Hebrew Charter Schools: Sit up and pay attention

by Maskil on 8 Jun 2008

Michael Steinhardt (“Jewish philanthropy’s chief provocateur”) is once again showing the way when it comes to Jewish continuity and identity efforts, by backing the establishment of a Hebrew-language charter school in NYC. If the pending application is successful, the school could become the flagship of a national network of publicly funded Hebrew schools.

The school’s curriculum will cover all core academic subjects, but will also offer Hebrew-language instruction, as well as Jewish culture, history and modern Israeli society. In order to respect constitutional limits to do with the separation between religion and state, it will avoid teaching religious doctrine.

To conform to the charter school model, it will be required to outline in great detail its curriculum, location and marketing plan, will have to adopt an open admissions policy and won’t keep Kosher or observe the Jewish religious holidays. (The open admissions policy will be good news for all the “hyphenated Jews” those variously referred to as half-Jews, non-Halachic Jews or even non-Jews; anyone who happens to have been born with the “wrong” Jewish parent.)

All in all, it will be required to walk a fine line between celebrating Jewish culture and particularism on the one hand, and the common American heritage and Western civilization on the other.

So, with all these stipulations, exactly what does the whole concept give us? What gives it a good chance of success?

Firstly, the initiative is backed by Michael Steinhardt (and presumably a handful of other like-minded mega-donors, with the Jewish establishment eventually trailing far in the rear). While, by his own admission, he has backed some losing horses (e.g. the current Jewish days schools setup), expect to see this become another of his hand-picked “vehicles” for promoting Jewish identity and continuity. Think Taglit-Birthright Israel.

It envisages a public funded Hebrew schools network. Given that the cost of a Jewish day school education is one of the biggest reasons for its not being more universally adopted, the potential impact of this factor is huge.

Separation between religion and culture. The appeal of this should also not be underestimated. There will be issues in attempting to teach Hebrew, Jewish and Israeli culture and history without religious dogma, but doing so will address one of the other major reasons why the non-Orthodox for the most part continue to avoid Jewish day schools. Personally, I see nothing wrong with religion being the domain of the home and the synagogue rather than the school.

Because of the separation between religion and culture on the hand, and embracing both Jewish culture and American/Western legacy on the other, the Hebrew charter schools model has appeal for the vast majority of Jewish families in the market for education. There will be exceptions at either end of the spectrum (assimilated and Orthodox), but the appeal is broad and will grow once showcase schools are operating.

The emphasis on Hebrew as the keystone of the charter school will also prove to be highly significant over time. Hebrew remains the key to unlocking almost all the treasures of Jewish civilization, and is now also the key to interacting with (and perhaps integrating into) Israeli society.

The Hebrew charter schools model has the potential to become the new entry-level or highest common factor in Jewish education, displacing both the afternoon school model and (to some extent) fully-fledged Jewish days schools. The last, in any event accounts for only some 3% of the non-Orthodox school-going population.

Lessons learned from the pilot venture in Brooklyn can thereafter be applied to the proposed national network, with a body of documentation (applications, curricula, etc.) and best practices quickly being assembled. (While the model is particular to the US, I am hopeful that the example and experience will lead to the existence of a global network or trend.)

Jewish communities need to address or put aside their concerns and grab this model for Jewish cultural survival with both hands. We can no longer afford to rely on DNA or osmosis to transmit our culture, history and values to the next generation. We pride ourselves for having invented universal education in the Western sense. It’s now time to reclaim our invention and our children’s education with it. Simply put, Hebrew charter schools have the potential to completely transform Jewish education – and by extension Jewish life – in the Diaspora over the next one or two generations.

Only one other question now remains to be answered. Why is it taking one maverick mega-donor to do what our whole ecosystem of (presumably) highly paid Jewish professionals, federations and fund-raising bodies were seemingly incapable of doing?


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