The news last week that a Hebrew-immersion charter school for Englewood and Teaneck has met with state approval has given rise to speculation about the new school’s impact on both public and Jewish day schools.

Also, because the new school will offer Hebrew-language and Jewish cultural curricula, another concern is whether these can be taught while steering clear of religion, as mandated by the constitutional separation of church and state.

Called the Shalom Academy and based in Englewood, it will join Hatikvah International Academy in East Brunswick as the second Hebrew-immersion charter school in New Jersey. The school, for up to 240 students in grades kindergarten to eighth, is set to open in September.

Shalom Academy is the brainchild of Englewood resident Raphael Bachrach, who conceived it as an alternative to day schools for tuition-burdened parents. The academy had been rejected three times by the state board of education because of concerns related to budgetary allotment and the potential issue of segregation.

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Rabbi Tomer Ronen doesn’t see the charter as detracting from day schools. FILE PHOTO

Due to Gov. Christie’s massive push for charter schools in low-performing districts, the school was one of 23 new charters approved last Tuesday. Advocates for the school had worked hard to refine the school’s proposal, between its previously rejected applications, to meet New Jersey Department of Education standards.

Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, a Teaneck resident who is executive director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, thinks the news is both good and bad.

“As far as Limudei Kodesh [Jewish studies], this presents a conflict,” he said, adding that the Hebrew-immersion charter in Florida offers engaging after-school programs focused on religion. That way, he explained, students can learn about religion in a fun environment, while avoiding the mixing of church and state in school.

“Students will not receive the same type of Jewish education that they would in Jewish day schools,” he continued. On the other hand, he said, “The benefits are that children will be proficient in Hebrew language and culture, which should not be discounted as important facets of Jewish education. Shalom presents an alternative to public school, where students run the risk of losing Jewish knowledge altogether, and consequently losing their faith.”

Rosenbaum envisions most applicants to be parents seeking a more Jewish option to public school for their children, perhaps Israelis looking to keep up Hebrew-language studies and a Jewish cultural connection.

Daniel Barenholtz, a Teaneck resident and father of four, said, “I want to know who the teachers are. Will math be constructive or instructive? Will they teach whole language or phonics? Will there be heavy homework or light? Also, any parent who is focused on their children’s religious education will have to make their own arrangements for that outside of the normal school day. I’m sure it will be challenging.”

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood, who spearheaded efforts for the Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools fund in 2009, feels that parents may consider sending students to the charter for special educational needs or for financial reasons. But, he cautioned, “this option needs to be carefully examined. There is no real substitute for a full day-school education.”

A different view was expressed by one follower of 200k Chump (www.200kchump.blogspot.com), a blog devoted to the tuition crisis: “I went to public school my entire life. I’ve always been religious. It comes from the heart and home. This could be a fantastic opportunity for families who want to live within their means.”

Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood’s Cong. Shomrei Emunah is “concerned that the Shalom charter school will draw students away from the yeshiva day schools and Solomon Schechter schools, thus destabilizing them, while offering an inferior Jewish education. This kind of charter school is valuable in areas where there are no day schools, but not here in Bergen County.”

On the other hand Rabbi Tomer Ronen, principal of Ben Porat Yosef, doesn’t “see there being an issue of the charter ‘taking away’ from the Jewish day schools. Aside from a very strong focus on Hebrew language and culture, our major focus is to create Torah scholars.”

Similarly, Ruth Gafni, head of school at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, said that although it’s good if any school promotes Hebrew, that language is only a foundation, the building block for academic success in the areas of Tanach, Talmud, Torah, derech eretz, the Jewish holidays, and how God is central to it all.

Richard Segall, Englewood’s superintendent of public schools, says his concern is the budget. “Englewood will be losing over $700,000 in funding in the first year but receiving less than $3,000 in operational savings,” he told The Jewish Standard, “It costs taxpayers far less to incorporate a Hebrew immersion program inside our existing schools than creating a new school with all of the associated overhead and operational costs. Integrating students into the total school can be done in a way that tackles the problem of group isolation, so the delivery of services does not become a case of ‘separate but equal.'”

Segall explained that, in the past, Englewood received about 15 affirmative responses to the proposal of a Hebrew charter school, spanning five grades. “This suggests that a Hebrew-immersion program would have a small pool of students within the district who would be candidates for this charter school. To get to the number of projected enrollees, students would be coming from elsewhere, and our records show that the vast majority who fit the profile are currently enrolled in Jewish day schools.”

In an e-mail to the Standard, Barbara Pinsak, interim superintendent of schools for Teaneck, wrote, “It’s done and we are going to move on. I had an opportunity to respond to the charter proposal and my concerns were based on curriculum and the adherence of the charter proposal to the guidelines of the New Jersey Department of Education for charter schools. Evidently, our concerns and questions were either not considered compelling enough or were otherwise deemed not important.”

Bachrach did not respond to requests for comment.