Inside the Kings Bay Y, a modest, postwar, two-story Jewish community center on a busy stretch of Nostrand Avenue adjacent to a housing project, the sounds of schoolchildren’s shouts, laughter and footsteps ricochet over the linoleum floors, through the chlorine-scented cinderblock-walled corridors, from the gym to the fluorescent-lit classrooms and activity rooms, to the swimming pool.
Deep in the heart of Brooklyn, one of the biggest experiments of 21st-century American Jewish education is in process: the development of after-school Judaic studies programs for students from the new, but highly ambitious, Hebrew charter school movement.
These private, optional programs offer a chance to engage unaffiliated Jewish children while also compensating for what is, from the Jewish community’s perspective, a major shortcoming of Hebrew charter schools: their inability to teach Bible, prayer or other religious content.
And yet, as private institutions that recruit their students from taxpayer-funded (and privately supplemented) charter schools, these after-school programs must walk a careful tightrope so as not to blur, or appear to blur, church-state boundaries.
Adding to the tricky balancing act is the fact that these after-school programs and some of the Hebrew charter schools receive grants and other support from a shared source: the New York-based Hebrew Charter School Center, which is funded by a partnership of prominent Jewish philanthropists, most notably Michael Steinhardt.
The 55 children bused to the Y each afternoon from the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School eat, do their homework, swim, play in the gym — and are immersed in the religious aspects of Jewish culture that are off-limits in their charter school.
“What we’re trying to do is put together a program that will be an energizing, exciting, joyful opportunity for kids who are already learning Hebrew to be able to learn more about their background and tradition,” said Alvin Mars, the lead consultant developing the program.
Mars, whose career has included running a Ramah camp, the West Coast’s Brandeis-Bardin Institute, the American Hebrew Academy boarding school in Greensboro, N.C., and the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America’s education center, said he was eager to help shape a program that “has the potential of informing what will happen across the country in other communities.”
Right now about 25 percent of HLA’s students opt for the Kings Bay program; it’s the most popular after-school program, but the majority of the charter school’s students, who have already put in an eight-hour day, go directly home at dismissal, picked up by parents, grandparents or babysitters.
Kings Bay is not the largest of the three Jewish after-school programs in the country for Hebrew charter students. That title goes to the Jewish Upbringing Matters Program (JUMP), whose three sites together serve approximately 300 students — slightly under 30 percent of the total enrollment from the three Hebrew charter schools in South Florida. Twenty-one students from the Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick, N.J. (about 20 percent of the student body), attend Chai Central, an after-school program run by the local Chabad house.
However, the Kings Bay Y program has received the most attention from the HCSC, which hired Mars and several other high-profile Jewish educational consultants to develop, help supervise and evaluate the curriculum.
The hope in the HCSC, which aims to help open 20 Hebrew charter schools by 2015, is that the Y’s emerging program, which includes a camp-like track called Chavaya and a more traditional one called Omek, will serve as a model that can be replicated around the country.
Interestingly, the Y program, like the Brooklyn charter school it serves, has attracted a large number of non-Jewish kids: an estimated one-third of the participants are gentile, mostly African-American, their parents drawn by the Hebrew homework help and extended hours.
The non-Jewish families are “very positive, they come to our Jewish celebrations, the children sing brachot,” noted Ilya Bratman, the Y’s director of Jewish education.
On a recent afternoon, on a blue rug decorated with Hebrew letters, 12 kindergarteners are clearly entranced by their teacher, Efrayim Unterman, despite their visible sleepiness.
When Unterman holds up a dreidel, the children call out the names of the Hebrew letters; because of their hours of Hebrew instruction at HLA, they already know the meanings of the words “nes, gadol, haya, sham,” (a great miracle happened here) that the letters on the dreidel signify.
Unterman, a Wexner Fellow and Yeshiva University grad who taught most recently at an Orthodox Jewish day high school, later told The Jewish Week that he has found teaching at the Y to be very “rewarding” and “refreshing.”
“The children are experiencing something here— they’re not just being told things,” he said. “This is supposed to be something that leaves an imprint on them and a very positive affect. One of the 6-year-olds came to me and said, ‘I love when you come to teach,’ and that made me know we’re on the right track.”
Although developed with support from the same philanthropists whose grants supplement the budgets of the charter schools, the after-school programs are kept carefully separate from the charter schools so as to stay within the legal guidelines of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“HCSC is completely privately funded and is not a governmental actor in any way, so it can support any kind of program it wants without any problem legally,” said Rabbi David Gedzelman, executive vice president of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and a board officer with HCSC. “At the same time, it supports Hebrew charter schools, so it wants to make sure the Hebrew charter schools are doing everything correctly in terms of legal issues. We recognize that the charter school education can’t have a Jewish identity or religious component to it, but wanted to make sure Jewish students would have opportunities outside the charter schools to build on the platform of the Hebrew fluency and Israel education they get during the day and get a deeper education.”
The HCSC “created a structure where we work with local Jewish education institutions in proximity to where the charter schools are and make [Jewish education] programs available,” Rabbi Gedzelman explained. “We make it very clear that the only relationship the charter school can have to these programs is a custodial relationship — they deliver the children but can’t be involved in looking at the curriculum and can’t help them.”
Although roughly 10 percent of the HCSC budget is devoted to the after-school programs, this aspect of the center’s work is not mentioned anywhere on its website.
Why? Because “the main target for the website is the people planning the schools,” a spokesperson for HCSC said the group thought it would be “confusing” to mention the after-school programs there.
“Once we know there is going to be a charter school in an area, we will approach third-party educational institutions and let them know” about opportunities to develop Jewish after-school programs for the students, the spokesperson said, adding that “we don’t want the [charter school] planning groups” involved.
A bus trip separates both Kings Bay and Chai Central from the charter schools, but in Florida, the boundaries are less visible. The JUMP locations in Plantation and Hollywood are, like the Hebrew charter schools they serve, on Jewish community center campuses; the Miami Beach JUMP is in the same building, a rent-paying tenant of the charter school.
The boundaries between school and after-school can pose challenges: the after-school providers say it can be frustrating trying to leverage the children’s Hebrew knowledge and build on what they are learning in school when they are not permitted to have meetings with the charter school teachers or administrators.
“We help the children with their homework and do our best to determine what they’re doing by looking at the homework,” Mars said. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for us or the school to have any association, so we don’t get anything from them.”
Recruiting can also be touchy. The charter schools are not allowed to promote the Jewish after-school programs, although they are allowed to publicize them alongside other after-school programs.
“We stay on the sidewalk” outside the charter schools “when passing out flyers for recruiting,” said Rabbi Jay Lyons, JUMP’s director, adding that while the program could “probably get away with being more aggressive,” he doesn’t want to make the charter school administration uncomfortable.
While JUMP and Chai Central are both under Orthodox auspices, officials with the Hebrew Charter School Center said that they would like to see a variety of Jewish institutions — including liberal synagogues — apply for grants to host after-school programs for charter students.
Eli Schaap, director of education and research for the Steinhardt Foundation, who is on the Hatikvah board and has been consulting for the HCSC, said, “We would love if the local Reform temple would run a program, and the Conservative one and the Orthodox. We think this is a platform anyone can use. What would a Reform temple do with the time if it did not have to teach about Hebrew and Israel? What about a Jewish day school down the road offering an after-school program for charter students?”
However, reception from Conservative and Reform has so far been fairly chilly. The HCSC approached officials with the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter schools about possible collaboration on after-school programs, but, as the Schechter association’s Elaine Cohen wrote in a recent article in CJ: Voices of Conservative Judaism, the group, concerned that charter schools pose a threat to the survival of day schools, 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.”
As for Reform, the Union for Reform Judaism’s Rabbi Eric Yoffie published an article in the movement’s magazine last May calling Hebrew charter schools “an elaborate charade” and urging the charter school backers to redirect their money toward early childhood education and summer camps.
Meanwhile, many parents with children in the charter schools and Jewish after-school programs, say the combination is perfect for their families.
Ella Ryabova, whose daughter is at HLA and Kings Bay’s Chavaya program, said the after-school program was important to her because her daughter “studies Hebrew and I cannot help her with Hebrew homework.” Ryabova, who grew up Ukraine and had no Jewish upbringing added, “Of course I want her to learn about Jewish holidays too.”
“I wouldn’t give her to a yeshiva. I don’t want her to be very religious, but to know Jewish culture is good.”
Meanwhile in Florida, parent Michael Gerson, who at one point had considered a liberal day school for his two children, is delighted with their experience at the Ben Gamla charter school and JUMP.
“The teachers themselves are really living Torah and mitzvot,” he said. “They’re not only standing in front of the class teaching it, but they embody it, live it as their lifestyle. And that’s infectious.”
The combined experience offers “a pretty good approximation of the experience of a child at day school,” he noted.