Sara Berman, 35

Hebrew charter school pioneer

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A quick glance at some of Sara Berman’s vital stats and you could be forgiven for assuming she’s Orthodox. Married at age 20, she is the mother of six children ranging in age from 8 months to 12 years — and the school-age kids attend Ramaz, the venerable East Side centrist Orthodox day school.

But Berman, the daughter of hedge fund manager-turned-mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt (an avowed atheist who nonetheless supports a wide range of Jewish causes), is quite open about her secular outlook and general lack of ritual observance.

For the past two years, Berman, a former journalist and parenting columnist for The New York Sun, has been a major player in a very unorthodox and somewhat controversial cause: Hebrew charter schools.

Berman is president of Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, which opened last August with 150 students. The tuition-free school devotes more than an hour each day to Hebrew, and the students — approximately 40 percent of whom are African American — have a unique social studies curriculum that focuses on Jewish communities around the world. Berman also chairs the newly created Hebrew Charter School Center, which, through seed money and technical assistance, seeks to establish 20 Hebrew charter schools by 2015. (The bulk of the funds for the project comes from Areivim, a philanthropic partnership that Steinhardt co-founded.)

Despite her pedigree, the Upper East Side-raised Dalton and Columbia alum is refreshingly down to earth and unpretentious. In the Bermans’ toy-cluttered Upper West Side apartment, the children share bedrooms. When the family travels, they fly coach. Berman drives the kids to and from school herself in a Toyota SUV.

“I didn’t realize my family had such means until I was a teenager,” she says, adding that she her and her husband, South Africa-born hedge fund manager David Berman (who she met while in high school), are determined to raise children “with good values” who do not “feel entitled.” “If there’s one quality I have no patience for, it’s arrogance,” she says.

Secret Vices: Pizza; parking tickets.

Second home: Berman and her family spend a few months each year in her husband’s home country of South Africa. “The kids get so much by being thrown into another world and learning to cope,” she says. “When I was a child, I thought New York was the center of the universe.”

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