January 22, 2019

Hebrew spoken by a rainbow of Young L.A. voices

It’s story time at Lashon Academy Charter School, and Hebrew teacher Ravit Shemesh is reading a Hebrew-language picture book about a grandmother to a group of students sitting at her feet on the classroom’s carpet. Among them is Veer Joshi, a non-Jewish Indian student.

Ei-fo safta garah?” Shemesh says, looking up from the book — asking, in Hebrew, “Where does grandma live?”

Ba-bayit” (at home), Veer replies. 

Veer is surrounded by a diversity of classmates — Israelis, Latinos and others. This only adds to the uniqueness of Lashon, a K-2 Hebrew-language charter school in Van Nuys that has just completed its first year. It requires its students to study modern Hebrew and Israeli history in addition to math, science and English.

Lashon is the first and only public school of its kind in Los Angeles — though not the region, as Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences, which offers Hebrew classes, operates in Santa Clarita. Lashon Director Josh Stock called its inaugural year a success.

“Everyone feels we far exceeded our expectations,” he said during an interview in his office before giving a tour of the school. 

Stock said enrollment is expected to grow next year from approximately 100 to 185 students as it adds a third grade, and there are plans to open an additional campus in the city area. He did not say where specifically or when such a school might open. 

The school occupies little more than a hallway, a few classrooms and an office suite on the campus of Fulton College Preparatory School, where it rents its space. If it meets its goal of becoming a full-fledged K-5 or K-6 elementary school by adding a grade each year, the school will need to find more room.

Lashon, which is Hebrew for “tongue” or “language,” was recognized by the Los Angeles Unified School District with charter school status in 2013, and it describes itself on its website as a “free Hebrew public school.” It attracts a diverse student body, both in terms of ethnicity and economics. Israelis and American Jews study alongside Latinos and others, encompassing a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, Stock said. Israeli and non-Israeli Jewish students comprised approximately 40 percent of the students at Lashon this past school year, a figure that is expected to rise to 55 percent next year. 

The school, unlike Jewish day schools, is not religious — laws prevent charter schools from being religious — but Lashon leaders acknowledge the school is committed to nurturing in its students a love of Israel. Stock, the son of a Holocaust survivor, acknowledges he is pro-Israel, and in one of the school’s classrooms, nicknamed “Eilat,” a map of the country decorates the wall, where it is joined by the Hebrew alphabet. 

Every Hebrew class involves the efforts of two teachers, one who instructs basic learners and one who works with the students who speak Hebrew at home, always a smaller group. (Among the latter was Shahaf Balasha, 7, son of Israeli-American Council CEO Sagi Balasha.) Stock said even in Israeli families these days, the primary language spoken in the home is often English as parents attempt to assimilate with their neighbors.

There is a waitlist for each grade for the upcoming school year, the result of solid student retention and increasing interest in the school, according to Stock. Last month, the school had a booth at the Celebrate Israel Festival at Rancho Park, where thousands of Israelis and American Jews came together to honor Yom HaAtzmaut, and where parents said, among other things, they want another campus that is closer to Westside neighborhoods, he said.

Not everything has come easy to the school. Language barriers have made it difficult for parents of students to come together, as was reported by the Journal at the beginning of the school year. Additionally, Stock said some Jewish day schools were concerned that Lashon would take away students, but he promised that’s not the intent and that the school did not draw those who would otherwise go to day schools.  

“We’re not here to take away. We’re here to add,” he said.

Aside from Stock and school Principal Sara Garcia, Lashon employs a Hebrew curriculum director, six general studies teachers, two Hebrew teachers, two Hebrew teaching assistants and an office manager. 

The emphasis on the language appears to be working, no matter what the student’s background. 

“It blows my mind,” Stock said, observing Veer’s interaction with his teacher. “After one year, they are talking Hebrew.”