When New Jersey’s Hatikvah International Academy Charter School opens on Tuesday, it will join five other Hebrew charter schools operating in the United States, two of them brand new.
Launched only three years ago with the opening of the first of three “Ben Gamla” elementary schools in South Florida — and with planning under way for almost 30 more Hebrew charter schools throughout the country — the national Hebrew charter school movement is moving at a rapid clip.
But as they proliferate, these publicly funded institutions pose a dilemma to the organized Jewish community. With their free tuition and emphasis on language and culture, rather than religion, charter schools have the potential to reach large numbers of unaffiliated Jews. At the same time, their very existence challenges two orthodoxies in communal Jewish life: support for day schools, which risk losing students to the newcomers, and vigilant opposition to anything that even hints of church-state mixing.
Nowhere is this dilemma more apparent than in South Florida, where Ben Gamla schools now enroll 1,000 students, most of them believed to be Jewish, and charters have already been obtained for several more schools.
“We’re servicing more Jewish kids than any Jewish day school in South Florida,” said former Florida Rep. Peter Deutsch, Ben Gamla’s founder.
In a sign of how far the charter school movement has come in a short time, Miami’s Center for Advancement of Jewish Education has, for the first time ever, put Hebrew charter schools on its board’s agenda this fall.
“I’m not saying we’ll endorse [Hebrew charter schools], but I want to engage my board in a discussion of what should be the role of the central agency vis a vis charter schools,” said Chaim Botwinick, the agency’s president.
Botwinick added that he sees some potential for cooperation on charter schools’ after-school Jewish enrichment programs, which, unlike the schools themselves, are allowed to offer religious content.
As a supporter of day schools, many of which feel threatened by charter schools, the agency is walking a “tightrope” when it comes to the newcomers, Botwinick said.
“On the one hand we support and provide all kinds of services to our day schools, as well as funding,” he said. “On the other hand, we can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that potentially large numbers of children and families will opt for charter schools.”
A Movement Poised For Growth
On Monday, 200 students filed into Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences for the first day of classes. The country’s first Hebrew charter middle/high school, Einstein is located in Santa Clarita, Calif., 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
A week earlier, the third Ben Gamla school, an 88-student elementary school, opened in Miami Beach, Fla.
With the return of students to the Ben Gamla schools in Plantation and Hollywood, and to Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy Charter School (now in its second year), the grand total of children enrolled in Hebrew charter schools, not counting Hatikvah, whose numbers are under debate, reached almost 1,500.
That’s only a tiny fraction of American Jewish children, of course, a fraction that becomes even tinier when one accounts for the fact that not all Hebrew charter school students are Jewish. Indeed, while the majority of the nation’s Hebrew charter students are believed to be Jewish, no one knows for sure because charter schools, by law, are open to students of all backgrounds and are not allowed to ask students their religion.
Brooklyn’s 229-student school is only 55 percent white, and while some of the black and Latino students — many with Caribbean-born parents — might be Jewish, it is unlikely that large numbers are. The Ben Gamla and Santa Clarita schools are believed to be largely white and Jewish, however.
Nonetheless, if the Hebrew charter model proliferates as planned, it has the potential to reach far more Jewish children than day schools do.
And backers have big plans.
The New York-based Hebrew Charter School Center, funded by Areivim, a philanthropy co-founded by mega-donor Michael Steinhardt, wants to seed 20 Hebrew charter schools throughout the country in the next five years — and it has the resources to do so.
To schools that meet its requirements (which include, according to the center’s website, serving “diverse populations of students”) the center offers free consulting services on everything from charter applications to curriculum development. It also provides grants ranging from $2,500 to $500,000 per year for Hebrew charter schools in all stages of development.
In addition to funding various aspects of the schools themselves, the center offers grants for after-school Jewish enrichment programs that are tailored for charter school students. As public schools, charter schools are not allowed to teach religion, but the after-school programs, if optional, run separately and not formally associated with the schools, can — the Ben Gamla schools, Hatikvah and Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy (HLA) refer interested students to such programs.
HLA, which the Hebrew Charter School Center (HCSC) considers a “Vanguard” school, is the largest recipient of center funding so far. Chaired by Steinhardt’s daughter Sara Berman, who is also president of HLA, the HCSC has also assisted Hatikvah, along with a planning group elsewhere in New Jersey, and groups in Minnesota, California, Arizona, New York and Washington, D.C. The Arizona group is actually in the process of converting a Jewish day school into a charter school.
Meanwhile, independent from the HCSC, Florida has rapidly become a hub of Hebrew charter schools. Deutsch, the founder of the Ben Gamla schools (which have not received funding or assistance from the Steinhardt group), says he has already obtained charters for three more schools in the state and has applied for four more, including one in St. Petersburg, where a Jewish day school recently closed. Deutsch’s group, the National Ben Gamla Charter School Foundation, hopes eventually to run 10 schools throughout Florida, with each enrolling at least 1,000 students.
And while Ben Gamla conquers Florida, another non-HCSC effort — the Albert Einstein movement — has grand ambitions for California.
AELAS, Inc., led by Mark Blazer, a Reform rabbi whose father Phil Blazer owns Blazer Communications, a multimedia communications and marketing group that claims to reach the largest Jewish audience in the country, is already seeking charters for three elementary schools in Southern California: in Santa Clarita, Ventura and Los Angeles. Although the HCSC does not consider the Einstein middle/high school to be a Hebrew charter, because Hebrew is just one of three languages from which students can choose, 75 percent of its students are taking Hebrew, and the elementary schools will require Hebrew.
(Einstein initially was working with the HCSC, but the two parted ways this spring when the school, in an effort to obtain charter approval, removed its Hebrew requirement.)
Florida As Ground Zero
The emergence of Hebrew charter schools puts the organized Jewish community in a confusing position.
The schools are not Jewish institutions, and yet they teach Hebrew and Jewish culture, and serve Jewish families. Complicating matters are the after-school programs (off-site in Brooklyn and East Brunswick, on-site in Florida), which do allow explicitly religious teaching.
Not to mention that their organizers are active in the Jewish community. Steinhardt and Berman (whose own children attend the Upper East Side day school Ramaz) have been active in an array of Jewish institutions, including day schools. Deutsch, who describes his work for Ben Gamla as “chesed,” is well regarded in the Florida Jewish community and, although he declines to label himself denominationally, has been spotted regularly at Modern Orthodox synagogues. And Rabbi Blazer, himself a day school graduate, is a full-time rabbi at Santa Clarita’s Temple Beth Ami, which is Reform.
Not surprisingly, day school leaders — already battered by the recession — are viewing charter schools with concern. And nowhere is that more intense than Florida, which, with its large number of schools and students, is rapidly becoming a veritable Hebrew Charter School Central.
“When you speak with [day] school leadership you do hear concern expressed on a variety of levels,” said Botwinick, of Miami’s CAJE. “Once you begin to drill down somewhat deeper, these concerns are divided into two broad areas: one relates to the need to be more competitive … And the other challenge is sharpening the way in which they brand” — in particular the need to do a better job of communicating the ways (other than tuition) in which day schools differ from charter schools.
So far, the “jury is out” on whether the Ben Gamla schools have hurt area day schools, he said.
Ben Gamla is actually moving into two buildings this year that were vacated by a failed day school, but Botwinick said the failure was not related.
While comparing charter schools to day schools is “apples and oranges,” Botwinick said he visited the Hollywood Ben Gamla a few months ago and “was highly impressed with the level of general studies as well as the Hebrew-language curriculum.”
“The reality is that day schools are reaching maybe 10 percent of the population,” Botwinick said. “The question has to be asked, what happens to the other 90 percent? And this may be a way to develop after-school programs that are engaging, inspiring and may be an opportunity to draw more families.”