By Carolyn Slutsky
For Nadya Drukker, the chance to give her children a secular Jewish education in a public elementary school is a very private matter.
Drukker left western Ukraine in 1990 as a teenager, settling in Brooklyn and, now 33, raising two children there. She wants her children to learn Hebrew and Jewish culture so much that she has begun Hebrew lessons herself in order to teach them and allow them to communicate with their cousins in Israel.
But Drukker would never think of sending her children to one of Brooklyn’s ubiquitous yeshivot. She is a part of a large community of mostly secular Russian Jews who emigrated to the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union and who are defined by their
Next fall their children, along with their African-American, Hispanic, Israeli and other counterparts from various backgrounds living in District 22 in South Brooklyn, will have the chance to attend the newly approved Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, New York City’s first publicly funded school devoted to Hebrew language and culture.
On Tuesday the New York State Board of Regents officially approved the charter application for the proposed HLA, which is slated to open in September with 150 students in kindergarten and first grade, with plans to expand to fifth grade and 675 students. The school, whose lead planner is Sara Berman, daughter of mega-philanthropist and Jewish cultural advocate Michael Steinhardt, will feature a dual-language curriculum that will expose students to Hebrew and Jewish culture, and planners say they have worked hard to excise any religious content from the secular program.
Observers in the Russian community are largely excited about the school’s arrival. Leonard Petlakh, executive director of the Kings Bay YM-YMHA in Sheepshead Bay, said there’s a great deal of anticipation from the parents he has spoken to, who are waiting to see how the school’s lottery will be conducted (students from the district get first priority), and eager to give their children the opportunity to learn about Jewish culture from a public school.
“The vast majority [of Russians] are proud of their Jewish identity but there’s no entry portal for them into Jewish life, no sense of comfort here in South Brooklyn because the symbol of Jewishness is an Orthodox person with a yarmulke on his head,” said Petlakh of the Russian parents who view Jewish culture as vital in maintaining their children’s Jewish identity. “There’s a tremendous gap for average secular Russian parents, so the school will be able to fill that void by offering a product where they know there’s no religious observance.”
“We have this whole generation born in this country and their identity is completely American, they don’t even speak Russian to each other. Culturally, they’re more Russian than New York,” Petlakh continued. “For the most part they never had any religious exposure, their connection to the Jewish people is just through ethnic identity, Israel and cultural things. Religion is not part of their genetic makeup.”
This new model of charter school fits the vision of the majority of Russian-Jewish parents said Ari Kagan, senior editor of the Russian newspaper Vecherniy and a community activist.
“In my opinion it’ll be very popular,” said Kagan. “The majority of Russian Jews are not very religious, they like Jewish traditions but if we talk about religious Jews, people who strictly follow kashrut, Shabbos and everything I would say it’s a small part of the Russian-speaking community. But the majority are pro-Israel, they follow some traditions and celebrate Jewish holidays so this school perfectly fits the beliefs of this part of the community. It’s not a yeshiva, not a [typical] public school, it’s a perfect in-between.”
Kagan noted that young Russian Jews in Brooklyn go to discos, attend public schools, play on the Internet but have zero affiliation with Judaism, Israel or Jewish traditions.
“Without such a school choice it’s quite clear they’d end up having nothing, none, zero,” he said. “Better something than nothing.”
But Rabbi Avner German, dean of Be’er Hagolah, a yeshiva of 800 students geared toward Russian immigrants that charges little or no tuition, said that something is not better than nothing, and that Jewish commitment must come from a place of both culture and religion.
“Schools that don’t connect with the Torah, mitzvot, I believe those schools unfortunately will give the children certain content but you cannot have the force of continuity which we seek,” said Rabbi German. “I truly believe that if they’re exposed to culture in the abstract without it being interwoven with their religious traditions, their heritage, with Torah and mitzvoth, it’s going to evaporate eventually.”
Rabbi German was emphatic that Russian Jews, even those who come from a secular background, have more to gain from a religious education than simply a public one.
“Jewish culture we believe is synonymous with the Jewish religious traditions, and that you can’t teach in a charter school,” he said.
Despite church-state stalwarts who opposed such schools as the dual culture Arab-American Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn (unlike charter schools, which are administered by private groups with public funds, Khalil Gibran is administered directly by the Department of Education), the charter proposal passed handily, with eight members of the Board of Regents committee that oversees charter schools voting in favor of the proposal, one abstaining and one, Saul Cohen, voting against it.
“It’s a way of getting a good private school with public funds,” The New York Times reported Cohen saying Tuesday, adding that he questioned “whether a Hebrew-language school was needed in a relatively high-performing district and whether a broad swath of students in the district, which is predominantly black, Hispanic and Asian, would be interested in learning Hebrew.”
For Nadya Drukker, who lives in Dyker Heights but is in the process of moving to the Sheepshead Bay section of South Brooklyn, a yeshiva would never provide the appropriate brew of Jewish exposure for her children.
“For people who want religious content they go to yeshivas; people who come to the charter school want a good education and the Hebrew and cultural aspect,” said Drukker.
Upon hearing that the charter application was approved, Drukker said she was “very excited.”
“If it works out it would be a great model, and I think we shouldn’t want to go to charter schools, all the schools should be like charter schools,” said Drukker, laughing. “Now I want to get in, that would be even better news.”