When a Hebrew language charter school opened its doors in Florida last year, some worried that it would blur the line between religion and state. Since that time, however, the school has been able to allay those concerns. Now, an Englewood man wants to create a similar school in Bergen County.
Raphael Bachrach, a scientist in the printing industry, submitted an application to the N.J. Department of Education last month to create the Englewood Hebrew Language and Culture Charter School.
Bachrach’s application anticipates an enrollment of 1’0 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. He has received inquiries from parents across the spectrum, including non-Jews.
The school is not meant to compete with Jewish day schools or public schools, Bachrach said. Rather, he added, it is geared toward students who want more Jewish content than is provided in public schools but cannot afford private education or do not want the religious intensity of day schools. He pointed out that the majority of Jewish families in Bergen County do not send their children to day schools.
"Public school is one extreme, day school is another extreme," he said. "A lot of parents in Bergen County feel there’s a need for something that’s not religion but language and culture. This would fill that need."
Wally Greene, director of Jewish Educational Services at UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, said that while the day schools would not welcome competition from a free school, the charter school is unlikely to affect those committed to a day school education.
"The attractive nature of it is that it’s free education," he said. "For some people, the Hebrew is all they’re looking for. For some it may not be a threat. It’s hard to judge."
Calls to area day schools for comment were not returned.
Two of Bachrach’s four children attend public school. While he appreciates the education they receive, he said, he feels the curriculum is not challenging enough for them. He also wants his children to learn about their Jewish heritage but said that day school is "not an option."
"In the public schools there’s a lot of [focus] on other cultures and trying to be inclusive, but not on Jewish culture," he said. "There was no attention at all to the fact that this was Jewish Heritage Month, no focus on the 60th anniversary of the modern State of Israel, no attention to Jewish holidays. In the context of a highly motivated, parent-involved, performance-based, dual-language school, without crossing over any red lines, you’d give attention to these things."
Those red lines have been an issue for the Ben Gamla Charter School in Broward County, Fla., the country’s first Hebrew culture charter school, which opened in September. Bachrach looks to Ben Gamla as an example of how Jewish culture can be taught in a state-funded school.
"It’s a delicate thing, but it can be done," he said. "You can teach about religion without promoting religion."
Adam Siegel, director of Ben Gamla, said the biggest challenge his school faced in the beginning was persuading people that it was not a religious school.
"It’s easy to make claims about what people are going to do before they open," Siegel said. "Our intention all along was not to have religion be a factor."
The school, which has 400 students, was suspended from teaching Hebrew for three weeks during the beginning of the year while the school board reviewed its curriculum.
"Once the school year started, people realized we were not a religious school," Siegel said.
His advice to Bachrach is to be completely transparent in the school’s planning.
"You’re always going to have people who feel threatened by it," Siegel said.
The N.J. Department of Education received ‘5 applications from prospective charter schools this year. It expects to make decisions on each one by September.
In response to a question about church-state separation, a spokesperson from the department told The Jewish Standard that the department does not comment publicly on applications until the completion of the review process.
"During the course of the review process we will look to see if there are any church-state implications and we will seek legal advice accordingly," said Kathryn Forsyth, director of the department’s Public Information Office. The review, she said, would be "intensive."