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Mega-Donor Throws Clout Behind Hebrew Charter School

Mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt is giving a big bump to the effort to create a national network of publicly funded Hebrew schools by putting his money behind an effort to open a Hebrew-language charter school in New York City.

A group of individuals with financial backing from the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life is planning to submit an application 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 that cover Jewish culture and history and modern Israeli society.

The nation’s first Hebrew-language charter school, the Ben Gamla Hebrew Charter School, sparked a firestorm of debate when it opened last August in Hollywood, Fla. 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, praised Hebrew charter schools as a way to strengthen Jewish identity without the private and communal expense of day schools.

The move by Steinhardt to sponsor a school promises to lend significant weight to those who want to see such publicly funded schools spreading across the country.

“I think some people who hadn’t paid attention to the issue because it was not in their metropolitan area will begin to pay attention,” said Donald Sylvan, president of the not-for-profit Jewish Education Service of North America. “And the fact that Michael Steinhardt is backing the initiative will bring other people to point of paying attention when they might not have before.”

Steinhardt, a former hedge fund manager, has already backed a series of high-profile Jewish identity-building efforts ranging from the Birthright Israel program to the Jewish day school movement; however, he has recently soured on day schools, saying that they are too expensive and have been unable to attract most Jews. Over the past year, he had talked up the possibility of Hebrew charter schools as a new and cheaper way to strengthen Jewish communal 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 needsΙ. We would be foolish to ignore their potential.”

The Steinhardt group is not the only school attempting to follow in the footsteps of the Ben Gamla school. Last April, the Bergen Record reported that a group of parents had submitted an application to the New Jersey Department of Education to open a Hebrew language and culture charter school in the city of Englewood. Peter Deutsch, a former congressman who founded the Ben Gamla school, said he had spoken with other groups from across the country that were interested in starting a Hebrew charter school, but he knew of no other groups submitting applications.

Deutsch has spoken extensively with the Steinhardt group, and he says that its application push will bring a new level of resources and expertise to Hebrew charter schools that could benefit the entire movement.

“If we’re the jalopy held together by rubber bands, they’re [Google founder] Sergey Brin’s 747,” Deutsch told the Forward. “They’re spending time and effort on curriculum development that we could never afford.”

The legal requirement that public schools steer clear of religion has required charter school backers to walk a delicate line in talking up their merits in promoting Jewish identity. When the Ben Gamla school first opened in August of last year, it made national headlines because of concerns about the separation between church and state in the school’s curriculum. The School Board of Broward County delayed the Ben Gamla school from implementing its Hebrew-language curriculum for several weeks, but ultimately allowed the school to proceed.

New York City already contains a number of language- and culture-themed schools, including, most controversially, the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a specialty school (which is not a charter school) that deals with Arabic language and culture. After plans were announced last year for the Gibran Academy, activists who argued that the school would promote an Islamic agenda assailed the school and its principal, Debbie Almontaser. Last fall, Almontaser was forced to step down, and she and her critics have since engaged in a series of legal skirmishes, but the school is open and is wrapping up its first academic year.

Berman, a former news and features editor at the Forward, writes a regular column on parenting for the New York Sun, a New York daily newspaper in which Steinhardt is an investor. The Sun was one of the leading opponents of the Gibran school.

Ben Gamla and Gibran have been given a mixed reception by the Jewish community, which has traditionally supported a strong division between church and state. Marc Stern, a church-state expert at the American Jewish Congress, said that teaching Hebrew language and culture in public school is no more constitutionally problematic than teaching any other language or culture. But he and others have suggested that the general proliferation of language and culture schools threatens to balkanize American society along ethnic lines.

“One of the central purposes of public education in America is to bring kids from different backgrounds together to teach them what they have in common, to be tolerant citizens in a democracy,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Century Foundation, speaking prior to announcement. “I’d have some concerns about any charter school or public school which is aimed at a particular racial group, ethnic group, language group.”

Berman steered clear of any suggestion that the school would promote Jewish identity, 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 new 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 group has not yet chosen a site, but the school would be in District 22, which covers a swath of central and southern Brooklyn that has a large and diverse population, including a heavy concentration of Jews. That encompasses 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 said that these latter two populations could be receptive to a Hebrew-language charter school.

Berman said that the charter school group picked District 22 because it had “high concentrations of both Hebrew-speaking families and students who are at risk of educational failure,” thus it was a prime candidate for the proposed school. The school will give preference to applicants from within the district, followed by applicants from elsewhere in the city. If there are more applicants than slots, students will be chosen by lottery.

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. Though the majority of funds would come from the city and state, many charter school backers raise additional private funds. The Steinhardt Foundation has been in talks with other organizations about teaming up to provide funding for the school.

The city Department of Education and the state Board of Regents will review charter school applications over the summer and are expected to render their decision by December or by January 2009.

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