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Hebrew School for Everyone

At New York’s newest charter school.

by
Allison Hoffman
August 17, 2009

Here’s a brain teaser: is a school that teaches secular subjects in Hebrew inherently religious? The people behind the Hebrew Language Academy, New York’s first publicly funded Hebrew-language charter school, think not; they insist that, like an Arabic school that opened two years ago in Brooklyn, the new school can stay safely in secular terrain while teaching in a language widely associated with religion. Skeptics aren’t convinced; they see the school’s overwhelmingly Russian Jewish enrollment as evidence that the funders, investor and Birthright Israel founder Michael Steinhardt and Oklahoma philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, want to co-opt public funds to promote Jewish identity.

To reassure critics, they’ve hired Maureen Campbell, the Vassar- and Oxford-educated daughter of Jamaican immigrants, to oversee the inaugural year; Campbell, who grew up in Harlem, isn’t Jewish and doesn’t speak Hebrew herself but said she’s learning fast. (Lucky, since she’ll need it to chat to her students and teachers during breakfast and lunch breaks, when Hebrew will be strictly enforced.) In an interview with The Forward, Campbell was insistent that “you can teach a culture and a language without encouraging the observance of religion.” But, she added, Israeli colors will be integrated into the school’s decor; which means, in other words, it’ll basically be just like a school in Tel Aviv.

Allison Hoffman is the executive editor of CNN Politics.

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