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March 13, 2009

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MARCH 13, 2009 By Carolyn Slutsky New York Jewish Week NEW YORK--When the new school year opens next September. a group of first graders whose parents hail from such far-flung places as Russia, Pakistan, Mexico, China and the Caribbean, alongwith others born in New York City, will put on a fash- ion show at school. They'll learn the names for articles of clothing, do an art project on the theme of couture and model their attire. But rather than English or their native languages, when the children present the fashion project at their Brooklyn public school, they will be speaking ,Hebrew. The students will be part of the inaugural class of the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, slated to open next fall in the Sheeps- head Bay section of south Brooklyn. The emergence of the school is a prospect that raises complex questions about conveying a culture so deeply tied to religion to a diverse mix of students in the public arena, as well as to the future of Jewish education more broadly. And the likely proliferation of such schools has touched off a pedagogi- cal debate about whether language- and culture-based charter schools actually subvert the goals of public education by balkanizing, rather than uniting students. In a Brooklyn district where 35 percent of stu- dents don't meet proficiency standards in English. and 18 percent don't in math. parents are thrilled by the opportunity to send their children to an academi- cally focused and financially supported charter school. (Children will be chosen by lottery with priority given to those in the district.) But despite their enthusiasm, all is not "b'seder.'" Hebrew charter schools represent something of a bold new experiment in Jewish education. Given the economic climate, they could pose a serious threat Language boon or language barrier? to day schools, potentially taking students away from the day school model, which has grown rapidly since the 1970s. Instead. Jewish students might learn He- brew and aspects of Jewish culture in a public charter school and supplement their education with extracur- ricular programs that will instill the religious points of Judaism. The schools are starting out in Hollywood, Fla. and Brooklyn, but could soon appear in Miami. Engle- wood, N.J., and beyond. (An Arab-language-and-culture charter school, the Khalil Gibran International Acad- emy, is now in its second year in downtown Brooklyn.) The mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, who is backing the Brooklyn school. has launched the Areivim Philanthropic. Group, a network of Jewish educa- tion funders exploringthe charter school question nationally. A decade ago, Steinhardt was one of the leading forces behind the launch of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Educa- tion. a group that funds and promotes Jewish day schools. The charter school concept could be "a way out of our fi- nancial difficulty," said Rabbi Haim Beliak, co-founder of, which follows Jewish responses to First Amendment issues. "As the Jewish community's resources have suddenly disappeared, it's astounding how the future ofthis empire that has been built since the '70s [is changing]." Gil Graft. executive direc- tor of the Board of Jewish Education in Los Angeles, said he would not character- ize charter schools as a vifible replacement fo" Jewish day schools. "There's nothing undesir- able about Hebrew charter schools. It's good for Jews and non-Jews to have choices in education, but [charter schools are] not able to ad- dress the full context of Jew- ish life." said Graft. "People who are interested in a robust Jewish education for their child should recognize the limits of a Hebrew charter school. It will provide tools such as Hebrew proficiency and some introduction to the history of the Jewish people and culture, but it will not provide the religious dimen- sion of Jewish life." Nevertheless, the L. A. Board of Jewish Education is preparing for just such a charter school. "We are convinced that this is something that will be coming to L. A., and the community should be in the position to respond to itwellT said Graft's colleague Phil Lift-Grief, associate director of the BJELA. "On a strictly economic basis Hebrew charter schools threaten day schools." he said. "On the other hand, it's the rich Jewish educa- tional environment that a day school provides that is its strength." Along with its potential economic boons, the ex- periment raises many thorny church-state questions. "We'll meet the standards of all public schools with no practices of religion," said Maureen G0nzalez- Campbell, the Brooklyn school's principal, who does not speak Hebrew and whose background is in dual Span- ish-English teaching and administration. The school will open with kindergarten and first graders, with plans to grow the school to fifth grade over five years. Some of the students will likely come from the secular Russian Jewish community in south Brooklyn. Gonzalez-Campbell is adamant that the school will follow exactly the New York City Department of Education guidelines, and is committed to clearing up misunderstandings and the assumption that a Hebrew language school automati- cally means one that teaches religion . This is not the first example of Hebrew being taught as a foreign language in the American public education system: Indeed. Hebrew was taught in public high schools as early as the 1930s, and today can be found in curricula at Stuyvesant High School and the Great Neck. L.I.. public schools in the New York metro area, as well as at schools in Ohio and California. "I've taught about Bud- dhism, Hinduism, Catholi- cism, Judaism from the historical perspective, the historical lens," said Gonza- 'lez-Campbell, who believes there are benefits to all children in learning a for- eign language and culture, whatever it may be. "The boundaries of our understanding of church- state separation are not hard and fixed." said Rabbi Beliak. pointing out that religious instruction long took place in buildings adjacent to public schools. "Are people trying to avoid integration.., by setting up a charter school as a kind of shield against that? We don't want a system that reinstates what we had in America before Brown v. Board of Education. a sepa- rate but equal school." Excerpts from the char- ter application, which Was approved in January, show that students will learn Is- raeli dance and art. Hebrew characters and language and Jewish stories" and history, all in the context of culture and with dual English and Hebrew teachers at the helm. In the 82-page application there is scant reference to Hebrew or Jewish subjects amid financial and schedul- ing questions and issues of food service and professional development. "In the context of the study of Modern Hebrew language the Israeli calendar will serve as powerful authentic material for bringing the language alive... Holidays such as Israeli Independence Day and Holocaust Remem- brance Day will be referenced. explored and studied from an academic perspective... HLA will neither encourage nor teach devotion to the reli- gion of Judaism... The study of Jewish life in countries from Morocco to India, from Poland to Iraq, from Russia to China requires building a foundation of understanding and appreciation of the cul- ture and history of the host nation," reads sections of the application. "If you don't understand the culture of the language, you can't really grasp the lan- guage," said Lesley Litman, executive director of Hebrew at the Center: Advancing He- brew Teaching and Learning in Boston, who co-designed the Hebrew-language cur- riculum. The approach of the curriculum is to study "the culture in which this language is embedded." "People think Jewish life is only about the religious part, that it's an 'ism,' but it's always been about much more than religion," she said. Myrna Baron, executive director of the Center for Jew- ish Culture, which advocates for the study of secular Jewish culture, agrees that Judaism can be understood as the um- brella under which to teach multiple Jewish cultures. But she believes the place to mix these ingredients of the Jewish cultural stew is not a charter school. "We think it's fine what they're trying to do, [but] we don't think they'll likely be able to achieve what they really want to achieve by do- ing it in a charter school 1 think they need to do that in a private school," said Baron. Any school attempting to be a Hebrew cultural school, she said. should include "study of Jewish rituals and practice, not to practice but to study." She also noted that the secular Israeli school system has less of a problem un- derstanding the boundaries between Jewish culture and religion. "Israelis view the Bible differently they use it as poetry and literature," she said. "It's a very American model [to think of Bible sto- ries as true]." Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education and history; at New York Universi- PAGE 17A ty, sees many secular reasons for Jewish and non-Jewish students to learn Hebrew and its attendant cultures: diplomacy, communication and a larger, shared culture. But his concern lies in the potential for charter schools to isolate or segregate, and particularly for a Hebrew or Arabic school to play to people's differences. "The school underscores some very basic goals of education writ large: can you teach about religion without indoctrinating it?" he asked. "The school brings it into an interesting kind of relief." It ispossible, he noted, to teach the Bible as literature and his- tory, rather than a religious text. and in fact that this task4s necessary to produce educated citizens. "You can teach the Bible without indoctrinating it," said Zimmerman. "'Exposed to' means you find out what it says and try to make sense of it yourself, rather than somebody saying this is the word of God." Rabbi Beliak doesn't believe the endeavor to teach language and culture without religion can be a wholly triumphant one. "I don't think ultimately it's a successful project necessarily. You're teaching a culture and language that involves religion, so how do you handle religion?" he said. The school's orgamzers are now hiring teachers and searching for a building in south Brooklyn, while members of the Jewish and secular educational com- munities watch with interest to see whether the growing number of Hebrew charter schools might serve as viable alternatives to day schools, and wheer a language and culture can truly be conveyed absent religion. "1 look forward to see- ing what happens with this particular charter school," said Graft of the L. A. Board of Jewish Education. "And l don't think it'll be by any means the last." Reprinted with permission from the New York Jewish Week, Zionist organization has a new Mormon director By Brad A. Greenberg Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles At the Los Angeles office of the Zionist Organization of America. executive direc- tors arrive, grow frustrated with the challenges of raising money and in short order leave without much notice. Now it's Mark Paredes' chance to try to turn the office around. Paredes. who served as the American Jewish Congress' director of Latino outreach until Dec. 31 and before that was press attache for the Is- raeli consulate, is not Jewish. In fact. he's a local leader in the Mormon Church who loves Israel and wants you to, too. Jewish Journal: At least three people have held your position since late 2006. What will be your formula for turn- ing ZOA around? Mark Paredes: I plan to bring together Jews, both religious and secular, who are proud to be Zionists. who are willing to defend Israel and the Jewish people, who want Israel to negotiate peace only with partners who have already renounced terror and incitement and recognize Israel. and who believe that Jews have the right to live in the Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria. Belief in these principles transcends movements and the religious- secular divide, and it's my job to organize events that will inspire our supporters and at- tract other defenders of Israel to the ZOA banner. JJ: Sixty-one years after the creation of the State of Israel. is there still a need for the Zionist Organization of America? MP: Absolutely. In fact, we're currently planning a national conference whose theme will be the meaning of Zionism in the 21st century. Let's look at college campuses, for example. I'm proud that the ZOA is the only Jew- ish organization that takes college students on trips to Israel where they visit Judea and Samaria. In order to understand the miracle of a modern-day Jewish state, one has to visit Hebron, Efrat and Ariel, as well as Tel Aviv and Haifa. In this age of worldwide anti-Israel marches, attacks on synagogues, anti-Zionist professors and authors, and Holocaust deniers. Zionist ad- vocacy is sorely needed and all too often absent. J J: How much of ZOA's role today is fighting anti- Semitism. and how much is promoting Israel? MP" I'd say the breakdown is about 75 percent promotion of Israel's security and 25 per- cent fighting anti-Semitism. Of course, these days it's sometimes hard to separate the two. JJ:You leftAmerican Jewish Congress at the end of De- cember as part of major staff reductions after millionswere lost in the Bernard Madoff scandal. As someone who loves Jews but isn't Jewish, how much did it bother you to. see a Jew cause such damage to Jewish organizations and the community? MP: I honestly don't know how people like Madoff can sleep at night. Not only did his actions betray his community, but they gave fodder to anti-Semites who propagate hateful stereotypes about Jews, greed and money. I think he makes a good case for reviving the practice of issuing cherem [excommu- nication] decrees. JJ: Mormons are major Zionists. but it's got to be unusual for a Mormon to be running a regional office for a major Jewish organization. MP: I am still a Latter-day Saint. though I also think of myself as a 'yehudi b'nefesh" [Jewish in soul]. I'm unaware of another non-Jew who has headed a regional office of a national Jewish organiza- tion, but I don't foresee any problems. You don't have to be Jewish to be a Zionist or to understandwhat's happening in the world. J J: What is it about the Jewish community that has attracted you to it? MP: Jews and Judaism have always exerted a pull on me. In 2001, I was introduced to former L.A. Israeli Consul General Yuval Rotem. and he hired me to be his press attache after we rapped in Hebrew for several minutes about camels in Mauritania. The rest. as they say, is history. I love the energy and passion that Jews bring to everything they're involved in. and I have a deep love for Jews. Israel and Judaism. JJ: So what's next? MP: Many weeks and months of hard work. Brad A. Greenberg is a senior writer for The Jew- ish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. HANDYMAN SERVICE Handy man and General Maintenance Air Conditioning Electrical Plumbing Carpentry Formerly handled maintenance at JCC References available STEVE'S SERVICES Call Steve Doyle at (386) 668-8960