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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, JULY 3, 2009 PAGE 11A Rising tensions over N.Y. Hebrew language charter school By Carolyn Slutsky New York Jewish Week NEW YORK--Three months before it is slated to open, the Hebrew Language Academy, New York City's first Hebrew charter school, is scrambling to find a location for next September amid fears that the Brooklyn neighbor- hood in which it was to be lo- cated may not be as welcoming as organizers had hoped. At a fiery meeting three weeks ago in the Marine Park section of Brooklyn, at I. S. 278, a junior high school that HLA hoped would serve as a temporary location, community mem- bers vehemently protested the charter school's presence, with children and parents holding signs and screaming slogans like, "Marine Park rules the day/charter school go away!" The objections to HLA's presence in the local public school are many. Parents and students want the school to grow into a performing arts high school but have so far not gained approval from the Department of Education for this plan and worry HLA would take away their space. Some parents also opposed the idea of a charter school, believing they are only intro- duced in failing districts, of which District 22 is not one. By Steve Lipman New York Jewish Week Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, a voice for spirituality in non- Orthodox circles, devoted his earlier books to bringing God back into the lives of Jews, at synagogue and at work. Rabbi Salkin devotes his latest book to bringing Jews--the half of the Jew- ish people who have largely seemed lost from their tradi- tion-back into Jewish life. Especially male Jews. Salkin, executive director ofKol Echad, a"transdenom- inational" adult educational project in Atlanta, previ- ously served as a pulpit rabbi, where he observed a trend: Jewish men, outside of the Orthodox community, were fleeing from religious Jewish life. That both alarmed him and inspired him to create "The Modern Men's Torah Commentary: New Insights from Jewish Men on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions" (Jewish Lights, $24.99). The new book, a contribu- tion to the emerging men's movement in Judaism, is a 331-page answer to a question Salkin asks in the introduction: "How can we get Jewish men back into serious, engaging religious life?" His succinct answer is the Torah, and new, male- centered interpretations of the parshiot read each Shab- bat in shul. The 59 extended answers (multiple commen- taries are offered for a few Torah portions) come from a wide variety of contributors, secular to Orthodox, straight and gay, rabbis and scholars. Among the contributors are a journalist, a musician and a talk-show host. All the contributors, in- cluding Salkin, himself, who chose the first parashah in Some also worried that the Hebrew-language school had Jewish undertones, a charge leveled from the school's inception by church-state separation watchdog groups. New to the debate two weeks ago was a perception that anti-Semitism may be at play. A representative of the Anti-Defamation League attended the meeting and reported that though it was raucous and hostile to the HLA occupying space in the junior high building, there was only one troubling com- ment, when someone asked, "Why bring Jews into a Catho- lic neighborhood?" Still, some HLA organizers and supporters of the school worry that anti-Jewish feeling is fueling hostility to the new school. Sara Berman, the charter school's founder and lead ap- plicant, said misinformation created a "firestorm," that the crowd at the meeting was angry and hostile and that she was confused as to why, in a school that is 70 percent minority, including 55 per- cent African-American, the audience at the meeting was predominantly white. She, along with others, also noted an undercurrent of anti-Semitism and racism among the group. A woman who offered to translate the meeting into Spanishwas met with hostile cries from the audience, who said, "Speak English this is America," according to several people who attended the meeting. Berman said that after the meeting, she was approached by a Jewish parent whose daughter attends I. S. 278. "He said he was concerned about his child's safety, that his child had been verbally assaulted and called 'dirty Heeb,'" said Berman. "He spe- cifically asked what measures I was going to take to ensure his child's safety." Maria Dopwell Hall, the mother of two incoming HLA first graders, said she did not understand why I. S. 278 couldn't welcome HLA. In her comments at the meeting, a video of which was posted on the local blog Gerritsenbeach. net, Hall, who is black and not Jewish, is heard saying, "All I'm asking is that you seek your heart for your real reasons for not allowing..." and the rest of her sentence was drowned out by angry boos from the audience. Several people interpreted Hall's comments to suggest that anti-Semitism may be at the root of the community's strong opposition. Reached at her home on June 2, Hall said she was not specifically referring to anti- Semitism with her comment, but that she did feel uncom- fortable at the meeting amid hostile community members. She said when she first heard about HLAshe assumed itwas a Jewish school, but when she researched it further she real- ized it was open to everybody. And she said she welcomed the chance to expose her children to the kind of diversity she experienced as one of the only African-American students at an all-white high school. "None of the comments were racially geared," she said. "People were asking me, 'Why are you so interested in having HLA housed here? Did they promise you to be a parent coordinator?' I didn't want them to feel it was just the Jews coming to take over our community kind of thing." "Do I think some members of the community are anti-Se- mitic?" said Mardie Sheiken, a leader of the parents oppos- ing HLA's presence and the mother of a sixth grader at I. S. 278. "One hundred percent they are. But I've never felt anything negative in terms of anti-Semitism." Sheiken, who is Jewish, said her parent group's main op- position to the charter school is that it is educationally inappropriate to place kin- dergarteners and first grad- ers in the same building as pre-teens and teenage junior high students, and that the Department of Education has thwarted the community's efforts to grow its perform- ing arts program to include a high school. Daniel Cavenaugh, editorof Gerritsenbeach.net, attended the meeting and filmed it for his Web site. He said the issue of a charter school taking up space in a local public school is "a political football," and that HLA can find space in any number of existing build- ings, vacant lots or former schools abandoned by the archdiocese. Cavenaugh described his community in District22, say- ing, "They don't ask a lot from the city, they don't demand a lot. They just go to work and they come home and they send their kids to school." He added that "the people who were trying to drum up a religious thing, to go against Hebrew and Jewish people in general were the parents of HLA," that the specter of anti-Semitism came from the charter school rather than the community. Several prominent politi- cians were in attendance, in- cluding Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr., Marine Park City Councilman Lew Fidler and Rep. Anthony Weiner. Thompson voiced his Support for HLA, saying the school All the res00 is commentary00by men Exodus, are, needless to say, men. Salkin sent out a call for commentaries a few years ago. "First come, first served," he says in a telephone inter- view--early signers-on had their pick of parashah. The rabbi's only guideline: write about some unique meaning for Jewish men you see in the Torah's words. "What do you see in the text?" Salkin asked. What he wanted was not so simple as a collection of Torah commentaries writ- ten by men. The men saw health issues and body image, aging and sexuality, materialism and aggression. Not standard fare for pil- pul, or intricate analysis. The language and ap- proach to text in Salkin's book are as varied as the backgrounds of the writers. "In keeping with a commit- ment to Jewish pluralism and diversity, we have respected the predilections of various authors and maintained their preference for differ- ent designations of the De- ity, including G-d, Hashem and the Divine Name," he writes. "Likewise, we have respected the wishes and/or grammatical predilections of our various authors who have chosen to refer to God in the third person with the pronoun 'He,' while we simultaneously recognize the awkwardness of using any pronoun to refer to a God who transcends gender. "Many of them stretched their minds and souls in order to look deeply into the text, in ways that they had never done before," the rabbi writes. Take the commentary by Rabbi Daniel Landis, direc- tor of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, on parshat Ki Tetzei, whose theme is men going to war. Male authorship of previ- ous Torah commentaries, Rabbi Salkin says, does not equate with male perspec've. The Torah's context is battles in biblical times. Landis focus- es on military responsibilities in modern Israel. "Going out to war is an anticipated part of Israeli cul- ture," Landis writes, tel ling of a telephone repairman who asks a friend in a park the age of his son. Eight, replied the second man. Ten more years, replied the first. "It took me a moment to realize that they were referring to the fact he [the second man's son] would eventually go into the army. That fact is always on Israeli minds." Landis develops the rest of his commentary in a similar personal, anecdotal tone, as do many of the authors in Salkin's book. An obvious question, which Salkin has heard many times--before the advent of the feminist movement and the several women's Torah commentaries that have appeared in the last decade--weren't all Torah commentaries written by men? Why do we need an- other Torah commentary written by men? "obviously deserves a home, just not necessarily in this building," while Fidler said he was opposed to all charter schools, including HLA. Weiner took the opportuni- ty to criticize the Department of Education, saying, "This is symbolic of everything wrong at DOE today." Assuming space is pro- cured in time, the HLA, which is backed by Jewish mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt (Berman's father), will start in September with kindergarten and first grade, with a plan to grow by one grade every year up to fifth. The first classes will include 150 students, with an even- tual student body of more than 600. The public school, which stands about 30 percent emp- ty, could easily accommodate HLA and a small performing arts high school, according to Berman. She said now that I. S. 278 is out of the running her group is looking at other locations, and that she feels confident they will find some- thing in the district before school starts in September, particularly because many Catholic schools have closed in recent years, freeing up school buildings. Reprinted with permission from the New York Jewish Week, www.jewishweek.com. Male authorship doesn't equate with male perspective, Salkin answers. "Sure, Rashi [the classical commentator on the Torah and Talmud] and every other sage was a man," he says, "but they didn't pay attention to the deep needs of contem- porary Jewish men." Rashi, in other words, didn't discuss burnout or self-sacrifice. "The traditional com- mentators by and large did not deal with the issue of masculinity in the text," Salkin says. "They did not speak to the issues going on in men's lives." Enter the word "Modern" in the book's title. "Gender consciousness is relatively new within Western culture," the rabbi says--such commentaries simply could not be written in previous generations. The rabbi says his book follows in the footsteps of the women's Torah commentar- ies that treated the text from a particularly female point of view. Both men and women, he says, "view the world through a gender lens. What feminists did is re- mind us of the gendered nature of human existence. This work could not have existed without the feminist grandmothers.,' A more personal under- standing of the Torah's mes- sage, divided into its weekly readings, is a natural re-entry point into synagogue life, Salkin says. "If you believe that God created us in the Divine Image, we need both genders in Jewish life." His goal: a "sense of bal- ance" between male and female involvement with Jewish life. In recent years, statistical and anecdotal evidence suggest, women have come to dominate once male-heavy attendance at synagogue services, as well as volunteer service, while men have largely disap- peared. "In almost every venue of contemporary Jew- ish life," he writes, "Jewish men demonstrate far less interest in Judaism than women do--from school age through adulthood." "There's a sense," the rabbi says, "that synagogue life has become a feminized domain." One current example: a photograph in the sum- mer 2009 issue of Reform Judaism magazine that illustrates an article about a congregation renting space in a funeral home in Edmonton, Canada, shows a group of congregants car- rying a Torah scroll from its old home to its new one. Nearly all the participants are women. Salkin wants men in the picture. "This is definitely not a clarion call for men to re- Men on page 23A FIRST WE LISTEN... THEN WE DELIVER! 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