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Englewood Charter Garners Major Orthodox Supporters

Englewood Charter Garners Major Orthodox Supporters

Application reveals letters from pulpit rabbis, other Jewish leaders even as some express reservations.

The application for a controversial Hebrew charter school in Englewood, N.J., includes letters of support from two prominent Orthodox pulpit rabbis, as well as from several other high-profile Jewish leaders.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO for kashrut at the Orthodox Union and spiritual leader of Englewood’s Shomrei Emunah, contributed a letter of support that was part of Shalom Academy’s 2010 charter application, as did Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah.

Other well-known Jews providing letters of support include author and TV personality Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Foundation for Jewish Camp CEO Jeremy Fingerman, both Englewood residents.

The application was first posted late last week on the Englewood public school district’s website.

The charter school, which plans to start in September with 160 children in grades k-5, would add a grade each year, eventually enrolling 240 students in k-8. It would be open to students of all ethnic and religious backgrounds living in Englewood and neighboring Teaneck.

Led by Englewood resident Raphael Bachrach and six other people, five of them, like Bachrach, Jewish parents of school-age children in Englewood or Teaneck (the sixth is Jewish but lives on Long Island), Shalom Academy was one of 23 proposed charter schools recently approved by the State of New Jersey. Shalom’s three earlier applications were rejected.

Bachrach has not responded to e-mail messages and phone calls from The Jewish Week. The other founders, among them Allan Cutter, CEO of the technology recruiting firm AC Lion, and Cindy Balsam Martz, a Teaneck activist who helped create a playground accessible to children with disabilities, did not return e-mails from The Jewish Week requesting an interview.

If it opens this fall as proposed, Shalom would be the seventh Hebrew charter school in the country and the third in the New York area.

However, the school, which is prompting widespread speculation that its free tuition and Hebrew-language instruction will attract children who would otherwise enroll in yeshivas and Jewish day schools, faces strong opposition from Englewood’s school board as well as from local and national day school/yeshiva advocates.

Englewood school officials have told local newspapers that they expect Shalom to drain hundreds of thousands of dollars from the struggling school district, which is 93 percent non-white and whose students perform well below state averages in statewide language arts and math tests.

The school board issued a resolution in November, shortly after Shalom’s application had been submitted, expressing its “grave concern for the potential harm that will be done to the students in the Englewood Public Schools by the creation of a charter school aimed at the recruitment of children currently in religious day schools” and decrying “the substantial barrier the establishment of the Shalom Academy Charter School will create to the integration of the public schools…”

Yossi Prager, executive director of the Avi Chai Foundation, a major day school supporter, has also come out against the school. In a recent op-ed in the New Jersey Jewish Standard, Prager argued that while Hebrew charter schools, which are forbidden by law from including religious studies, might be an improvement over public schools, they do not offer as good a Jewish education as day schools and yeshivas. Because the vast majority of Jewish children in Englewood and Teaneck currently attend yeshivas and day schools, Englewood is a poor location for a Hebrew charter school, Prager argued.

With day schools and yeshivas rocked by a “tuition crisis,” in which growing numbers of recession-buffeted families are unable or unwilling to pay tuition, many observers speculate that the combination of a Hebrew charter school with after-school Judaic studies will be an appealing alternative for many parents.

Unlike a proposed Hebrew charter school in Washington Heights and two existing Hebrew charter schools in the New York area (in Brooklyn and East Brunswick, N.J.), Shalom Academy lacks the support of the Hebrew Charter School Center, a national group funded by Areivim, a partnership of major Jewish philanthropists.

The HCSC rejected Shalom Academy requests for startup grants, and its chair, Sara Berman, has told The Jewish Week only that Shalom Academy “does not match our vision of a Hebrew language charter school.”

However, Shalom does enjoy the support of Peter Deutsch, the founder of the Ben Gamla network of Hebrew charter schools in South Florida. A 2009 letter from Deutsch, stating that “I strongly support your efforts” and that northern New Jersey is “a perfect location for a Hebrew-English charter school,” was one of 48 letters of support included in the Shalom Academy charter application.

Among those whose letters of support, dated from 2007-2010, are included in Shalom’s application: former Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes, former Englewood Councilman Gordon Johnson and Englewood Councilman Ken Rosenzweig. The vast majority of the letter writers are Jewish residents of Englewood or Teaneck.

However, even some of those whose letters are included have recently expressed reservations about Shalom Academy.

Rabbi Genack told The Jewish Week he thinks charter schools are a good option for Jewish children who would otherwise attend public or secular private schools, as well as Orthodox children with special needs unmet by day schools. Nonetheless he worries that Shalom Academy could “destabilize” yeshivas and day schools in Bergen County by drawing from those religious schools’ populations. He said that a few years ago, after he attended a public meeting in Englewood exploring the charter school option and saw that hundreds of Orthodox Jews were there, many expressing interest in transferring their children from yeshiva, he told Bachrach “please don’t quote me as supporting this.”

Asked why he then submitted a March 25, 2010 letter saying he supports the school’s application and recommends its approval, Rabbi Genack said he had written the letter earlier, for the initial charter application, then allowed Bachrach to update it.

Rabbi Goldin, whose 2008 letter included in the charter application describes Shalom Academy as “a welcome addition to the educational tapestry of the region,” told The Jewish Week he sees the Hebrew charter as “outreach for children not going to day schools and for those children from the [Jewish] community who could not be accommodated within day schools because of special needs.”

The spiritual leader of the 700-family Ahavath Torah and a first vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Goldin added, however: “Do I have reservations? Of course I do. I’m always concerned, especially in the current financial climate, that people will see this as an alternative to day school, and I don’t think it’s a viable alternative.”

Fingerman, the Foundation for Jewish Camp CEO whose October 2009 letter of endorsement is included in Shalom Academy’s charter application, did not respond to The Jewish Week’s e-mail requesting an interview.

Despite the widespread speculation, Shalom Academy’s charter application does not indicate that its students will be majority Jewish or will transfer in from yeshivas. At several points in the application, and in letters from founders, Shalom Academy is described as a vehicle for helping to integrate Englewood’s schools.

“As a neighborhood-based school, student demographics are likely to reflect those of the community. Our hope is that all of the Englewood and Teaneck demographics will come together into the school environment. This includes Jewish, African American, Latino, etc. Since African-American history is integral to U.S. history, Shalom Academy Charter School will integrate teachings of African-American history throughout the history curricula — in both Hebrew and English.”

In making the case that the school will advance the cause of racial integration, the application hints, however, that families from Jewish day schools may opt to enroll: “Implementing a curriculum of Hebrew language immersion will help connect disenfranchised students to the rest of the community at large. We demonstrated this by collecting letters of intent from parents of 256 children that would be willing to switch from non-integrated schools in order to receive Hebrew Language Immersion.”

It is unclear whether the application is referring to white parents, black parents or a combination of the two.

According to the application’s executive summary, the school, which will devote 75 percent of the day to teaching in Hebrew, “will strive to be a bridge between all aspects of our community, joining all children from all races, cultures, and socio-economic backgrounds.”

The application argues that multilingual abilities and “multicultural sensitivities” will prepare students to “work in a pluralistic society and a global economy.”

The application and several supporting letters also emphasize that Israel’s major role in the high-tech and medical sectors make fluency in Hebrew a useful professional skill.

According to the application, Shalom Academy will be located at 241 Williams St., in a renovated industrial space. The school budget will be supplemented with a $1,000-per-student donation from Hebrew Options in Public Education (HOPE), which the application says is a New Jersey-based 501c3 nonprofit.

According to HOPE’s Facebook page, which has 62 members, the nonprofit’s current projects include supporting Shalom Academy and after-school programs for Shalom Academy students. It shares a mailing address with Bachrach.

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