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Hebrew School for All?

New York is about to witness a historic experiment in the nature of Jewish engagement in American society: the planned opening in August 2009 of the city’s first Hebrew-themed public school. The school, to be known as the Hebrew Language Academy, will be organized as a charter school, publicly funded but operated by a private not-for-profit association. It must be open to all applicants regardless of religion or background, and its curriculum is to be strictly secular, with no preaching of religion.

At the same time, the school will devote several hours a day to Hebrew language study, much like other New York charter schools specializing in Greek, Arabic, French and some dozens of other languages. Like them, it promises to incorporate the broader cultural context of the language into its curriculum. That means integrating Jewish history into social-studies classes and weaving Hebrew language and Jewish culture into art, gym and other programs. New York State’s top education authority, the Board of Regents, approved the school’s application for charter school status January 14.

The launch poses a dilemma for American Jews, because it pits two cardinal community interests against each other: protecting the secular, integrated public square in which Jews have thrived, versus ensuring the survival of a cohesive, vital Jewish community.

Public education has been a passionate cause for generations of American Jews. It’s been a pathway for immigrants into American society and a crucible of national identity for more than a century. Jews have benefited especially.

These days, however, leaders in every Jewish denomination worry less about Jews winning access to American society than they do about Jews disappearing into American society.

The most popular remedy is all-day Jewish education. Day schooling gives students a knowledge base that allows them later on to participate in Jewish life as informed adults, the same way they will participate in American life. Hebrew proficiency opens up the treasure house of Jewish literature and lore. And while most families will never send their children to Jewish day schools — recent studies in San Diego and New York suggest that a majority would reject the option even if it were free — the nurturing of a knowledgeable elite would immeasurably elevate Jewish communal discourse.

Day schools, of course, are prohibitively expensive for many families. As currently priced, they appeal mainly to the most devout and dedicated — largely but not exclusively within the Orthodox community — or to the wealthy. More funding ought to be provided from within the Jewish community, which surely has the resources but hasn’t demonstrated the will.

Enter the Hebrew charter school. By keeping public money within the public school system — and promising a secular Jewish curriculum that does not violate church-state separation — it just might offer a way to square the circle. If the New York academy proves successful and leads to the creation of similar schools elsewhere, as some planners reportedly intend, the model might provide broader access to those families that want a deeper Jewish education but can’t afford it. It might even diversify the world of knowledgeable Jewish community leadership, currently a domain of the wealthy.

The academy’s organizers insist it will be strictly secular. That needn’t be any harder here than it is in Israel. Moreover, they say, it will have a diverse population, drawn from black and Hispanic students as well as Russian and Israeli immigrants in its Brooklyn district. That’s a plus, too. Opening Jewish knowledge to a broader public would enrich America and strengthen the Jewish community.

Our instincts tell us to reject separate schools for their damage to diversity. The fight for an open society has served us well.

But these are extraordinary times. America has become a nation of tribes, self-segregating in separate neighborhoods by income, political views and lifestyle as well as by race or religion. The Internet is turning casual encounters at the bookstore and post office into a thing of the past. We don’t even hear the same news. These changes are bigger than ideology, and they won’t disappear any time soon.

In this new world, chasing after an elusive civic republican utopia may be a fool’s errand. Whatever damage we fear the Hebrew charter school might inflict on the American mosaic — or what’s left of it — could be outweighed by its promise to the Jewish future.

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