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Hebrew School

The Hebrew Language Academy, New York City’s first Hebrew-language charter school, opened two years ago. Now its backers—including financier Michael Steinhardt—want to replicate the model nationwide.

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A kindergarten class at Hebrew Language Academy. (Hebrew Language Academy)

Two years ago the Hebrew Language Academy—New York City’s first Hebrew-language charter school—opened in Brooklyn to fierce opposition. Foes of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s charter-school expansion efforts weren’t pleased, nor were some parents, who questioned why public money was being used to promote a cultural identity. The controversy has abated, but it wasn’t clear that its backers saw the Academy as anything more than an isolated experiment.

That’s about to change. The people behind the Hebrew Language Academy—a group of Jewish philanthropists including financier Michael Steinhardt—are now looking to replicate their Brooklyn school in cities across the United States, and they’ve founded the Hebrew Charter School Center, a $3.2 million nonprofit that gives seed money and support to new Hebrew-language schools, to help do it.

Aaron Listhaus, once a top official in the New York City Department of Education’s charter school office, is the Hebrew Charter School Center’s executive director. A self-described “ex-yeshiva boy,” Listhaus was working for the Education Department in 2009, when he was sent to ease the Hebrew Language Academy’s turbulent opening. Two years later, he’s back in the fray, trying to assure communities in northern Manhattan and beyond that a secular Hebrew-language charter school is not an oxymoron.

How did you get involved with Hebrew Charter Center?

I think the dominant sense was, “We need somebody who knows schools and who understands the model and all of that.” In a way, I was tailor-made for this job. I’m an ex-yeshiva boy. I went to Rambam and to Yeshiva Flatbush high school and grew up in Kings Plaza, Brooklyn. When I read the job description I was like, “Oh my God, this is me, this is me.” The school actually rented space from, coincidentally, the Brooklyn yeshiva that I went to. So, it’s like, ‘Really? All right, God: I get it, I get it.’

You’ve got planning groups all over the country writing applications for new schools. What are the schools going to be like?

We’re very clear about what our model is. The schools will be dual-language schools and that the language will be Hebrew. And Hebrew will be taught using the proficiency approach—it’s a particular language-acquisition methodology. It’s like when you were in high school and you took a foreign language, and after a point the teacher only spoke in that language. So, it’s that. But the difference is it starts in kindergarten. And it’s an hour to two hours a day, every day. It’s integrated into the rest of the curriculum. At the Hebrew Language Academy, the phys-ed teacher, when he counts off, counts off in Hebrew.

The second piece of it is the social-studies curriculum, which is focused on world Jewish communities and Israel. And the idea behind it is to look at Jewish communities all over the world over time as the lens to study world history, because the Jews have come into contact with every major civilization. The social-studies curriculum is also related to service learning and community service, so that’s another piece of it.

Who’s going to go to these schools? Are most of the kids who attend the Hebrew Language Academy Jewish?

The goal for these schools is that they are diverse schools. These are not schools for only Jewish kids. And we don’t know the percentage of the kids that are Jewish in HLA because we’re not legally allowed to ask, and that’s a good thing. We believe that it’s truly an integrated school. The funny thing about HLA is the district that it’s in is incredibly diverse, but almost every school in that district is not, except for HLA.

What does that mean, being a truly integrated school? It looks like the school is about 60 percent white students and 40 percent minority, most of them black.

First of all, almost every school in the district is either 80 percent or more white or 80 percent or more minority. The Hebrew Language Academy is 55 percent white and 45 percent minority. And then within the white student body, there’s a large percentage of students from the former Soviet Union, and then there’s an Israeli group that goes there, and then students who were born here in New York. But there is also the issue of socioeconomic diversity. Sixty-eight percent of HLA students qualify for free or reduced lunch, which is how the school system measures poverty.

It’s diverse; it’s not a religious school. There’s no religion taught. It’s the Hebrew language and the culture of world Jewish communities, and other than that it’s just the goal of having an excellent school. And so far it looks like they’re doing well. All of the preliminary results point to way more kids being above grade level than the district.

What is the plan for expansion?

There are two applications for New York that are well along their way now. One for Harlem and one for Washington Heights.

Why those neighborhoods?

It was where there was a coalescing of folks who were interested in it. So, obviously there is a part of that that has to do with the appeal of Hebrew language being taught, but with the understanding that there’s no religion attached to it. So, it’s not in competition with day schools or with the yeshivas. In Harlem and Washington Heights, it was a matter of us doing the research on the ground and asking, can we get the kind of true diversity we want? We’re focusing on neighborhoods where we can attract a diverse set of students who want to learn Hebrew as a modern language.

In a the New York Times story about the Hebrew Language Academy, a non-Jewish father says he was attracted to the school because he associated it with Judaism and he associates Judaism with a good education.

We’re OK with that. I think what he really meant was that he has the perception that being around Jewish people would cement a commitment to education for his child.

With the Washington Heights and Harlem schools, you’re likely to enroll a significant number of students who only speak Spanish, which you don’t have many of in HLA.

We’ve done research about it. It turns out that if you come into kindergarten and first grade not speaking English, as long as it’s a good-quality program, you learn English without need of an ESL teacher. But it also turns out that kids who are second-language learners, who don’t speak English, when they walk into the Hebrew classroom, it’s a great equalizer because nobody speaks Hebrew. And the teacher doesn’t speak English, so it’s not like the kid is at a loss. The kid is on totally equal footing. Our preliminary research shows that it’s the second-language learners who are doing better with Hebrew and English. We’re finding the non-heritage speakers of Hebrew do better than the heritage speakers of Hebrew. We think there’s something social, like an immigrant embarrassment factor around the language.

I’m an ESL teacher, so I’ve known this for years: The thing about learning a language is that when you start to look at syntax and structure and you learn those skills, those skills are transferable. So, as you learn a second language and you begin to learn the structure, you begin to reflect back on your native language to see what the parallel structures are. As you’re learning pronouns in Hebrew, you’re becoming aware of the pronouns in your native language, whether that’s English or Spanish or whatever. So, although for many people it’s sort of counter-intuitive like, “Oh my God, they’re second-language learners now you’re giving them a third language.” No. It actually benefits them in ways that most people would not have imagined.

Do you have a five-year plan of how many cities you want to be in and how many schools?

We do—we want to be 20 schools strong in five years. We have a sense that what is going to happen is that there will be regional centers. So, we anticipate obviously a sort of L.A.-Arizona group. Maybe a Northwest group. We know we have interest in San Francisco, but we haven’t ventured forth beyond that. Certainly in the Northeast we’ll have a very strong New York-New Jersey cluster. And it’s likely that the majority of those 20 schools will be in that cluster. We’d like to see a school in Boston; we’d like to see a school in Chicago; we’d like to see a school in D.C. We have interest in Atlanta.

The other places where you’re planning to open schools, have they had the level of controversy over bringing them in as Brooklyn did?

Well, no place is New York, and no place has the questions over space and district space. Questions in other places generally skirt around the issue of Hebrew, and people seem to be focusing more on the word charter. It’s an easier and more politically tenable target.

That’s interesting because charter schools are now part of the national discussion—they’re in the vocabulary. I’d imagine that the Judaism element would raise temperatures more.

Our goal is to really uncouple Hebrew from Judaism. I think it’ll be one of the things that we continually need to do work to do. It’s so ingrained in people. But the fact is that contemporary Israeli society is the result of 120 years of secularization and modernization of the Hebrew language. So, there is a whole culture out there in which Hebrew does not necessarily mean religion.

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Alex says:

“Our goal is to really uncouple Hebrew from Judaism”
“Hebrew language being taught, but with the understanding that there’s no religion attached to it”

Is there anyone out there who is amazed by the incongruousness of these
statements. How do you detach Hebrew from Judaism and religion??

Don’t forget that hebrew is a great entry point for all kinds of semitic languages, both current and archaic.

Stuarta11 says:

I can’t believe this story – as a third generation, fairly orthodox British Jew, my first thought was “only in America!” When will you Americans learn that assimilation often under the guise of “cultural Judaism” is killing off our people more successfully than all our historical persecutors could ever have hoped for.
Not only are we guilty of embracing ridiculously “liberal” diluted forms of Judaism that ensures we are losing Jewish souls with each passing generation through inter-marriage, we are now looking for ways of disassociating Hebrew from Judaism & our religious heritage! The world (or at least your corner of it) has truly gone mad. Perhaps we can train Sofers to write Torah scrolls in English that can be carried at the Kottel by Talet and Kipah wearing women.

Deborah Harris says:

A Hebrew Charter school is NOT a Jewish school. It will not bring Jewish children a Jewish education and is no way a replacement for Jewish Day School education. It is a sorry excuse for the Jewish community to not support day school. It is a tragically stupid idea.

Bocamomof3 says:

Here in Florida we are being inundated with the Ben Gama Charter School, almost identical to the Hebrew Charter School mentioned in this article. Unfortunately, due to the economic situation, many religious Jews are sending their children to these charter schools, forgoing religion, customs and laws essential to daily life. These children, who are very present in our community, no longer go to synagogue on the Sabbath or holidays, and if they are there, it is to play basketball in the parking lot. They have forgone wearing tzitzit and kippot, and though their parents keep strictly to the orthodox traditions, they are being lost one after the other.
I think it behooves us all, as Jews, no matter what the level of orthodoxy, to make sure that we are not totally assimilated into world culture; it is not impossible for a Holocaust to occur again, and those people will not discriminate against the level of religion, but only by religion itself. How can we not teach our children the importance of being a Jew, of the laws and why they are there? The Hebrew language is really a part of the Jewish religion, to think it can be separated, is just truly mad.

Vroom48 says:

When I was in high school in the early 60′s, Latin was taught without linkage to the Catholic Church or Christian theology. In fact, most of the students in the classes were Jewish, as was the teacher.

I agree with Alex. Hebrew is already built in and integrated with Judaism, the Jewish calendar/holidays, culture, traditions, Israel, etc. You can’t separate them. Language learning requires implementation of cultural experiences. The idea of a charter school as an option may be unique and a solution for potential families, but the underlying reason for this option to educate (mostly Jewish children) is economic. In our community, there are plenty of Israelis who are uncomfortable paying for a Day School education. The Hebrew Charter School is, indeed, a solution for them. However, how will such a school thrive without competing against and impacting on the existing Jewish educational institutions, (synagogue Hebrew Schools, Day Schools, Sunday schools)in a climate where organizations, are already strapped due to budget reductions? Is Steinhardt and Company in this for the long haul? A lot of Shekalim are needed to keep it going.

Ben Gamla Parent says:

I am a parent of 2 children that attend the 1st Ben Gamla school in Hollywood, FL. The “A” rated excellent secular education, daily hebrew language instruction and daily afterschool Torah program (JUMP) is an excellent mix for our “orthodox leaning” but non frum family. The JUMP Torah program runs us about $1000.00 per child for the year.

This mix is not a substitute for a yeshiva or frum dayschool education. However, for the majority of American Jewish children it is an absolute homerun.

The extremely modest amount of children who do come from frum homes are comfortable in Kipa, Tzitzit or Tzniut clothing. The lunches are kosher. I have personally witnessed many of the boys taking an interest in wearing kippot, tzitzit and increasing the net Jewish observance (mitzvot) at home. Many families who were totally clueless Jewishly are being brought closer through their children.

Hebrew Charters are NOT A SUBSTITUTE for frum learning, but we can no longer ignore the Jewish fate of the majority of American Jewish Children.

We can no longer afford to close our eyes and day school doors to the majority of the Klal here in the US. We are all a part of Klal Yisrael and as such share the same physical and spiritual fate.

Ben Gamla secular education can instill an excitement for the “Land of Israel” without violating separation of church and state. Hashem gave us the Torah, the Land (Israel) and each other (Klal Yisrael). Ignoring the last two for the first is a perilous and I believe unsustainable choice.

Worrying about “Our children” and not about the millions of unaffiliated and uneducated Jewish children is tragic and shortsighted. Tell me, what Jewish child is not “Ours”?

kidzfirst1111 says:

This is insane. Here’s how the next generation will recognize a Jewish person:He/She is a good person. Willing to include anyone into our new cultural ‘religion’(as long as they are a good person). They have to know nothing about Torah, but be fluent in conversational hebrew. They are allowed to marry outside the faith (as long as the person is a good person). They are allowed to marry the same sex (as long as the person is a good person). They do not have to celebrate Shabbat or the second day of a Chag (as long as they consider themselves a good person). They can elect people to serve our needs in government who DO NOT have the best interests of Israel in mind (as long as they’re a good person… For our pocketbooks. They do not have to strive to or obligate themselves to any of the 613 mitzvot (cause they are a good person… Why are you better than they are???) and they need not study any Judaic courses or learn about their Jewish heritage, because that will get in the way of their Secular education (which is obviously most important because that makes them successful so that they can earn a lot of money and in turn give some charity which helps them become a good person.. which in turn seals their destiny as a good JEW!) They do not have to incorporate g-d in their lives.. why? (Yup.. cause they are already a good person)People… wake up.. we are diluting a religion in which the rulebook (dictated by the Torah and the Rabbis that interpreted it) has held our people together as a nation for close to 5800 years. We were the first monotheistic religion that led the way for order and civility in this world. If we keep chopping away at the foundation… there won’t be anything left but chaos!!! So many of us are comforted by the Jewish religion when we need to rely on the customs and traditions for both celebrations and sorrow. But in the future, our children (and the future generations) will have nothing left. Stop the insanity!!!

Cicero says:

Vroom48

>When I was in high school in the early 60′s, Latin was taught without linkage to the Catholic Church or Christian theology.

Latin was the universal European language of scholarship and law for many centuries, not only a Catholic religious language. I guess they forget to mention that in your high school.

kidzfirst1111 says:

@Stuarta11.. you’re right… we have gone mad!!!!

Vroom48 says:

Cicero says:

Latin was the universal European language of scholarship and law for many centuries, not only a Catholic religious language. I guess they forget to mention that in your high school.

Yes, even in my high school we were taught that Latin was a universal language of scholarship and law; however, I’m responding about 1960, when the only daily use of Latin was in the Mass…and in the indecipherable perscriptions given to what were at that time called “drug stores”.

SF2OAK says:

In my shtetl, Oakland CA we have 3 day schools in the area, they cost about $15,000 per child per year. We have 1 modern orth synagogue or 2 if you count the one in Berkeley. We have a conservative & reform shul also in the area (more if you count the area of the schools) and 1 kosher market and 1 kosher bakery. I would love to be in the position of the parent from Hollywood Fl with her Ben Gamla and Jump. In fact I can only hope Steinhardt wants to set up shop here. I realize that you think it may dilute the brand but believe me the brand (Judaism) is pretty diluted here already. I grew up high german reform, and that is a real term, and it is to say I knew I was Jewish growing up but not too much else.

Avraham says:

Reading hebrew (with comprehension) is the sine qua non for learning Torah in any serious way and the sad fact is that orthodox Jewish day schools are not graduating students fluent in Hebrew. But for our knee jerk defense of the day schools, it should be scandalous that we pay tens of thousands of dollars per year for 12 years and our kids can’t read or speak Hebrew. I think the religious benefits of day school are overstated in the early years and that religious high school could be much more productive if students were fluent. So, bring on the charter schools, not just to save money but to facilitate Torah education.

Serge says:

These schools are good when they attract students who otherwise would have attended English-only public schools. They are bad when they attract students who otherwise would have attended schools that also teach Jewish religion.

Is there a way of arranging for Jewish “religious” education to be offered privately, on the same campus, immediately following school hours, to children whose parents were interested in this sort of after-school program?

lainie friedman says:

I like the idea. It opens up the Jewish world through Hebrew to Jews and non-Jews alike.
It opens up modern Israel and Israeli culture. Language is the gateway to learning everything.
Learning another language is so important in our world, especially if one is really proficient. The learner’s appreciation will be much more so if he/she is taught well, and can actually communicate and read in the language.Not all Jews are religious, there’s nothing new about that. Even Israelis are not one hundred percent religious, far from it. I think it’s great!
Lainie Friedman

Norman Kabak says:

Wellington, New Zealand has a Jewish population of 1200 admitted Jews.
We have a “Cultural Hebrew School” of 25 students, not all of whom are Jewish. In order to continue our existence, we accept students who have attended the Early Childhood school affiliated with the Wellington Jewish Community Center. We also accept students who can prove that at least one of their grandparents are/were Jewish. Such are the circumstances of trying to maintain an identifiable Jewish school in the far reaches of the world. Oh that we were able to be recognized for our struggle and receive some much needed support, both financial and social.

Ariella says:

It sounds like there IS a religious after-school program at the school. And it’s a great alternative for people who are unable to unwilling to meet the cost of day school (where I live, day-school parents are both expected to work in order to qualify for financial aid; that was not a good choice for my family so we were basically priced out of the day-school market). I would much rather have my child become fluent in Hebrew and attend a religious supplementary program than just attend an after-school program and not become fluent!

The school emphasizes Judaism to at least some extent – ie. in social studies classes and perhaps others – so they are learning at least part of the ordinary Hebrew School curriculum during school hours.

Also, a real problem today is non-Jewish people’s lack of understanding of both Israel and Judaism; that’s one of the reasons Israel is attacked so much in the media and among some groups. Having non-Jews understand and (most likely) become sympathetic to Judaism and Israel will surely help that situation.

ariel abrahams says:

This is great cultural evolution! What an interesting idea!
It must be so exciting for these students to get to grow up in a multi disciplinary educational setting.

sarahyael says:

How do you uncouple Hebrew from Judaism? The vast majority of people who speak Spanish are Roman Catholics; does that make Spanish a “Catholic language”? I think Rambam would argue that Arabic isn’t a “Muslim language”, since he wrote classics of Judaism in it. What religion is Japanese?

Language, culture, and religion are separate. Thank Heaven.

Doc says:

If it works in Israeli public schools, why not here? Our day school teaches judaics not Judaism. The kids learn holocaust history in judaics for two years!! I would gladly sacrifice morning prayers for free tuition. there is less of a contrast than the comments indicate (in non orthodox schools)

I’ve said that least 3962220 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

Thx for sharing this!

Not only are we guilty of embracing ridiculously “liberal” diluted forms of Judaism that ensures we are losing Jewish souls with each passing generation through inter-marriage, we are now looking for ways of disassociating Hebrew from Judaism & our religious heritage! The world (or at least your corner of it) has truly gone mad. The school emphasizes Judaism to at least some extent – ie. in social studies classes and perhaps others – so they are learning at least part of the ordinary Hebrew School curriculum during school hours.

Who is the prophet talking about?

Isaiah 53;5 “But He was
wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, the
chastisement for our peace was upon Him and by His bruises we are
healed.”

v.11 says ” My righteous servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities”

v.12. “He poured out His soul unto death and He was numbered with the transgressors and He bore the sin of many”

Who is known to have died for many and save us from God’s judgment?

One of the greatest things that has ever been done for all
people happened in Jerusalem and it is the work Jesus did for
you on the cross 2000 years ago!

The Son of God came down to pay the price of our sin and His forgiveness is available for everybody who believes.

This is what the Bible is promising;

As we read in Romans 8;1 “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus said;”I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and
believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned ,
but he has crossed over from death to life.” John 5;24 The work Jesus did for you is the salvation work that gives you access to God and eternal life!

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Hebrew School

The Hebrew Language Academy, New York City’s first Hebrew-language charter school, opened two years ago. Now its backers—including financier Michael Steinhardt—want to replicate the model nationwide.

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