Sheryl Connelly was looking for a way to expose her 5-year-old son, Timothy Jr., to his Jewish heritage, but nothing seemed right for her interfaith family.
A yeshiva graduate whose older children from a previous marriage started in yeshivas before switching to public school, Connelly was dead set against a religious school for Timothy. And so was her Irish Catholic husband.
So when Connelly, who lives in the Marine Park section of Brooklyn, heard about the Hebrew Language Academy charter school slated to open in her district, District 22, she eagerly attended an informational meeting.
After meeting the principal, longtime public school teacher and administrator Maureen Campbell, and some other parents, Connelly was completely sold. "I walked up to the principal afterwards and said, if you want me to answer your phones and carry your luggage, I will!"
In fact, Connelly, who is transitioning from a career in law to one in education, will be working in the school office this year. And she's thrilled that Timothy, who will be starting first grade when the school opens on Monday, will get a "sense of identity," yet not in a way that will "dissociate him from my husband" or "teach him only one thing."
The first-ever public school with an emphasis on Hebrew in New York, and only the second one in the country, the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School will open with a kindergarten and first grade, totaling 150 students, and will gradually become a K-5 school enrolling 450. It's a dramatic educational experiment that is certain to be closely watched by supporters and opponents in the Jewish community and beyond.
Some critics have argued that the fledgling Hebrew charter school movement breaches church-state divisions, and that it is impossible to teach Hebrew and Jewish culture without bringing in religion. Skeptics worry that Hebrew charter schools will weaken Jewish day schools by providing Jewish parents with a tuition-free alternative, and others have questioned whether schools devoted to specific ethnic cultures will lead to a balkanized public school population.
Adding to HLA's potential public relations challenge is its location — inside a yeshiva, in space leased from the Zvi Dov Roth Academy of Yeshiva Rambam.
Leaders of the charter school, which is forbidden to offer any religious instruction or have religious symbols in the classrooms, emphasize that they are tenants only, that numerous other New York City charter schools are also housed at religious institutions and that their students will have no formal contact with the teachers or students of the Orthodox boys' high school.
Indeed, the decision to lease space from Rambam's two-story postwar building on Kings Highway, on the southeast edge of Midwood, came only last month, after several alternative locales, including part of a Marine Park public middle school, fell through.
"[The current location] was not our first choice," said Sara Berman, the lead applicant for the charter school, who remains on its board. "That said, we're going to make it work."
Despite its yeshiva setting, HLA is attracting a diverse group of students, many of whom are not Jewish or, like Connelly's son, are products of interfaith families.
Twenty-four percent of the 150 students currently enrolled (selected by lottery from a pool of almost 300 eligible applicants) are Caribbean-American, and a number of parents have requested halal food. While the school is not allowed to ask about religious identity, presumably most of the Caribbean, as well as other black students enrolled, are not Jewish, whereas the 28 percent from Hebrew-speaking households and 27 percent from Russian-speaking households are assumed to be Jewish.
This is in stark contrast to the two-year-old Ben Gamla charter school in Hollywood, Fla., which is about 90 percent Jewish. The school is scheduled to expand into new locations this year.
Deborah Harte, a Guyanese immigrant who came to New York as a teenager, said she is excited for her son, first-grader Brandon Latortue, to have the opportunity to study a foreign language and, although she is Christian, she is also eager for him to be exposed to Jewish history and culture.
"On several levels, the Jewish people and the black people both have had very difficult histories, of struggling and pain yet still being strong enough to move forward," she said, adding that "the Jewish culture is very rich and offers a lot of good seeds to sow in little children in terms of studying not only struggles but triumphs."
School leaders say that many non-Jewish parents were attracted by the longer school year (two weeks longer than standard public schools) and school day (8 a.m. to 4 p.m.) that HLA is offering, the opportunity for their children to study a foreign language, the school's "community service and service learning" component, and the fact that each 25-student class will have two teachers. (Most public schools only have one teacher per classroom, although some also employ an aide.)
"It's a beautifully integrated school," said David Gedzelman, executive vice president of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, which provided the bulk of the school's startup funds and supported the planning team's efforts to prepare the charter application. In contrast, he notes, most other schools in District 22 are either 90 percent white or predominantly black or Latino.
At HLA, it is not only the students who hail from diverse backgrounds. Principal Campbell and Esosa Ogbahon, the director of general studies, are both African-American, while Ron Azoulay, the director of Hebrew studies, is Israeli (of Ashkenazi, Moroccan and Jamaican descent).
Board members include the Steinhardt Foundation's Gedzelman; Peter Geffen, the founder of Manhattan's Abraham Joshua Heschel School; Charles Capetanakis, a lawyer who chairs the board of the Hellenic Classical Charter School in Park Slope; and Rev. Karim Camara, a state assemblyman and minister from nearby Crown Heights.
Berman, the lead applicant, a former parenting columnist for the now-defunct New York Sun whose own children attend the Modern Orthodox Ramaz school on the Upper East Side, is continuing to play an active role in the school.
Berman's father, mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, was an early champion of Hebrew charter schools, initially touting them as a way to strengthen the Jewish identity of secular Jewish children.
However, the vision of the school is now "completely different" from what [Steinhardt] articulated years ago, Berman says, in part because his vision was inconsistent with the mission and purpose of New York State charter schools.
"Charter schools are not about strengthening any group's identity," she says. "It's so important to me that this school be one in which every member of District 22 feels comfortable. My main priority is for it to be a school of excellence in which students become proficient in the Hebrew language ... in which they learn about the universal through the study of the particular."
Target For Controversy?
If HLA is not specifically for Jewish students, why is the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, of which Berman is a trustee, playing such an active role?
"To bring Hebrew-language education, with a curriculum that teaches intercultural understanding and social responsibility, is good for everybody," including Jews, said the foundation's Gedzelman.
The school will teach Hebrew through a "partial immersion proficiency model" in which the language is not only taught one hour per day, but is integrated into breakfast and lunch, as well as other activities throughout the day. Each classroom will have 1,000 English books and 500 Hebrew books for children to browse. In addition, students will learn about Israeli culture and the history of world Jewish communities, the latter a specially designed curriculum that is integrated into the social studies course.
In teaching about Jewish history and Israeli culture, HLA has the potential to forge a diverse cohort of Israel supporters. Of course, with the Middle East conflict ever volatile and opinions on Israel mixed, the school, which will decorate its halls with the blue-and-white of Israel's flag, could also draw unwanted attention and controversy. Perhaps that is one reason why HLA has not reached out to the Israeli Consulate, unlike the Hellenic Charter School, which has a partnership with the Greek Consulate.
Two years ago, plans for the Arabic-language Khalil Gibran International Academy triggered a protest coalition called "Stop the Madrassa," which pushed for the removal of Principal Debby Almontaser, whom the group, many of whose members were Jewish, called "an avowed Islamist."
Although many liberal Jewish groups and activists defended Almontaser's record as a religious moderate, the Muslim principal was forced to resign after comments she made in a New York Post interview about "Intifada NYC" T-shirts created by an organization with which she was involved. Critics said she gave too literal an interpretation of the word without denouncing its violent implication.
The school faces the potential opposition of anti-Israel activists, including some who may wish to avenge Almontaser, while at the same time occupying a somewhat ambiguous place in the Jewish community. It is not a Jewish institution; it champions Hebrew yet is seen by some day school advocates as a threat.
Impact On Nearby Day School
It remains to be seen what effect HLA will have on Jewish day schools. Although it is not a threat to any of Brooklyn's numerous fervently Orthodox yeshivas, HLA is only a mile away from the 160-student East Midwood Hebrew Day School, a K-8 school affiliated with the Conservative movement.
Eugene Miller, the executive director and the parent of a sixth grader at the school, said that it's "difficult to assess the degree" that HLA has affected his school's enrollment because "a number of parents" who told him they were considering sending their children to the charter school "are still undecided." (Echoing the uncertainty of enrollment numbers even at this late date, given that many parents change their minds at the last minute, HLA officials are still accepting applicants for this year's wait list.)
Miller emphasized that his school, which serves a mix of Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Russian and Israeli students, and boasts Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as an alumna, offers a different environment from the charter academy.
"We've been here 53 years and have a long history of academic excellence, as well as a full Judaic studies curriculum," he said, adding that "tefillah [prayer] begins every day."
Jonathan Woocher, chief ideas officer at the Jewish Education Service of North America, voiced cautious support for HLA, but emphasized that his organization takes no official position on the school.
"We're living in an age of choice, of options, and it's critically important that the Jewish community understand that the more options and opportunities we can provide, the better off we will be in long run," he said.
While schools like HLA are "not going to offer a day school substitute for families seeking an intensive Jewish education," Jewish schools may be able to apply its Hebrew and Jewish history curriculum to their own teaching, he said.
"There are significant numbers of Jews who identify culturally, but not religiously," he added.
That includes Sheryl Connelly, who said she was excited about having her son learn Hebrew in what she described as a "guilt-free" environment.
And the presence of children from other backgrounds is a plus for her.
"I want him to be somewhere where he sees the entire population we're living with," she said.