Neither Floretta Caldwell nor her husband is Jewish, but this year at their daughter Dionna’s request they celebrated Chanukah.

And a few weeks ago on the way to her piano lesson, the little girl started chatting away in Hebrew. “I said, ‘Dionna, I have no idea what you just said,’” her mother laughed.

Dionna, who is African American and will also celebrate Christmas and Kwanza this month, is a first grader at Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick, N.J. The school, which opened this fall and has 96 students in kindergarten through second grade, is one of two Hebrew charter schools in the New York area and six in the entire country. They are part of a nascent but ambitious movement of publicly funded (and privately supplemented), tuition-free schools that, while forbidden from promoting religious practice, teach Hebrew language and Jewish/Israeli culture.

At both Hatikvah and Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy, which opened in August 2009, that approach is attracting a highly diverse, and not just Jewish, group of students. Nonetheless, nearby Jewish day schools, particularly ones affiliated with the Conservative movement’s struggling Solomon Schechter network, are beginning to feel the impact of the Hebrew charters.

In the past month alone, six families reportedly transferred from the Schechter of Raritan Valley to Hatikvah, according to one Hatikvah parent who asked not to be identified. Schechter officials did not return calls requesting confirmation by press time.

In the current issue of CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, Elaine Cohen, executive of the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, describes Hebrew charter schools as “a very real concern” and notes that, “There’s no doubt that they are striving to attract day school families, particularly Israelis, new Americans and children of parents who are not affiliated with synagogues. Those charter schools are in direct competition with day schools…”

Hatikvah and HLA are the first charter schools to open with assistance from the year-old Hebrew Language Charter School Center, funded by a group of prominent Jewish philanthropists who include Michael Steinhardt and Harold Grinspoon. The center, which last week hired Aaron Listhaus, the chief academic officer of the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Charter Schools, as its executive director, makes no mention of Jewish day schools, or targeted Jewish populations, on its website or in any of its published materials.

Its mission does, however, include supporting a “network of excellent schools that serve diverse populations of students.”

At Brooklyn’s HLA, in an urban district that encompasses poor, middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods, 37 percent of the students are African-American, many of Caribbean descent, and 68 percent qualify for free or reduced school lunches. Of the children assumed to be Jewish, many are the children of Russians and Israelis.

Hatikvah, in suburban Middlesex County, has less class diversity, but a mix of ethnic backgrounds: 40 percent of the student body is non-white, mostly South Asian. While the school is not allowed to ask about religious background, one parent interviewed estimated that roughly one-third to one-half of Hatikvah’s students are Jewish, many of them the children of Israelis.

Why would diverse populations want to attend a school where more than an hour each day is devoted to Hebrew?

Caldwell said she thought it would be useful for her daughter to study any foreign language and was also drawn to the school’s low student-teacher ratio, International Baccalaureate program and full-day kindergarten; East Brunswick’s public schools offer only half-day kindergarten.

Akshata Dhodapkar, a Hatikvah parent who is originally from Mumbai, said she would have preferred her son study Hindi or Mandarin, “just because that’s the way the world seems to be going,” but is “not going to quibble: I think any language learning is excellent.”

Dhodapkar said Hatikvah combines the academic rigor of Indian education with a “more interesting way of teaching it.”

While initially worried Hatikvah would teach Judaism or make her son, a second grader, “feel different” for being Hindu, she now reassures other Indian families that it’s “not a religious school” and not “just for Jews.”

“Having these kinds of schools is important because the kids are forced to interact and get to know each other,” Dhodapkar said. “It’s breaking down barriers.”

The school’s diversity was, in fact, a big draw for many parents, including the Jewish ones.

“If I’d thought it would be only Jewish kids here, I wouldn’t have done it,” said Stacy Feldman, explaining her decision to enroll her second-grade daughter in Hatikvah. Now on Hatikvah’s board, Feldman said she had at one point considered the Jewish day school “just down the road” from her home, but realized she preferred having her daughter exposed to a wider range of kids.

Another Jewish mom, Sheira Director-Nowack, said that because her daughter, a kindergartener, is adopted from Asia, she was uncomfortable with the “lack of diversity” in most Jewish day schools.

“She’s got to be around people who look like her, where she’s not the only Jewish kid and not the only Asian kid,” Director-Nowack explained.

Hebrew Charter vs. Day School?

While many Jewish parents at Hatikvah insist that, had they not opted for a Hebrew charter school, they would have opted for a public school, many in the Jewish day school world worry the tuition-free schools could drive them out of business.

And nowhere is that concern greater than in the Solomon Schechter network, where enrollment declined by 4.8 percent in the past year, according to a recent census conducted by the Avi Chai Foundation. (In the same period, Orthodox day school enrollment increased and community day school enrollment held steady.) That decline follows a decade of contraction, in which a number of Schechter schools closed and others changed their affiliation from Schechter to nondenominational. According to Marvin Schick, an Avi Chai consultant who conducted this year’s census and several previous day school studies, Schechter enrollment in the United States declined by almost 25 percent between 1998-2008, shrinking from 17,563 students to 13,222.

Hatikvah is less than three miles away from the Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley, while Brooklyn’s HLA is just a mile away from another Schechter school, the East Midwood Hebrew Day School.

So far Hatikvah has had a “really kind of minimal” impact on the nearby Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley, according to that school’s head, Rabbi Stuart Saposh, who was interviewed before the Jewish Week learned about the recent transfers.

Rabbi Saposh declined to say whether enrollment at the 105-student, k-8 school has dropped this year, but noted that, while considerably larger a decade ago, the day school has been “about that size for a number of years.”

“I can’t say we haven’t lost any students to Hatikvah, but it’s a handful of kids,” he said, declining to offer specifics.

Hatikvah, too, declined to answer how many of its students had transferred in from Jewish day schools, a spokesman saying they “don’t track that data.”

Rabbi Saposh emphasized that comparing Schechter, where tuition ranges from $14,000 to $17,000, to a Hebrew charter school or any public school is “apples and oranges.”

“We have a Jewish atmosphere, a Jewish ambiance,” he said. “We beat to the rhythm of the Jewish lifestyle, Jewish calendar. Obviously we have Hebrew language, but also Bible studies and rabbinics. We daven [pray] every morning.”

Eugene Miller, executive director of the 200-student East Midwood Hebrew Day School — just a mile away from the year-old HLA — said his enrollment is up by 21 students, but the charter has nonetheless had an impact, particularly because “these are not the seven fat years,” a reference to the biblical story of Joseph, “but lean years economically.”

Asked whether East Midwood, where tuition ranges from $9,000 for kindergarten to $13,000 for eighth grade, has lost students to HLA, Miller said, “The numbers that I know about are very small. But people who make the decision to go there and not here, unless they discuss that with me, I won’t know.”

In her recent article critiquing the charter schools, the Schechter Association’s Elaine Cohen expressed concern that the optional after-school religious programs being created for charter school students (several with funding and support from the Hebrew Charter School Center) “are led mostly by Chabad educators, whose perspectives on Jewish life are at variance with ours.”

Members of Chabad, the chasidic sect known for its outreach to liberal and unaffiliated Jews, run Chai Central, the optional after-school Jewish studies program for Hatikvah students. JUMP, a program for Florida’s Ben-Gamla students, is under Orthodox, but not Chabad, auspices. In Brooklyn, the optional after-school Jewish studies program is at the Kings Bay Y and not affiliated with any denomination.

According to Cohen’s article, the Solomon Schechter Day School Association explored the possibility of “becoming a provider of afterschool religious education in areas where we would not be competing against ourselves,” but concluded “that it would be demoralizing, counterproductive, and against the best interests of the existing institutions to offer such programs in communities where there already is a Schechter or community school.”

Not all Conservative Jewish leaders see charter schools as a threat, however. Alongside Cohen’s CJ article ran two other pieces, one by a Hebrew teacher at HLA and another by Rabbi Paul Plotkin of Margate, Fla., arguing that “charter schools can reinvigorate” the Conservative movement, particularly if synagogues rent space to the charter schools and offer optional after-school programs to their students.

Mah Yesh Po?

On a morning last month, Hatikvah, which rents space from a Presbyterian church, was bustling with activity.

In a kindergarten class, a teacher talked in Hebrew about the weather.

“Is there sun? Is there rain? Clouds?” she asked in Hebrew, as the children sat on the rug, clamoring for turns to come up to the front of the room and answer her questions.

Holding up a stuffed dog, she discussed the toy’s clothing: the colors, buttons and other features. Then she invited the children to come up and discuss their clothes.

“I have levan [white] right here,” called out one boy in a mix of Hebrew and English as he pointed to his shirt.

Since it was the birthday of a girl named Yessenia, the teacher wished her a happy birthday in Hebrew and the children spontaneously began singing “Yom Holedet Sameach.”

After the impromptu birthday celebration, the teacher began singing “Yesh Po Mashehu,” (Here Is Something) and brought out a velvet-covered box with tiny objects inside, inviting the children to come up individually to answer, “Mah yesh po,” what’s here?

“Is it inside the box? Under the box? On the box?” the teacher asked in Hebrew, encouraging the children to practice their newly acquired vocabulary.

That morning, while their students were in art class, the two second-grade teachers — Sara Schwartz and Laurie Kisner — eagerly came into the main office area to report to Principal Naomi Drewitz about the progress of an Indian student. The girl had started at Hatikvah just two weeks earlier, speaking not a word of Hebrew; that day, she raised her hand and spoke a full sentence in Hebrew.

Next week: After-school Judaic programs designed for Hebrew charter students.