Success and Scrutiny at Hebrew Charter School

Sydneylove Henriquez writes in Hebrew. Students, for now limited to
kindergarteners and first graders, receive
at least an hour of daily instruction in the language.

Every so often, Aalim Moody, 5, and his twin sister, Aalima, break into a kind of secret code, chatting in a language their father does not understand.

Walking along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, they make out the lettering on kosher food shops and yeshiva buses, showing off all they learn at the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Midwood, where they both attend kindergarten.

Ask Aalim his favorite song and he will happily belt out: “Eretz Yisrael sheli yaffa v’gam porachat!” — My land of Israel is beautiful and blossoming! — and then he continues in Hebrew:

Who built it and who cultivated it?
All of us together!
I built a house in the land of Israel.
So now I have a land and I have a house in the land of Israel!

Aalim and Aalima are not Jewish. They worship at a mosque affiliated with the Nation of Islam. But at the Hebrew Language Academy, they fit right in.

When state officials approved the school, critics wondered whether it would become a publicly financed religious school masquerading as a place open to everyone. And after a battle for space, it landed in a yeshiva.

But as the school’s first year draws to a close, its classrooms are filled with a broad range of students, all seeming confident enough to jabber away as if they were elbowing their way down Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. Perhaps surprisingly, the school has become 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 school’s organizers say it has been so successful that they plan to help create dozens like it, pledging to spend as much as $4.8 million next year to seed schools in Phoenix, Minneapolis and Manhattan Beach, Calif., in addition to one set to open next fall in East Brunswick, N.J.

But despite its diversity, the school still faces scrutiny over how it will handle religion and the complicated politics of the Middle East.

Charter schools are publicly financed but privately run, and in some cases attract substantial private support. At Hebrew Language Academy, known as H.L.A., some backing comes from Michael H. Steinhardt, a retired hedge fund manager who has given away more than $200 million and is a supporter of Israel and Jewish causes.

Some civil libertarians have criticized the school, saying that it is too difficult to navigate the church-state divide, particularly around Israel, a country with explicit ties to a religion.

“Israelis themselves have a hard time around the question of whether Israel is a Jewish state or a democracy,” said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington. “Why would we want to involve a public school here in that question?”

Mr. Steinhardt’s daughter, Sara Berman, the chairwoman of the school’s board, said that learning about Hebrew and Israeli culture was no different from learning about Bastille Day and baguettes in French class.

“This is a dual-language school, contextualized by a rich culture,” Ms. Berman said. “To say that you can’t learn about what it is like to go to a shuk in Jerusalem because it’s too complicated or tied to religion or politics, that’s just not the case.”

Students are just as likely to learn about Christmas or Ramadan as about Purim, and teachers say they check with the school’s lawyers before veering into any lesson with ties to Judaism.

In one bow to the rules of religion, students are served kosher food from a local caterer. Each class has both an English and a Hebrew teacher. (There are three classes each in kindergarten and first grade, but the school plans to expand through the 12th grade.)

Students receive at least an hour of Hebrew instruction daily — the hallway is filled with ear-piercing shouts as the students learn that chicken is called auf and a cow is a parah.

“At first my life felt a lot like being the teacher in Charlie Brown — all I would get is blank stares,” said Elana Weinberg, the twins’ Hebrew instructor. “Now they answer back without even thinking too much.”

There are reminders of Israel everywhere — blue-and-white flags adorn the walls of one classroom, and another class often watches an Israeli children’s show. The students celebrated Israeli Independence Day this year. (In the parlance of 5- and 6-year-olds, the day was known as the country’s “62nd birthday,” and prompted a project of construction-paper birthday cards.)

The school has not yet ventured into politically sensitive territory; nobody brought up the recent Gaza blockade. But provocative questions are certain to come as the students get older. Aalim recently asked his father, Willie Moody, to explain why the Jews and the Palestinians “hate each other.” Mr. Moody responded: “I don’t even understand that. Just wait until you’re older.”

Ms. Berman said the school planned to train teachers how to deal with discussions of Israel, which she said would involve an evenhanded approach.

Although the school cannot inquire about faith, many of the white students are Jewish. A few wear yarmulkes, and several parents acknowledged that if it were not for H.L.A., they would have sent their children to a Jewish day school, which can cost more than $20,000.

“For us this was a really good alternative,” said Marlyn Gaba, who has a 10-year-old son at East Midwood Hebrew Day School and a daughter at H.L.A. who also attends a religious after-school program. “You can’t compare a couple of hours of religious instruction after school with the half-day he gets every day, but what I like is that she is learning the language and pride in Israel.”

At the start, a few parents pulled out their children, alarmed, as Maureen Campbell, the school’s principal, put it, “at the diversity.” But most remained.

Some parents who are not Jewish said they applied because they were simply eager for their children to learn a second language. But others gave reasons the school would be unlikely to cite in its recruitment brochures.

“By going to school with Jewish children, they are going to be getting a good education,” said Mr. Moody. “In that community there’s no foolishness when it comes to education.”

Even among non-Jewish parents, religion can be an attraction. Antoinette Burnett, who plans to enroll her son Rohan Nanton Jr., 4, next year, said she was envious that he would be able to understand a language she had struggled to make sense of in her church in Mill Basin.

“I am a child of God, and you know the Bible was originally written in Hebrew,” Ms. Burnett said. “When you understand it in Hebrew, it’s a totally different meaning. To be able for him to have that would be amazing.”