Can a Hebrew charter school teach the language but not the faith?

Washington - What’s one way to ensure that a new Hebrew-immersion public charter school isn’t a Jewish school? Hire a priest to run it.

Sela, which means “rock” or “foundation” in Hebrew, opens in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 19. As a public school, Sela may not teach or show preference to any religion. But the intimate connection between Hebrew and Judaism makes some people wonder whether the separation is truly possible.

The question is not just for Sela, but for the dozen or so other public Hebrew charter schools from Brooklyn, N.Y., to San Diego that have started since the first one opened in Florida in 2007. And more Hebrew language charters are in the design stage.

Making things even more complicated is Hebrew’s ties not only to Judaism but to Israel. When the Sela staff began naming classrooms for major cities in Israel this summer, the school’s executive director, Jason Lody, said there would be no class named after the disputed capital of Jerusalem.

“We want to be a public school of excellence,” Lody said. “We don’t want to be sidetracked by political conversations that don’t focus on getting our 4-year-olds ready for kindergarten.”

Lody knows something about keeping religion out of public schools. A former cop and now a priest at the independent St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in suburban Virginia, Lody was tasked with transforming seven Catholic schools run by the Archdiocese of Washington into religion-free public charter schools.

“They were all Catholic schools on Friday and on (the next) Monday they were public schools,” said Lody, who holds a doctorate in education. “There were holes in the wall where the crucifixes had been.”

As a public school, Sela can’t ask students about their religion, but Lody estimates that only about 20 percent of the school’s 120 students will be Jewish, and more than half will be African-American.

Sela sits in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, and its principal, Wanda Young, is a veteran of Baltimore’s public schools and an African-American woman. Like Lody, she is not Jewish, does not speak Hebrew and has never been to Israel.

“Parents like the diversity” of Sela, said Young from her office at the school, which occupies a two-story former public charter high school. An Israeli flag decorates the wall behind her desk. “I’ve never had a parent ask about the Jewish part at all.”

Sela officials are working hard to counter perceptions that the school has a Jewish character — and to stress its diversity.

Lody notes that a Muslim family has signed their child up for Sela, and that the school will teach Arabic starting in the third grade. He won’t allow the Torah — the Hebrew Bible — to be brought into the school to teach Hebrew, and he noted that only one of four members of the school’s leadership team is Jewish.

Lody says support for Sela has greatly outweighed skepticism, and the speed at which his class rosters have been filling up is heartening. He’s read some “borderline anti-Semitic” remarks in online discussions of the school.

But nothing about Sela’s reception approaches the level of vitriol suffered by the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a public Arabic language school that opened in Brooklyn in 2007 to cries that it would be a hotbed of Muslim extremism.

“They hijacked the narrative of the school by calling it a madrassa,” said Debbie Almontaser, Khalil Gibran’s founding principal.

With Sela, a common concern is reflected in the post of an anonymous writer on a popular Wsahington parenting website: “some of us don’t want taxpayer dollars funding a Jewish school — any religious school. . It’s not unreasonable to assume that the school is going to attract largely Jews.”

Gregory M. Lipper, an attorney at the watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said it’s possible for schools like Sela to teach Hebrew and the culture of Israel without flouting the separation doctrine, Lipper added, but they need to be extra careful to avoid promoting religion.

“When a public school is centered on teaching a language and culture that is closely tied to a particular religion, there is a question whether the school is actually teaching that religion at taxpayer expense,” Lipper said.

Jessica Lieberman, vice chair of the school’s board, is Jewish, speaks Hebrew and is sending her two children to Sela this year. There’s good reason, she said, for children to learn Hebrew, no matter their religious or ethnic background.

“Hebrew is a gateway to learning other hard languages and it has gone through a rebirth in the last 150 years,” she said. “This unique experience teaches kids about the purposes of language and its function in building and sustaining communities globally.”

But it would be a mistake to think that Sela lacks strong Jewish ties.

Lody and the Jewish and non-Jewish parents who founded Sela have worked closely with the New York-based Hebrew Charter School Center, a nonprofit that has helped launch six Hebrew immersion charters around the U.S.

Michael Steinhardt, Thomas Kaplan and other philanthropists known for their contributions to Jewish educational and cultural programs, fund the HCSC.

It offers a grant package, worth more than $1 million, to groups trying to birth Hebrew language charters.

The grants are contingent on the schools adopting HCSC standards for curriculum and diversity, and the schools’ charters define them as secular, said HCSC executive director Aaron Listhaus.

Principals of Jewish day schools also advise that a public Hebrew language immersion education, which is free, is not a good way to get a Jewish day school education on the cheap. Jewish day schools, where tuition can easily top $15,000, focus on Torah study, religious observance, and aim to instill a strong connection to Judaism and Israel.

“If a parent is looking for religious instruction, they will be woefully disappointed in sending their children to one of our Hebrew charter schools,” Listhaus said.