Diversity Plan for Public Schools, Using Hebrew

The surprise wasn’t that a meeting envisioned as an informal conversation among about 10 people drew more than 300 from across Bergen County. It was that something like Raphael Bachrach’s modest proposal – and the fevered debate it has set off – didn’t happen sooner here or someplace else like it.

Mr. Bachrach is a Jewish parent in a suburban school district where a majority of Jews are Orthodox and send their children to Jewish day schools. A year ago, he proposed a Hebrew-language charter school as an alternative.

That was turned down, but local school officials proposed an alternative. The district has a highly regarded program where elementary school students learn in both English and Spanish. Englewood’s interim superintendent, Richard Segall, raised the possibility of a similar dual-language program – strictly nonreligious – in Hebrew and English, that would attract both Jews and non-Jews. It would be the first public school Hebrew-English program of its kind in the country.

There is a Hebrew-language charter school in Florida, and one has been approved for Brooklyn. But Englewood’s proposal would be in an existing public school. The issue is particularly close to the surface in suburbs where high local school taxes and expensive day schools combine with the economic meltdown.

“We are losing precious Jewish souls because of financial birth control,” Amy Citron, a mother in neighboring Teaneck, wrote in January in The New Jersey Jewish Standard, a local weekly, arguing that children should be enrolled in public schools and then afternoon religious programs.

The proposal in Englewood offered an alternative for Jewish families who either wanted a public alternative to religious schools or no longer could afford them. For the district, which is overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, it offered a pathway toward its mandate of diversifying its schools and the potential to heal some of the fractures in a community where social divisions are mirrored in educational ones.

Mr. Bachrach, a father of five, said his motivation was not financial but personal and cultural – he was unhappy with his older children’s experiences in a religious school and uncomfortable with the cultural division in town.

“Englewood is a very divided kind of community,” he said. “People don’t know people across town, and it goes both ways; we don’t know them and they don’t know us.”

ON the other hand, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, of Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah, said religious day schools had become a bulwark against assimilation: families send children there for both a religious education and a Jewish experience strong enough to give them a Jewish identity they’ll carry off to college and beyond. You can’t duplicate that in the public schools, he said.

“We as a Jewish community try to strike a very fine balance between being in the world and participating in society and at the same time maintaining a very strong Jewish identity,” he said. “Until now, the greatest success we’ve had in maintaining that balance has been through the Jewish day school system. We need to be open to new ideas, but I’d be very hesitant to do anything that would threaten the day school process.”

He said Jewish community leaders were looking at various proposals, one of which would ask the entire Jewish community to support the private day schools, not just Jewish parents – in effect a voluntary school tax on top of the compulsory public school tax. That’s probably a tough sell these days.

Agreeing on the concept would be far easier than the details of keeping it an educational program, not a religious one – kosher school kitchens? Paid use of school facilities for after-school religious instruction” Private prayer supervised by rabbis or parents? – that would go into making it work.

Dr. Segall said it was clear that the program would have to be secular and fashioned for both Jews and non-Jews. “It’s definitely not a simple thing to work out,” he said.

In Teaneck, A. Spencer Denham, the acting superintendent, sounded interested but skeptical.

“The district will certainly look at the concept, since there is considerable public interest in it,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “However, we have to ensure that the constitutional issue, of undue entanglement of government and religion, must be in focus from the start. That presents a very high hurdle for the concept to be pursued.”


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