Monday, January 19, 2009

Educating Moshe

Necessity is the mother of invention as the saying goes and it seems as though it is being proven once again. The New York Board of Regents approved a proposal on Monday January 12, 2009 for their first Hebrew Charter school. Actually this initiative co- sponsored by Michael Steinhardt (one of the founders of Taglit Birthright Israel) isn’t the first in the nation. Other Hebrew language charter schools have opened and are thriving.

Its an important achievement because it is the logical progression on the continuum of Jewish education for the 21st century; for two reasons: A Hebrew charter school makes Jewish education affordable and accessible regardless of ones financial status without the stigma of applying scholarship money; and the charter system finally normalizes and mainstreams Jewish education making it the universal right of every Jewish child while integrating this unique educational experience into the comprehensive life of a student.

There will be skeptics who will maintain that the charter system is no substitute for yeshiva education. These nay sayers are mistaken. On a practical level, even before the current economic meltdown paying for Jewish education from kindergarten through high school graduation was terribly painful for most Jewish families, especially those anticipating expensive tuition for college. Over the past decade conservative estimates were that the cost of Jewish education per child ranged between $12000-15000 per annum and roughly an additional $4000.00 for a summer camp experience. Thus the cost per child is conservatively $20000.00. If the average Jewish family has two children the expenditure for a total Jewish educational experience is approximately $40,000.00. That’s not peanuts!!!! In addition let’s not forget the cost of synagogue membership which is roughly $2000. Families were expected to pay these fees in good times and then, it was considered prohibitive. Now that the United States is in a deep recession a significant number of families won’t be able to afford day school tuition.

There is also the growing concern that the education received in many day schools doesn’t justify the outlay – even in good times. More and more families are questioning the quality of the Hebrew curriculum as well as the qualifications of the teachers. Most of the Hebrew teachers are underpaid and for good reason. For the most part they have chosen teaching in day schools as a career of last resort. In too many cases they aren’t qualified or certified and don’t meet the minimum standards set by departments of professional standards. You get what you pay for!!

Developing a Hebrew language charter school will be a great boon to Jewish education. Besides being free it will assure that all teachers hired will be certified, professionally trained with credentials. They will also be professionals who chose teaching as a career; not as a default job by which to supplement the family income. It means that curriculum will have to be meticulously developed, scrutinized by impartial educators without a political / religious bias.

This brings me to the final point. The charter schools will by definition separate religious education from Jewish education. At long last Jewish education will be a rich amalgam of language, history, culture, music, Modern Hebrew literature, Bible, rabbinic texts as well as classic literature. Educating our children in an organized, professional and challenging manner will enrich them and manifestly impact on the tone and quality of our communities. Religious practice will be relegated to the synagogue and home where in tandem they will be able to impart the desired religious values.

Imagine an educational system whereby Moshe is sitting next to Woo Lin studying Talmud or the history of the Spanish Inquisition. I can’t begin to imagine the rich interchange between them!