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.