Hebrew-language charter schools — long viewed by some critics as a Trojan horse for bringing religion into taxpayer-funded schools — gained a new level of acceptance when the Washington, D.C., school board recently approved the first Hebrew language school in the nation’s capital.
“There is a compelling case for the advantages of bilingual teaching, and it doesn’t matter if it is Chinese, Spanish or Hebrew,” said Scott Pearson, executive director of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, which approved the Sela Public Charter School on April 23. “If there would be a good proposal for an Ancient Greek school, we’d probably approve it, too.”
Yet, as Hebrew charters have overcome stereotypes of being parochial Jewish institutions, they’ve also positioned themselves as more than just schools. Many, though not all, Hebrew charters see themselves as fonts of Israel education that will cultivate students — both Jews and non-Jews — to serve as goodwill ambassadors for Israel in the years ahead.
“I often dream of what the graduates of our Hebrew-language charter schools will look like 20 years from now,” wrote Sara Berman, the chair of the Hebrew Charter School Center in the Spring 2011 issue of Contact, the journal of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. “I see them as a vanguard of understanding for Israel and for cultural respect in general.”
Charter schools are publicly funded but privately sponsored primary and secondary schools that pledge, in exchange for their taxpayer support, to meet certain standards put forth in charter agreements with state or local education boards. Many also receive private funds from their sponsoring institutions. Most charter schools operate on a lottery system; families who want to send their children to the schools are picked at random.
Berman’s New York-based Hebrew Charter School Center — arguably the most successful of the Hebrew charter networks — has provided seed money and training for four up-and-coming Hebrew charters, including the new Washington school, which is slated to open in 2013. In an interview, Aaron Listhaus, HCSC’s executive director, said he “couldn’t really say” if the Hebrew charters were meant to burnish Israel’s public image at a time when the Jewish state is facing increasing international criticism. “Our kids, we believe, have an affinity for Israel through the curriculum,” he said.
On the school level, administrators were more explicit. One goal of the curriculum at Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy — HCSC’s first school — “is to foster a love for the country of Israel in all of its diversity,” said Principal Laura Silver.
At HLA, whose 306 students are 45% non-white, the Israeli flag hangs alongside the Stars and Stripes. (The proportion of Jews in the school is unknown as U.S. Department of Education rules prohibit enrollment policies and statistical tracking of students on the basis of religion.) Students at HLA and Hatikvah International Academy, another HCSC charter in East Brunswick, N.J., learn about the lives of six fictional Israeli families who live on Ha’Olam Street (Hebrew for “the world”). Each of the families represents a distinct Israeli immigrant story — one family descends from both Moroccan Jews and Holocaust survivors, for instance. But Arabs, who make up 20% of the population inside Israel proper, have no presence on Ha’Olam Street.
“It is realistic,” said David Gedzelman, an HCSC board member, when asked about the omission of non-Jews. “This reflects the way neighborhoods are in Israel.” Gedzelman said that HCSC is in the process of developing a similar curriculum about Arab families, which will be taught in its schools next year. For now, teachers address the topic of Arabs in Israel through a cultural lens, describing the food and dress in Arab villages.