Public Charter Schools put Benefits of Teaching Hebrew to the Test

Zhara Adeyemi, an eighth-grader at Mill Basin Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn, N.Y. To her right is Viktor Oleynik of the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood in Brooklyn. Photo credit: Alex Traiman.

By Alex Traiman

(JNS) Now in its ninth year, the Hebrew Public network of 13 charter schools utilizes a blend of startup philanthropic funding and state funds to offer high-quality Hebrew language education to Jewish and non-Jewish students alike. Currently, these schools run in New York, New Jersey, California, Minnesota and Washington, D.C. New schools are scheduled to open soon in Philadelphia and Staten Island.

The school teaches Hebrew to all its students since kindergarten. The school does not teach any subjects on Jewish faith, but does offer information on Israeli culture, history and national holidays.

“We are not a Jewish school. We are the only public-school network in North America that teaches Hebrew to kids of all backgrounds,” says Valerie Khaytina, chief external officer of Hebrew Public.

The network – with more than 3,000 students – was started by the Areivim Philanthropy Group and the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life in 2009 to provide an alternative for parents and students searching for an education that could provide access to Hebrew and Israel. “The Areivim partners sought to find the next big idea to actually make Jewish education affordable for all children,” explains Khaytina. “At around the same time, they got to learn about the concept of charter schools. They quickly learned that a charter school needs to be open to all students, regardless of their religious background and that we can provide all of our students with great education, including learning Hebrew as a second language.”

“We are a public school in the United States, which means we are open to all the students in the neighborhood,” Khaytina tells JNS. “And in the United States, you cannot ask students what their religion is. Anecdotally, we believe that approximately half the students in the whole network are Jewish, but we don’t know that for sure.”

For Zhara Adeyemi, an eighth-grader in the Mill Basin Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn, N.Y., she and her parents simply wanted “a good school.”

“We won a lottery to get in,” she says.

Zhara, who volunteered the fact that she is not Jewish, says she speaks Hebrew “pretty well.”

She appreciates her “wonderful Hebrew teachers,” as well as the international feel of the school. “I get to meet new people. My friends’ families are from all over the world. I have Argentinian friends, Russian friends, Caribbean friends.”

Zhara, who spoke to JNS during her class trip to Israel, says “Israel is beautiful. We really enjoyed being here,” noting that picking olives and hiking on Mount Carmel were personal highlights.

Back home in Brooklyn, speaking Hebrew can occasionally provide unexpected advantages.

“When you walk around the neighborhood, especially me, as an African-American, nobody assumes that you can understand Hebrew. And then you’ll see people speaking Hebrew and you’ll understand them – if they are saying something good or if they are saying something bad about you.”

She says once she was at the park, and a woman’s child fell, but the mother didn’t see because she was on the phone, so Zhara said something to her in Hebrew, and “she was pretty surprised.”

As to whether she’ll be able to use her Hebrew in the future, Zhara says she’s “not too sure.”

About history and culture, about global citizenship

The Mill Basin Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn, N.Y., in Israel. Photo credit: Alex Traiman.

Victor Oleynik of the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood in Brooklyn started Hebrew Language Academy in kindergarten.

“I don’t know if I would say I am fluent [in Hebrew], but I’m pretty good in it,” he says. “But trust me, there are some kids whose parents come from Israel, and they are way better than me.”

He likes the high-quality teachers and the friends he has made. “I’ve been able to meet a lot of kids I can relate to. A lot of Russians,” says Victor. “There’s a lot of Russian kids in Brooklyn.”

Victor is Jewish on his mother’s side, but his father is Christian. “We celebrate Hanukkah and New Year’s. We do not celebrate Christmas.”

He says that in addition to Hebrew language, the students also learn about Israeli culture.

As for his first trip to Israel, Victor was pleasantly surprised. “Israel is very nice, actually,” he says while calling it “very different” from what he expected. “I was thinking that Israel was a major desert.” He adds that he would “definitely” go back because “there are so many things to see.”

Other kids on eighth-grade trips, Victor says, “go to the Appalachian trail. We go to Israel.”

Part of coming to Israel for the students is the immersive Hebrew experience, a tenet of Hebrew Public’s bilingual studies. “We got to practice our Hebrew a bunch on this trip,” says Victor.

Khaytina tells JNS that for many Jewish families, the school’s appeal is “the idea of teaching kids Hebrew, and about the history and culture of Israel – about global citizenship.”

For many families, “sending their kids to our school is simply a better choice,” she says. “Unfortunately, in many neighborhoods in the United States, the school networks are not so great, and families just want a better school.”

“For some, it is the emphasis on a foreign language, and it can be any foreign language. It could be Hebrew, it could be Chinese, it could be Spanish,” adds Khaytina. “For some families, they like that Hebrew is the language of the Bible, so even though we teach modern Hebrew, people want their kids to understand it and be able to read the Bible.” She also says “we hear a lot from our African-American families; they know that Israel is a leader in high-tech and innovation, so they view it as a chance for their kids to come here, learn here.”

Making sure to respect and understand others

Hebrew Public appeals to parents in cities where school systems are subpar; plus, they like the idea of global citizenship. “Families just want a better school,” says chief external officer Valerie Khaytina. Photo credit: Alex Traiman.

Despite being a public school open to all students regardless of faith, teaching Hebrew comes with its stereotypes, both good and bad.

“When we first opened our newest school in Brooklyn last year, somebody drew a swastika sign in front of the school. So even though we are not a Jewish school, we are extremely vigilant about security,” says Khaytina, who joined the students on the Israel trip. “In light of what just happened now in Pittsburgh, we released a special statement that we have reinforced all of our security efforts. “Even though we are not Jewish, the minute people hear Hebrew, we can become a target,” she acknowledges.

As for the benefits of this experiment, which has taken more than $20 million in philanthropic funding so far, it’s still too early to tell. The schools each open with a kindergarten and first-grade class. Last year was the first year that the Brooklyn and New Jersey schools had graduating classes.

According to Khaytina, time will tell whether exposing children to Hebrew language, and Israeli history and culture for nine years will provide a better connection than other short-term efforts to provide better understanding about Israel to all Americans. “These kids are growing up learning about Israel, and understanding about Israel as a country.”