For Now, Hebrew Charter School Is ‘Sababa’


Yaron Gal-Zur might as well be a rock star, as far as his adoring first-graders are concerned.

Singing “Bo nireh mi yoshev yafeh,” Hebrew for “come, let’s see who is sitting nicely,” he ushers his blue-and-white clad brood from their round tables and brand-new blue chairs to a rug and asks them, in Hebrew, how they are.

“Sababa!” they yell out enthusiastically, Hebrew slang for awesome. Although the class is large, with 27 students, all eyes are on the youthful and shaggy-haired Gal-Zur. When he asks whether “yesh” (there is) or “eyn” (there isn’t) sun today, several children call out, with perfect Sabra accents, “Yesh!”

An Israeli classroom? Fuhgeddaboutit — this is Brooklyn. And we’re not talking day school or yeshiva;
at least 40 percent of Gal-Zur’s students aren’t even Jewish.

Welcome — or, perhaps one should say baruch haba — to the newly opened Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, a pioneer in a very fledgling educational movement. The first-ever school of its kind in New York City, HLA is only the second Hebrew-language charter school in the United States. The first, the Ben-Gamla Academy, opened two years ago in Hollywood, Fla. A third, proposed in East Brunswick, N.J., had its application approved last month and is expected to open next fall.

Despite questions about church-state separation issues and potential adverse impact on neighboring Jewish day schools, HLA, which is publicly funded but has also received start-up funds from the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and other foundations, is managing to steer clear of controversy.
With only six weeks under its belt (classes began two weeks before the public schools), it is way too early too declare whether HLA — and the Hebrew charter model — is a success. As the school grows, it may become more difficult to maintain the sense of intimacy and enthusiasm among the parents and faculty. And as the children grow older, and issues like anti-Semitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict emerge in the curriculum, diversity and separation of church and state may become more difficult to manage.

But for now, students seem excited and happy — and are absorbing their new language faster than either the teachers or parents had expected. Meanwhile, parents are singing the praises of Principal Maureen Campbell and her faculty.

“My kid comes home and he’s just running to do his homework,” says Leah Amir of Sheepshead Bay, whose son Zachary is in kindergarten at HLA. “He’s coming home happy.”

A public schoolteacher, Amir is Jewish but speaks no Hebrew, and her husband, David, was born in Israel but mostly speaks English now.

Zachary has already taught his 2-year-old sister to count to three in Hebrew. And at a recent family event when everyone was being noisy, Amir said Zachary “yelled out ‘takshivu, takshivu,’” Hebrew for listen.
Now, Zachary is eagerly awaiting a visit from his Israeli relatives, so he can practice his new skills on them.

Elizabeth Cole, an African-American parent who lives in Flatbush, is also thrilled with the new language her son Jason, a first-grader, is mastering.

“Later in life it’s going to be able to open up more doors,” she notes, adding, “A lot of times now when you go for a job interview they’re asking you to be bilingual.”

A nurse technician at Mount Sinai Hospital, Cole says she’s learning a little herself from supervising Jason’s homework. A few days ago, she surprised an Israeli patient at the hospital by greeting him with the Hebrew expression for good morning.
HLA uses a Hebrew proficiency model developed by a new group called Hebrew At The Center, which piloted the method at Boston’s Jewish Community Day School. The Hebrew teachers, who rely on a lot of body language and visual aids, adhere to a strict Hebrew-only policy.

The method can be seen in Michal Urieli’s first grade class. When students address her in English, the slender, perpetually smiling, soft-spoken teacher — who was raised bilingual in Hebrew and English — responds with “mah zeh?” (what is this?), or says in Hebrew that she does not know that word, offering the Hebrew word or phrase instead.

While no religion is taught at HLA, children learn about Jewish history and culture, through a social studies curriculum that focuses on world Jewish communities and Israel.

HLA teachers say they do teach about Jewish holidays, but in a “universal” way.

“We are finding ways to do it that don’t negate Judaism or exclude other religions,” Urieli says.
HLA’s 160 students (adding a grade each year, the school eventually expects to enroll approximately 450) have an hour-long Hebrew class each morning, speak the language while eating breakfast and lunch and have it incorporated into music and gym classes.

Gym teacher Qayyim Shabazz, a tall, muscular, black Muslim whose students know him as “Mr. Q,” has even invented a new game called “Fishy, Fishy, Dag, Dag” (dag is Hebrew for fish) to help reinforce Hebrew vocabulary.

On a recent Monday morning Mr. Q has his kindergarteners circling the large basement gym as he booms out in Hebrew “Run!” “Stop!” “Quiet!” and “Slow!”

Shabazz, who also speaks some Spanish and Arabic, has picked up all his Hebrew on the job, getting help from his colleagues.

Teacher learning is a huge value at HLA, where the faculty participates in daily professional development sessions. “We call it adult learning,” explains Principal Campbell. “Once they feel like they know it all, then I’ve lost the battle.”

Campbell, who does not speak Hebrew but is planning to learn, routinely comes in at 6 a.m. and leaves at 8 p.m. (School is in session from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and many of the children go to the Kings Bay YM-YWHA afterwards, which has an after-school program specifically for HLA students, with native Hebrew speakers offering homework assistance.)

A veteran of numerous public schools, Campbell “runs a tight ship” as Sara Berman, HLA’s president and the daughter of philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, approvingly puts it.

On a recent Monday morning, Campbell spots a member of the office staff walking through the hallway with a cup of boiling hot tea. She immediately stops her, saying, “I don’t want you to accidentally bump into one of the children and spill hot water on them.”
It has not been all smooth sailing for HLA.
Housed in space rented from the Zvi Dov Roth Academy of Yeshiva Rambam on Kings Highway, the charter school was homeless until a month before opening. Plans to use space in a public middle school in Marine Park fell through in the face of virulent community opposition.

While the HLA students have no contact with the yeshiva, the current location is not ideal for a school that some suspect is a stealth religious institution.

Making matters worse, HLA has not been able to use the auditorium its lease entitles it to because the yeshiva has been unable, so far, to evict the Orthodox synagogue that occupies the space. Although that synagogue has no lease, its rabbi has publicly insisted he will not leave without a fight and has criticized the yeshiva for leasing most of the building to a secular, rather than Jewish, institution.
The school also has had some minor personnel bumps: firing a Hebrew teacher the first day of school (a replacement was found within a day) and not being able to find a music teacher.
The setbacks haven’t fazed Berman.

“I’d rather have a vacancy than not have the right teacher,” she says.

As for the auditorium, “I’d love to have the parent meeting there, but we’ll have it in a classroom,” she says.

While it remains to be seen how the charter school will affect nearby Jewish day schools over the long term, about 10 first graders have transferred there from the East Midwood Hebrew Day School, a Conservative school about a mile away.

“There are a number of parents that have children here as well as in the charter school,” says Eugene Miller, East Midwood’s executive director. “When I last spoke to them, they were still waiting and seeing how things go … It’s still somewhat fluid. I don’t know if parents are going to return or not. A number have said that in the early grades [the charter school] is OK, but then they’d bring their kids back here.”
Despite the new competition, Miller says enrollment at his school, while small, is doing fine. He notes that whereas initially he heard comments from parents like “there’s this public yeshiva that’s free,” people are now “becoming clearer and clearer that the charter school is a very different kind of school than us.”

Many Jewish parents at HLA said they never seriously considered a day school.
“Before we had kids, my husband said he would only want a yeshiva,” Amir says. “But he’s Conservative, I’m Reform and a yeshiva would be Orthodox. And very, very expensive. It was not something I wanted and we never looked into it, because once we heard about this option, we said let’s check this out.”
Irina Olevsky, an attorney, says that while her oldest child is in Hebrew school at a Conservative synagogue, she probably won’t send her son Eli, a kindergartener at HLA, except possibly right before his bar mitzvah.

“He’s getting everything I want from this school,” explains Olevsky, who lives in Mill Basin. “I’m not looking to have [my children] be religious to the point of knowing the prayers. That’s not important for me. Just knowing what their background is and what it is to be Jewish.”
Because HLA is not allowed to ask its students their religion, no one knows exactly what percentage of the student body is Jewish.

“All we know for sure is that the school is 60 percent white,” says Dan Gerstein, an HLA spokesman. “You can reasonably assume some are not Jewish, but there’s no way to tell how large that percentage is.”

A handful of children wear yarmulkes, and about one-fourth have at least one Israeli parent. While all the Hebrew teachers are white and Jewish (a mix of Israelis and Americans), the general studies teachers come from a range of ethnic backgrounds; several teachers, along with Campbell and the director of general studies, are African-American.

Picked solely on a lottery basis, the student body includes some special-needs children, as well as ones who came in with behavior problems and other special challenges.
One child, raised by Russian-speaking grandparents, came in with “zero English,” according to Campbell. Another comes from rural Jamaica and had never been in a school environment before starting at HLA.

When HLA teachers and parents talk about the school, “diversity” is the most frequently used word.
It is “one of the exceptional things” about HLA says Elana Weinberg, one of the kindergarten Hebrew teachers.

“I love the fact that [HLA students are] diverse,” says Nitzan Graham, a kindergarten Hebrew teacher who is originally from Israel and says she enjoys having the “opportunity to step outside of your comfort zone.”
Cole, who immigrated to New York from the Bahamas at age 8, contrasts HLA to the “predominantly African-American” school where her son attended kindergarten. “Here, everyone is from everywhere,” she says. “That’s what I always wanted: a mix.”

Olevsky, who emigrated from Ukraine at age 11, says the diversity “is wonderful. I wouldn’t want to put my child only with white children or Jewish children.”

The level of racial integration is unusual in a school district that has several overwhelmingly black public schools and others that are largely white. Olevsky reports that another Jewish family she knows pulled their child out because they “felt there were too many black children in the classroom.”

Michal Urieli’s first graders are crowded in a circle in a narrow alcove off the main classroom, some sitting on cushions, others on desk chairs, the rug and little red couches.

She takes attendance by passing out slips of paper with each child’s name on it in Hebrew.
“Ani kaan,” I’m here, volunteers a tall black girl, her ponytail tied neatly with a white bow.

One by one, Urieli has each child say in Hebrew, “The color I like most is …”, and they create a bar graph on the wall to see which is the most popular.

The tie between blue and red is broken when Hebrew Director Ron Azoulay, who Urieli calls “Mr. Ron,” comes in and votes for blue, spurring the blue fans to yell out “Yay!”

Then Ureli brings out a small electric keyboard and leads the class in a now familiar tune, Arik Einstein’s “Ani V’Atah.”

“You and I, we will change the world,” several children continue singing to themselves in Hebrew, as they move to another part of the classroom for the next activity.