Hebrew Language Charter Schools: Who Knew?

The language spread of Hebrew in the United States according to U. S. Census 2000 and other resources interpreted by research of U. S. ENGLISH Foundation, percentage of home speakers, via Wikimedia Commons

A Hebrew language charter school won approval last week to open in Harlem. In April, Washington, D.C., approved its first Hebrew language charter school. In March, San Diego approved one for a September 2012 opening. There is a Hebrew language charter school movement afoot. When I wrote my last post, on teaching identity in traditional public schools, I had no idea how current the Hebrew charter school issue would turn out to be. I obviously hadn’t been keeping up with Jewish Week.

I bring up this movement not because I have an opinion as to whether it’s good or evil, but because (to my mind, at least) it raises interesting questions not just about public schooling and who charter schools are meant to serve, but more specifically about:

  • the ways in which the charter school movement parallels the big sort, the geographic clustering of like-minded people – people with similar political beliefs and values – that some argue is tearing America apart
  • what’s happening to the role American public schools have long played in assimilating the children of immigrants (Antero Pietila, author of Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City, brought up this topic in this comment on my last post.)
  • what happens when charter schools – quasi-public, quasi-private institutions – become an out for independent schools that are incapable of sustaining their operations through tuition and fundraising

What follows is a set of links to articles and websites meant to give anyone new to the subject of Hebrew charter schools a running start. I’ve divided them by location.

New York City 

  1. Sara Berman, 35, Hebrew charter school pioneer, Julie Wiener, Jewish Week, June 15, 2010 New Yorker
    Sara Berman founded the first Hebrew language charter school in New York City and now runs the Hebrew Charter School Center. Berman’s father is Michael Steinhardt, a philanthropist who made his money in hedge funds. He is an atheist, but he backs Birthright Israel and other Jewish organizations. (In our secular age, you don’t have to believe in God to be Jewish.) Her background is much like mine – New York City independent schools followed by the Ivy League. She sends her kids (she has six) to the yeshiva where I went through sixth grade. I met her after a panel she was on at the PEJE conference in 2010, at which she introduced the Hebrew charter she founded in Brooklyn. She was unfazed by angry representatives of Jewish day schools in Florida who bore witness to significant drops in enrollment when Hebrew charter schools emerged on the scene. She is on a mission.
  2. Here is the proposal from the Harlem Hebrew folks. I won’t say anything about it except that the leading is a tad tight: http://www.p12.nysed.gov/psc/documents/HHLACSAppRedacted.pdf. The website: Harlem Hebrew Charter School.
  3. A new Hebrew Charter School approved for NYC District 3 in Harlem! Alina Adams, examiner.com, June 21, 2012 This is an excited post from a mom who is well-informed of the work of Sara Berman and the Hebrew Charter School Center. The mom sends her child to a Jewish day school, but she would consider Harlem Hebrew if she could.
  4. Hebrew Language Charter School Approved for Harlem, JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), The Times of Israel, June  21, 2012, originally published as Hebrew-language charter school in N.Y.’s Harlem gets go-ahead, JTA website, June 20, 2012
  5. Harlem Hebrew Charter Ok’ed, Julie Wiener, Jewish Week, June 19, 2012
  6. Hebrew School: The Hebrew Language Academy, New York City’s first Hebrew-language charter school, opened two years ago. Now its backers – including financier Michael Steinhardt – want to replicate the model nationwide, Anna Phillips, Tablet, March 9, 2011
  7. Outcry over plan for Hebrew language school in Harlem, Michael J. Feeney, New York Daily News, March 3, 2011

Northern New Jersey

  1. Hebrew Charter School Seeking Approval for Teaneck Location School files application for space on Galway Place, Noah Cohen, Teaneck Patch, June 14, 2012
    This article is about Shalom Academy’s struggle to find a building.
  2. Hebrew charter school prevails in state Supreme Court (Decision ends dispute with East Brunswick Board of Education), Debra Rubin, New Jersey Jewish News, April 3, 2012
    This is on Hatikvah International Academy Hebrew charter school.
  3. Hatikvah Charter Still Facing Legal Challenges, Julie Wiener, Jewish Week, January 31, 2012 This article is on much more than Hatikvah. It also covers Tikun Olam, a proposed high school that does not have the backing of the Hebrew Charter School Center. Its application for charter was rejected multiple times. Still, they received a $600,000 grant from the federal government for the project, as discussed in this next link:
  4. Rejected 3 Times, School May Still Open Soon, and With a Grant, Too, Michael Winerip, New York Times, January 8, 2012

San Diego, California

  1. Kavod Elementary will open in fall 2012. Their website has stock photography of blond and brown children in a school setting together. Given that the Brooklyn Hebrew charter on which it is modeled is around 40 percent minority, this dream may be realized.
  2. The RosenRant This is a blog by one of the school’s founders, Michael Rosen. (I think all the founders are Jewish.)
  3. New Hebrew Charter School Approved in San Diego, Julie Wiener, Jewish Week, March 28, 2012
  4. Kol Ha Kavod Moment for San Diego Charter, Julie Wiener, Jewish Week, April 17, 2012 (Is it me, or has Julie Wiener become completely sold on the Jewish, er, Hebrew charter school trend over the years?)

Washington, D.C.

  1. Hebrew Charter School Approved in D.C., JTA, Jewish Daily Forward, April 24, 2012 Originally published by JTA as Hebrew-language charter school gets OK in D.C.
  2. Sela, a Hebrew language charter school, will strengthen D.C. Jewish community, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, Washington Post (Opinion), June 24, 2012 (This rabbi is looking to populate his after school programs with the children of secularly minded Jewish parents, if you ask me.)
  3. Hebrew Charter Schools Focus on Israel; New Crop of Public Schools Groom Generation of Advocates, Nathan Guttman and Naomi Zeveloff, Forward, May 8, 2012 – The leap from charter school founding to advocacy for Israel isn’t so far fetched given the connection between Modern Hebrew and Zionism.

South Florida

  1. Ben Gamla charter school website  Here’s the website of the first Hebrew charter school in the country, which opened when a private Jewish day school in the neighborhood closed. An estimated 80 percent of the private school’s attendees enrolled in the charter school. It’s located in Hollywood, Fl.
  2. Hebrew Charter School as Growth Industry: Former Florida Rep. Peter Deutsch’s burgeoning network of schools is toeing the church-state line, and could greatly affect American Jewish life, Julie Wiener, Jewish Week, March 20, 2012
  3. A Charter Network’s Emerging Imprint: Across South Florida Jewish institutions learn to live with – and embrace – Hebrew language schools, Julie Wiener, Jewish Week, March 27, 2012
  4. Hebrew Charter School Spurs Dispute in Florida, Abby Goodnough, New York Times, August 24, 2007

Miscellaneous Related Links

As an Israeli-born Jew married to a Catholic, I am personally interested in the secularization of American Jewry and Jewish leaders’ responses to it. Here are some pieces I found intriguing as I slogged through putting together the post you are reading right now:

  1. Across Differing Faiths, Shared Holidays, Michael Winerip, New York Times, December 17, 2008 This article has some good stats on the rise of interfaith marriage. It’s also a good read.
  2. The Next Jew blog by drdan, August 13, 2011 There are some interesting thoughts on the Hebrew charter school trend here, from someone much more in on the Jewish scene than I. Worth reading.

Like this post? Or not? Let me know in the comments section. (In English, please.) And feel free to share it. Toda raba!

-Edit Barry


11 Comments to “Hebrew Language Charter Schools: Who Knew?”

  1. Great topic, Edit. I wish I’d seen this post earlier, but we’re still clearing downed braches, etc.
    So, what other flavors can the charter school pushers think up to undermine our system of public education? How about Latin only? That could really help out those empty Catholic schools. How about Esperanto only? This is about people figuring out how to use the charter school cracks in the foundation of public education for their own benefit. It is starting to sound like an entitlement program.
    Bottom line, private charter school operators want our public money to fund their own personal ideas of what education should be, usually for their own kids. It doesn’t sound like reform, or progress, to me. I will just say no, again.


  2. Exciting to see the growth. We are thrilled to see our school opening this fall in san diego. For those who cannot attend the school, we have our Israeli Cultural Center that teaches Hebrew “b’ramah” to develop proficiency. These classes are offered at our Center coupled with Jewish education on Sundays and without taught secularly on public school campuses after school just like Spanish, Chinese and other languages. There is no reason we can’t fill that map with Hebrew language programs that successfully teach Hebrew for all. We have no excuse not to. As an israeli American raised in the US without such programs, I missed this terribly growing up and struggled to learn my Hebrew as an adult. Charter schools and Diaspora Israeli Cultural Centers in any single location can move any sized city forward in this regard rapidly and connect us too all more closely to Israel.


  3. Love it. These schools focus on strong Hebrew language instruction. Something that has been sorely lacking in the US. I’m thrilled to see it. And for the rest of the families who may not attend such a school, we have an Israeli Cultural Center that does the job after school both at our center and after school on public school campuses. As an israeli American raised in the US without strong Hebrew language instruction, I’m hopeful these Charter schools and Israeli Cultural Centers can change that map at the start of your blog post even further and that we will see Hebrew language programs nation-wide. There is no reason we can’t succeed in teaching Hebrew proficiently in the US. And we have no excuse not to. Thank you for your post.


  4. As a reform Jew, I am extremely angry that the Orthodox Jews have joined with the right wing Christians to play this game with our precious American concept of separation of church and state. While the USA was formed by a primarily Christian population, it was formed to be a country without an affiliation connection with any religion other than being formed (added later) under God. I am not an atheist in any way. However, I feel public money should only go to non-religious public schools. If you have your children educated with religion as part of the curriculum, then that is your personal choice and should be at a private school without the use of public funds.


    • Thanks for the comment, sandman1946. Let’s assume, for a split second, that it’s possible to teach Modern Hebrew without teaching Torah, Kavanah, and all the rest. If a significant number of people at a local public school want to learn Hebrew, why not hire teachers to teach it? Why does it have to happen in charter schools versus regular old public schools? Hebrew charter schools threaten the viability of private Jewish day schools. They have already drawn less-than-Orthodox tuition paying Jews from these privately run and managed religious institutions. In areas like the Upper West Side of Manhattan, they threaten to draw upper middle class Jewish children – who are, I hate to say the word, “white” – from public schools that will be far less diverse without them. That’s just me prognosticating. We’ll see what happens. But from where I’m sitting, I can’t see this movement as a win for religious orthodoxy. To the contrary.


      • Dear Edit,
        In the case of the proposed charter school in Highland Park, NJ, which you referenced in the above Michael Winerip article, the school board actually made a number of moves to offer the things wanted by the charter founders, in the public school system. They even offered Hebrew language in the public schools. (http://www.highlandparkmirror.com/pp/story/building-bridges-nowhere) The founders still insisted on opening a separate charter school. Fortunately, the school has not been approved to open and the town just received notice last week that the the federal DOE decided to pull the $600K start-up grant it had granted them.


  5. Had no idea Hebrew charter schools were opening nationwide. The Shalom Academy, slated to open in Teaneck or Englewood, NJ, is truly divisive. It will be serving kids who now go to Jewish day schools, for the most part, saving their parents money but costing the Englewood and Teaneck public schools a bundle. I can’t imagine how Shalom Acadey will steer totally clear of religious subjects/content. I believe in total separation of church and state. The Hebrew days schools represent an improper (if not illegal) use of public money.


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