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November 20, 2018 8:48 am

Public Charter Schools Put Benefits of Teaching Hebrew to the Test

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A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

JNS.orgNow in its ninth year, the Hebrew Public network of 13 charter schools utilizes a blend of startup philanthropic funding and state funds to offer high-quality Hebrew-language education to Jewish and non-Jewish students alike. Currently, these schools run in New York, New Jersey, California, Minnesota, and Washington, DC. New schools are scheduled to open soon in Philadelphia and Texas.

The schools teach Hebrew to all their students — about half of them Jewish. Classes on other traditional public-school subjects are also taught in Hebrew. The schools do not teach any subjects about the Jewish faith, but do offer information on Israeli culture, history, and national holidays, which often overlap with Jewish holidays.

“We are not a Jewish school. We are the only public-school network in North America that teaches Hebrew to kids of all backgrounds,” says Valerie Khaytina, the Chief External Officer of Hebrew Public.

The network — with more than 3,000 students — was started by the Areivim Philanthropy Group and the Steinhardt Philanthropic Foundation in 2009 to provide a free alternative for parents and students searching for an education that could enhance Jewish identity without the burdensome costs of a private Jewish day school, which can range anywhere from $10,000 to more than $20,000 per year.

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“The Areivim group sought to find the next big idea to actually make Jewish education affordable for all children,” explains Khaytina. “At around the same time, they [learned] about the concept of charter schools. And they said, ‘OK, that sounds great.’ Then they learned that to be a charter school, you have to be open to everybody. So, there is no religion in our schools.”

When it comes to Zhara Adeyemi, an eighth-grader in the Mill Basin Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn, she and her parents simply wanted “a good school.”

“We won a lottery to get in,” she says.

Zhara, who is not Jewish, says that she speaks Hebrew “pretty well.” She adds, “My friends’ families are from all over the world. I have Argentinian friends, Russian friends, Caribbean friends.”

Zhara, who spoke to JNS on the final day of a class trip to Israel, says, “Israel is beautiful. We really enjoyed being here,” noting that picking olives and hiking on Mount Carmel were personal highlights.

She notes that back home in Brooklyn, speaking Hebrew can occasionally provide unexpected advantages.

“When you walk around the neighborhood, especially me, as an African-American, nobody assumes that you can understand Hebrew. And then you’ll see people speaking Hebrew and you’ll understand them — if they are saying something good or if they are saying something bad about you.”

As to whether she’ll be able to use her Hebrew in the future, Zhara says that she’s “not too sure.”

Viktor Oleynik of the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood in Brooklyn started at Hebrew Language Academy in kindergarten.

“I don’t know if I would say I am fluent [in Hebrew], but I’m pretty good in it,” he says. “But trust me, there are some kids whose parents come from Israel, and they are way better than me.”

He likes the high-quality teachers and the friends he has made at the school. “I’ve been able to meet a lot of kids I can relate to. A lot of Russians,” says Viktor. “There’s a lot of Russian kids in Brooklyn.”

Viktor is Jewish on his mother’s side, but his father is Christian. “We celebrate Hanukkah and New Year’s. We do not celebrate Christmas.”

He says that in addition to the Hebrew language, the students also learn about Israeli culture.

As for his first trip to Israel, Viktor was pleasantly surprised. “Israel is very nice, actually,” he says, calling it “very different” from what he expected. “I was thinking that Israel was a major desert.” He adds that he would “definitely” go back because “there are so many things to see.”

Part of coming to Israel for the students is the immersive Hebrew experience, a tenet of Hebrew Public’s bilingual studies. “We got to practice our Hebrew a bunch on this trip,” says Viktor.

Khaytina tells JNS that for many Jewish families, the school’s appeal is “the idea of teaching kids Hebrew, and about the history and culture of Israel — about global citizenship.”

Yet for many others, “sending their kids to the school is simply a better choice,” she says. “Unfortunately, in many neighborhoods in the United States, the school networks are not so great, and families just want a better school.”

Despite being a public school open to all students regardless of faith, teaching Hebrew comes with its stereotypes, both good and bad.

“When we first opened our newest school in Brooklyn last year, somebody drew a swastika … in front of the school. So even though we are not a Jewish school, we are extremely vigilant about security,” says Khaytina, who joined the students on the Israel trip. “In light of what just happened now in Pittsburgh, we released a special statement that we have reinforced all of our security efforts.”

“Even though we are not Jewish, the minute people hear Hebrew, we can become a target,” she acknowledges. On the flip side, she adds, “sometimes, when parents hear that the school is Hebrew, they associate Jews with good education, and they want to send their kids.”

As for the benefits of this experiment, which has taken more than $20 million in philanthropic funding so far, it’s still too early to tell. Last year was the first year that the Mill Basin school — the first school to open in the network — had a graduating class.

According to Khaytina, time will tell whether exposing children to the Hebrew language, and Israeli history and culture, for nine years will provide a better connection than other short-term efforts to turn Jews and non-Jews alike into Israel supporters. “These kids are growing up learning about Israel, and understanding about Israel as a country.”

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