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reactions mixed to hebrew-language charter school in englewood

Englewood will be site of Shalom Academy

The news last week that a Hebrew-immersion charter school for Englewood and Teaneck has met with state approval has given rise to speculation about the new school’s impact on both public and Jewish day schools.

Also, because the new school will offer Hebrew-language and Jewish cultural curricula, another concern is whether these can be taught while steering clear of religion, as mandated by the constitutional separation of church and state.

Called the Shalom Academy and based in Englewood, it will join Hatikvah International Academy in East Brunswick as the second Hebrew-immersion charter school in New Jersey. The school, for up to 240 students in grades kindergarten to eighth, is set to open in September.

Shalom Academy is the brainchild of Englewood resident Raphael Bachrach, who conceived it as an alternative to day schools for tuition-burdened parents. The academy had been rejected three times by the state board of education because of concerns related to budgetary allotment and the potential issue of segregation.

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Rabbi Tomer Ronen doesn’t see the charter as detracting from day schools. FILE PHOTO

Due to Gov. Christie’s massive push for charter schools in low-performing districts, the school was one of 23 new charters approved last Tuesday. Advocates for the school had worked hard to refine the school’s proposal, between its previously rejected applications, to meet New Jersey Department of Education standards.

Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, a Teaneck resident who is executive director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, thinks the news is both good and bad.

“As far as Limudei Kodesh [Jewish studies], this presents a conflict,” he said, adding that the Hebrew-immersion charter in Florida offers engaging after-school programs focused on religion. That way, he explained, students can learn about religion in a fun environment, while avoiding the mixing of church and state in school.

“Students will not receive the same type of Jewish education that they would in Jewish day schools,” he continued. On the other hand, he said, “The benefits are that children will be proficient in Hebrew language and culture, which should not be discounted as important facets of Jewish education. Shalom presents an alternative to public school, where students run the risk of losing Jewish knowledge altogether, and consequently losing their faith.”

Rosenbaum envisions most applicants to be parents seeking a more Jewish option to public school for their children, perhaps Israelis looking to keep up Hebrew-language studies and a Jewish cultural connection.

Daniel Barenholtz, a Teaneck resident and father of four, said, “I want to know who the teachers are. Will math be constructive or instructive? Will they teach whole language or phonics? Will there be heavy homework or light? Also, any parent who is focused on their children’s religious education will have to make their own arrangements for that outside of the normal school day. I’m sure it will be challenging.”

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood, who spearheaded efforts for the Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools fund in 2009, feels that parents may consider sending students to the charter for special educational needs or for financial reasons. But, he cautioned, “this option needs to be carefully examined. There is no real substitute for a full day-school education.”

A different view was expressed by one follower of 200k Chump (http://www.200kchump.blogspot.com), a blog devoted to the tuition crisis: “I went to public school my entire life. I’ve always been religious. It comes from the heart and home. This could be a fantastic opportunity for families who want to live within their means.”

Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood’s Cong. Shomrei Emunah is “concerned that the Shalom charter school will draw students away from the yeshiva day schools and Solomon Schechter schools, thus destabilizing them, while offering an inferior Jewish education. This kind of charter school is valuable in areas where there are no day schools, but not here in Bergen County.”

On the other hand Rabbi Tomer Ronen, principal of Ben Porat Yosef, doesn’t “see there being an issue of the charter ‘taking away’ from the Jewish day schools. Aside from a very strong focus on Hebrew language and culture, our major focus is to create Torah scholars.”

Similarly, Ruth Gafni, head of school at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, said that although it’s good if any school promotes Hebrew, that language is only a foundation, the building block for academic success in the areas of Tanach, Talmud, Torah, derech eretz, the Jewish holidays, and how God is central to it all.

Richard Segall, Englewood’s superintendent of public schools, says his concern is the budget. “Englewood will be losing over $700,000 in funding in the first year but receiving less than $3,000 in operational savings,” he told The Jewish Standard, “It costs taxpayers far less to incorporate a Hebrew immersion program inside our existing schools than creating a new school with all of the associated overhead and operational costs. Integrating students into the total school can be done in a way that tackles the problem of group isolation, so the delivery of services does not become a case of ‘separate but equal.’”

Segall explained that, in the past, Englewood received about 15 affirmative responses to the proposal of a Hebrew charter school, spanning five grades. “This suggests that a Hebrew-immersion program would have a small pool of students within the district who would be candidates for this charter school. To get to the number of projected enrollees, students would be coming from elsewhere, and our records show that the vast majority who fit the profile are currently enrolled in Jewish day schools.”

In an e-mail to the Standard, Barbara Pinsak, interim superintendent of schools for Teaneck, wrote, “It’s done and we are going to move on. I had an opportunity to respond to the charter proposal and my concerns were based on curriculum and the adherence of the charter proposal to the guidelines of the New Jersey Department of Education for charter schools. Evidently, our concerns and questions were either not considered compelling enough or were otherwise deemed not important.”

Bachrach did not respond to requests for comment.

 
 

Synagogues unite for Shabbat

Shabbat Across America celebrated March 4 locally and globally

It’s a weekly event that comes once a year. Shabbat Across America, now in its 15th year, puts Sabbath services and meals on the calendar for more than 600 synagogues of all denominations across the country and beyond.

The March 4 event is being celebrated in at least 10 area synagogues in a variety of ways, including a “Tot Shabbat” for children 5 and under (and their parents) at Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, a potluck dinner at Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, and a catered dinner for 175 at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus.

Shabbat Across America is project of the National Jewish Outreach Project, founded by Orthodox Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald in 1987.

“The first time we had 5,000 people participating in 50 locations. It’s grown by leaps and bounds. This year we expect 40,000 people to participate, in more than 40 states,” he said.

The program has spread to Canada, and this year to Liverpool, Germany, and even Cuba, where Drew University professor and Hillel adviser Jonathan Golden is taking 15 students to visit the Jewish community and celebrate Shabbat.

“Shabbat Across America underscores the importance of creating sacred time,” said Buchwald.

“We didn’t actually create Shabbat,” said Buchwald. “The Almighty created Shabbat. We’ve been proud to help market it for the Almighty.”

The Glen Rock Jewish Center will offer a special service starting at 6 p.m. for “people looking to learn a little about what goes on at a Shabbat evening service, with English, Hebrew, and transliteration,” said Rabbi Neil Tow. At 6:30 p.m., there will be a traditional Sabbath dinner, with more than 100 people expected to attend. Each table will hold materials for a discussion of teachings about Shabbat over the centuries. Full services will begin at 8 p.m., followed by an oneg and dessert.

“My hope is that this shorter service will give everyone a taste of what it’s like to be together in prayer on Shabbat, and hopefully people will choose to come back and be with us,” said Tow.

At Temple Sinai, Shabbat Across America coincides with the synagogue’s monthly Tot Shabbat program, which regularly features a Shabbat meal, a short service that includes songs and a story, and a craft project.

To mark Shabbat Across America, “We asked our families to invite a guest,” said Risa Tannenbaum, director of the synagogue’s early childhood center. The children will be making “Shabbat bags” to take home the texts of blessings for the candles, challah, and kiddush, as well as two candles and grape juice, “so they can celebrate Shabbat in their own home the following Shabbat.”

At the JCCP, Shabbat Across America “is more of an inreach event than an outreach event,” said Rabbi Arthur Weiner. Most participants will be congregants, some regular Shabbat attendees, some not.

Weiner expects 175 people to attend the synagogue for the program, which begins with candlelighting at 5:30 p.m followed by services and then a catered dinner. The services “will have more of an emphasis on teaching as well as a big emphasis on participation” compared to the center’s standard Friday night services.

“Shabbat Across America is a very important program, one of the few outreach initiatives out there that really cuts across denominational lines,” said Weiner. “Every synagogue does it their own way, which is wonderful, but encouraging synagogues to do programming on such and such a date is tremendous,” he said.

Other participating synagogues in the area include Temple Emanu-El in Bayonne; Clifton Jewish Center; Cong. B’nai Israel in Emerson; Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn; Temple Emanuel in Franklin Lakes; Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia; Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood; New Milford Jewish Center; Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood; Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge; and the Jewish Learning Experience in Teaneck. For an up-to-date list, go to www.njop.org.

 
 
 
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