Jonathan Rosenberg does not have an extensive background in charter schools or in Hebrew language instruction. But the 46-year-old civil rights attorney’s resume nevertheless convinced the Hebrew Charter School Center he’s a perfect fit to be its new CEO and president.
“We could not dream of a better leader than Jon Rosenberg,” said Sara Berman, board chair of the center, which develops and supports Hebrew charter schools across the country. “His life’s work — which has been dedicated to promoting educational excellence, equal opportunity, and American pluralism — perfectly personifies the values that animate our movement.”
The Montclair, N.J., father of two spent much of his career practicing law, including as senior attorney in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights under President Clinton, but he’s also been at the helm of a several nonprofits — Roads to Success, a career and college readiness program; Repair the World, which supports Jewish service-learning programs across the country, and, most recently, a six-month stint as executive director of ROADS Charter High Schools, a pair of academic institutions in New York City serving non-traditional students.
“This job brings together so many things that I care so deeply about,” he told the Jewish Week in his first public comments since the announcement was made Tuesday . “It’s a dream job in so many ways.”
Rosenberg grew up in Queens as well as on Long Island in Woodmere and Port Washington. He attended the University of Pennsylvania for his undergraduate work and earned his J.D. from Columbia Law School.
He’s a fan of charter schools — as one of many options — because of the opportunities they provide for innovation and the additional choices they offer to students and parents beyond their zoned school.
“There’s an ability for new models to be developed that are difficult to develop in traditional school systems,” he said in a phone interview. “In charters you can move beyond traditional lines, traditional boundaries, between principal and teacher, advisor and advisee, coach and mentor, etc. You can structure staff roles to the benefit of the particular needs of the student body … construct career models for teachers that allow them to move beyond the classroom.”
Rosenberg replaces Aaron Listhaus, former chief academic officer for the New York City’s Department of Education’s charter school office. Listhaus is taking on the role of executive director for education for the center and will focus on academic, program, and organizational support for the center’s schools as well as on developing new school planning groups and charter school applications.
Rosenberg will concentrate on “expanding the center’s public profile, partnerships and funding,” as well as “ensuring that its staff and resources are deployed effectively to support the creation and quality of Hebrew language charter schools,” according to a news release from the center.
The Hebrew Charter School Center was founded in 2009 by a group of Jewish philanthropists led by Michael Steinhardt, of Birthright Israel fame, with the goal of creating 20 charter schools across the country. The schools do not teach religion, but rather emphasize global awareness, academic rigor and a commitment to racial and economic diversity.
So far it has founded five, including two in New York City — Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy Charter School and the fledgling Harlem Hebrew Language Academy, which opened this fall. It has also opened schools in East Brunswick, N.J., San Diego, and Washington, D.C.
It is not the only player on the national Hebrew charter school scene: a separate network —the National Ben Gamla Charter School Foundation — has opened several Hebrew charter schools in Florida.
Rosenberg, who “grew up in a family that was not denominationally affiliated” but who “had a very culturally Jewish upbringing,” now affiliates with Humanistic Judaism, he said.
He sees great value in bringing Hebrew language and Jewish culture not only to the next generation of Jews, but also to the wider population.
“Jewish communities around the world do not live in isolation and they never have,” he said. “In this country we have a history of successful integration of people of other backgrounds — my own family is multiracial, my wife is African American and Jewish and my children are biracial. … The notion that thousands of schoolchildren a year, both Jewish and non-Jewish alike, while receiving an excellent academic education, will also learn Hebrew and about Israel, is to me of obvious benefit not only to those students, but to Jewish communities around the world,” he said.
Not only will the non-Jewish students likely develop more of an affinity for Jews and Israel, there will also be “more opportunities for economic and educational partnerships and for shared understanding,” he said.
Rosenberg moves into his position just as Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña settle into theirs. But he’s not concerned about their history of being less-than-supportive of charter schools. De Blasio was a sharp critic of charters in his campaign.
“I have tremendous respect both for Mayor de Blasio and Carmen Fariña — Carmen and I actually used to live in the same building on the Brooklyn waterfront. … So personally and professionally I think very highly of her and her skills as an educator, as a leader of educators, and as someone who cares deeply about the success of all children,” he said.
He points out that the center’s mission is to develop schools nationally, not just in New York City.
“Our work as a national center is to support the growth and development of the Hebrew charter school movement around the country,” he said. He has a strong belief that these schools will be embraced.
“I think there’s a tremendously powerful narrative and appeal around dual language instruction for students where they become fluent not only in two languages but also become culturally fluent,” he said, adding that Hebrew, in particular, should appeal to a wide range of students and parents.
“Hebrew is both an ancient language and a modern language, it’s spoken by millions of people around the globe,” he said. “Israel is a thriving democracy and a thriving partner of the U.S., as well as a growing economic force. The opportunity for students of all backgrounds to learn Hebrew and about Israel, its immigrant communities and its culture, is a benefit to everyone.”