How Jewish are Hebrew charter schools?

On Aug. 30, the first day of classes at the new Albert Einstein Academy charter school in Santa Clarita, some of the 200 entering seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders will be singing “Havah Nagilah.”

“Hebrew is ‘havah nagilah,’ ” — come let us rejoice — said Nehama Meged, chair of the school’s Hebrew department, noting that the words embody the spirit of the language. Before coming to Einstein, Meged taught Hebrew for eight years at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, and she called the song the perfect way to introduce beginners to the language. “It’s a lot of happiness,” Meged said. “Let’s be happy. It’s a joy, it’s a celebration.”

Although the school would have, at one point, required all of its students to study Hebrew, its mission has shifted so that students may opt to study Spanish or Hebrew. Nevertheless, Einstein can be counted as part of a growing movement to establish public charter schools offering intensive Hebrew programs. Some are celebrating this development, but many others are asking questions: Is it possible to teach Hebrew without teaching Judaism? Do publicly funded Hebrew-language charter schools violate the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state in schools? What impact will Hebrew charters have on their Jewish students? What about on their non-Jewish students? How will tuition-free Hebrew charters impact Jewish day schools?

With a movement so new, it’s hard to tell. One year ago, just two Hebrew elementary charters were up and running — one in Florida, the other in New York. A third such school is set to open in New Jersey this September.

At least 20 more are in planning stages nationwide, and it likely won’t be long before the effects begin to be felt here in Los Angeles. Einstein Executive Director Rabbi Mark Blazer, 42, who is also spiritual leader of Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, is applying for charters to create three Hebrew-language elementary schools in three Los Angeles-area school districts in the coming year, using the Santa Clarita school as the model. Rabbi Yossi Mintz of Chabad of the Beach Cities is also preparing a charter, hoping to open in the fall of 2011.

“We need to start talking,” said Phil Liff-Grieff, associate director of BJE, formerly known as the Bureau of Jewish Education. “Because these schools are coming.”

“Boker tov, yeladim v’yeladot.”

“Good morning, boys and girls.” That’s how Principal Maureen Campbell starts every day at the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn, the best known of the Hebrew charters thanks largely to a June article in The New York Times. The school opened in 2009, offering a dual-language program that incorporates Hebrew across the curriculum, and it looks to be succeeding. Last year’s first-graders have progressed to the second grade, and the school had three applicants for each available space in this year’s incoming kindergarten class.

The Brooklyn school is also the model for most of the Hebrew charter schools now in development. Its founder, Sara Berman, is a former journalist, a mother of six and the daughter of philanthropist Michael H. Steinhardt. With support from Steinhardt and other major Jewish donors, Berman is applying lessons learned in Brooklyn across the nation. She is chair of the Hebrew Charter School Center (HCSC), a New York-based nonprofit that is assisting 18 separate groups in setting up Hebrew charters. The center is funded by the Areivim Philanthropic Group (co-founded by Steinhardt) and has, so far, awarded $1.6 million in grants to help establish schools based on the Brooklyn model.

That model is one of “partial immersion,” which entails having two teachers in each classroom, one teaching in English, the other only in Hebrew. Math and science are generally taught in English; Hebrew is woven into most other subjects, including arts, music and gym classes. And the social studies curriculum, according to the school’s Web site, “emphasizes the study of world Jewish communities and Israel.”

Last year, about one-third of Hebrew Language Academy’s kindergartners and first-graders were African American. A few were Latino. A spokesman for the school said that he doesn’t expect the diverse demographics to change.

Why is Steinhardt supporting these schools?

“It’s a primary purpose of our philanthropy to bring Hebrew and Israel knowledge, understanding and fluency into the public sphere in America,” said Rabbi David Gedzelman, Steinhardt Foundation’s executive vice president, “and the mechanisms of public education are the best way to do that.” Gedzelman serves on the Brooklyn school’s board and is a board officer with the HCSC. “The vast majority of Jewish children in America are in public schools, and we see a great value in bringing Hebrew knowledge and literacy to children of all backgrounds,” Gedzelman said.

Many of those involved in the Hebrew charter school movement offer some variant of this reasoning. Others, like Einstein Academy’s principal, Edward Gika, emphasize the value of learning a second language in general. “Whether it’s Urdu or Mandarin, it really doesn’t matter,” Gika said, “because the higher order of learning is what we’re focusing on.”

In short, most backers of charter schools focusing on Hebrew-language instruction speak of the schools they are establishing as they would of any language-intensive school. And, indeed, that idea is not new: The Los Angeles Unified School District has at least 10 dual-language or immersion charter schools, according to Jose Cole-Gutierrez, director of LAUSD’s charter schools division. “We’ve got German-English, Mandarin-English, Spanish-English,” Cole-Gutierrez said, and that’s not counting the 30 or so additional dual-language programs — in Spanish, Mandarin and Korean — housed in neighborhood (i.e., noncharter) public schools across the district.

But because modern Hebrew derives from biblical and rabbinic sources, and because it is so intimately connected to the Jewish people, Hebrew-language charter schools tend to raise more alarms among those who monitor the boundary between church and state than, say, Mandarin dual-language charters. (Dual-language charter schools with Arabic immersion programs, another language strongly associated with a particular religion, have been met with similar questions.)