Many Jewish groups, from day schools and foundations to newspapers and listservs, are watching the Hebrew Language Charter School movement closely. Emerging just a few years ago, these schools have garnered both interest and support, especially in the economically challenging times we’ve experienced since 2008.
The Jewish Week’s recent article focused on the “Ben Gamla boom” in South Florida, as a high school on the model of the nation’s first Hebrew language charter school opens this fall with 75 students in the 9th and 10th grades. Advocates and critics of day schools are closely watching this trend to see what emerges, particularly with regard to long-term results for Jewish identity and literacy. All agree time will tell.
Many issues surface when discussing Hebrew Language charter schools – day school affordability, the importance of climate, socialization, the ethics and legality of publicly funded charter schools – but one aspect of Jewish education generally gets little attention – the role of the parents. A quote in the Jewish Week article is thus most interesting:
Like Hoch, Marty Jacob is Orthodox and, after being pleased with two younger children’s experience at Ben Gamla elementary schools, decided to transfer an older child from day school to the new Ben Gamla high school.
Although they could have afforded Jewish day school, Jacob and his wife decided “it would be more valuable to their growth as Jews” to send the children to Ben Gamla and use the saved tuition money for a private Judaic studies tutor, Jewish sleep-away camp and a family trip to Israel.
For the Jacobs, affordability is thankfully not an issue. What their logic (as quoted and explained by the Jewish Week reporter) indicates is that they’ve broken up day school into its constituent parts (or the parts they value in a day school) – Hebrew, Judaics, immersion Jewish setting, Israel – and realized that they could take the same money (or less!) and cobble together those pieces on their own now that Ben Gamla offers Hebrew (and probably a nice circle of Jewish kids for the social environment/friends). Thus, the Israel connection is covered with some Ben Gamla content and the family trip; Jewish camp covers other Jewish immersion benefits; and the Judaics can be done with a tutor (if the kids are amenable and the tutors are good).
What I find fascinating is the Jacobs’ approach – resourcefully re-mixed and personalized Jewish education, undergirded by their parental view that this would be “more valuable to their [children’s] growth as Jews” (and implicitly a better or smarter use of funds). If online learning takes off, it will be even easier for families to ‘mix and match’ the elements of Jewish education they personally value. Expect a growth in camps and birthright-inspired Israel trips for younger Jewish children – immersive, brief, and experiential will be viewed as having the biggest bang for the increasingly limited buck, and more parents will opt for it.
And there’s the rub: the Jacobs family may have the resources and resolve to do this successfully. They may have the lifestyle, the background (are they day school-educated?), available qualified tutors in South Florida and a healthy relationship with their children to make this work. But I am genuinely concerned how many families can do what the Jacobses are doing.
Personally, I doubt this model is a recipe for the majority. However, in our society, if a few do something well at first, everyone follows suit, with much more varied results. Communal leaders and funders must keep in mind both the best – and the rest.
Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation