Hebrew without the religion - Charter school founders insist programs will be secular

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The brains behind the Hebrew-themed charter school proposal offered parents details about the school’s curriculum – and reiterated that religion would not be taught at the school.

“There will not be a drop of religious observance taught in this school,” said Sara Berman, the school’s lead applicant.

Parents expressed concern about the school’s instruction at a public hearing held this week at P.S. 326 on Utica Avenue.

“It’s not a secret that Michael Steinhardt is the main funder,” said Christopher Spinelli, president of District 22’s Community Education Council (CEC). “He’s gone on record saying that Hebrew charter schools would be a cheaper way of strengthening Jewish identity.”

“It says very specifically that we’re targeting this for a specific purpose,” he continued.

Berman said that Steinhardt – who is her father and an owner of the New York Sun, which opposed the opening of an Arabic-themed school -- “had nothing to do with the planning of the curriculum. He’s had nothing to do with anything other than agreeing to fund a part of the school.”

Berman insisted that religion would not be taught at the school if it is approved by the city Department of Education (DOE) and the state Board of Regents.

Students would study the “history of the world Jewish community as it relates to the Hebrew language,” Berman said.

“All four subjects in our school will be taught in English,” she said.

The school would teach a standard social studies curriculum but “it just has little pieces woven into it – really a very small percentage – that relate to the Hebrew language,” Berman said.

There will be “one hour of Hebrew instruction each day.”

Berman said Hebrew would also be incorporated into other subjects, like art and gym, as students work to become fluent in Hebrew by graduation.

Students would participate in community service, such as delivering meals to homebound elderly residents.

Berman said she and her design team have consulted the “finest constitutional lawyers” to ensure that the school will abide by separation of church and state.

In keeping with that, there are currently no plans for the charter school to maintain a kosher kitchen. However, Berman said the school would try to make accommodations “if there’s a specific demand from the parents for kosher food or Halal food.”

Parents at the public hearing challenged the idea of a dual-language, cultural-themed school.

“When we start setting up little enclaves…we diminish the public school system,” said Dorothy Giglio, whose youngest child is graduating from Madison High School.

“Diversity is teaching all cultures. I find it odd that you’d find diversity by teaching one culture,” said Diane Kelly, parent of a P.S. 222 student.

Noting, “I happen to be Jewish,” Michael Benjamin, first vice president of District 22’s CEC, said, “Religion and culture should be taught at home.”

“History and global studies courses should focus on the cultures and ways of many groups,” Benjamin added.

Comments about the Hebrew-themed charter school proposal can be emailed to

Updated 3:45 pm, October 19, 2011
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