A way to bring Israel to life for American 8th graders

Just imagine: thousands of Americans growing up speaking Hebrew, knowing Israeli writers, singers and TV personalities, and understanding the geography and culture of Israel.

Home for the Hebrew language (photo credit: Reuters)
Home for the Hebrew language
(photo credit: Reuters)
What if millions of American students studied and spoke modern Hebrew, the way kids in the United States study Spanish or French today? What if millions of Americans kids learned that Israel, like America, is a country of immigrants, and studied the lives of successful Israelis who hailed from Morocco, Ethiopia, Yemen, Iran, Poland, Russia and Egypt? What if those students learned about the differences and similarities between the American and Israeli governments – both democracies, for sure, but with very different strengths and weaknesses.
While it’s my dream to have millions of students engaging in this discourse, thousands already do so, in Hebrew Public’s 10 charter schools that are open in America. Charter schools operate just like other public schools but because they have a separate board with more direct oversight of their academic program, they are able to infuse additional programs into the curriculum, such as the study of a foreign language – in our case, modern Hebrew.
In a few weeks, thanks to our generous supporters, 33 of our 8th graders will be coming to Israel on their inaugural Capstone trip. More than half of this group is comprised of non-Jews, and many of our students have never left their neighborhood before and are traveling by airplane for the first time. They will be in Israel for 10 days, experiencing the country and meeting with their peers – experiences that we hope will last them for a lifetime and will further ignite their understanding of Israel.
How did we get here? Nearly 10 years ago we opened our first school, Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, in southern Brooklyn, in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in New York City. Soon enough, Hebrew Language Academy became a sought-after school, where children of all backgrounds – Jewish, Israeli, Russian, Caribbean, Hispanic – come together in one of the most diverse public school settings in New York City.
Today, Hebrew Language Academy is serving over 700 students, and is a robust, rigorous and nurturing K through 8th grade school. We receive phone calls every week from communities all across the country who want to open a school just like this one. We’ve already opened nearly a dozen more schools in New York City, East Brunswick, New Jersey, Washington, DC, Minneapolis, San Diego and Los Angeles, and now serve 2,500 American students.
As a network, our mission is to lead a national movement of exceptional, diverse public charter schools that teach Modern Hebrew to children of all backgrounds and prepare them to be successful global citizens.
Our students come together to benefit from a rigorous education, learn to speak Hebrew with an Israeli accent, and for them going to Israel is more desirable than visiting Disney World.
From the beginning of this project, often referred to by my fellow philanthropists as a “disruptive philanthropic experiment,” we wondered: what will it be like to show Israel to all these American kids who have studied the country for years? What will be their connection to Israel when they grow up? How will their understanding of Israel impact their future? How can we nurture their appreciation of the world beyond their immediate community? Even though our oldest school is now going into its 9th year, our initiative to bring Modern Hebrew education and Israel studies to all American children is in its toddler stage. We dream of opening many more schools across the country and serving over 10,000 students.
Just imagine: thousands of Americans growing up speaking Hebrew, knowing Israeli writers, singers and TV personalities, and understanding the geography and culture of Israel.
We still do not know where these students will end up in life, what their careers will be like, or how well they will adjust in this world. I very much hope that wherever life takes them, they will take Israel, the education and the strong foundation that they received in their school, and the unforgettable memories of this trip, with them. I hope that when they grow up, they will turn around to anyone with a lack of understanding about Israel, and stand up for our country. I am proud of these children and can’t wait to experience Israel through their eyes.
The writer is founder and chair of Hebrew Public, a national network of US-based Hebrew charter schools. She is also the vice chairwoman of the board of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and serves on the boards of the Areivim Philanthropic Group, OneTable: The Shabbat Project, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.