Hebrew school opens - but it is not Jewish

By Paul Berger, August 20, 2009
Principal Maureen Campbell is a Jamaican who does not speak Hebrew

Principal Maureen Campbell is a Jamaican who does not speak Hebrew

After a bumpy start and a last-minute scramble to find a home, New York’s first state-funded primary school to specialise in the teaching of Hebrew will open its doors on Monday.

The Hebrew Language Academy is open to Jews and non-Jews alike. Because it is publicly funded and America has a strict separation between church and state, the school had to be vetted by New York State’s board of education to ensure there would be no religious instruction.

The academy was approved in January. But it has faced opposition from within and without the Jewish community, following concerns about whether a school can teach Hebrew without promoting Judaism.

Perhaps partly in order to deflect accusations of a Jewish bias, the academy selected Maureen Campbell as principal, a 49-year-old Jamaican-American, who does not speak Hebrew.

“I was hired because I am the best candidate for the job,” said Ms Campbell.

The school is publicly funded and open to non-Jews

“I was not hired because I am Jamaican or because I can’t speak Hebrew. I am an administrator, not a classroom teacher.” On the first day of school, the academy will welcome 150 kindergarten and first-grade students. Eventually, it will have an additional four grades. All students, Jews and non-Jews, will learn Hebrew for one hour each day.

Although a significant number of students have a parent from Israel or the former Soviet Union, more than 20 per cent have a parent from the Caribbean. Other parents come from Nigeria, Mexico, China, Albania and Morocco.

In addition to daily Hebrew lessons, classes such as maths, science, music and PE will incorporate some Hebrew. Even breakfast and lunch will be accompanied by Hebrew instruction.

Meanwhile, social studies classes will include sections on Jewish culture and history.

“Charter schools”, as they are known, are attractive to parents because they are publicly funded but privately run and, in New York at least, offer a higher standard of education than their public counterparts. There are currently about 80 such schools in the city.

But publicly funded dual-language schools have proved controversial. In 2007, an Arabic-language public school in Brooklyn, the Khalil Gibran International Academy, was accused of being a potential hotbed for Islamic extremism.

America’s first Hebrew-language charter school, Ben Gamla, faced accusations of blurring church and state when it opened in Florida in 2007. But a year-long investigation by the local school district revealed no discrepancies in its curriculum.

New York’s academy was founded by Sara Berman, the daughter of philanthropist Michael Steinhardt. On top of public funding, Mr Steinhardt has pledged an annual $500,000 to the school.

A further $250,000 has been promised by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

Ms Berman originally wanted to locate the academy in the unused classrooms of a public middle school in Brooklyn. But hundreds of angry school parents turned out for a public hearing in May. A petition against the academy raised almost 6,500 signatures.

Ms Berman said she was surprised and disappointed by the reaction.

“I can’t imagine what they were upset about,” she said. “The school is sitting there with empty classrooms.”

Her last-minute search ended at Yeshiva Rambam School, in neighbouring Mill Basin, where the academy will also share space with a synagogue and a school for autistic children.

Ms Berman admitted that the location was not ideal in countering suspicion of a religious bias. But she insisted anyone who enrolled their child in the hope that they would learn Judaism will be disappointed. “If you want a Jewish child to have a Jewish education, they belong in a Jewish day school,” said Ms. Berman.

Last updated: 11:14am, August 20 2009