Should there be Jewish (i.e., secular Jewish) charter schools in America? Michael Steinhardt says yes:
…When there was resistance to the [charter] school in Broward County, where Ben Gamla is located, the school board took the unusual step of hiring an academic consultant to monitor the school, so as to ensure it didn't breach the church-state divide. Across the country, opposition has rapidly emerged, in many cases expressing itself via dozens of blogs - Ben Gamla founder Peter Deutsch estimates that there are more than 50. And leaders in Jewish education and influential onlookers are watching the fray carefully and debating quietly among themselves. Meanwhile, Deutsch says he has received dozens of calls from community leaders nationwide expressing interest in setting up similar schools, from such disparate locations as northern New Jersey, Atlanta, Detroit and Orange County, California.
That's certainly what Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt is hoping for. The "birthright Israel" program he helped co-found, which offers a free trip to Israel to every interested young Jew, is also an attempt to engage Jewish youths with few ties to Judaism and Israel. Through the nonprofit organization he is launching, the Areivim Philanthropic Group, Steinhardt, who made his billions as a hedge-fund pioneer and in other Wall Street activities, is drawing up plans for a series of Hebrew charter schools. In 2003, he announced that he is putting forth $10 million of his own money and challenged other Jewish philanthropists to provide another $90 million for Jewish educational initiatives, including charter schools. Today the fund is nearly at its $100 million goal; other donors include Eugene Applebaum, Bill Davidson and Harold Grinspoon.
A new statistic is fueling Steinhardt's push for charter schools. After pouring more than $125 million into Jewish educational projects in the last 12 years, Steinhardt was startled earlier this year when the research group he funds at Brandeis University, the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, found that only 3 percent of non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S. attend Jewish day schools. "I can't pour enough scorn on the professional Jewish world for the fact that it has stood by and watched the Jewish population assimilate and not come up with any serious way to stop it," he says. …
…"The Orthodox believe in Jewish literacy, and most of the rest of us couldn't care less... Rabbis and other creatures have a monopoly on Judaism. This is a turnoff in a world that is increasingly secular and that has turned away from religion. Jews are simply turning away from Judaism."
Hebrew charter schools, he says, "are the only serious possibility we have of there ever being a substantial proportion of the Jewish population that knows how to speak Hebrew and be literate enough about Judaism."…
Marvin Schick disagrees:
…Perhaps the most common objection to such schools is the claim that it's impossible to separate Jewish religion from Jewish culture, and that the attempt to parse them apart is just a waste of time and resources and invites unwanted scrutiny. Marvin Schick, an expert on constitutional law and a senior consultant to Avi Chai, noted in a recent article for the New York Jewish Week that Ben Gamla "is being scrutinized by an army of watchdogs, including the ever-alert guardians of the Constitution, public education officials and Jewish church-state vigilantes." Jewish charters, he told Haaretz, "will require an enormous amount of monitoring." Schick thinks the community is better off figuring out a way to improve stagnant enrollment in day schools.
While Schick's concern about church-state issues is something I share, I'd point out the following:
- Schick is both Orthodox and a self-styled spokesperson for Orthodoxy. He does not want Jewish charter schools to work because those schools will be by definition secular. What Schick wants, and what he has worked for and advocated his entire adult life is for Federations to fund Orthodox Jewish education. And he wants that education to be cheaply available to all Jews.
- This has the potential, of course, to swell the ranks of Orthodoxy and tip the balance of Jewish political power in the US from Manhattan to Boro Park.
- Ha'aretz totally misses Schick's Orthodox connection, which skews the story. This happened I think because Israelis are often confused about American Jewish communal structure and fragmentation, not out of some malicious attempt to skew the piece.
- Another concern I have are Muslim charter schools and the potential for their radicalization. And the idea of dividing public school students by race or by religion is in itself frightening and very anti-American.
- In the end, Steinhardt is correct. If our goal is to perpetuate Judaism as we now know it, secular Jewish charter schools are the answer. But the problems associated with that answer are, I believe, far too large. In the end, we may have to settle for a smaller Jewish community. Unfortunately, that community will be dominated by Marvin Schick and his ilk.
I'd also point of the following: Marvin Schick's friends over at Agudath Israel of America have worked tirelessly to oppose mandated background checks and other security measures meant to protect religious school children from teachers who sexually abuse them.
If Marvin Schick's day schools (many if not most of which are yeshivas) want to expand their base, they might first try protecting the students they currently enjoy from the rabbis who are, shall we say, enjoying them.