There will be no kosher meals. No Jewish holiday observances. And many — perhaps even most — of the students won’t be Jewish.
But if philanthropist Michael Steinhardt has his way, New York City’s first publicly funded school devoted to Hebrew language and culture will open its doors in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, in September 2009.
Steinhardt’s Foundation for Jewish Life announced Tuesday it is backing a application by an independent group to the city’s Department of Education for a charter elementary school that will teach Modern Hebrew and the Israeli culture to which it is tied. The application, which will be submitted on June 4, proposes to integrate these components into parts of the school’s broader curriculum.
“The goal is academic excellence and kids fluent in Hebrew,” said Sara Berman, the key planner for the application. The goal is not, she said, to teach Jewish students per se or to shore up Jewish identity — at least directly. Nor does the school aim to convey the ideals or values of either Zionism or Judaism.
“This is a public school in America,” explained Berman, who is Steinhardt’s daughter and a trustee of the foundation. “I really believe in the benefits of everyone learning a second language, and of everyone learning Hebrew.”
The proposed school, she said, “looks to use language and the culture that comes with it in an interesting way, to look at the world in a different lens.”
Indeed, attendees at several preliminary meetings held in Sheepshead Bay to garner interest in the planned kindergarten through fifth grade school have included Latino and African-American families, along with immigrant Israeli families, Jewish families from the former Soviet Union, American-born Jewish families — and at least one Muslim family.
This is not to say the school will have no impact on promoting Jewish identity. Leonard Petlakh, executive director of the Kings Bay YM-YMHA in Sheepshead Bay, said the community is the natural location for such a school, one that draws on the neighborhoods’ many Russian-Jewish and Israeli immigrants who are “secular, with a large degree of Jewish identification but a low degree of Jewish affiliation.”
“From the point of view of living in South Brooklyn, Jewishly it’s either Orthodoxy or nothing,” said Petlakh. “A lot of these parents … won’t send their children to yeshivas, so naturally this [school] becomes a wonderful alternative, a public school with culture, language and history.”
Petlakh added that in addition to the secular Jews who attended an information session at the “Y,” there was a Muslim mother who wanted to enroll her son in the school under the premise that Judaism and Islam share much in common, and an Hispanic mother who told him she felt if Jewish parents were sending their children to the school, it signified the school was offering a quality education.
“We think the school will look like the community,” said Berman. “It will be a diverse group. … We want to make sure it’s 100 percent secular and a place where kids of all backgrounds can feel comfortable.”
But is a religion-free Hebrew-language school possible?
Even as they sought to build a secular, Hebrew-speaking society in pre-state Palestine, some of the early Zionist thinkers had their doubts about the secular capacities of the language and the society it would ultimately produce. Gershom Scholem, the renowned scholar in Jewish mysticism at Hebrew University, saw huge hurdles to secularizing a language that he found “saturated” with religion. S.Y. Agnon, the Israeli Nobel Prize winner for literature, was also dubious.
Indeed, a Hebrew language charter school that opened last year in Hollywood, Fla., came under withering initial attacks from critics who charged it would be a vehicle for religious indoctrination, violating constitutional prohibitions. The Ben Gamla Hebrew Charter School, whose director is an Orthodox rabbi, serves kosher meals in its cafeteria and is believed to have a majority Jewish student body, though it is impossible to know for sure because public schools are forbidden from asking students’ religious affiliations. The school’s first two Hebrew language curricula had to be scrapped because of religious references. Its third, however, finally passed muster with the local school board.
Berman argued that the concept behind her school is different.
Besides English itself, the school’s “core curriculum” of science, math and social studies will be in English, Berman explained. Music, art and physical education — along with the daily period of Hebrew — will all be taught in Hebrew. The school will also have a strong community service component, she added, with children venturing out to activities such as “delivering meals to home-bound elderly … singing songs to residents in assisted-living homes and planting community gardens.”
Berman did not deny that Sheepshead Bay’s numerous Russian Jewish and Israeli immigrants were among the proposed school’s target populations. But she added, “We hope this school has a really diverse mix, including African-Americans and Hispanics. … Our emphasis is Jewish history, secular Israeli life and the history of what it is like for Jews to live all over the world.
“If you’re studying French, you will learn about going to the boulangerie to pick up a baguette,” she explained. “You’ll imagine yourself in Paris. Here, you’ll learn there is a place called Israel. And this is what secular life is like there.”
But to explain daily life in Israel to children — even secular daily life — the baguette might well become a challah grabbed from the market early Friday morning for a Shabbat dinner that night, when the family will gather together around the table for kiddush, or blessing over wine, even if they are not religiously observant.
The national holiday calendar also requires referring to Jewish religious holidays — even if only to explain seders celebrated by anti-religious socialists on a kibbutz.
“I think it is a harder line to draw, between culture and religion,” Berman acknowledged.
But she stressed, “we in no way will promote or teach religious devotion in this school.”
Lesley Litman, a co-creator of the teaching methodology the school will use, stressed that the texts used for teaching Hebrew will be modern secular ones.
“We talk about ‘authentic texts,’ produced by native speakers,” she said. “It could be a TV show, a children’s book, a poem or nursery rhyme. There are multiple genres of authentic texts that are age-appropriate. It’s just like French or any language elsewhere. We look for texts that reflect the culture.”
Plans for the charter school come just months after the troubled opening of a dual culture Arab-American middle school in Brooklyn last September. Unlike charter schools, which are administered by private groups with public funds, the Khalil Gibran International Academy (is administered directly by the Department of Education as one of more than 70 dual-culture schools in the city. Only a minority of its students are Arab. And its curriculum is secular, to all appearances.
Critics nevertheless charge it is a vehicle for Islamist extremism. Its founding principal, Debbie Almontaser, resigned under pressure from the city last August.
Adem Carroll, a Muslim community activist on the steering committee of Communities in Support of Khalil Gibran, a local group, said he welcomed the proposal for the Hebrew focused school.
“I wish them luck,” he said. But he added: “I think [the Department of Education] and the media need to really demonstrate very clearly that they don’t operate under double standards. We will watch them very carefully to see that.”
Carroll also wondered aloud about what connection, if any, the school would have to the government of Israel. He noted that when Khalil Gibran started up, detractors voiced fear that “a Palestinian narrative would find its way into the curriculum.”
Berman said her school planned no contacts with the Israeli consulate or Israeli government institutions.
“It’s important for us to stay on safe grounds and not go into areas that are more ambiguous,” she said. “I don’t feel we have to get much into Zionism. We want to teach [about] Israel as a secular country that’s part of this world, where several million people speak Hebrew, including some who are not Jewish.”
Berman declined to disclose the school’s expected budget or how much the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life was putting up as seed money. But it is clear the plans are not to stint. The school will begin with three kindergarten classes and three first grade classes, and then add a grade each year, until the entering classes get to fifth.
“We’re planning to have 1,000 books in each classroom,” she said. “These kids will be exposed to the best city has to offer.”
Larry Cohler-Esses is editor-at-large. Carolyn Slutsky is a staff writer.E-mail: email@example.com , firstname.lastname@example.org
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