of
Metropolitan Detroit in Farmington Hills, which just marked
its 50th anniversary, is relatively strong and stable despite the
rising tuition. The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit
and a vibrant support base have helped achieve that result
through increased scholarships. But the fear that Schechter
schools with less philanthropic muscle behind them could
lose ground to an upstart Hebrew-language charter school
is legitimate. Conservative day school enrollment is down
12 percent over the last six years, the Forward reported. Still,
the confluence of religion, identity, culture, Israel and secular
studies give day schools an edge in breadth of learning oppor-
tunity over Hebrew-language charter schools.
Before there's a stampede toward Hebrew-language charter
schools, I hope the trend is evaluated. Who do such schools
attract? Why do students stay or leave? How many graduates
continue with Hebrew studies? Moreover, benchmarks should be
set to determine if the overall Jewish identity of charter-school
students is somehow enhanced; my guess is that such bench-
marks would reinforce justification for Jewish day schools.
Only then could we measure the impact of Hebrew-language
charter schools and position them on the ever-changing land-
scape of Jewish America. ❑

My big concern is
marketing Hebrew-
language charter schools
as a better option than
Jewish day schools.

No Panacea
Steinhardt is chairman of Southfield-based Jewish
Renaissance Media, which owns the Detroit Jewish News.
He once was a Jewish day school proponent. He now sees

Hebrew-language charter schools as a more inclusive, more
affordable means to exposing the language and culture of
Israel to kids of all religious and ethnic backgrounds.
The Steinhardt-backed Brooklyn school would be the
nation's second Hebrew-language charter school. The first,
Ben Gamla Hebrew Charter School, opened under a cloud
of debate last August in Hollywood, Fla. It is headed by an
Orthodox rabbi and serves kosher meals.
Such schools are fraught with red flags although I agree
with Steinhardt: To reject them without considering their
potential is foolhardy. My big concern is marketing Hebrew-

0 C` Can Hebrew-language charter schools
N La help stave off total assimilation?
I— p
Z z How should Jewish day schools respond
0 0 to this new competitive challenge?
a. 0-


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June 19 • 2008


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