Are “Hebrew Language Charter Schools” Really Jewish Religious Schools?

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August 3, 2013; Diane Ravitch’s Blog


Educator Diane Ravitch is a strong defender of public schools and a major critic of the use of public dollars for school privatization. In other words, she is a critic of the “school choice” movement when it means parents’ choice to opt out of public schools, but still receive public funding. Some observers believe that charter schools, which exist within public school systems, are really part of the school privatization movement. The debate is contentious, with strong advocates for charter schools on the political right and a number that many would categorize as politically liberal or left.

So what do you think of this post from Ravitch concerning the phenomenon of “Jewish charter schools”?

As public schools, charter schools are supposed to be nonsectarian—they must not promote, encourage, or provide a religious education. To circumvent the church/state issue, these Jewish charter schools tend not to call themselves “Jewish,” but “Hebrew language charter schools.” Ravitch provides links to articles about charter schools in Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Texas.

The New York-based Hebrew Charter School Center helped establish the Hatikvah Hebrew charter school in East Brunswick, New Jersey, whose principal, Marcia Grayson, says that she tries to maintain a nonsectarian identity for the school. “We are hypervigilant about church and state,” Grayson says. “We go so far out of our way to make sure that we are not perceived as a Jewish school.” Ben Gamla, a network of four Hebrew charter schools in Florida, marches a little closer to the church/state line than Hatikvah. “A lot of Jewish education goes on in the [Ben Gamla] schools, absolutely,” explains Peter Deutsch, a former Florida congressman and Ben Gamla’s legal counsel. “It’s a very Jewish school, just not a Jewish religious school…The definition of Judaism is not just a religion, it’s peoplehood—the same way the Irish or Chinese are a people.” Both the Hebrew Charter School Center and Ben Gamla have plans to open several more charter schools in the next year or two.

Are they religious, or not? Hatikvah and the HCSC schools say they emphasize Hebrew language immersion and are geared to foster proficiency in English and Hebrew. As such, are these Hebrew immersion charter schools all that different from other dual-language charter schools that emphasize Spanish (like the Hoboken Dual Language Charter School in New Jersey), Chinese (as in the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Massachusetts), or Russian, as at Nashka Shkola in Minnesota?

The Hebrew charter schools are often in Jewish facilities—the Ben Gamla charter school in Boynton Beach, Florida, is located on the second floor of a synagogue—or led by Jewish religious leaders. The principal of the Ben Gamla high school in Plantation, Florida, for example, is an Orthodox rabbi. Ben Gamla Kendall is actually the former $15,000-a-year Greenfield Jewish Day private school that reopened as a tuition-free charter school “with the same principal, and most of the same students and teachers.” Similarly, Eleanor Kolitz Hebrew Language Academy will open up this month in the space that was once the Eleanor Kolitz Academy, a private school located at the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Campus of the San Antonio Jewish Community.

Ravitch, Jewish herself, doesn’t buy the notion that these charter schools are really secular or nonsectarian. “It violates the long-established principle of separation of church and state to spend public funds on an institution that promotes religion,” she writes. “Hebrew is not a neutral language. It is the historic language of the Jewish people. Judaism is a religion.”

She adds, “It asks taxpayers to bear responsibility for schools that are essentially religious. In effect, taxpayers are subsidizing families that have the freedom to choose a nonpublic religious school.”

Are these Jewish charter schools simply teaching Hebrew or are they subterfuges for getting Jewish religious education paid for by taxpayers? Let us know what you think.—Rick Cohen

  • Karl

    Does Ms Ravitch complain about tax dollars being used to provide police and fire protection to privately-owned property?

    Latin is the official language of the Holy See…. does Ms Ravitch complain about Latin being offered in the schools?

    Israel is 20% non-Jewish. More than a million people. Let’s ask those folks if the Hebrew language belongs only to Jews.

    Ms Ravitch is asking for a libel suit.

    Would her rentseeking teachers-union buddies make Legal Defense Fund contributions when Punitive Damages are awarded?

  • gonzalo valdes

    Elaborate as to what the Hebrew text’s are about. What bothers me is the surroundings. No school should be allowed in any Church or Synagogues. They should have separate buildings and teachers should wear regular attire so as to not encourage any one religion. Suit and tie for men and business suits for women’

  • Karl

    >>> No school should be allowed in any Church or Synagogues

    Does it bother you when those buildings are used for elections-voting? Because that happens all the time!

    (Former) Vice-President Al Gore attended a big ceremony organized by Buddhist Nuns in a Buddhist Temple….. did you complain then?

    Furthermore, ==if== (can she prove it? Or is her heritage the same flavor as Elizabeth Warren’s “Cherokee” BS self-description?) Ms Ravitch is Jewish…. does that make her an authority on the Hebrew language? If (say for example) you, Gonzalo Valdes, are Roman Catholic, does that give YOU the right to decide if Latin is a “non-neutral language”?

    If you, Gonzalo Valdes, can decide what is the proper attire for an employee of a private company (Charter Schools are private companies, although the Hebrew-immersion ones are non-profits)…. can I then claim the right to decide if employees of a different private company are allowed to wear hoodies, pants slung low enough to reveal the buttcrack, and $700 sneakers? Why shouldn’t I decide?

    “Progressives” always dream up grandiose new theories of this-and-that, only to find that Libertarians have turned the table. You invented “waiting periods” for gun-purchases….. we turned it around on you and applied “waiting periods” to abortions. And the courts said out loud: what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Refused to strike down waiting periods for abortions.

    So be careful of what you ask for, lest it be used against you….

  • Rob Katz

    “Are these Jewish charter schools simply teaching Hebrew or are they subterfuges for getting Jewish religious education paid for by taxpayers?” Are these schools religious or not?

    One problem here is that the question itself reflects Christian understandings of what is religious and what constitutes a religion. For many Christians, religion is a matter of creed and belief. For many if not most Jews, this account of religion and what’s religious doesn’t fit their self understandings of what it means to be Jewish, which involve both peoplehood/nation connected to historic languages (Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, etc.) and religion/religious practices with sacred tongues (Hebrew, Aramaic, etc.). That is why some Orthodox private day schools call themselves “Hebrew Day Schools” and why some Reform temples call themselves “Hebrew” congregations. (It is the same reason why a leading brand of kosher frankfurters is called “Hebrew National.”) For some Jews — including secular humanistic Jews and secular labor Zionists — their Jewish identity is expressly atheistic. Ask a secular labor Zionist whether something Jewish or Hebrew must necessarily be religious and she’ll say “no!” emphatically and with perfect sincerity. The same is true — even more so — of a Canaanite, that is, a secular Israeli who promotes a Hebrew-based culture broad enough to include 20% of Israeli citizens who aren’t Jewish, and perhaps even the non-Israelite Hebrew-speaking inhabitants of the historic Land of Canaan.

    What I find most interesting is how the availability of charter-school dollars provides financial incentives for proponents of Jewish day school education to deemphasize or even purge avowedly theistic Jewish instruction and observances in favor of a more secular — yet still Jewish — orientation. Consider the case of a financially troubled private nonprofit day school that has been teaching an Orthodox Jewish curriculum, but where a substantial portion of the students and their parents are either non-Orthodox or secular. If charter school dollars become available, some secular parents might support converting (as it were) the school from a private Jewish school with an Orthodox curriculum to a quasi-public charter school that teaches Hebrew and secular Jewish/Hebrew culture, while also teaching Jewish religion and religious texts from a historic perspective. Indeed, if a conventional Jewish religious day school is not available, some theistic or observant parents might favor a secular Hebrew day school as a preferable alternative to a public or charter school that offers Hebrew instruction as part of a menu of language options but otherwise had little to do with Hebrews or Hebraism. Whatever the state does regarding Hebrew charter schools, its actions are not neutral.

  • Stu

    Notice that Marcia Grayson, the principal at Hatikvah Charter Schools says, ““We go so far out of our way to make sure that we are not perceived as a Jewish school.” She never said we go out of our way not to be a Jewish school; the concern is just that they are not *perceived* that way, so that the school can siphon tax dollars out the public school budget.

  • Robin

    My daughter is a student at Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick NJ. At least 50% of students in the school are not jewish. There is absolutely no religion being taught. I still have to send my daughter to Hebrew school to learn about Judaism. What I love about the school is the inclusion of all religions and cultures. In December you go to any regular “public” school and all you see is Christmas. At Hatikvah all religions are equally represented, no child feels left out. My daughter has learned more about different cultures across the globe in Hatikvah in 3 years than I ever did through my entire school career. Hatikvah does not have a Rabbi as a principal and they have their own building. In the beginning they were in the basement of a church and spent about 3 months in a temple only because they outgrew the church and the construction on the new building was not complete. I am sure that not all Hebrew language charter schools are created equal, but Hatikvah is purely a public school that uses a different teaching model. Yes they teach Hebrew, but it is the inquiry model of teaching and the 2:25 teacher to student ratio that attracted myself and many others of all religions to the school.

  • does it matter

    Hebrew is not a neutral language…>>

    Silly. Many citizens of Israel are not Jewish. Of course its a neutral language. Non-Jews speak it. Who cares if it originated from religious origins. When Israelis are dancing at a rave in Israel partying non-Halachic style where’s the religion in that? Incidentally I see a lot of Jesus fishes on the backs of cars parked in the lot of the charter school. What are christians doing in a Hebrew language academy? They are not studying the Torah or Talmud thats for sure. What a person does with a language is their business. If a christian wants to learn Hebrew and use it to study their faith after school, more power to them. If a Jew wants to study Torah or make Aliyah to Israel so what? How they use what they learned is their business. All day long the children study state curriculum. And they have 1 Hebrew class. (like spanish). Its not an immersion program, although that would be nice. Its a regular school. There is no religious teaching at all. They have some talk about current events in Israel and thats it. No prayer or religion at all. There are other charter schools for mandarin chinese and other languages as well. There is no more a secret religious agenda here that there is at the chinese schools.


    I went to a school in Tilton New hampshire as a kid. They have school meetings in a Chapel. I’m not a christian, and so what? Thats not a secret agenda. Maybe they got a good deal from the JCC or old synagogue to use up some space for the school. Also after school day care is held at the JCC. So its convenient. No worries here.