Nearly two years after a wave of protests over New York City's first public school dedicated to the Arabic language and culture, state education officials are expected to consider greenlighting a Hebrew-language charter school in Brooklyn this week.
The school would open in the fall if it is approved, first by a committee of the State Board of Regents on Monday and then by the full board on Tuesday. It would begin with 150 kindergartners and first graders and be in District 22, which includes the Sheepshead Bay, Midwood and Mill Basin neighborhoods. The district is 45 percent black, 13 percent Hispanic and 15 percent Asian. It also has a substantial population of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Israel.
The State Department of Education staff has recommended that the Regents approve the school, and such recommendations are generally heeded. But at least one regent said he planned to raise questions about the proposal.
Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated. The proposed school is backed by philanthropists including the former hedge fund manager Michael H. Steinhardt, who has given tens of millions of dollars in recent years to programs dedicated to boosting Jewish identity among young people. One such program, Taglit-Birthright Israel, has sent more than 200,000 Jews ages 18 to 26 on free trips to Israel since 1999.
Sara Berman, Mr. Steinhardt's daughter and a former parenting columnist for The New York Sun, is the charter school's lead applicant.
Organizers are taking pains to assure state officials that the school, called the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, would not cross the church-state divide. They have hired Dan Gerstein, a communications consultant, to smooth the way politically and to handle public relations. They are also in negotiations with a candidate for principal who is not Jewish but who has experience in dual-language education.
The application states that students will receive daily, hourlong Hebrew lessons, and that Hebrew will be woven into some art, music and gym classes — with children learning the Israeli folk dance Mayim in gym, for example. In addition, the social studies curriculum will include lessons on "Hebrew culture and history in the context of both American and world history," according to the application.
"The H.L.A. planning team understands fully that no instructor or staff member can in any way encourage or discourage religious devotion in any way on school premises," the application states. "We also understand that the full study and exploration of any language necessarily includes references to the rich cultural heritage inextricably tied to that language, including elements touching on religion."
Planners say they envision a student body that reflects the district's diverse demographics. Though Ms. Berman declined to be interviewed for this article, she said last year, when the application was first submitted, "I hope that we're very clear that this is not a Jewish school," adding, "There will be in no way any religious devotion at this school."
If approved, the academy would join a growing collection of charter schools nationwide whose curriculums center on an ethnic or cultural group, even though by law they must be open to all students. A recent review by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a Washington advocacy group, found that of more than 4,600 charters nationwide, 113 have mission statements speaking to a particular cultural theme. Those include the country's first Hebrew language charter school, Ben Gamla, which opened in Hollywood, Fla., in 2007 amid heated public discussion, and the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy in Minnesota, which has generated debate over whether it encourages the practice of Islam.
In Brooklyn, the Hellenic Classical Charter School is focused on the "classical study of the Greek and Latin languages, as well as history, art and other cultural studies," according to its Web site. Throughout the city, there are 81 schools run by the Education Department that offer dual-language programs in Chinese, Russian, Korean and Haitian Creole, for example.
In New York, the only such school that has generated an outcry is the Arabic language Khalil Gibran International Academy, whose founding principal was forced to resign after a controversial newspaper interview.
The Hebrew school, which the city approved in October, has not generated much debate, but some fear it could.
"It has the potential to attract a lot of negative attention," said Christopher Spinelli, the president of District 22's Community Education Council.
Adem Carroll, the executive director of the Muslim Consultative Network, a community group, said that he would "be watching to see that due diligence be done, that the school is inclusive of New York City kids from all backgrounds and that it doesn't pander to any national interest."
Saul B. Cohen, a member of the Board of Regents, said that he would raise questions at the committee meeting on Monday about the need for such a school in a relatively high-performing district, and how it would steer clear of church-state issues.
"There are youngsters who study Chinese who are not Chinese in origin, but they want to study it for linguistic purposes, business purposes," he said. But he questioned whether Hebrew was similarly useful. In Israel, he added, English was "completely widespread."
Karen Brooks Hopkins, another regent, described the charter application as "first class," adding that she hoped it would be approved.
Some critics of the Khalil Gibran school said last week that they also objected to the Hebrew school.
"I don't think it's the business of a public board of education to be creating these segregated, hermetically sealed schools with specific cultural adaptations," said Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a trustee of the City University of New York. "You want a special school for that; you can go to an archdiocese school, you can go to a school under the aegis of the Greek Orthodox Church, you can go to a yeshiva."
Mr. Wiesenfeld said that he would not actively protest the Hebrew school as he had the Khalil Gibran school because he did not have the time and did not think it posed the same "potential threat to the society."
Michael Meyers, the executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, described the proposed school as "inconsistent with the purposes of public schooling."
"They will not say they're exclusionary; they will not say the school is not open to everybody, blah, blah, blah," he said. "They found the formula now for getting around and skirting the civil rights laws."
Mr. Steinhardt and the founder of Ben Gamla, the school in Florida, have spoken of the possibility of creating a network of Hebrew language charter schools across the country, a concept that is attracting attention from sociologists, educators and community leaders focused on strengthening Jewish identity and culture.
"It seems to me that if it's successful, it's the type of thing that could grow," said Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. "With enough charitable funds to kick it off and government funds to support it in Jewishly dense areas, I think there's a population that would want to use the product."
Still, he said, navigating the church-state divide could prove tricky. "They're going to have to walk a very fine line between Jewish as culture and Jewish as religion, and there will be people who are looking to disqualify the school for teaching religious practice," he added.
Dr. Cohen noted that in Israel, nonreligious Jews "can learn Talmud, Bible, Jewish religious customs and regard it as a secular activity." He said, "Is that possible in the United States of America?"
"The problem is that Jewish religious practice is part of Jewish culture," he added. "So how does one make a sharp division between religion and culture?"
According to the application, the history of Jewish communities around the world will account for, at most, 20 minutes of class time a week, while the study of modern Hebrew will provide "both motivation and link to the culture and physical land of Israel as well as to the very special archaeological treasures and historical legacy that land represents."
The school is designed to eventually serve 675 kindergartners through eighth graders. Students will be chosen by lottery, with preference for district residents.
Mr. Steinhardt, a millionaire who has given away $200 million since retiring 13 years ago, much of it to Jewish causes, holds such passion for encouraging young Jews to marry one another that he offers his villa in Anguilla to honeymooners who met on Birthright trips. He declined to be interviewed, referring questions to Mr. Gerstein.
"I think his hope is that Jews who are completely turned off by religion, by rabbis, by Jewish texts, religious texts will find their identity within this school," said Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. "I think he does deeply care that there be a Judaism for another generation, and his sense is that if we just go business as usual, that won't happen."