By September 2012, there may well be a Hebrew charter school at each end of the George Washington Bridge.
Shalom Academy, an elementary school that would open this fall and serve both Englewood and Teaneck, won New Jersey state approval last week. On the other side of the Hudson, the proposed Sosua Hebrew Language Academy has submitted a charter application and is beginning to reach out to area families.
The schools would join two other Hebrew charters in metropolitan New York, and six throughout the country, a fledgling and ambitious movement of publicly funded (and privately supplemented) schools with the potential to dramatically reshape American Jewish education.
But perhaps more than any other Hebrew charter, the Englewood/Teaneck school — situated in a heavily Orthodox area where the overwhelming majority of Jewish children currently attend Jewish day schools rather than public schools — is poised to fuel controversy in the local Jewish community.
Unlike Sosua and existing Hebrew charter schools in East Brunswick, N.J., and Brooklyn, Shalom lacks the backing of the New York-based Hebrew Charter School Center and its charter approval (following two rejections) has taken several observers by surprise.
While the Jewish reaction has been somewhat muted so far because the charter announcement was unexpected and came on the eve of the Yeshiva Week vacation, a few opening salvos have been issued.
A post announcing the charter approval on the Bergen County Yeshiva Tuition Blog, an informal and anonymous forum discussing alternatives for (and gripes of) financially strained yeshiva parents, attracted more than 400 comments. Several anonymous posters, including the blog administrator who goes by the handle “200K Chump,” wrote that they would pull their children out of yeshiva if they win the Shalom lottery.
Meanwhile, Yossi Prager, executive director of the Avi Chai Foundation and a board member of Yeshivat Noam, an Orthodox day school with campuses in nearby Bergenfield and Paramus, expressed reservations about the school in an op-ed in the New Jersey Jewish Standard.
Shalom Academy “is likely to test the extent to which day school parents will choose free Hebrew and general studies over the more comprehensive but expensive Jewish education offered in day schools,” he wrote, adding that the local Conservative day school and Modern Orthodox elementary schools are particularly vulnerable to this “threat.”
Prager’s op-ed argues that while Hebrew charter schools might be a “step up” for Jewish children who would otherwise attend public schools, charters, which are forbidden from teaching religion, cannot match the Jewish education and environment offered in day schools and yeshivas.
“Bergen County has many Jewish families in public and non-Jewish private schools who could benefit from a Hebrew-language charter school,” he wrote. “Serving these students would be an admirable goal — and would require placing the school in districts that have many Jews but low day school enrollment. Englewood/Teaneck does not fit that bill.”
For now, much about Shalom Academy and its organizer, Raphael Bachrach, remains a mystery.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Bachrach is a printing consultant and owner of RBI, a company that lacks a functioning website. While Bachrach spoke to The Jewish Week and other publications in 2009, he has not only refused all recent interview requests from The Jewish Week, but also declined interviews with several New Jersey newspapers covering the school’s charter approval.
So far Shalom Academy has no website, and its charter application has not been made public. (The Jewish Week filed an Open Public Records Act request this week to obtain a copy of the application.) It is not clear who, besides Bachrach, is involved in the project.
The lack of support from the Hebrew Charter School Center, a new organization funded by mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and several other prominent Jewish donors, is notable however, particularly since the center is currently working with eight other schools-in-progress around the country, including Sosua and efforts in Manhattan Beach, Calif., Minneapolis and Scottsdale, Ariz. The center is also working with several other community leaders still in the exploratory phase.
While Bachrach attended the center’s 2010 conference, his grant requests to the center have been rejected, and he was not at this year’s conference, held earlier this month in Westchester County.
“We feel their vision of a Hebrew-language charter school does not match our vision of a Hebrew language charter school,” said Sara Berman, who is chair of the center and president of Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy Charter School.
Pressed to elaborate on the ways the vision differs, Berman, who is Steinhardt’s daughter, said only, “One example that might appear small that really matters to us is the fact that they are starting with so many grades at once. We believe it’s important to start as small as possible.”
But speaking privately, several people in the Hebrew charter school world expressed concerns that Shalom Academy would not seek a diverse enough student body and that it might not uphold strict separation of church and state.
Prager, in his op-ed, wrote that Bachrach’s “interest in attracting students away from local day schools was one reason that the Michael Steinhardt Foundation-backed National Center for Hebrew Language Charter Schools distanced itself from the effort.”
Bachrach, his wife Nina (an unsuccessful candidate for Englewood city council this fall) and their five children are members of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, an Orthodox synagogue in Englewood. Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO for kashrut at the Orthodox Union and the spiritual leader of Shomrei Emunah, told The Jewish Week that Bachrach “has very good motives” and that “he and his wife are good people.”
Asked if he supports Bachrach’s efforts with Shalom Academy, Rabbi Genack said, “It’s a complicated question.”
In wrestling with the day school tuition crisis and attempting to serve the many Jewish children not in day schools, “charter schools may be part of this puzzle,” he said.
But, like Avi Chai’s Prager, he worries that Shalom, given the “demographics” of Teaneck and Englewood, could pull families away from yeshivas and “weaken the yeshiva and day school system within Bergen County.”
“I don’t know how this is going to play out locally, I just don’t know,” Rabbi Genack said. “Striking a balance isn’t easy. Any parent who is considering this has to be honest with himself: this is not a yeshiva education. It will not give the kids the kind of skills and commitment long-term Jewishly” that yeshivas and day schools do.
Across the Hudson River in Washington Heights, organizers of the HCSC-backed Sosua Hebrew Language Academy Charter School say on their website that they are modeling the yet-to-be-state-approved school on Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy Charter School. In an apparent nod to the neighborhood’s large Dominican population, Sosua is named after the agricultural community in the Dominican Republic that served as a haven for hundreds of Jewish Holocaust refugees.
Sosua’s website, which features an “interest survey” and which requests people to sign a petition in support of the school (the signatories are not posted on the site), says the school will occupy its own building and not seek to share space with existing public schools. Enrollment will be open to all residents of Community School District 6, which includes not just Washington Heights, but also Hamilton Heights, Sugar Hill, Fort George and Inwood.
Home to Yeshiva University, Washington Heights has a growing, but transient, Orthodox population along with a growing number of liberal Jews who are priced out of the Upper West Side.
Dr. Ilana Nossel, a Washington Heights parent leading the effort, declined to be interviewed, saying she prefers to wait until “we are further along in the process.”
While Shalom Academy, unlike Sosua, lacks HCSC backing, it does enjoy the informal support of Peter Deutsch, the founder of the Ben Gamla network of Hebrew charter schools in South Florida.
Like Shalom Academy, Deutsch’s three Ben Gamla schools, which enroll 1,000 students and are rapidly expanding, are not part of the HCSC network.
Deutsch, a former congressman, said he has talked with Bachrach several times over the last few years and is supportive of his efforts, but has not been actively advising him in recent months.
“I e-mailed him congratulating him” about his charter approval “and he e-mailed back. He’s really been a grass-roots person doing this on his own.”
Asked why Bachrach has been so evasive, Deutsch said, “He feels like he was burnt by the press a bunch of times — misquoting, things like that, so he may be apprehensive to talk to anyone.”
Deutsch has frequently criticized the HCSC approach in the past year, saying it is not as “scalable” as Ben Gamla and questioning whether it makes sense to create schools in which “the majority of kids are not Jewish.”
The percentage of Jewish children at all Hebrew charter schools is a matter of guesswork, since the schools are not allowed to collect information about religious identity. However, Ben Gamla schools are widely believed to be 80-90 percent Jewish, whereas the HCSC-supported schools in East Brunswick and Brooklyn are both approximately 40 percent non-white, and these populations are assumed to be mostly gentile.
Race may well be an issue for Shalom Academy, which will be in a struggling school district whose student body is currently 91 percent non-white. With its Hebrew curriculum and the perception among some Orthodox Jews that it is a day school alternative, it is not clear whether Shalom will attract a diverse population or will instead be a majority white school inside a majority black and Latino district.
School board officials in Englewood, where 58 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunches, have already told local newspapers of their displeasure with the proposed charter school, saying that it will drain resources from existing schools.
Interestingly, there were several anonymous comments on the Bergen County Yeshiva Tuition blog, euphemistically referring to the potential presence of African-American students at Shalom as the “Jamal Issue.”
One anonymous post wrote, “I thought that [Bachrach] is going to work it out so that the lottery winners are all Orthodox.” Another wrote, “Could we have separate but equal classes at the charter with no religion being taught at all. This should be ok with the constitution I think.”
Similar comments included, “You are dreaming if you think there won’t be Jamals in the school,” and “Bye Bye Losers. Enjoy your non-denominational winter festival holiday with your son in law Jamal.”
It is unclear, however, whether the posts, which some other comments condemned, were made in earnest or were placed as jokes or by charter school opponents seeking to make the school’s supporters appear racist.