New school draws mixed reactions

New school draws mixed reactions

Shalom Academy, the Hebrew charter school planned for Englewood/Teaneck, is being hailed by some and criticized by others. For some – especially parents of children selected in the opening admissions lottery – it represents a chance to immerse children in Hebrew culture while saving on day-school tuition. But some local religious leaders fear that the academy may drain resources from existing Jewish schools.

While founder Raphael Bachrach did not return telephone calls, the Shalom Academy website listed this week, by number rather than name, students accepted for the first classes: 40 students for both kindergarten and first grade and 20 each for third and fourth grades. Each grade has a substantial waiting list. All applicants have been accepted for fifth grade, though the number of students was not listed.

The mother of a 5-year-old boy in Teaneck who will enter the academy told The Jewish Standard that her oldest child attends a day school “we are very happy with. She’s excelling, and we don’t have a desire for her to leave the school.”

She applied to the academy for her younger son and his twin brother – who was not selected in the lottery – because “now there are more options, and this is a wonderful educational experience that won’t cost so much.”

She is not sure, however, that she will send her son to the school. That will depend on whether his twin, who is wait-listed, is accepted as well.

Also, said the Teaneck parent, she is “not so clear” on what will be offered. “I only know what was on the website,” she said, “but it says they will follow New Jersey state standards.” She is hopeful, however, “that the academy will have a great arts program…. An ideal situation would be a fabulous general studies program and a great arts program, with music, drama, arts, and computers.”

She will also investigate after-school Judaic programs. She said that existing offerings don’t have what she is seeking, “but maybe because of this school, it will be created.”

Another parent, also from Teaneck, will send her 6-year-old daughter to Shalom Academy in the fall. Right now, the girl attends a Solomon Schechter school and “loves everything about it.” But while it’s “warm and nurturing, it’s extremely expensive, even more so than even two or three years ago.”

“Of primary importance is a very strong and secure academic foundation,” said the mother. “Next is Hebrew language. These are tools you need in order to learn over a lifetime. Everything else you can supplement.”

She pointed out that she grew up in public schools and believes in them. But, she said, “the schools [here] are not great and I don’t feel they will provide my daughter with the education she needs.” And since she will save on tuition, she can “now afford to supplement what my daughter is missing in terms of a Judaic education” as well as such extras as drama and ballet.

She and her husband realize that the new venture may require a lot of parental involvement, but they are not daunted, since “we both feel we are invested enough in getting a quality education.” They may also have more children, something they had put off because of the high cost of education.

“Is it better to have more Jewish children or fewer children with more Jewish literacy?” she asked. “I’m not convinced we always make the right choice.”

Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division and head of Cong. Shomrei Emunah in Englewood, said the school is “both promising and problematic, depending on the context. Across the country, these kinds of programs are often opportunities for kids who would otherwise have no Jewish education. But if the result of this particular school is to siphon kids away from Solomon Schechter or [other] day schools, it would be unfortunate. It could destabilize the schools or hurt them because they would have less resources.”

On the other hand, said Genack, “If the result is [that] kids who are not getting any Hebrew or day-school education or kids who have special needs go, that would be good.”

Similarly, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, first vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America and leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood, said that “[In reaching out] to Jewish families who would not be sending their children otherwise to local day schools, or as a resource to those families whose children cannot be accommodated in the day schools because of exceptional needs, the charter school could be seen as a welcome addition to the fabric of the community.”

However, he added, “it is absolutely no substitute for a day-school education, and I would consider it most unfortunate were … parents to choose to take their children out of the day-school setting in favor of this charter school. Our children are our most precious commodity,” he said. “We should not gamble with their education.”

Goldin said there’s no question, from the standpoint of a Judaic education, that the charter school would be “vastly inferior” to a full day-school education.

“I understand the financial pressures on day school parents, and we are making efforts … to try and address these concerns, but they are long-term solutions and they are not going to solve this overnight,” he said. “I would hate to see an exodus from the day schools because of a financial crisis.”

Englewood resident Rabbi Shmuley Boteach thinks Shalom Academy is “a very positive development. I of course support the separation of church and state, but in education it is taken to a draconian extreme where parochial schools cannot even get funding for their secular subjects. Parents are squeezed between exorbitant property taxes and high tuition. The situation is untenable.”

Boteach, a columnist for this newspaper, said he hopes we can “slowly loosen the stranglehold” absolute separation has over education in the United States. It is a “bizarre situation,” he added, “when hardworking parents’ tax dollars cannot go toward their children’s study of history and math in a parochial school…, a monstrous injustice against religious parents everywhere.”

The “ultimate fix is vouchers, where parents have a choice,” he said. But the next best thing is a charter school, “where a semblance of tradition can be imparted, whether in the form of language or culture.” Boteach said it is also positive that a Hebrew charter school will bring together Christian, Jewish, and Muslim students, “all part of the covenant of Abraham.”

Heather Robinson contributed to this report.

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