Latino population welcomes Hebrew-language charter school in L.A.

How do you say “ironic” in Hebrew?
August 27, 2014

How do you say “ironic” in Hebrew? 

Latinos account for 65 percent of the student population at the new Hebrew-language Lashon Academy Charter School — just a year after critics were saying the elementary school was too much like a Jewish day school to be receiving charter status from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). 

The district approved a charter for Lashon, which is Hebrew for “tongue” or “language,” in 2013, making it the first Hebrew-language charter school in the city. (It is not the first of its kind in the region, however; Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences, a Hebrew-language charter school that opened in 2010, operates in Santa Clarita.) 

Lashon’s curriculum focuses on Hebrew language study and Israeli history, in addition to math, science and English. Located in Van Nuys, the school opened this month and has enrolled 115 students, including Latinos, Israelis and others, in grades K-2. It plans to become a full-fledged K-6 school. 

According to Josh Stock, founder and executive director of the school, the disproportionate number of Latino families enrolled is due, in part, to the school partnering with Pastor Jim Tolle, a prominent leader in the Christian-Latino community in Los Angeles. Tolle, leader of El Camino Metro and the former head of megachurch The Church on the Way in Van Nuys, helped spread the word about the school to his followers, said Stock, who described him as a “strong supporter of Israel.” 

“We live in this area — it’s great for us,” Peruvian mother Maria Astuhuaman said about Lashon, where she has enrolled her children, Sarai Revelo, 5, and Steve Revelo, 7. 

Speaking in accented English while her children — two beaming, dark-haired youths — ran around outside playing tag during a recent afterschool program at Lashon, Astuhuaman explained that Tolle informed her about the school. She worked for 10 years as a housekeeper in the home of a Jewish family in Agoura Hills, which contributed to her love of Judaism, she said. 

“My dream is to go to Israel,” Astuhuaman told the Journal. 

Only a few days into the school year, Astuhuaman’s children were already showing the potential of Lashon. Asked by the Journal what Hebrew words she’s learned, Sarai broke out into a song that she had been taught in class and that contained the word “lashevet(Hebrew for “to sit”). As she sang, she dropped to the ground — “to sit.” 

Tolle is one of five board members at Lashon. The others are Maria Gennaro, an assistant principal at Ivy Academia Charter School; Mark Comer, a CPA based in Woodland Hills; Avi Wagner, an attorney who works in Century City; and Rivka Dori, a lecturer of Judaic studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Together, they oversee an annual budget of more than $1 million, Stock said.

As for the Jewish families who have enrolled their children at the school, housed at Fulton College Preparatory School on Kester Avenue, they include Sagi Balasha, national CEO of the Israeli American Council. He said he moved his family from Valley Village to Van Nuys in order to be closer to the school, which his twins, 7-year-olds Shahaf and Ella, attend. They are in second grade. 

Balasha praised the school, saying that it is an alternative for Jewish families who cannot afford the notoriously expensive day schools in town. He also said that students at Lashon receive the best of both worlds: They learn Hebrew and about Israel, and they are exposed to students from other cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds. 

Finally, he said that Latino children belting out tunes in Hebrew is a sight to behold. 

“To hear Mexican or Latino kids sing in Hebrew, or say just a few words — we are getting great ambassadors for Israel for the future, in terms of developing positive public opinion for Israel. This is the best thing we can do — and also in terms of exposing our kids to many different cultures, this is [a great] deal because when you send your kids to Jewish school, all they meet are Jews,” he said.

As to why there aren’t more Jewish students at the school, Balasha said Jewish families, who enrolled during the lottery phase only to drop out later, got “cold feet.” 

Shari Aarons, a Modern Orthodox single mother whose son, Jonah, attends Lashon, said she believes that the school’s location represents a considerable drive from neighborhoods such as Encino, which is where she lives, and scared away some Jewish families. 

Still, Aarons said she has formed bonds with some of the school’s Israeli families. Recently, she and some of the Israeli parents got together for kosher pizza, and they divvied up tasks such as developing the school’s website and setting up its Shutterfly photo account.

But she is disappointed that there are not more Jewish families at the school. She said she is one of the few native English speakers and that communication with parents is tough. 

“You have a lot of Spanish and Hebrew — there’s nothing but politeness, but there’s a language barrier right now with the parents,” she said.

If Lashon parents face an uphill battle adjusting to life in an atypical learning community, Aarons said she was coming to terms with the school, ultimately, being the right place for Jonah.

“Kids are colorblind. They don’t care. They just like kids [who] like the same toys that they like,” she said, as she picked up Jonah up from an afterschool program recently, where he had been playing tag with Astuhuaman’s children. (Which raises a different question about whether Jonah and Steve will develop a lasting friendship — one prefers the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; the other, Spider-Man.)

Stock said Lashon is committed to exposing all of its students to Hebrew and to Israeli history and culture. This is immediately apparent upon entering its five classrooms, each of which is named after a famous Israel city. 

Inside “Haifa,” one of three kindergarten classes — there is also one first-grade class and one second-grade class — a banner with the letters alef, bet and the remaining letters of the Hebrew alphabet runs across a wall. Letters hanging from the wall spell out, “Yom Shishi” (Hebrew for “Friday”), which was the day the Journal visited the school.

Learning in the classrooms is “workshop-style,” said Stock, who said his upbringing in Montreal learning French and English fuels his passion for dual-language curriculums. At Lashon, students sit around tables, as opposed to working from desks, and a teacher’s assistant is on hand in every room to provide the students with any extra assistance they need.

Additionally, there is a Hebrew teacher in every classroom. Because the style of the school is what is known in the education community as “full-immersion,” the Hebrew teachers speak Hebrew, exclusively, to their students, with no English. All the Hebrew teachers at Lashon are Israeli.

Stock, who describes himself as a businessman whose job is to focus on the vision of the school, said he sees myriad possibilities from children of various socioeconomic backgrounds coming together under one roof to learn and grow together. He envisions play dates where children from two-bedroom apartments in poor neighborhoods go visit their friend’s six-bedroom homes in the Encino hills — and vice versa. 

Stock has high hopes for the fledgling school, which has received mentorship and guidance courtesy of the Hebrew Charter School Center, a New York-based nonprofit that has opened similar Hebrew language charter schools across the country. 

Nowadays, Stock said, many people are showing an interest in Hebrew that has nothing to do with observance of Judaism or with being Israeli — in fact, the spark for the school came after meeting two high school students who were speaking Hebrew but said they weren’t Israeli. He wants Lashon eventually to have its own campus and open up a location on the Westside.

Some, like Balasha, see Lashon as the start of something big in the education community. 

“I believe in this, and I think this should be part of the future of Jewish education in the community,” he said. “In bringing Jewish Americans closer to Israel, Hebrew charter schools could be a very strong tool — very affordable and very accessible to all layers and levels of people.” 

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