Article Library / Annual Assessment

2010 Annual Assessment

While both the global economic crisis and Jewish identity in the Diaspora (in connection with de-legitimization of Israel on North American campuses) are examined in other parts of this year’s annual assessment, two developments which resonate with these themes in Jewish education at the primary and secondary levels are worth noting and watching. One concerns JFS—formerly Jews’ Free School, established in 1732– the oldest and most venerable Jewish school in the United Kingdom, and the other, the Hebrew Language Academy (HLA), a charter school in Brooklyn which opened in September 2009. Both navigate the borderlands between religious and state authorities, and between particularistic and pluralistic inclinations within Judaism. Both schools are free of charge, a fact that, in these trying economic times, has profound financial ramifications for some Jewish families.

In December 2009, JFS lost a legal challenge to its admissions policy in a narrowly split decision (5-4) rendered by Britain’s Supreme Court. The suit was brought against JFS on behalf of “M,” 12 years old at the time, who was declined a place among the school’s approximately 1,700 students based on the refusal of the Office of the Chief Rabbi (OCR), Dr. Jonathan Sacks, to recognize the non-Orthodox conversion of his Italian, Roman Catholic-born mother, and by extension M’s own status as a Jew. M’s father, who is divorced from his mother, is both a Briton and a Jew by birth, and belongs to a Masorti synagogue he regularly attends with his son. Attorneys representing M argued that JFS had determined his ineligibility for admissions on the basis of ethnicity, in violation of Britain’s 1976 Race Relations Act, because it had based its decision on his mother’s ethnic origins.

Although M lost the first legal round in a lower court, which found JFS’s admission policy to be “entirely legitimate,” he prevailed on appeal, a ruling sustained by the Supreme Court justices. The Court of Appeal in its verdict stated: “the requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act… Such a practice is even more unacceptable in the case of a comprehensive school funded by the taxpayer.”

“the requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish is a test of ethnicity… such a practice is even more unacceptable in the case of a school funded by the taxpayer”

The Appeal Court’s ruling called for JFS to adopt an admissions standard based on “outward manifestations of religious practise,” a test that would include, among other factors, synagogue attendance. JFS was instructed to implement such a calculus for the 2010-11 school year and complied with the order. Supreme Court jurist Lord Brown, who is Jewish, remarked in his dissenting opinion that such a test amounted to a “non-Jewish definition of who is Jewish.”

For some, including Rabbi Sacks, the decision is an intrusion and indicates at least a modicum of state directed and enforced, intra-Judaic policy,court ordered pluralism in this case. For others, like the chief executive of Britain’s Liberal Judaism, Rabbi Danny Rich, the ruling was welcome because it addresses the objection of non-Orthodox streams to “standard-setting by just one section of the community to the detriment of the rest.”

One cannot help but hear the harmonies this case strikes with the broader ongoing “conversion crisis,” inside Israel and between Israeli rabbinic authorities and Diaspora rabbis, which has at its heart the daunting identificational questions of who is a Jew and who has the authority to make such determinations.

The basic model for Hebrew charter schools includes a segregation of Jewish and Israeli culture, which is allowed, from religious and biblical studies which are not

In the United States, where there is a constitutionally erected separation barrier between church and state, Hebrew language charter schools, and a full-fledged, well-funded movement championing them, began to sprout up in 2007. At this writing, four charter elementary schools are in operation: two Ben Gamla Schools in southern Florida – Ben Gamla will open the first Hebrew language high school in September 2011 – the Hebrew Language Academy in Brooklyn, and the Hatikvah International Academy in East Brunswick, New Jersey. A new charter, Shalom Academy, serving the communities of Englewood and Teaneck is set to open next fall. Several more, throughout the country, are in the process of applying for charter status. In addition Jewish day schools are also planning to transform themselves into charter schools.

Broadly speaking, charter schools are self-selecting – students and families choose to enroll for a specific reason — niche schools, hybrids of public and private education that introduce, according to their advocates, an element of school choice and innovation into state-funded primary and secondary education systems. 40 states plus the District of Columbia currently have statutory provisions to accommodate charters within their public school systems. That isn’t to say that the process of applying for charter status is an easy one, and, more often than not, state school licensing authorities reject charter applications the first time around.

The basic model for Hebrew charter schools includes dual-language instruction integrated into all subjects, and a careful segregation of Jewish and Israeli culture, which is allowed, from religious and biblical studies, which are not. Supplemental, privately funded Jewish religious education programs are readily available to Jewish students either on or off site after school hours.

It is interesting to note that in much of the media coverage of Hebrew charters comparisons are drawn with the Kahlil Gibran International Academy of Brooklyn, founded in 2007 as the first English-Arabic charter school to offer a curriculum of Arabic language and culture. Just as some critics of the Kahlil Gibran International Academy have expressed the concern that, in violation of the church-state divide, Islamic religious study could find its way into the school’s curriculum, some critics of Hebrew charter schools, including the ACLU, make a similar claim: that it will not be possible to keep Jewish religious study from intruding on the secular school day.

Although the first Hebrew language charter school to open was Hollywood, Florida’s Ben Gamla Charter School in 2007, the establishment of the Hebrew Language Academy (HLA) in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn in 2009 was the first in New York and is the flagship school of a Hebrew language charter movement supported by the formidable clout and capital of Taglit (Birthright) philanthropist, Michael Steinhardt. HLA, which currently serves approximately 150 racially diverse students (55% are white), will increase its capacity yearly until it reaches its goal of the full spectrum of grades from kindergarten through 12th grade. Formerly an official in the New York City Department of Education’s charter school, Aaron Listhaus was recently hired as the executive director of the Hebrew Charter School Center and in a March 2011 interview in Tablet Magazine said, “Our goal is to really uncouple Hebrew from Judaism. Contemporary Israeli society is the result of 120 years of secularization and modernization of the Hebrew language. So, there is a whole culture out there in which Hebrew does not necessarily mean religion.”

The difficulty of balancing on the tightrope between religion and state is just one issue in a complex set of problematics animating the Hebrew charter school discourse. Diane Ravitch, a professor at the New York University School of Education and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in a New York Daily News op-ed from early in 2009, takes the view that Hebrew charter schools are anathema to the American liberal multi-cultural enterprise: “It is the job of family, the community and religious institutions to teach children about their heritage. The job of public schools is to teach children a common civic culture and a shared commitment to democracy…In a city with hundreds of different ethnic and cultural groups, we should not be encouraging the creation of schools that are specific to a single non-American culture. That way lies separation, segregation and the fraying bonds that hold us together as Americans.”

Contemporary Israeli society is the result 0f 120 years of secularization and modernization of the Hebrew language, so there’s a whole culture in which Hebrew does not necessarily mean religion

One of the thorniest areas in the Hebrew charter school discourse concerns the impact Hebrew charters may have on already financially strapped Jewish day schools. The anxiety Hebrew charters cause in the day school community has added fresh energy to the call for school vouchers among some Jewish educators. At the same time, with day school tuition at around $20,000 per child per year, and the country still in the grip of a persistent financial crisis, others say that charter schools have the potential to save and revitalize Jewish education in the US. And, as mentioned above, it is a safe bet that more and more day schools will seek to convert to charters.

Rabbi Paul Plotkin, spiritual leader of the Conservative Temple Beth Am in Margate, Florida, recently wrote that Hebrew charters might offer the Conservative movement the opportunity of a badly needed infusion of revenue and cultural relevance:

“As wonderful as our Solomon Schechter schools have been, they still only attract a small percentage of Conservative students. While cost is not the only reason, it certainly has been a major contributing factor.
But a “near” Jewish day school education might be available for a few thousand dollars a year [the estimated price of afterschool Jewish study programs]. And the delivery of this education could reinvigorate older Conservative synagogues, creating a significant new revenue stream and putting many new children on campus. The plan also could provide employment opportunities for Conservative rabbis, teachers, and youth workers, as well as the resources to pay them”.