A not-quite-single-file line snakes through a hallway adorned with artwork and class assignments. Flags and streamers dangle from the ceiling. A teacher attempts to calm a sobbing 9-year-old boy. Soon groups of kids will file into classrooms, take their seats, and, when prompted, greet their instructors: “Boker tov!”
Inside the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, the trappings are colorful and slightly worn, the bustle is familiar, and the instruction, depending on the class and the hour, sounds positively ancient.
For now, this public school in Brooklyn, N.Y.—one that teaches Hebrew, explores Israeli culture, and is even adorned with Israeli flags—is a relative rarity in the wooly, experimental world of American charter-school education. But it provides a scholastic environment that’s about to become familiar to some 110 public school students in the District, once a similar building, Sela Public Charter School, opens on August 19 in the city’s Lamond Riggs neighborhood, near Takoma.
In its first year, Sela plans to enroll students from across the District in prekindergarten, kindergarten, and first grade. In the 31,000-square-foot red brick elementary school, a former warehouse and high school, every classroom has an accent wall that matches the red, orange, or teal of the school’s slick logo. By its fifth year, Sela’s leaders intend to expand to fifth grade, and as many as 600 students will walk through the building’s red classroom doors each day.
At Sela, whose name is Hebrew for rock or foundation, school days will alternate between Hebrew and English. In math, for example, students will learn how to add and subtract in English one day, and the next day they’ll pick up where they left off in Hebrew.
Language immersion programs aren’t new to the District. Sela is similar to the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School near Fort Totten, whose Chinese language immersion program also follows the alternating-day model. At least a dozen schools—both charter schools and traditional schools in the D.C. Public Schools system—offer Spanish language programs, including Brookland’s Elsie Whitlow Stokes Public Charter School, which offers both French and Spanish immersion.
Sela’s advocates tout the benefits of learning a second language at a young age and insist the Hebrew school will be as popular as the language immersion programs that preceded it, many of which have waitlists thousands of students long.
But unlike immersion programs in Chinese, Spanish, and French, Hebrew charter schools—a growing trend nationwide—are often accused of being backdoor channels for funneling public funds into religion. Although as a public school, Sela has limited ties to the Washington Jewish community, Sela could still be perceived as a Jewish school because of the Hebrew lettering on the front of the building and the curriculum’s emphasis on what life is like in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa.
Also unlike the city’s existing immersion schools, Sela will teach a language spoken primarily in Israel, whose population is smaller than that of New Jersey—a language that Sela’s non-Jewish students are likely to never use unless they work in or with people from Israel.
Add to these hurdles the worry among some traditional Jewish educators that Hebrew immersion charters offer a free, watered-down alternative to Jewish day schools—that, to borrow the idiomatic kvetch, Sela Public Charter School is bad for the Jews.
As one of the school’s founders admits, Sela is an experiment, and a pretty risky one. In order to believe that Sela will provide a strong foundation for their children, families from across the District will have to rely on one thing a public charter school can’t offer: faith.
Jason Lody, the executive director of Sela, speaks Spanish and a little Greek, but no Hebrew. He has never been to Israel.
Illustration by Jandos Rothstein
To his experiment in language immersion, the 38-year-old Lody brings an unusual resume: He is an ordained priest with an independent Catholic parish (which is not aligned with the Roman Catholic Church) in Northern Virginia. He is also a former D.C. police officer, as well as one of the founders of and a former principal at the Capital City Public Charter school. Earlier this year he made an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the town council of Cheverly, Md., where he has lived with his partner since 2007.
Despite his brief foray into politics, Lody says education reform is his passion. But he seems to approach the job with the dilettantism his background might suggest. When families ask Lody why Hebrew is the best choice for their children, Lody’s answer is, “Well, why not?”
From a neurological perspective, at least, learning Hebrew at a young age isn’t a total shot in the dark. A wide array of research shows that learning any second language aids a child’s cognitive development. “The more languages you learn, the more languages you can learn and the easier it becomes,” says Arleen Danon, director of Hebrew curriculum and instruction at the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in New York.
That was one of the reasons Kristin Mandel and her husband wanted to send their daughter to a language immersion program, either for Chinese at Yu Ying Public Charter School or Hebrew at Sela—a “hard language,” Mandel explains.
Mandel, whose daughter, Maia, will be in pre-K at Sela, calls Hebrew “a gateway language,” a foundation from which Maia can one day also learn Arabic. The school’s leadership agrees and hopes to begin offering Arabic when students reach third grade in two years.
Hebrew can also be a gateway to an international career, Lody says, making a sales pitch that might appeal to Washington parents who dream of raising not merely doctors and lawyers but the ambassador to the United Nations or the CEO of an international technology firm.
“When you take a look at Israel and its location on the NASDAQ, next to the U.S, it’s the most represented on the NASDAQ,” says Lody. “When we want our 5-year-olds and 6-year-olds now to be competitive when they are 21 years old, they need to have a head start in looking at where stuff of the future is happening and for us and what history is showing, Israel is where it’s happening.”
Indeed, for many parents, a seat at a language immersion program like Sela is, well, a career move.
Quinta Jackson, whose son Quinton will be in pre-K at Sela, says she’s excited for him to learn this “important business language.” Quinton was waitlisted at their other top choice, Yu Ying, where he would have learned Chinese. He already speaks French, which he has been studying at the private Language Stars program in Alexandria since he was 18 months old.
Hebrew fluency will be one way for Quinton to set himself apart professionally, since a relatively small number of Americans speak the language, Jackson says. She has high hopes for her son’s career, too. “I’ve told him he can be any kind of doctor he wants to be,” she jokes.
Speaking multiple languages—not just two but three, four, or five—is becoming more necessary as the world gets smaller, says Bill Jaffe, a Takoma resident whose two children, Hannah and Ezekiel, will be in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten at Sela. “I want my kids to know Hebrew. I want them to know Arabic. I want them to know Spanish and English.”
The ability to speak Hebrew holds obvious benefits for practicing Jews like Jaffe and his wife, Jessica Lieberman, one of Sela’s founders and a member of the school’s board of directors.
Though the primary goals of creating Sela were to expand language offerings in the city and to create a high-quality educational option, Lieberman liked the idea that her children would be able to relate better to Israel and to Judaism. She wants her children to have the option of being literate in Hebrew, she says. What they do with the language when they’re older—whether they use it as a springboard to learn other languages, use it in a secular context for work, or use Hebrew to study religious texts—is entirely up to them.
When the group that included Lieberman and Sela Board of Directors Chair Bryce Jacobs began meeting about creating a Hebrew charter school roughly three years ago, they wanted to use this connection to Judaism to reach a demographic that tends to shirk public education in the city: upper-middle-class Jews.
The result would be—and so far is—a more diverse school than even many of the other charters that draw from all corners of the city, says Jacobs. The dual missions of establishing an academically rigorous school with a diverse student population and offering Hebrew immersion made a charter school an obvious choice.
Established in the District in 1995 by Congress, charter schools are often promoted by advocates as a way to reinvigorate urban public education with fresh ideas. Unlike traditional public schools, charters are given significant leeway to experiment with new models, assuming operators can convince the D.C. Public Charter School Board to approve them.
Since charters accept students from across the city, the best-performing schools have become increasingly competitive to attend in recent years. Language immersion programs like Yu Ying and Elsie Whitlow Stokes have particularly long waitlists, a fact that Sela’s leaders and families of Sela students both point to knowingly.
Sela still has available seats, but only because the school added an extra pre-K class beyond the initial plan, Lody says. He expects it’ll soon be one of D.C. charter education’s hottest tickets.
“The feeling among parents is that Sela is going to be a very successful school that is in high demand because of the way that we’ve been operating thus far—the plan, the goal, the resources, the successes we’ve had up to this point—and that’s why families are taking that risk in going into a first-year charter,” Lody says. “The fear that some families have—and I think it’s a justifiable fear, when you look at Capital City around the corner, if you look at Yu Ying, or [Latin American Montessori Bilingual] even—if you don’t get in when your child is 3 and you wait for a year, you might lose that chance.”
Sela and its Brooklyn cousin aren’t the only Hebrew charter schools in the U.S. Both are affiliated with the New York nonprofit Hebrew Charter School Center, as are Hatikvah International Academy in East Brunswick, N.J., and Kavod Elementary Charter School in San Diego. This fall, the center-affiliated Lashon Academy Charter School in Los Angeles will also open. (There are others, like the Ben Gamla Charter School, which has four locations in Florida, that are not affiliated with the Hebrew Charter School Center.)
The Hebrew Charter School Center has helped each of its schools with start-up funding (Sela received $85,000 in grants from the center), find and hire teachers, and develop a curriculum that uses real-world scenarios to teach about life in Israel, says Aaron Listhaus, the center’s executive director. Since neither Lody nor Sela Principal Wanda Young speaks Hebrew, the center has helped the school screen Hebrew-speaking teacher candidates.
Illustration by Jandos Rothstein
Sela’s leaders have looked for guidance from some of the other schools in the center’s network, particularly the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, or HLA, and Hatikvah International Academy. In April, Lody and Young visited HLA and Hatikvah to see how the schools operate and chat with their administrators.
The advice they received could be crucial. When HLA opened in 2009 and Hatikvah in 2010, they faced skepticism their fellow Hebrew charters have also had to confront, particularly the worry that the schools would be religious institutions masquerading as public ones.
Like Sela, HLA offers a Hebrew immersion program and a focus on Israeli culture. Beginning with kindergarten, the youngest grade offered, students take classes simultaneously in Hebrew and English. “So the general studies teacher says, ‘Good morning, everybody!’ and the Hebrew teacher says, ‘Boker tov!’” explains Head of School Laura Silver.
While HLA and Sela both teach every subject in both Hebrew and English, Lody says his school will be the first Hebrew charter in the country to alternate between Hebrew and English days.
Sela will incorporate the same social studies curriculum—the one created by the Hebrew Charter School Center—that HLA uses. The program centers on the fictional Ha’Olam Street (ha’olam means “the world” in Hebrew) to teach students about life in Israel. “On this imaginary street there are imaginary families, and the imaginary families come from all sorts of different places and have different issues…One family might have immigrated from Ethiopia. One family might have come to Israel through Holocaust,” says Silver. “It is through learning about these families and the personalities of the characters that we learn about big ideas in social studies.”
All of the families featured in the curriculum are Jewish. But Lody calls this a “technicality.”
“Israeli culture is heavily influenced by Jewish life,” Lody says when asked why people of other religions are not represented. “I think that’s actually a plus for us because it will expose our students to a culture that they might not be familiar with.”
At Sela, Lody hopes to supplement this curriculum with a sister school in Israel. Sela students would be able to Skype with their peers at a school, perhaps in Haifa or another “traditional city.”
Despite initial trepidation among local school officials in New York and pushback from some in the local Jewish community, HLA seems to have proven that the model works.
After two weeks, a kindergarten student with no previous exposure to Hebrew begins to understand the language, and it’s not long before kindergarteners can carry on full conversations in Hebrew, according to Silver.
The school outperformed its district in both reading and math on New York state standardized tests last year, the first year the school administered them, according to Silver.
Gaining a seat at HLA has proven competitive. The school had roughly 370 applicants for 75 kindergarten spots this year.
“There are many parents who really want their children to know Hebrew,” Silver says. For the area’s sizable population of Russian Jews, a group that includes many less-observant Jews, Hebrew is a way to maintain a connection with their faith. “So maybe they don’t want to send their child to a Jewish day school, but they want their child to know Hebrew, and they want their child to know Israel.”
Even so, except for serving kosher meals (which Sela will not offer, largely for logistical reasons) and the social studies focus, HLA operates much like any other public school in New York.
Illustration by Jandos Rothstein
Lody expects only about 10 percent of the students at Sela to be Jewish, though like HLA, the school does not ask for religious affiliation.
In fact, Lody and the school’s board members expect Sela to be very diverse, with students coming from every ward of the District. The school’s exact demographic breakdown won’t be available until later this month.
Despite the success of Hebrew language charters in other cities, Jacobs says that at first she was nervous that the school would have trouble attracting the diversity she and the other founders sought—that non-Jews would steer clear.
Then again, she was also worried that no one would show up at all.
“I guess in general I was worried just thinking about kids in general coming to the school, right?” Jacobs recalls. “It’s a brand-new school. Who’s going to come?”
The Bible never commands Jews to learn Hebrew, says Shmuel Herzfeld, the rabbi at Ohev Sholom, an Orthodox synagogue in Northwest Washington that touts itself as “The National Synagogue.” Rather, learning Hebrew is a “prerequisite” that enables Jews to study the Bible in its intended language.
“My Greek and Latin teacher told me in college that reading the works in translation is like kissing your wife through a wedding veil,” Herzfeld says. “I mean, you lose so much.”
With tuition costs at Jewish day schools rising beyond what many families can afford, Hebrew public charter schools are becoming increasingly attractive alternatives for observant Jews who would prefer to send their kids to day schools but will settle for nonreligious Hebrew instruction, Herzfeld says.
Still, a school that teaches Hebrew outside of a religious context does not serve the same purpose as a religious school, Herzfeld says. While teaching children and adults to read Hebrew is one of Jewish educators’ greatest challenges, a secular program does not provide the spiritual and religious guidance of a Jewish day school.
For this reason, Naomi Reem, head of school at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital, or JPDS, says she isn’t any more concerned about new competition from Sela than she is about competition from the hundreds of other public and private schools in the area. She says she doesn’t know of any students or any teachers leaving the private school for Sela this year, and she doesn’t expect to see much attrition to Sela in the future.
“People don’t come to us because they want their kids to learn Hebrew. They come to us because they want Jewish day school education for their kids, which is much broader than learning Hebrew,” Reem says.
When the Public Charter School Board approved Sela, it made very clear that the school was focused on language instruction, not religious instruction, says board Vice President Darren Woodruff: “We’re not anticipating any problems or confusion with this being somehow a religious school. That’s not what it’s intended to be.”
The Hebrew Charter School Center also places a strong emphasis on ensuring that its affiliated schools remain entirely secular. “We adhere very, very strictly to the separation of church and state,” says Listhaus.
Though Listhaus understands why people might question Sela’s secular nature before it opens, he says these questions will be cleared up when school starts. “There’s no religious artifacts in the school,” he says. “There’s no religious instruction in the school in any way.”
Not everyone sees things so clearly.
Shortly after the Ben Gamla Charter School opened in 2007 in Broward County, Fla., the county school board rejected three different Hebrew curriculum proposals because they relied on religious sources. In addition to teaching Hebrew, the public charter school teaches about Israeli culture, like HLA and Sela. The hurdle that Ben Gamla ran into was that Israeli culture is difficult to teach without mentioning anything related to Judaism.
It is likewise tough to separate the Hebrew language from the religion, says Daniel Schwartz, an expert in modern Jewish history at George Washington University: “It’s hard to do simply because the language has a history, and that history is moored in a religious tradition.”
The First Amendment allows a public school to teach about a religion, as long as the school does not promote the beliefs of that religion, explains Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum. There’s a fine line between teaching about the Jewish aspects of Israeli culture and promoting the religion. “They can teach about Judaism. They can teach about religious views in Israel,” Haynes says. “But they can’t teach kids that God ordained Israel.”
At HLA, teachers take great care to stay on the right side of the First Amendment. While they teach about Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, they do it in the same manner that they teach about the Chinese New Year, explains Silver. “We do not say, ‘When Rosh Hashanah comes or Yom Kippur comes, these are the prayers we say. This is what we believe.’”
Lody offers a similar description of the plan at Sela. His school will highlight in the social studies curriculum those Jewish traditions that are ingrained in Israel’s culture in the same way that it might highlight Christian holidays ingrained in the United States’ culture.
“We can’t sterilize a culture to totally remove religion and politics because the origins of those communities many times are driven by faith experiences [and] political beliefs,” Lody says. “There is an aspect of the Hebrew language that is religious in nature, and you can still communicate and teach a language and have a student acquire a language without introducing those religious aspects to it. There is part of Israeli culture that the day to day life is surrounded by the religious observance, but you can still live in Israel and not be an observant Jew.”
Though the school may be successful in leaving religion at the door, it will be harder to escape public perception.
Reem says she is frequently asked about the relationship between JPDS and Sela. Each time, she adamantly denies that any such relationship exists.
Leaders in the Jewish community have also been quick to distance themselves from Sela. In Washington Jewish Week in February 2012, Barry Freundel, rabbi at Kesher Israel in Georgetown and vice president of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington, distinguished between a Hebrew charter school like Sela and a Jewish school. “For those people who think that they are getting a ‘day school-lite’ education but saving some $20,000 a year for tuition, they are sadly mistaken,” Freundel wrote. “Studying Hebrew and some Israeli cultural [sic] and traditions is just not going to accomplish the same thing [as day school]. It would be truly sad if people fooled themselves into thinking that it will.”
Sela used Herzfeld’s synagogue for a meeting in May, and members of his congregation had discussions about starting a Hebrew charter school a few years ago. Lieberman, who was one of Sela’s founders and sits on the school’s board of directors, is also a member of the congregation. However, Herzfeld says he didn’t provide any guidance on the issue and his synagogue was never officially involved.
The DCJCC will provide afterschool activities for Sela students, both Judaism-focused enrichment classes and nonreligious activities like swimming, karate, art, and drama, says Director of Youth and Family Programs Bini Silver. The DCJCC has offered similar options to students at other public schools in the city, including Yu Ying.
That programming is the extent of the DCJCC’s official involvement with the school, say Silver and DCJCC CEO Carole Zawatsky.
Still, both Herzfeld and Zawatsky praise Sela as a positive development for the city and specifically for the Washington Jewish community. “From the perspective of a person who loves the Bible, who loves the Hebrew language, and spends his days immersed in the Hebrew language, the more people that know the Hebrew language, the better,” Herzfeld says.
On May 21, the day Lody moves into his new office at Sela, he only has one pen. The classrooms are empty—some haven’t even been designated purposes yet—and the phones are in boxes.
In fact, Lody and his staff don’t even have a key to the building, so they prop open the door to avoid being locked out. Lody nails a temporary banner displaying the school’s logo to the red brick wall. The permanent sign is installed in July.
But this day is the first time Lody gets to welcome parents into the building, meaning the school is another step closer to opening day.
“This is the exciting part,” Lody says. “You’re building it. It’s like when you go apartment shopping or house shopping, you have to see past the ugly carpet, or you have to see past the colors on the wall and see the future and see what that space will become. We have to get parents there because when some of them walk in, they expect to see a school, just ready for kids. We will be ready for kids, but right now we need to get ready for ourselves.”
Lody’s vision extends beyond the location of the “cafe-gym-itorium,” the combined cafeteria, gym and auditorium, and the “imaginarium,” an indoor play space with padded walls.
To some outsiders, Sela’s experiment may seem too close to being religious, while observant Jews may not think the school is religious enough. Some in the religious camp worry that Jews will turn to the public school as a free alternative to day school.
Advocates for the charter school movement, for school choice, and for more experimental learning models laud Sela as it joins a growing field of public schools that shirk the notion of single-language instruction. The school’s founders hope Sela will promote a return to public education by offering another option to parents flummoxed by crowded waitlists at the few high-performing schools. They see the school helping to push the city forward from an era when all students in the District attended traditional D.C. public schools—or abandoned public education—into the not too distant future when roughly half of all public school students are in charters.
But to Lody, Sela has a mission that’s larger than the uncomfortable channels it navigates: being a school where students learn the impact that a country halfway across the globe has on their lives in the District.
“I had students in [the Capital City Public Charter School]—eighth graders who had lived their whole lives in Washington, D.C., but had never ever gone down to the Mall, had never been to the Smithsonian or only on field trips,” Lody says. “A student who can see the Capitol from their home or from their apartment window but has never really been there does not have a perspective beyond that dome because they’re not experiencing their local community, so that means they’re not learning about and experiencing the global community. And schools have —in my opinion —they have an obligation to expose a culture that is greater than the one the child currently experiences in their own homes, because we are greater than ourselves.”