Proponents of creating a New Rochelle Hebrew Immersion Program came before the Board of Education on this past Tuesday to promote the idea of a Hebrew CILA Program in the New Rochelle Public Schools. The two leaders of the group, both New Rochelle residents, claimed to represent a small group of Orthodox Jews supposedly interested in offering children Hebrew language instruction. They came away with a commitment from the board to conduct a community survey to gauge support for Hebrew CILA.
The group's web site, however, reveals a very different purpose -- to help Orthodox Jewish families resolve the so-called "Jewish Day School Crisis" by offering these families a "Jewish Day School experience" without having to pay for it:
The members of this blog seek to provide their children with a quality Jewish education. We recognize that a formal Jewish education in conjunction with what is practiced at home is vital to conveying our beliefs, ethics, and knowledge to our children. However, Day School is currently the only option for providing a formal Jewish education and tuition costs are increasingly cost prohibitive for too many members of the community. Unfortunately, previous efforts to address this issue have fallen short and have not provided a viable long-term solution. We, therefore, seek to create a quality and affordable Jewish education alternative to Day School that is available to children throughout Westchester County.*
During the public comment period at the end of the meeting I pointed out to the school board that the group's web site showed that the agenda of the group was far different from what the group had presented to the board that evening. I observed that their goal of creating a "Jewish Day School Experience" in partnership with the New Rochelle public schools was not likely one that would be supported by the community if it was widely known. 48 hours later the Hebrew Immersion group blocked public access to the site so the group can continue to organize without public scrutiny. These folks are apparently unaware that Google retains "cached" views of websites in their archives. As a result, the true purpose of this group is laid bare for all to see:
We intend to create a “Hebrew Immersion” program in conjunction with New Rochelle Public Schools for grades K-5. This program would teach students to speak fluent Hebrew and learn about the culture and history of Israel while providing them with an excellent secular education at New Rochelle’s well-regarded public schools. After school, the children would be able to attend a religious program of their choice.
The "Jewish Day School Crisis" is, in large part, the result of increasing segmentation within the Jewish community and efforts over the years to create schools for every denomination and micro-demoniation of Judaism. Smaller and smaller schools has pushed costs higher and higher so that today the cost of many Jewish parochial schools exceed $50,000 a year per child, a particular financial hardship on Orthodox Jewish families who, on average, tend to have more children than other Jewish families. In response, parents have begun to organize, primarily in South Florida and the New York metropolitan area, to push for public funding of Jewish parochial school programs under the guise of offering "Hebrew Immersion" programs.
Under the proposed "New Rochelle Hebrew Immersion Program", the costs of all academic, language and cultural education would be be borne by New Rochelle tax payers. Hebrew language textbooks and instructional material, not readily available in the United States, would most likely be imported from Israel, home to about 97% of the worlds 7.2 million Hebrew language speakers. It was not clear where qualified Hebrew-speaking teachers would be found or how they could be added to the district's payroll in the midst of a hiring freeze. In either case, the study of Hebrew beyond Jews and students of Judaism and Israel is so limited (archaeologists, linguists, and theologians) that a Hebrew Immersion program amounts to little more than carving out a tax-payer funded Jewish parochial school within the New Rochelle public school.
Even had it occurred to them to be a bit more skeptical, those attending the recent school board meeting would have been hard-pressed to discern any of this hidden agenda during the presentation on Hebrew Immersion. Proponents, along with their supporters within the district, repeatedly and flagrantly misrepresented the group's intentions as simply parents wishing to expose their children to a foreign language. The web site, however, makes clear that the group is interested in either a Hebrew charter school or a Hebrew CILA program. Their first choice is to have Hebrew CILA program in which New Rochelle would offer both Hebrew language classes and course content instruction in Hebrew during the normal school day and then offer -- quoting from their parent survey -- "after-school privately funded modern orthodox 'limudei kodesh' instructional program" to the Hebrew CILA Students.
The two leaders of the Hebrew Immersion program -- David Kirshenbaum and Mike Hunter (sic) were introduced by board member David Lacher who informed the board that he and members of the school administration, including Dr. Korostoff and Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak, had been meeting with the two men since last spring. What the board members were told was that the idea was to offer a program similar to the CILA Program in Italian offered at the Jefferson school. Dr. Korostoff and David Lacher did most of the talking initially and then the two proponents of the Hebrew version program answered questions.
Dr. Korostoff told the board that based on previous meetings things were now at the stage where he was seeking the board's approval to commission a community survey to gauge the level of support for a Hebrew CILA program in New Rochelle. He then proceeded to describe the requirements for creating a Hebrew CILA program. Korostoff told the board that a Hebrew CILA program would have to offer Hebrew language instruction as well as content instruction in Hebrew which would entail finding teachers fluent in Hebrew as well as textbooks and other instructional materials to support the New York State curriculum. He said such a program could only focus on language and culture and that there could be no religious component. Korostoff also said the program would have to meet the District's diversity requirements. Such a program would also entail capacity considerations because adding a districtwide program would mean adding a new "strand" of classes in a particular building. Korostoff said that if these requirements could not be met it would still be possible to offer Hebrew language instruction for one class per day as is done currently for other non-CILA languages. Korostoff mentioned September 2010 as a possible start date if a sufficient number of children to fill a kindergarten class could be found in keeping with the aforementioned requirements.
The response of the school board ranged from generally supportive to euphoric. Mary Jane Reddington was the most enthusiastic board member, reflexively pronouncing a Hebrew CILA program to be a "great idea" because, as she put it, she supports any foreign language program. Apparently that includes even foreign language programs that are intended to serve as a trojan horse to dupe taxpayers into funding a program that is likely unconstitutional and would not likely have much support if its true purpose were widely known. At one point Reddington became so excited that she she literally jumped out of her chair in order to talk further with the two men while Board President Sara Richmond sought to proceed with the meeting.
When a board member raised the "diversity" issue, Kirshenbaum proudly pointed out that a Hebrew Immersion school in Brooklyn was "only 60% Orthodox". Apparently unaware that New Rochelle schools are only about 30% white and predominantly Christian, Kirshenbaum's idea of diversity amounts to having Orthodox, Hasidic, Reform and Conservative Jews all in the same class. The web site makes a similar point, proudly declaring that the after-school modern orthodox 'limudei kodesh' instructional program would be open to "non-Orthodox" students by which he means Jews who are not Orthodox. In a school district that is more than two-thirds Latino and Black, African-American it seems unlikely that a class of 100% Jewish kids of different denominations is what Dr. Korostoff meant by meeting the district's "diversity" requirements.
Jeff Hastie was a bit more sanguine about the whole thing, asking the board first step back and consider articulating a process through which any new language would be added. He asked why a Hebrew would take precedence over another foreign language such as Mandarin. There are over 1 billion Mandarin speakers compared to 7 million Hebrew speakers.
The answer about one "Hebrew Immersion" school in Brooklyn being "only 60% Orthodox" elicited a disapproving snort from Cindy Babcock-Deutsch who muttered something about how the Brooklyn school was a charter school.
The remainder of the discussion consisted of assurances by Kirshenbaum and Hunter that they understood the need for a Hebrew CILA program to attract a diverse student population and to exclude any religious component from the program, claims belied by the mission described on their web site. These two topics -- diversity and the religious component -- were raised many times in several different ways and each time Kirshenbaum and Hunter provided their assurances that they understood the boards concern and shared them completely. Even a cursory examination of the group's web site shows the entire discussion to have been a complete fraud.
Whatever board members may think, the leaders of this effort are clearly under the impression they already have support from the board to launch a Hebrew CILA program in September 2010 and they are communicating this to their supporters. The web site says flat out that they have been told that if they can find 20 children to enroll for a Kindergarten Hebrew CILA class the program will proceed. A recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Erica Schacter Schwartz, a columnist for the Jewish Week, reflects the groups growing confidence that their goals will be achieved within the next year:
This mix of charter and after-school tutorial is the model that presents a real challenge to private, religiously focused day schools. One variation on the model may soon be attempted in Englewood, N.J., where a coalition of parents has proposed a program that would inject Hebrew-language instruction into the public-school system and offer supplementary religious education to families who are interested.
"Most of our core group," explains Raphael Bachrach, the founder of this program, known as Englewood Hebrew, is determined to make the after-school Jewish studies program "on par with day-school education. The parents feel that even though this is not a yeshiva, they want it to be every bit as serious." In New Rochelle, N.Y., too, plans are under way to create a Hebrew-immersion program in the existing elementary-school system, with an after-school religious studies session for those interested.
It is also worth noting that the group's online survey asks respondents to indicate their current school district if they are not in the New Rochelle school district. Also, the comments section and forum on the now-closed site included discussions of out-of-district parents placing their kids in New Rochelle schools to take advantage of a Hebrew CILA program. Ironically, it was David Lacher who noted the existing problems with District's current "host family" loophole. At $50,000 per child that is a pretty big motivation for a family to play fast and loose with the residency requirements to enroll in a Hebrew CILA program so get ready to see the trickle become a flood if this program is approved.