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UPDATED: How Will Hebrew Charter Schools Affect Yeshivot?

UPDATED: How Will Hebrew Charter Schools Affect Yeshivot?

Monday, January 12th, 2009

The New York State Board of Regents has approved the charter application for the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, something that is bound to appeal to a great many Jewish parents.

The Hebrew Language Academy would initially enroll 150 kids and could eventually rise to some 675 K-8 students, with priority for residents of District 22 in Midwood, Mill Basin and Sheepshead Bay.

New York yeshiva administrators will not lose much sleep: Even if several Hebrew charter schools opened in the state the number of students served won’t come close to the more than 100,000 yeshiva pupils in the area alone. This may cause more anxiety in areas where Orthodox-run day schools are the only Jewish game in town.

As I discussed in the post below, the massive growth of yeshiva education in America in the past 50 years has a lot to do with fear of public schools. That is not to question the commitment of a majority of parents who are devoted to investing in full-time, intensive Jewish study for their kids. But when I went to a Brooklyn yeshiva in the 70s, many of my classmates were not Sabbath observant, and many of them openly said they were there because “my parents didn’t want to send me to public school.” The decade prior had been a turbulent era for city schools.

Both the education standards and the safety level of public schools have dramatically increased over the past three decades as more politicians have made it a priority. But the die is cast, and a majority of people who attended yeshivot will want the same for their own kids.

Hebrew charter schools (one is already in business in Florida) change the calculus substantially, allowing a free, high standard education with a heavily Jewish student body, with bare-bones Jewish identity instruction in the form of Hebrew language and culture. Religion is off limits, but even the charter school applicants admit that completely separating Hebrew from its Torah origin is next to impossible.

“The H.L.A. planning team understands fully that no instructor or staff member can in any way encourage or discourage religious devotion in any way on school premises,” says the application as reported by The Times. “We also understand that the full study and exploration of any language necessarily includes references to the rich cultural heritage inextricably tied to that language, including elements touching on religion.”

As in Florida, where the Ben Gamla Academy in Hollywood had to repeatedly modify its curriculum to pass muster, the Hebrew Language Academy will be under the continuous scrutiny of church-state watchdogs. So it’s unlikely students will learn much more about Judaism and than the Hebrew names of holidays or more about Jewish history and Zionism than the background of the modern Hebrew revival in Israel.

That will still give a leg up to yeshivot and day schools that offer intensive religious instruction and Zionistic history classes even if a dozen Hebrew language charter schools open.

But the question will be how those yeshivot and day schools will fare when Hebrew charter schools help hundreds, if not thousands of marginal families with limited observance, many of them straining to pay tuition, overcome their fear of public education.

And once the idea of secular Jewish education, built more around language than principles and customs, takes hold, backed up by curricula, is it only a matter of time until it becomes the hallmark of new private schools?

The Jewish Week’s Carolyn Slutsky explores the impact in this week’s paper, and gets the reaction of Rabbi Avner German, dean, Be’er Hagolah Institute, a school geared toward Russian immigrants that accepts little or no tuition from a majority of students. It is heavily funded by the Jewish philanthropic world.

“Our mission here is to Americanize these boys and girls,” says the rabbi. “Our mission is then to give them a feeling for where they come from, where their people are from, both culturally and religiously, what is not acceptable is teaching culture in the abstract. Jewish culture we believe is synonymous with the jewish religious traditions, and that you can’t teach in a charter school.

“I truly believe that if they’re exposed to culture in the abstract without it being interwoven with their religious traditions, heritage, with Torah and Mitzvot it’s going to evaporate eventually.”


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