Strange Hebrew

Strange Hebrew

Let me say this at the outset: I was lucky enough to be able to send my three kids to Jewish day schools. It was a challenge, but not a hardship, in part because they went on to public high schools after the eighth grade. But private schooling was certainly our biggest expense after our house, and I feel for families for whom the cost of tuition is an enormous burden, if not an impossibility.

Lowering those costs is a communal priority, as it should be: Full-time Jewish schooling should be a viable option for parents who want it and who believe there is no alternative when it comes to the depth and breadth of their children’s Jewish identity.

Unfortunately, even the most generous communities realize that fund-raising alone can’t transform day schooling into a universal option, especially in an economic climate that may take years to improve.

Enter Hebrew-language charter schools. With a boost from private philanthropists like Michael Steinhardt and indulgent politicians like Chris Christie, charter schools are offering an alternative, however imperfect, to day schools. The schools can’t teach religion, but they can offer Hebrew language and Israeli customs and culture. They also can’t exclude non-Jewish kids, although the assumption is that they’ll draw a critical mass of Jews.

Filling in the gaps are private institutions offering after-school Judaic studies programs, recruiting kids from the taxpayer-funded charters and being careful to stay on the right side of the Establishment Clause.

It’s an ingenious solution to an intractable problem, although a risky one. In a growing number of communities, including Highland Park, there is a backlash. It’s not aimed at Hebrew-language charters per se, although since their target audience is middle-class families, they arouse less sympathy than, say, inner-city charters.

New York Times columnist Peter Applebome reported/editorialized recently on efforts to establish a Hebrew charter high school in Highland Park. His beef: Trenton is imposing charters on behalf of special interest groups, “taking decisions from local districts and giving them to the state.”

A school board president in Highland Park tells him, “the expansion of charters came at the expense of existing schools” — although Applebome doesn’t raise the counter-argument that districts must only pay charters for students who would ostensibly have been in district schools anyway. Yet school boards rightly suspect that Hebrew-language charters attract kids who would otherwise go to a private Jewish school — in other words, the charters bring more kids into the public system.

Applebome also quotes Sharon Akman, the real estate agent behind the Hebrew-language high school. She says the school “would provide a distinctive education model that would help students in gaining college admissions.” Adds Akman: “Coming from a Hebrew-language school that stresses community service is going to give them an edge.”

In their public statements, backers of charter schools (like Steinhardt’s Hebrew Charter School Center) never, ever use the word “Jewish.” (They can’t, or they’d run afoul of church/state.) Instead, they use phrases like “rigorous early childhood dual-language program committed to fostering academic excellence and a high degree of Hebrew language proficiency.” They insist that such a school prepares “children for…today’s global community through its focus on foreign language acquisition.”

(Insisting that Hebrew is a ticket to global literacy reminds me of the old joke: Add up all the Chinese and Hebrew speakers, and you get over a billion people!)

But Jewish observers who aren’t filling out charter applications don’t hesitate to talk about them in terms of Jewish identity. “[W]e need as many options as possible to attract the vast pool of Jewishly undereducated kids,” Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin, headmaster at a Jewish day school in Los Angeles, wrote in his local Jewish paper. “Hebrew charter schools may offer a worthwhile, though only partial, answer to the question of how to draw more children into Jewish education.”

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, writing at the influential, suggests “the biggest barrier to Jewish literacy is knowledge of Hebrew,” adding that Hebrew-language charter schools “are poised to expand across the United States.”

And then there’s Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, past president of Steinhardt’s Jewish Life Network. “Highly visible Hebrew charter schools have been started to provide a publicly funded alternative to day schools,” Greenberg wrote in the Forward.

It took me about 10 minutes to Google these quotes and others — don’t think those who oppose charter schools on church/state grounds can’t find or haven’t found them just as easily.

I’m ambivalent about Hebrew charter schools and am even open to arguments that the wall between church and state is way too high. If folks can find a way to promote parochial education without sapping the public school system or asking taxpayers like me to pay for a kid’s education in the Talmud, New Testament, or the Koran, I’ll be all for it.

But I worry about throwing our communal weight behind an option that in some ways dares not speak its name. You have to admit the irony: At a moment when Israel is insisting that its enemies acknowledge it is a Jewish state, American Jews are backing schools that insist it isn’t.

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