In an opinion piece last week, Yossi Prager stated that “Englewood/Teaneck is the wrong place for a Hebrew public school.” He further asserted that “[w]hile Hebrew-language charter schools might play a positive role in American Jewish life, this is not the case in Englewood or Teaneck.”
I offer the following arguments in support of the Englewood/Teaneck area being one of the most appropriate places for a Hebrew charter school:
1. Only in an area with as many Jewish families as Englewood/Teaneck will there be enough families willing to try a novel educational approach such as a Hebrew charter school. Until the value of such schools has been demonstrated, the Jews in areas with low day-school enrollment are unlikely to be motivated to launch such initiatives. Englewood/Teaneck can lead by example, offering the possibility of replicating successful initiatives in other locations.
2. Only in an area such as Englewood/Teaneck are there enough Jewish families to support a wide variety of educational choices. Many alternatives to the standard day-school model have recently been proposed in this region. Some will never get off the ground. Others will be tried and fail. Still others will achieve critical mass and become mainstays of the future educational landscape. Only by offering a variety of choices can we learn what families really want for their children.
3. Unless Hebrew is spoken regularly in the home, the only chance for kids to grow up speaking Hebrew is if they are immersed in it in school. However, our local Jewish day schools are, collectively, failing to produce kids who are fluent in Hebrew. While Ivrit B’Ivrit programs are a step in the right direction, the best they have achieved is the ability of children to study Talmud and Tanach with aptitude. But how many of them actually study in Hebrew? How many of them pick up an Israeli newspaper, a book of Hebrew poetry, or even Harry Potter in Hebrew? How many of them carry on conversations in Hebrew when they visit Israel? In the words of Leon Wieseltier: “Without Hebrew, the Jewish tradition will not disappear entirely in America; but most of it will certainly disappear.” A Hebrew charter school, with emphasis on Hebrew language immersion, may achieve Hebrew proficiency and literacy at levels unrealized in our Jewish day schools.
What will a Hebrew charter school offer? I assume it will offer Hebrew-language immersion, Israeli history and culture (including the holidays), and the heritage of the peoples of Israel. I also hope it will institute Anglit B’Ivrit – the use of Hebrew for classes that do not inherently need to rely on English: math, science, gym, geography, and world history.
And who will be interested in such a school? I offer the following (partial) list:
â€¢ Jewish parents who are comfortable with the level of religion they provide at home, in synagogue and at camp, but are unsatisfied with their kids’ Hebrew language skills;
â€¢ secular Israelis (Tenafly and Fair Lawn have large concentrations);
â€¢ secular immigrants from, for example, the former Soviet Union;
â€¢ intermarried families who can agree on language and culture, but not on religious education;
â€¢ Jewish families who send their children to congregational schools;
â€¢ Jewish families who want their children to grow up with Americans from a variety of racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds;
â€¢ Jewish families with children whose special needs cannot be met at the Jewish day schools; and
â€¢ both non-Jewish and Jewish-but-non-religious families who want quality education for their children.
Prager raised a concern that “any families lost to Shalom [Academy] will generate higher day-school tuitions.” Certainly, there has been much recent discussion regarding the affordability of Jewish education – NNJKIDS, endowments, vouchers, frills-free programs. But how significant an impact could Shalom Academy possibly have? Even if every single one of the 240 spots at Shalom was filled with a child who would otherwise attend a Jewish day school, this is less than five percent of area day schools’ enrollment. Given the wide variety of families who would be interested in this educational option, it is far more realistic to assume the numbers would be one to two percent. And given the booming baby business in the region, it is hard to imagine that a small short-term downturn would not soon be reversed.
Prager’s primary concern, however, regards the “cost” to families: “I worry that Shalom parents will be betting their children’s Jewish future on a losing hand.” I fully support Mr. Prager’s right to his opinion of what is best for himself and for the Jewish people. And I firmly believe that organizations such as Avi Chai should find funding solutions for Jewish educational opportunities and that rabbis should convince families to avail themselves of those opportunities. But by suggesting that a Hebrew charter school cannot be positive for the Englewood/Teaneck community, Mr. Prager is failing to note the potential good such a school could have in the community, is denigrating others’ abilities to choose for themselves what they feel is right for their families, and is suggesting that eliminating a Jewish educational choice would be appropriate.
We are at the very early stages of experimenting with alternatives to Jewish day-school education. Many models will be tried over the coming years. We have to give them a chance, to see what works for individuals and for the community.
Imagine, for a moment, Hebrew charter schools all across the nation, generating tens of thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish Hebrew-speaking adults. Wouldn’t that be a blessing for Israel and the Jewish people? Wouldn’t we then all join together and say: What a great country we live in?