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Hebrew Charter Proposed For Harlem-Upper West Side

Concern over how it might affect area day schools.

Associate Editor
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Just weeks after Shalom Academy, a proposed Hebrew charter school serving the heavily Jewish suburbs of Englewood and Teaneck won New Jersey state approval, an application has been submitted for a Hebrew charter serving another major Jewish population hub, the Upper West Side.

Harlem Hebrew, a school modeled on Brooklyn’s year-and-a-half-old Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, would be located in Manhattan’s Community School District 3, which runs from 59th Street to West 122nd Street, incorporating all of the Upper West Side and about one-third of Harlem.

Harlem Hebrew’s application comes on the heels of an application for yet another Hebrew charter school in Manhattan: Sosua Hebrew Language Academy, which would serve Washington Heights, Inwood and parts of Harlem.

Like all charter schools, Harlem Hebrew will be open to students of all backgrounds and will not teach religion. According to its prospectus, the school’s population will reflect that of the district, which is 32 percent black, 37 percent Latino, 23 percent white and seven percent Asian.

However, its presence in a district with many Jewish day schools — four of them non-Orthodox — is bound to unnerve those who worry the tuition-free charter schools could lure away students who would otherwise enroll in Jewish schools.

Harlem Hebrew’s lead applicant, Sara Berman, dismissed such concerns, however.

In an e-mail to The Jewish Week from South Africa, where she spends part of each winter, Berman wrote: “South Harlem and Community School District 3 represent the perfect area to establish a Hebrew Language charter school that is diverse and brings different communities together. Harlem Hebrew will add significantly to the options that parents have for their children’s education in the area. Harlem Hebrew is a public school and as such provides a very different education and experience from a Jewish Day School. It really appeals to a very different population.”

The daughter of investment fund manager Michael Steinhardt, a major Jewish community philanthropist, Berman also chairs the boards of Brooklyn’s HLA and the Hebrew Charter School Center, a national group seeking to help create 20 Hebrew charter schools by 2015.

Despite its name, Harlem Hebrew’s precise location is yet to be determined, although organizers say Harlem is their first choice.

Interviewed at the North American Jewish Day School Conference in Los Angeles this week, Steven Lorch, the head of the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan — one of the Upper West Side’s many day schools — said he is “reserving judgment about what the impact on day school enrollment will be until we know the location.”

Other day schools in the area include the pluralistic Abraham Joshua Heschel School, which has classes from kindergarten through high school; the Reform Rodeph Sholom School, with nursery through eight grade classes and the Orthodox Manhattan Day School, which has kindergarten through eighth grade.

If the charter school ends up in Harlem, a historically black neighborhood attracting growing numbers of white families, many of them Jewish, it is less likely to compete with day schools, Lorch said.

But “if it’s located in the middle of where other Jewish day schools are, I would question whether that location serves all of the declared goals of the Hebrew Charter School Center,” he said. Lorch added, “It’s possible that day school families,” particularly those for whom tuition poses a major financial sacrifice, “would see it as a potential destination.”

While not involved with Shalom Academy, organized primarily by a group of Orthodox parents in Bergen County, the HCSC is working closely with Harlem Hebrew and Sosua, which is named for a city in the Dominican Republic where Jews found haven during the Holocaust.

HCSC also provided funding and support to HLA and Hatikvah International Academy Charter School, which opened this fall in East Brunswick, N.J., and is working with several other proposed Hebrew charter schools, including ones in Manhattan Beach, Calif., Scottsdale, Ariz., and Minneapolis.

Currently, six Hebrew charter schools are operating in the United States. In addition to HLA and Hatikvah, there are three Hebrew charters in South Florida, part of the Ben Gamla network founded by former Florida Rep. Peter Deutsch. And this fall the Albert Einstein Academy Charter School opened in Santa Clarita, Calif. Both Ben Gamla and Einstein plan to open new schools this fall.

According to its prospectus, Harlem Hebrew would open with 150 children in kindergarten and first grade and, adding a grade each year, would eventually serve 450 children through fifth grade. Like HLA, Harlem Hebrew would operate more hours per day and more days per year than public schools.

According to the prospectus, Harlem Hebrew could become the most racially diverse school in its district, a district in which most schools are either majority white and Asian (and economically advantaged) or majority black and Latino (and low-income). “Based on the experience of HLA, the most integrated school in a diverse [community school district], Harlem Hebrew believes its rich and innovative curriculum will be relevant to all the students who make up the student body,” the prospectus states, “and its chosen instructional methodologies and strategies will be effective in addressing their learning needs, enabling them to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to meet and exceed the School’s and New York State’s newly adopted Common Core standards.”

In addition to Berman, who lives on the Upper West Side, Harlem Hebrew’s applicant team consists of: David Gedzelman, executive vice president of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life; Eli Schaap, a program officer with the Steinhardt Foundation; Hindie Weissman, director of educational services for the Hebrew Charter School Center; Basil Smikle, Jr., a political strategist and onetime candidate for state Senate; Linda Aristondo, an assistant prosecutor for Jersey City; Daniel M. Cohen, a real estate mortgage officer with Community Preservation Corporation; Lisa Lippman Finkelstein, director of new development marketing and sales at Brown Harris Stevens; and Daniel Pianko, an investor in and adviser to education companies.

Both Smikle, who is African American, and Aristondo, who is Latina, live in Harlem. Gedzelman, Cohen, Finkelstein and Pianko live in District 3.

Last Update:

03/16/2011 - 11:36

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"And how many Jews are there in Harlem , its like opening up a Malcom [sic] X school in Boro Park.Would anyone tkae [sic] that seriously ?" I'm a Jew living in central Harlem. I know quite a few others. There are enough for there to be at least two occasional minyanim, as well as a Chabad presence. (Two if you count the only at City College.) There is a movement to extend the eruv up this way too. An Israeli-owned supermarket opened near us about a year ago (and the owners live in the neighborhood). A lot of people want to stay in Manhattan after they have kids, but can't afford a family-sized apartment on the UWS. Harlem today is very appealing for these folks. Come walk around sometime. Visit a playground up here and you will see black, white, Asian, Hispanic, and mixed-race families, and hear a multitude of languages spoken, including Hebrew. "Make no mistake about it these schools will be 95% plus Jewish one way or another " Actually, the Hebrew charter school in Brooklyn was described by the Times as "one of the most racially mixed charter schools in the city. About a third of the 150 students are black, and several are Hispanic." The French-American charter school that opened in Harlem last year isn't 95% Francophone. The various dual-language programs at traditional District 3 public schools aim for a 50-50 balance of native English speakers and native Spanish (or in one case, French) speakers, and those program are quite popular with non-Hispanics and non-Francophones. Charter schools aren't just to assist the poor and disadvantaged, though many have taken that as their mission and focus. They are a mechanism for creating alternative public schools of various sorts, and thus a pathway for educational innovation. Since just about everybody agrees that the American educational system does a terrible job of teaching foreign languages, the emergence of dual-language immersion charter schools is a great development.
As someone who taught a pilot Hebrew language program in a public high school in Massachusetts, a word of caution from my own experience: It's not always easy to maintain a balancing act and keep religion out of the conversation. After many years, I still recall that my students expected to celebrate Purim in the classroom and didn't understand why it was unacceptable in the public schools.
I may not be accurate here, but the concept of charter schools was created to assist the poor and disadvantaged communities in navigating the path to educational success which the large main line public schools could not do. So now we get some from a largely Upper Middle class Jewish community using it's organizational skills and financial success(as well as political clout) to get a piece of the action.Lets face some facts most secular Jewish parents in NYC send their kids to private schools like Dalton or high end public schools , few are interested in Hebrew cultural charter schools. The parents interested in this are mostly members of the Modern Orthodox community. And the reason behind this is money. They would like the state to pay for their kids Jewish education . they have no regard whatsoever how this would affect local day schools. What I describe is certainly the situation in Washington Hts. (where I have resided for the past 22 years)This new charter school will greatly affect the only local day school , as many of the young transient Modern orthodox couples hailing from the wealthy suburbs will no longer avail themselves of the yeshiva . Unlike the long term residents of WH many of these transient residents are from wealthy backgrounds, have cars and have driven rent prices up in WH in an astronomical amount.And whats important is that in the early grades they really don't care much as long as the kids are surrounded by other Jews(Make no mistake about it these schools will be 95% plus Jewish one way or another ) and talk Hebrew , the rites and rituals can be taught by a private tutor or by Chabad teachers only too happy to make some spare change.. And how many Jews are there in Harlem , its like opening up a Malcom X school in Boro Park.Would anyone tkae that seriously ? How many Israelis live in Washington Heights ? How many Russian Jews could care less about Hebrew cultural schools ? If we Jews really believe in Tikkun Olam we would follow the lead of some early organizers of charter schools aimed at our disadvantaged brothers and sisters in the Black and Hispanic communities and stop feeling sorry for ourselves if we have to chose between 2 trips to Israel annualy a Pasover hotel and paying tuition to a Jewish day school. Its easy to tlak about Tikkun Olam and disadvantaged people and the like , but doing some thing for them is another matter .
Wow - to read your comment (diatribe?) makes it sounds as if every Jewish family is wealthy and opportunistic. I just had my first baby, and we are financially better off than most, and still I'm freaking out about how we will afford day school. It's a very real problem. Tikun Olam begins at home, it begins amongst ourselves, before we go out into other communities. There has to be some change, some shift in how we educate our children because the current situation seems to have oh so many problems with it. You talk about these Jewish families having "no regard whatsoever" on how it would affect local day schools. I'm sure most of them do have plenty regard - but there are very few options. And with multiple children, the tuitions are not about whether you take a "Passover Holiday" but about much bigger issues. Besides- if this school opens up in Harlem, you can believe there will be a ton of non Jewish students there. They have been screaming for better schools in Harlem and this will probably be seen as a better school and non Jewish parents would be thrilled for their kids to go there regardless of whether they teach Hebrew or Chinese. But my main message to you is to love your fellow Jews. We are one family and have to work together to come up with some sort of better solution to how to educate our children.

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