by Dr. Elaine Cohen
originally published in CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism
Because I grew up an Anglophone in Frenchspeaking Montreal, it comes as no surprise to me that young children who are exposed to a second language in an immersive learning environment can become fluent in that language. In Montreal, street signs, bus and metro advertisements, newspapers, food labels, shopkeepers, government employees, and just about all the programming on radio and TV reinforce French as a living language of communication, even for people who live and work in primarily English-speaking communities.
Similarly, Hebrew charter schools most likely will succeed in achieving their goal of teaching Hebrew as an expressive language.
In Jewish day schools, however, Hebrew serves other essential roles. It is the language of the sacred texts that we want students to read in the original. It is the link that connects Jews around the world with each other. It is the way that we pray from the siddur and make meaning of the liturgy. It enables students to penetrate and engage with the literature of the rabbinic tradition, which was either written in or translated into Hebrew. And Hebrew fosters a sense of identity with Jews in Israel and strengthens the essential idea of Jewish peoplehood. To achieve these goals children must build their relationship with Hebrew in an intensively Jewish environment.
The program and culture that day schools offer differ from those of the charter schools in significant ways beyond the linguistic. Jewish day schools provide an ambience of lived Judaism throughout the day. Children engage in prayer and conversations about God and theology in developmentally appropriate ways. They celebrate the Jewish holidays and Shabbat in a joyful atmosphere. They gain the skills to study Bible and grapple with essential questions that foster a personal relationship to the ancient stories of Jewish tradition. By middle school or earlier, students encounter rabbinic Judaism and the texts that anchor core concepts and values. They study commentaries that challenge their intellects and inspire their commitment to living a Jewish life.
The advent of Hebrew charter schools does cause anxiety among advocates of Jewish day school education. But if the programs are not so different from secular schools that teach Hebrew as a second language and introduce Jewish history objectively, wherein lies the threat?
First, obviously, charter schools are free. During this prolonged period of economic downturn and the resultant crisis of affordability, Jewish day schools across the religious spectrum struggle to retain their students, meet an escalating demand for tuition assistance, and recruit new families. Many families are stretched beyond their means, so an alternative that offers some of the benefits of a Jewish day school without a price tag becomes very attractive.
Some parents are drawn to non-Orthodox day schools’ high quality, low teacher/student ratio, and nurturing environment. For them, the religious aspects of the schools’ programs are not the priority. The nascent Hebrew charter schools serve a similar population.
Under what circumstances might we be more welcoming to this new phenomenon, which gives access to Hebrew language and some Jewish culture to public school children? One answer is geography – where Hebrew charter schools and day schools do not compete for the same children because there is no day school in the area. However, in Miami, in Brooklyn, and in East Brunswick, New Jersey, charter schools have opened with the support of Jewish philanthropists in the very same neighborhoods or districts where Jewish day schools have existed for years. There’s no doubt that they are striving to attract day school families, particularly Israelis, new Americans, and children of parents who are not affiliated with synagogues. Those charter schools are in direct competition with day schools, and they have means to advertise their programs extensively because of the significant funding they receive from their Jewish supporters.
So why not let many flowers bloom?
I am concerned about the impact on the Jewish community 10 or 20 years from now, when still fewer Jewish children will have been immersed in the deep Jewish experiences that day schools provide. I am worried that the afterschool programs offered to Jewish children at charter schools are led mostly by Chabad educators, whose perspectives on Jewish life are at variance with ours. The Solomon Schechter Day School Association did explore the possibility of becoming a provider of afterschool religious education in areas where we would not be competing against ourselves. We concluded that it would be demoralizing, counterproductive, and against the best interests of the existing institutions to offer such programs in communities where there already is a Schechter or community school.
Indeed, I am very worried that the ardent efforts to sustain Jewish day schools in many regions of the country are going to be undermined. Because charter schools will cost the Jewish community less, the voices of day school supporters may be minimized precisely at a time when we need to hear them making the case for the effective route to lifelong Jewish engagement and commitment that Jewish day schools foster and enable.
Are Hebrew charter schools a threat to Jewish day schools? It is too early to have quantitative data and comparative studies. However, by the time research will be conducted, we may have lost the opportunity to inculcate thousands of Jewish children with a love of Jewish learning and living that is beyond the purview of a charter school.
This question cannot be dismissed as a narrow, ethnocentric concern. It has implications for the long-term future of our Jewish young people, who may master Hebrew but lack any personal connection to religious tradition or identity anchored in Jewish literacy. We probably all know Israelis for whom “Jewish” is not part of their personal identity. They live in a society that is framed by the Jewish calendar yet they have no relationship to Shabbat and the holidays, or the customs and traditions that give meaning to their lives as Jews.
Even if the charter schools graduate students who are fluent in Hebrew, can a dynamic and vital Jewish community of the future be sustained solely via this languagebased route? The questions remain and will abound as we observe the results of the Hebrew charter schools’ educational experiment in the coming years.