Guest Column: A different kind of Jewish education

Hebraic publicly funded charter schools might indeed reboot Diaspora Judaism.

0404-guest (photo credit: Bloomberg)
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
When charter public schools began in the US more than a decade ago, proponents were divided as to whether their purpose was efficiency (bang for the buck) or innovation (raising the bar). As American Jewish philanthropists explore investing in this sector - in light of the successful launch of the Ben Gamla Charter School in Florida - they would do well to identify their purpose, and to clarify the Jewish future they aim to propel. The Jewish community has long worried about the rising cost of Jewish education in the United States, where unlike most other countries with Jewish citizens, there is no public support for religious schools. High tuition costs - upward of $25,000 per child per year in New York City, beginning in kindergarten - ensure that, beyond the Orthodox world, where secular school is out of the question, a Jewish education is largely a privilege for the rich. Moreover, as leaders of these ever-financially-strapped Jewish day schools spend so much of their time raising money, they find themselves devoting precious little attention to how they are raising the kids. And so, concerned philanthropists have wondered how to relieve the financial burden on Jewish day schools so that Jewish education in America might be more accessible and more educational. Unable to create a fund that would make Jewish education a birthright, unable to engineer a way for communal future dollars to cover present costs, unable to consolidate and scale operations to reduce the high go-it-alone costs of these schools - 40% of which have fewer than 100 students - Jewish philanthropy has found a way forward. INSTEAD OF private Jewish day schools, how about public Jewish charter schools? And given the tiny matter of America's first amendment, which precludes public financing of religious education, the new pitch is for public Hebraic charter schools. Rather than fitting form to function, this plan fits function to form, remanding Jewish education to the flushest box, the one supported by Uncle Sam. The purpose would appear to be bang for the buck: better to get more Jewish kids a Jewish-style education on the cheap than to figure out how to pay for the best Jewish education. While the 180-day six-hours/day school year of a public charter education is free to the parent-consumers, success is extremely expensive for the educator-producers. Opening a charter public school is no cheaper than opening a private day school. There is precious little public funding for start-up costs. There is no public money for facilities. Taxpayers do not provide computers or furniture. There are no free science labs or gymnasia, playgrounds or parking lots. There is no public money for curriculum development, personnel recruitment, professional development, policy creation or the building of operating systems. LIKE PRIVATE schools, charter schools rely heavily on philanthropy to get started, and depend on continued philanthropic investment if they want in any way to alter the basic public school paradigm. And like all new ventures, charter schools spend significant time learning on the job once they open their doors. But unlike new private schools, public charter schools are held publicly accountable for student achievement. These schools must show concrete quantifiable results almost immediately in order to stay open, and hence face significant public scrutiny even as they are finding their sea legs. Given the huge front-end costs required with no guarantee on investment, and given that Hebraic charter schools must leave traditional Judaism in the (proverbial) parking lot, might Jewish philanthropy be better spent making existing Jewish day schools affordable or exploring how the existing schools could be converted into public entities? And yet, maybe the better rationale for Hebraic charter schools is innovation and not cost. Perhaps these philanthropists worry that the non-Orthodox future in America will be poorly served by the current Jewish educational paradigm. In 10 or 20 years, will non-observant Jewish parents in America continue to pay for a lesser general education just to ensure that their children go to school exclusively with Jews? With the intermarriage rate rising, synagogue membership plummeting, supplementary Hebrew schools flailing and educational innovation flourishing in charter schools in places like East Harlem and the South Bronx, maybe these philanthropists see that they can move beyond the historic preferences of big Jewry and bank on new enterprise. Now that the Jewish people have rejoined the family of nations and American Jewish youngsters grow up taking for granted a place called Israel, maybe these philanthropists are foreseeing a Judaism that is once again focused on Jewish politics and Jewish economics, and not just on Jewish ethics. Maybe in a post-shtetl world, where Jews run all manner of major American institutions, Jewish education should be more public than parochial: preparing Jewish youth, and perhaps their non-Jewish peers, to contribute to a public future in a Jewish way instead of merely preparing our own to reach for a bygone past. PERHAPS HEBRAIC charter schools could prepare the next generation to practice and promote the principles of a Mosaic politics, embodied in the Jewish people's founding civic institutions such as brit mila, Shabbat and shmita, nourished by the topology of a land rich in promise but poor in natural resources, where rain is a gift and not an assumption, and designed to prevent individual and collective regress into the abuse (and allure) of Egyptian strongman rule. Perhaps, 60 years into modern statehood in the ancient Jewish homeland, Jewish education, even in the Diaspora, could once again be civic education, focusing on the Jewish meaning of power, plenty and the future - the core concerns of any sovereign nation governing in its own land or sojourning beyond its borders. Hebraic charter schools might indeed reboot Diaspora Judaism and enable future Jewish leaders to propel a nation which can truly be or l'goyim, a light unto the nations. Such schools could also reinvent the place called school. In an age when technology has revolutionized the meaning of time and place, we need not persist in sending our children to schools designed for a 19th-century agrarian society. In an age when fast food is customized, friendship is digitized and colleagues collaborate in real time across oceans, we no longer need to insist that education consists of one-size-fits-all programs, delivered in siloed classrooms and housed in mere bricks and mortar. When a 212 number rings in Jerusalem, and Jewish children in America rely daily on Israeli-made hi-tech products, we need not regard Jewish education as a here or there - Diaspora or Israeli - proposition. And were innovation to be part of the future of Jewish education in America, forward-looking philanthropists would not need to start from scratch. On the other side of the ocean is a place called Eretz Yisrael, where entrepreneurial educators like Gila Ben-Har, Executive Director of Israel's Center for Educational Technology, Beverly Gribetz, founder and principal of Tehila, a new girls high school in Jerusalem, and Ya'acov Hecht, father of Israel's democratic schools movement, have been trying out new models of Jewish public education for the past 60 years. Perhaps they might be invited to join this exciting conversation about the Jewish future. The writer co-founded one of America's first public charter schools, and now lives in Jerusalem, where her third-grader attends a Jewish public school.