NEW YORK (RNS) A new charter school will soon provide a free, secular alternative to private Jewish day schools or extracurricular religious education for students who wish to learn Hebrew.
Despite the city's large Jewish population and its dozens of public schools offering dual-language instruction in Arabic, Greek, Spanish and other tongues, the Hebrew Language Academy will be the first of its kind.
The Brooklyn-based school will open in August with 150 kindergartners and first-grade students, gradually expanding to offer
K-5 instruction to 450 students, officials said.
As a public school, the Hebrew Language Academy must be open to all applicants and avoid religious instruction -- a view upheld by Sara Berman, who led the school's planning team. Her father, Michael Steinhardt, a prominent Jewish philanthropist, helped finance the application to state officials and leads a foundation aimed at creating a national network of Hebrew charter schools.
The academy will be the second Hebrew-language charter school in the country. The first, the Ben Gamla Hebrew Charter School, opened in 2007 in Hollywood, Fla.
"Learning modern Hebrew, like many of the other vibrant languages and cultures being taught in New York's public schools, can help prepare students of all backgrounds to succeed in today's world," Berman said in a statement on Tuesday (Jan. 13). "The same is true for the values of cultural diversity, community responsibility, and respect for others that will pervade this school."
By maintaining a strictly secular identity, the school may avoid the kind of criticism that has dogged the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a public school that opened in Brooklyn two years ago and was quickly accused of promoting fundamentalist Islamic beliefs. The controversy raged for months and forced the school's founding principal, Debbie Almontaser, to resign before the school opened.
As another indication of its inclusive mission, the Hebrew Language Academy board of directors has several non-Jewish members. Board member Charles Capetanakis, an attorney who helped found a K-8 school that offers Greek and Latin instruction in 2005, said his Hellenic Classical Charter School will serve as a model for the Hebrew academy.
"About two-thirds of our children are not of Greek origin; it's a fantastic thing to see," Capetanakis said. "At the end of the day, I'm confident that once kids from different background start speaking Hebrew-- because I see it in our case with the Greek -- you're really going to break down a lot of barriers."