Steinhardt-Backed Effort Seeks To Open New York Hebrew Charter School

By Anthony Weiss

Published May 27, 2008, issue of June 06, 2008.
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See an updated and expanded version of this article here.

The foundation of mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt is financing an effort to open the first Hebrew-language charter school in New York City.

A group of individuals with financial backing from the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life is prepared to submit an application on June 4 to the New York City Department of Education and the New York State Board of Regents to open the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn. According to Steinhardt’s daughter Sara Berman, a trustee for the foundation and the lead applicant in the effort, the school’s curriculum would incorporate Hebrew language instruction, as well as classes in Jewish culture and history and modern Israeli society.

The school would receive a majority of its funding from the New York City and state governments. It would eventually offer classes from kindergarten through fifth grade and would be open to applicants of any ethnic or religious background. If approved, the school could potentially open in the fall of 2009.

The nation’s first Hebrew-language charter school, the Ben Gamla Hebrew Charter School, opened in Hollywood, Fla., in August of 2007. Critics, including some in the Jewish community, warned that the school could blur the dividing line between church and state. Others in the Jewish community, including Steinhardt, have suggested that such schools could be a way to strengthen Jewish identity.

“What if we unrolled a nationwide system of Jewish charter schools focusing on Jewish elements, not on religious studies — which appeals only to a minority of Jews anyway — but on the elements of Jewish culture that make us strong?” Steinhardt told a New Jersey audience last October, according to the New Jersey Jewish News. “It is clear that charter schools might be a solution to our communal needs…. We would be foolish to ignore their potential.”

But Berman, who is a former news and features editor at the Forward, steered clear of any such suggestion, saying that the school’s purpose was to provide a high-quality, dual-language education for students of all backgrounds.

“There’s something very beautiful about teaching all kinds of kids Hebrew,” Berman told the Forward. “In this district, there’s a Caribbean population, a Chinese population, African Americans, Russians, Israeli immigrants. I think it’s a very Jewish idea of everyone being taught this very great language.”

The school would be in District 22, which covers a swath of central and southern Brooklyn with a large and diverse population, including a heavy concentration of Jews. That includes large numbers of Orthodox Jews, who are unlikely to send their children to a public school, as well a sizable population of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Israel. Jewish education experts contacted by the Forward said that these latter two populations could be receptive to a Hebrew-language charter school.

If approved, the school would open with 150 students, split between kindergarten and first grade. An additional grade would be added in each subsequent year, until the school reached an enrollment of 450 students.






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