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My Visit to a School in Harlem that Teaches Hebrew and Israeli Culture

Harlem Hebrew Language Academy is the quintessential example of diversity: a majority Black school nestled in between soul food restaurants and jazz clubs that mandates its students study Hebrew and the State of Israel. 

Harlem is a place known for its rich history—from Black music, literature, and culture, to Jewish artistry and community. On these streets walked Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and, once upon a time, more than 175,000 Jews—the third largest Jewish neighborhood in the world, coming close behind Warsaw and the Lower East Side (my current abode.) Those numbers dwindled significantly as the twentieth century dragged on, but one could still find clues as to just how many storm-tossed Yiddish-speaking immigrants once called Harlem home by the sight of shuttered synagogues and delis scattered throughout. And yet, a heart of Jewish culture still beats, not comprised of Jews and made for Jews, but of the diversity of modern Harlem. Harlem Hebrew Language Academy is the quintessential example of this diversity: a majority Black school nestled in between soul food restaurants and jazz clubs that mandates its students study Hebrew and the State of Israel. 

Naturally intrigued, I hopped on the nearest uptown train to see for myself. 

Upon entry, HHLA looked and felt like a normal K-8 school. There were children in the gymnasium dancing to “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” there were children on the basketball court, there were children in math class writing in their notebooks. But upon venturing into hallways,  I noticed each classroom was named after a different Israeli city, complemented by student work and projects written in Hebrew decorating the walls. My guide, an administrator named Valerie, told me that since the school opened in 2013, another grade of students has been added each year, the entire class ready to learn how to write and speak modern Hebrew and become literate on Israeli culture and society. 

All students study Hebrew for forty-five minutes per day in a completely secular environment. The school is “for those who want diversity, who are interested in Israel as a pluralistic society, with no religious inclusion.” I asked how it was that six-year-olds, who obviously are not expressing a passion for Hebrew, find themselves enrolled in such a place. “There is no one right answer,” I was told. “One, is that if you live in the South Bronx, this is a better option than any public school in your area. So, you’re willing to put your kid on a bus because it’s simply a better choice. Some families want a foreign language education to open their child’s mind. And some families specifically want Hebrew. We, as Jews, are so surprised, but I hear often that Israel is a startup nation, and so parents want their children to have the opportunity to work in Israel because it’s such an innovative place. Next, we have a religious group, who believe that if their children learn Hebrew, they can better read the Bible. And then, we have families who want their children in a diverse socio-economic environment. ”

The goal of Harlem Hebrew is not to indoctrinate students into a specifically pro-Israel political mindset, but rather to illuminate one corner of the earth as a “case study” for how the rest of the world operates.

As I walked past ceilings covered in the flags of the world, I learned that the goal of Harlem Hebrew is not only to instruct in modern Hebrew, but also to shape “global citizens of the world,” hoping that through Israel education, children will be exposed to environments outside their own and become more worldly, more curious and more inclusive in their thinking. Packed into lessons throughout the day are units on Israeli singers, Israeli religious minorities, Israeli food, Israeli geography and more. The goal of Harlem Hebrew is not to indoctrinate students into a specifically pro-Israel political mindset, but rather to illuminate one corner of the earth as a “case study” for how the rest of the world operates.

“We are not representatives of the State of Israel,” said one administrator I met on my tour. “We are here for our community, we are here for our kids. When we teach about Israel, we don’t say ‘We Celebrate Hanukkah!’ We say there are people who celebrate Hanukkah in Israel, and others who celebrate Ramadan, and others who celebrate Christmas. From a young age, these kids know that Israel is a complicated place with many different people, not so different from any other country in the world. ” 

Each year, students from the eighth grade class venture to Israel—a trip that for some will be their first time on a plane, and for some others, their first time out of New York City. “For these kids to hike Masada or Mount Carmel is a huge milestone,” Valerie tells me. “I see kids come out of the hiking experience a completely different person, because they know they can actually do it—they’re exposed to something they’ve never done before.” Valerie added how impressed many Israelis are upon discovering these young, American, non-Jewish young people can speak Hebrew so well, which does well to boost the student’s self-confidence.

Like New York City, Israel is constantly reinventing itself, constantly birthing new ideas for the rest of the world to use. 

Once a year, the school holds an “Israel day,” where classrooms are turned into shuks and restaurants one could find in Tel Aviv, and several months later is “Harlem Day,” where students are immersed in the character and history of their current stomping grounds. Holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Tu Bishvat are discussed, but not celebrated, so as to not distract from HHLA’s central mission. Through their programming, curriculum and field trips, Harlem Hebrew perfectly amalgamates the spirit of Israel with the spirit of New York City—spirits I believe to be kindred. Like Israel, New York City is a tapestry of immigrants from all corners of the earth. Like New York City, Israel is constantly reinventing itself, constantly birthing new ideas for the rest of the world to use. 

One of my final questions was how the community of Harlem responded to this cultural addition to their neighborhood. “We only go into a community that wants us,” I was told. “And if we’re here, that means we’re welcomed here.” 

I thanked my tour guides, smiled at various students and teachers, and stepped back into the world of New York. I picked up a cup of coffee at Columbia University, a petri dish of anti-Israel ideology that sits on the border of Harlem, knowing that many of the busy students walking past me were convinced that Israel was an apartheid and racist entity. I wondered how many were aware that a community that resembles all they claim to champion—diversity, equity, inclusion—was celebrating Jewish self-determination in their ancestral homeland just blocks away.


Blake Flayton is New Media Director and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

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