The 2003 GA in Israel: A Catalyst for Professional Advancement

I firmly believe that for our people not merely to survive but to live rich Jewish lives, we have to embrace and experiment with untested initiatives.

by Valerie Khaytina

Ten years ago I attended my first General Assembly. United Jewish Communities’ (now JFNA) GA in Israel was my induction into fully professional Jewish life, moving from a support position to a professional role. Everything was new and exciting: the energy of thousands of people marching through the streets of Jerusalem, the inspiring speech by Shimon Peres about Israel’s future in the fields of science and technology, and a moving reunion between Ross Denisov, a lone soldier serving in IDF, and his mother.

There was one presentation at that General Assembly back then that is not merely a distant and fond memory but has been an influence on my daily life. That presentation was made by Michael Steinhardt, a visionary and daring leader of our times. He talked about the Jewish future – through Jewish education, engagement of unaffiliated Jews, a centrality of the State of Israel, tzedakah as the life spring of our community; and respect for meritocracy. In his speech, Michael called for the creation of The Fund for Our Jewish Future, devoted to the next generation and to generations to come. The Fund “would invigorate the most important outlets of Jewish identity-formation from early childhood to day schools, camps, and college programs.”

Following the GA, the UJC/JFNA staff held many meetings discussing the ideas in Michael’s presentation. I vividly remember myself, a young professional and newly-wed, sitting through those meetings. On the one hand, I was inspired by the grand ideas of projects that could emerge from The Fund for Our Jewish Future, especially those discussions about Jewish day school education. On the other hand, as great as the ideas proposed by federation leaders were, none seemed appropriate to my identity-perplexed family.

Five years later, in 2008, I’d heard through the grapevine that there would be a new, free Hebrew charter school in Brooklyn. The kids there would study Hebrew and learn all about Israel and there would be no daily prayers. My skeptical mind could not believe what I heard. So I decided to attend the first community meeting at the Kings Bay Y, a local JCC in southern Brooklyn. With keen interest, I listened to Rabbi David Gedzelman, Executive Vice President of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, and Sara Berman, Trustee of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and the lead applicant for this Hebrew charter school. It sounded too good to be true and yet, the school that was promised to the southern Brooklyn community became a reality in 2009.

This school, the Hebrew Language Academy (HLA) Charter School was envisioned by the members of “The Fund for Our Jewish Future,” which later became known as The Areivim Philanthropic Group. A group of philanthropic leaders, Areivim members left the realms of traditional Jewish education and conceived an entirely new approach – secular Israel and Hebrew education for ALL people in the United States – that would especially attract Jews who would not otherwise choose day schools. We sometimes call these Jews unaffiliated but I think it is more accurate to say that these are Jews whose Judaism may not be associated with religion but more with culture, traditions and history. The schools would also reach non-Jews and elevate the knowledge of Modern Hebrew in the United States. More than that, the schools would become self-sufficient in time because of the public funding they receive. The vision has been to prepare thousands of Americans to become fluent in Hebrew and grow up to be friends of Israel for life. As one of the Areivim members who founded the first school has said, they were willing to fail “spectacularly” but they did not. The founding school, Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, has been joined by four more schools: Harlem Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Manhattan, Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick, NJ, Sela Public Charter School in Washington, DC, and Kavod Elementary Charter School in San Diego, CA. Another school is set to open in Los Angeles in the fall of 2014. This network of schools, supported by the national Hebrew Charter School Center (also founded by the Areivim Philanthropic Group to support the growth of the Hebrew charter school movement nationally), today serves 1,000 students. In five years, the movement will attract over 10,000 students.

In 2010, my older child won the lottery to enter kindergarten in the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn. The experience has been life-changing for our family. Although I have been involved professionally in the Jewish community, none of my involvement did for us what the school had. My husband became interested in Israel and visited the country for the first time. Our child speaks and sings Hebrew and knows more about Israel than many American Jews do. She respects her Russian-Jewish heritage, not because we insist on it at home but because the school teaches her to respect different cultures. My story is just one of many families’- Jewish and non-Jewish – who develop an affinity towards Israel and the love for Modern Hebrew because of their children’s education.

Like many bold ideas, Hebrew Charter School Center’s network of schools is yet to become a fully acceptable educational initiative. It doesn’t fit in any standard funding “bucket.” For funders with Jewish philanthropic interests, this project isn’t Jewish – it is about Israel and Hebrew education – and reaches Jewish and non-Jewish families alike. For those who fund non-Jewish causes, we must always explain that our work includes only secular education. And, as a new charter school network, we must demonstrate a track record of good academic achievements for major charter school funders to support us, which our schools are still too young to do. Yet, there is a growing number of donors nationally – young and old – who believe in this idea and are giving it a chance. This year alone, our funder base grew from 30 in 2012, to 300 in 2013.

Certainly, the Hebrew Charter School Center’s network of schools has evolved from the original ideas for affordable Jewish education envisioned in 2003. The idea has morphed into a project that takes into account the realities of being Jewish in 2013: the facts that most of our people are intermarried and don’t belong to synagogues, and that we fund more secular causes than Jewish. I firmly believe that for our people not merely to survive but to live rich Jewish lives, we have to embrace and experiment with untested initiatives. It has been historically the role of private foundations to lead that innovation in the United States. In the case of the Hebrew Charter School Center network of schools, the Areivim Philanthropic Group has played this role. I am grateful for this experiment to all funding partners and staff who are truly “meshugaim ladavar” (crazy at heart) for this project and who work day and night to give students, including my daughter, the best education possible on which much can be built, but above all, strong and lasting affinity for Israel and its people.

Valerie Khaytina is the mother of the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School 3rd grader who urged her to take the job of Director of Strategic Philanthropy at the Hebrew Charter School Center.