Englewood considers Hebrew-immersion program

Englewood considers Hebrew-immersion program

An Englewood man who last year tried to create the state’s first Hebrew-language charter school has turned his attention to creating a Hebrew immersion curriculum within his city’s public schools.

Raphael Bachrach received notice in October that his application to the New Jersey Department of Education had been rejected. He still intends to pursue the idea – he submitted a letter of intent last month that would keep the process alive – but he recently began discussions with Englewood’s acting school superintendent about the immersion program.

“I’m looking for something I can send my kids to,” Bachrach said. “I want a superior English education. I want a superior Hebrew education. Now that I’m aware of the dual language program, I see a chance for a superior Hebrew education.”

Englewood is already home to a Spanish immersion program, which reportedly has become a model for other schools in the state. Bachrach would like to see that duplicated, with Hebrew. The basic framework would be a separate track within an existing elementary school that would teach the district’s standard curriculum. Approximately half the time would be spent in Hebrew, as is done with the Spanish program. As in that program, some attention would be given to geographical and cultural lessons about the language’s country of origin – Israel – which could include basic secularized lessons on the country’s holidays.

“Ultimately, we’ve got to make everybody happy for this to happen,” Bachrach said, acknowledging the need to separate Hebrew language from Jewish religion. “It has to not be a religious format.”

A meeting with Bachrach and Richard Segall, the interim superintendent of the Englewood school district, was scheduled for Wednesday night for those curious about the program. Reached on Tuesday, Segall said the meeting would be to discuss “whether there’s a fit between what that segment of the community wants and what we can offer.”

The meeting had been blown out of proportion, he said pointing to a Facebook group created to advertise it. Originally, he said, it was supposed to include only a core group of about 10 people. Bachrach said he was expecting at least 150.

No proposals were to be put forward at the meeting, Segall said. Rather, it was to provide only information on what the district could offer. He said he hoped people would leave afterward saying they wanted to continue the process.

“There are a lot of compromises that people who want the program have to examine for their children,” he said. “We are not [proposing] a Jewish day school, and if that’s what they’re expecting us to re-create they’re going to be disappointed.”

All of those looking for free public Hebrew education may not get their wish either, according to Segall. While the school would indeed be free for students within the Englewood school district, any student coming from outside the district – neighboring Teaneck, for example – would have to pay a state-mandated tuition. That tuition is approximately $14,000 a year, comparable to day-school.

If sufficient interest remains after the meeting, Segall said the next step is to arrange a meeting with the state board of education in Trenton to define its boundaries for the program.

A Hebrew immersion program could have benefits for the Englewood district, as well as for parents seeking Hebrew education. The district has been mired in controversy for years because of its high percentage of black and Hispanic students, which led the state supreme court to rule that the Dwight Morrow High School was one of isolated minority students.

The Academies@Englewood, for students demonstrating “exceptional merit,” was created at the school in 2002. Including the Academies, the black and Hispanic percentage in the high school has dropped to 80 percent, Segall said. The Academies share only the campus. According to local media reports, the overall black and Hispanic percentage remains in the high 90s if the Academies are excluded, which has caused critics to argue that the school remains segregated. A Hebrew immersion program could increase the district’s non-minority population on the elementary level, which could then funnel into the high school.

“This is a potential solution to us,” Segall said.

The Orthodox community has expressed interest in the immersion program, but also reaffirmed its commitment to the day-school system.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, the Orthodox Union’s kashrut administrator and religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Emunah in Englewood, planned to attend Wednesday’s meeting to learn more about the concept. He noted that the option of Hebrew immersion in public schools brings opportunities, such as the availability of the district’s special-needs programs. But, he stressed, “I don’t believe this is a substitute for yeshiva education.”

While an economic downturn continues to plague the country, day-school parents have had to deal with the burden of increasing tuition costs. Educators across the country have turned their attention to the crisis.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah has been spearheading the local efforts for about four months. He met with a group of day-school educators Tuesday night to discuss their progress.

“The local day schools are, for the first time as far as I know, working aggressively and cooperatively on a number of fronts to try to determine ways to address the rising tuitions,” Goldin said Wednesday.

Some ideas include working with UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey to create a community fund for the schools. Another meeting of administrators will take place in a few weeks, he said.

“We believe that it’s necessary to re-educate the community at large as to the communal responsibility for Jewish education,” he said. “The burden cannot rest on the parents alone.”

Asked if a Hebrew immersion program in the public school could provide an alternative to some day-school families, Goldin said no.

“At this point, I still believe there is no substitute for day-school education,” he said. “I would be reluctant to encourage those who are already sending their children to day school to pull their children out of that system.”

If the immersion program goes through, however, it could have a positive impact on the day schools.

“This places a great burden of responsibilities on the day schools and the community to come up with a way to make day schools affordable,” Goldin said.

At a summit it convened last month to address the day-school tuition crisis, the Orthodox Union suggested a series of cost-saving and revenue-raising ideas. Rabbi Saul Zucker, the O.U.’s director of day school and educational services and a Teaneck resident, told the Standard Tuesday that efforts to implement some of those ideas are moving forward. One in particular – to create a national insurance program for day-school employees – has received much praise from administrators, and the O.U. has since received insurance information from dozens of schools, Zucker said.

A Hebrew charter school backed by philanthropist Michael Steinhardt won approval last month to open in Brooklyn. Echoing Ahavath Torah’s Goldin, Zucker said such a school could not be a substitute for day schools.

“By definition there are great restrictions because of church and state borders in terms of religious studies,” he said.

Zucker emphasized that he supports the notion of separation of church and state, but said the charter school could provide clues to how day schools could capitalize on government grants.

“It’s not the solution but it is of great interest because it’s an opportunity to explore exactly where the boundaries are,” he said.

The nation’s economic downturn has highlighted the financial crisis within the day schools, he acknowledged, but it is not the cause of day schools’ woes.

“The tuition crisis in the day schools is something that preceded this for years,” he said. “We can’t lose sight of that.”

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