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The Uncharted Territory of Charter Schools

Shimmy Blum

A volatile national debate over a revolutionary educational model has struck at the heart of several Jewish communities across America. As Englewood and Teaneck, New Jersey, begin to grapple with the opening of Hebrew charter schools, Mishpacha takes an in-depth look at this phenomenon and what effect it may have on traditional yeshivos and the education of our children in those communities — and well beyond.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The adjacent Northern New Jersey cities of Englewood and Teaneck, home to sizable Jewish populations, are involved in a heated battle, one that could have ripple effects for Jewish children across the Garden State and the nation as a whole.

Governor Chris Christie recently approved the September 2011 opening of Englewood’s “Shalom Academy” Hebrew charter school, which will serve Englewood and Teaneck youngsters from the ages of kindergarten through fifth grade.

The charter school movement in the US began two decades ago, seeking to offer an alternative to the lackluster public school system. The movement has grown to approximately 4,000 such institutions nationwide. Charter schools receive government funding but are privately run, and must abide by the basic guidelines of the nation’s public schools. Faculty and students are drawn from all races and religions. Charter schools are not allowed to offer religious instruction and perhaps most important of all, from the perspective of some Jewish parents, they charge no tuition.

Charter schools by nature are more autonomous than public schools and can tweak their curriculums to focus on specific subjects, teaching techniques, or cultural nuances, provided that they fall within the general guidelines and that their curriculum plans are approved by their local board of education. 

Hebrew charter schools, of which Shalom Academy is the sixth to open nationwide, teach Hebrew as a foreign language and incorporate some Hebrew when teaching general studies as well. They also touch on some aspects of Jewish culture and history, but must avoid religion in an almost draconian fashion. For instance, when the Ben Gamla Hebrew charter school in Hollywood, Florida, became the first of its kind to open in the United States in 2007, it was forced to drop one of its proposed courses because it included a reference to a website that mentions religion.

The schools’ leaders take pains to convey the nonreligious nature of charter schools. Former Florida Congressman Peter Deutsch, who founded Ben Gamla and is considered to be the “father” of the national Hebrew charter school movement, flatly told the New York Times that Ben Gamla is “not a religious school.” Ben Gamla’s former director, Rabbi Adam Siegel, an Orthodox educator, refrained from posting a welcome sign in Hebrew — “B’ruchim HaBa’im” — because of the religious connotations of the word “blessed.” He also had to decline the position as the school’s principal because people found it inappropriate for a “rabbi” to hold the job.

As a result, many non-Jews found the school attractive too. In fact, a group of African-American children were enrolled in the school and were transported there daily by a local Baptist church.


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