Michael Steinhardt has spent much of the past two decades funding some of the most important efforts to promote Jewish identity. From Jewish education initiatives to the free trips provided by the Birthright Israel program, the hedge fund mega-millionaire has helped prop up a host of worthy causes and been rightly celebrated as a visionary philanthropist.
But Steinhardt’s backing for the establishment of a Hebrew-language charter school in Brooklyn and for a national support center to assist in the founding of similar schools around the country should not be greeted with similar hosannas. The decision of the New York State Board of Regents to approve the application of Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy Charter School last month gives momentum to a movement that has the capacity to lead American Jewry into an educational dead-end and drain support from other, more viable projects.
On its face, the Hebrew charter idea is fairly innocuous. In a public school culture where students are offered venues where they can concentrate on Latin, Spanish, Chinese and even Arabic, surely they can do the same with Modern Hebrew without shaking the foundations of the republic.
But there is a lot more to Hebrew charters than the aleph bet. The motive behind the Hebrew charter school movement — which got its start in 2007 with the opening of Florida’s Ben Gamla Charter School — is not to bring the glories of Hebraic expression to Americans who might otherwise never be able to read the prose of S.Y. Agnon or the poetry of Yehuda Amichai in the original Ivrit. No, as Steinhardt has himself publicly acknowledged, the driving force behind his interest in Hebrew charter schools is the promotion of Jewish identity. Indeed, it appears that Steinhardt sees in Hebrew charter schools an alternative to the Jewish day school movement that he has funded generously in the past.
Though widely hailed for their ability to instill Jewish knowledge and values, day school enrollment has stalled for two main reasons: One is the high cost of tuition that has put them out of the reach of many middle-class families. The other is that for many, if not most, American Jews, the notion of sending their children to a school whose focus is to promote religious belief is anathema. Many would not send their kids to such a school even if it cost nothing.
Supporters of Hebrew charters believe they can overcome both of these objections. By securing state funding as charter, rather than private, schools, the tuition obstacle will vanish. In addition, since such schools will be required by law not to teach religion, secular Jews might find them attractive.
It is telling that the Hebrew charter schools seem to have made particular efforts to engage heavily secular Jewish sub-groups. Sara Berman, the lead applicant for the Brooklyn academy (and Steinhardt’s daughter), has admitted that the large concentrations of Russian and Israeli Jews near the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood where the charter school will be located are among her school’s target populations. Similarly, Ben Gamla’s founder, former congressman Peter Deutsch, told The New York Times that “South Florida is one of the largest Hebrew-speaking communities in the world outside Israel, so there are lots of really good reasons to try to create a program like this here.”
In some respects, this makes sense. Israeli immigrants retain their love of the Hebrew tongue but often view religion through the prism of Israeli society, where it is seen as the sole property of an Orthodox rabbinate they view with distaste. Russian Jews, for their part, are largely secular, since they are the product of a country in which the teaching of Judaism was long prohibited. Both of these groups have had a hard time fitting into American Jewish life, which has as its central institution the synagogue. So why not give them charter schools where they will get at least a smattering of Jewish culture and knowledge of Hebrew?
The problem is that such schools are bound to fail as both public education and as promoters of Jewish identity.
In contrast to other languages, Hebrew cannot be completely divorced from the rest of Jewish culture, in which religion is an inextricable element. Given the fact that the founders of the charters are interested in promoting Jewish identity, there is little doubt that such schools will, sooner or later, run afoul of the strictures separating religion from state in public schools.
Even more to the point, the idea that Jewish life can be perpetuated by purely secular education is itself a misconception.
It is possible to build a Jewish culture without religion in a state that lives by the Jewish calendar and speaks the language of the Jewish people. Immigrants from Israel may still want to be Jewish on such terms even though they have left. Yet absent a set of unique core beliefs that religion can provide, knowledge of a language is not sufficient to sustain an identity. Speaking Hebrew is not by itself a way of life that can be handed down to future generations anymore than speaking Yiddish was for those who once thought they could sustain a secular Jewish culture without religion or Zionism.
Similarly, without the barrier of discrimination that kept Jews together in the Soviet Union, group ties will eventually collapse in the absence of religion.
The only viable educational answer to the dilemmas posed by living in a free society for Jews who want to ensure that their community will persist remains the day school model. If some backers of these schools are frustrated by the obstacles that cost and sectarianism pose to their success, then the answer is to work harder to create more funding and to promote acceptance of them, not to give up.
Even if Steinhardt spent all his money on them, Hebrew charter schools would not succeed in giving us a Jewish future. Diverting any of our community’s scarce resources into this folly is a mistake American Jewry can ill afford.
Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of Commentary magazine.