NEW YORK – Every year on Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day), between 117th Street and 118th Street on Saint Nicholas Ave in Harlem, students from the Harlem Hebrew Charter School line up and wave Israeli flags.
Most of them are not Jewish and didn’t know much about Israel before coming to this school. Today, they are almost fluent in Hebrew.
Harlem Hebrew Charter School was founded about three years ago.
It was one of the first schools opened by the Hebrew Charter School Center, a national organization aiming to “build a movement of academically rigorous dual-language charter schools across America and teach children of all backgrounds to become fluent and literate in modern Hebrew.”
“We started in 2010, one year after our first school was opened. Today we’ve gone from one to nine schools and we have 1,700 students,” organization president Jon Rosenberg told The Jerusalem Post.
The nine schools operated by Rosenberg’s organization are all public charter schools. This means they are free, and offer an alternative to other public schools in the districts they are placed in.
As of today, the HCSC has institutions in New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles, San Diego, Washington DC and even Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Their locations are chosen with one purpose in mind: serving students from all backgrounds. For this reason, the schools are not located in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, and are mostly found in neighborhoods where the socioeconomic level is lower than others.
“This is a thing in our work that strikes people as being counter-intuitive,” Rosenberg said, “If it were a French-teaching school, you would expect the diversity, but people hear Hebrew and associate it with Jewish religious education.”
Diversity is surely the most striking aspect at Harlem Hebrew. Each class is composed of students from various cultural backgrounds. Of the 315 students attending kindergarten through third grade at the school, 40% are Caucasian, 36% are African- American, 20% are Hispanic and 4% are of multi-racial origin.
Inside the school, blue and white flags, colorful Hebrew letters and maps of Israel cover the walls.
In the classroom, kindergarten children sitting in a circle play a game of “Find the Pair” in Hebrew with their teacher.
School principal Robin Natman explains that most of the Hebrew teachers at the school are Israeli and only speak Hebrew with their students as part of the oral proficiency language teaching method that the school follows.
In each general studies class too, a Hebrew teacher is here to assist the English-speaking one.
Natman says that for non-Jewish parents, Harlem Hebrew is a chance to give their children a better education while remaining in the public school system.
“Many of them are interested in their kids going to a dual-language school, or maybe they are interested in a charter school because the public school in their area is not safe or doesn’t provide what we provide in the classrooms,” she told the Post, “Some of them also know some biblical Hebrew from church, so they have an interest in their kids learning to speak Hebrew.”
The teaching of Hebrew as a foreign language at HCSC schools is paired with teaching about Israeli culture.
“You can’t effectively teach a foreign language, without teaching about the culture and the day-to-day life of the people in the places where the language is spoken,” president of the Steinhardt Foundation and a founding board member of Harlem Hebrew David Gedzelman explains, “So we teach Israeli culture in a very robust way.”
HCSC institutions are careful not to confuse Hebrew and Israeli culture with Judaism and the Jewish people. The schools, including Harlem Hebrew, must not cross the line between the two, and aims to teach in a way consistent with the US government’s public school system, respectful of the law of church and state separation.
In order to make sure of this, the organization has put together a “First Amendment Church and State Committee” and an Israel studies advisory council composed of leading academics to safeguard balance in the teaching.
“We are not engaged in religious instruction,” Jon Rosenberg of the HCSC says. “You can teach about religion, you can teach about all of the religions that are followed in Israel in the same way that you can teach about the main religions that people follow in the United States.”
“We want Hebrew to be a global language,” David Gedzelman adds. “In the end, Israel will be better off when it sees itself as a global country.”
The Steinhardt Foundation has been supporting the Hebrew Charter School Center and Harlem Hebrew School since its inception.
“Our goal in supporting these schools is both about the opportunities that kids in these schools will have and also about bringing Hebrew and awareness of Israel into the public sphere in America,” Gedzelman told the Post. “You know, all of the politicians give their speeches, but these children are friends for life.”
Principal Natman agrees that the children in her school have indeed grown very attached to Israel, a country most of them have never actually visited. “They develop this love for Israel and for the language that you can’t duplicate,” she says.
“They feel like it’s a home to them just as much as New York or the United States is. They just feel like it’s a part of them.”
Every year with a new incoming class, Harlem Hebrew opens a new grade. In a few years the HCSC hopes to offer middle-school education in all of its institutions, absorb 10,000 students a year, and perhaps even take them on class trips to Israel.
This article will appear as part of a special magazine created by the Post and The World Zionist Organization to commemorate the organization’s 37th Congress, which will take place in Jerusalem October 20-22.