Sela, a Hebrew language charter school, will strengthen D.C. Jewish community

April 24, 2012

The author is a contributor to The Washington Post's faith leader network. 

A Hebrew language public charter school (pre-K through fifth grade) called Sela Public Charter School has recently been granted a conditional charter to open in the District of Columbia. 

As a rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in the District who is not connected to Sela in any meaningful way, I want to congratulate the founders of this school for their important work on this project and to offer some reflections on what this charter school might mean for Jews in the District.

First, we should be clear that this school is a Hebrew language school and it is not in any way a Jewish or a religious school.  Although some might roll their eyes and say that a Hebrew language public school is just a back door around the heavy tuition costs of a private Jewish Day School, in this case and in our city that is certainly not true.  The school will not be religious and it will not be Jewish.  If the school operators do that, then they will lose their charter. 

That being said, from my rabbinic perspective, a Hebrew language secular school is a very good thing for the Jewish and non-Jewish residents of the District.

The Jewish children who attend the school will learn Hebrew.  If they then decide to supplement their Hebrew education with a religious school or an intense synagogue experience, they will have a much easier time. 

Before becoming a rabbi, I taught in a synagogue Hebrew School for eight years.  The most difficult thing to teach in Hebrew School is Hebrew.  It is technical and often complicated to teach.  If a child comes to school already knowing Hebrew language then the after-school experience will be much easier to supplement.  Instead of focusing on language skills, which can be challenging for even the most gifted teacher, the after-school experience can now focus on spirituality and the joy of Judaism.

Furthermore, as the population of the state of Israel continues to grow, now more than ever, knowledge of Hebrew language is necessary for Jews to feel connected to the future of the Jewish people.  Learning Hebrew as a young child will enable these students to connect to people of the land of Israel while also laying the groundwork for an intense religious education if they should so desire. 

Just as it makes sense for Jewish parents to want their children to have a strong Hebrew language background, so too it makes perfect sense for the general population of parents to have a desire for their children to learn Hebrew. 

Many people study the classical languages of Greek and Latin for a variety of reasons.  I know I studied those languages because of my love for languages and my desire to read beautiful ancient literature in its original form.  The Hebrew language also has a rich literature and history associated with it.  Moreover, it is in my opinion a much easier language to master, and unlike those other languages, it is a living and dynamic language which is of far more practical use.  

Since Israel is a growing and thriving economy, it makes sense that a parent would want their child to be able to learn a language that will better help them integrate into Israeli society.

Jewish Day Schools might object that a Hebrew language charter school might draw some students away from their school and thereby cut into their already very tight budgets.

This may be true in the short run.  But in the long run, more Jewish children learning Hebrew will translate into a stronger Jewish community, and a stronger Jewish community will eventually translate into stronger Jewish Day Schools.

Finally, from a rabbinic perspective, I want to encourage Sela’s future families to also consider a spiritual supplement to their children’s education.  By definition, a charter school is not legally permitted to teach spiritual Judaism or any other religion.  So parents interested in a Jewish education will have to figure out on their own how to bridge that important gap.  It can be done, but only with a sustained and conscious effort on the part of parents.

Shmuel Herzfeld is a rabbi at Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue, in the District and author of “Fifty-Four Pickup: Fifteen-Minute Inspirational Torah Lessons.”

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