As their teacher gave commands a group of first-graders tried to listen carefully. They giggled and moaned as they were caught making mistakes and were eliminated from a game of Simon Says.
However, at the Hatikvah International Academy charter school in East Brunswick, the familiar children’s game was being conducted in Hebrew and played by students, most of whom didn’t speak a word of the language five months ago.
Months after the school opened amid controversy and legal proceedings, the state’s only Hebrew language charter school is filled nearly to capacity with children in kindergarten to second grade. They hail from a wide variety of ethnicities, from African-American to Asian to kipot-wearing Jews. Its goal is to add 44 students and a grade each year as it gradually goes up to eighth grade.
“We have had to work to dispel the notion we are a Jewish school,” said principal Naomi Drewitz. “People come in and see we are an international school. We offer quality education and high standards.”
School officials are barred by law from asking a student’s religion and all declined comment when asked to estimate the number of Jewish students enrolled.
The school, temporarily housed at the Trinity Presbyterian Church on Cranbury Road, now has 105 of its 108 slots filled, said Drewitz.
Because it is a public school, the institution is banned from promoting religion, although some of its critics have charged it is a backdoor way for parents to avoid the high cost of Jewish day school tuition. The East Brunswick Board of Education had withheld $278,000 owed to the school, claiming it did not meet minimum enrollment requirements, but released the funds after acting state Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks notified the board she would direct the state treasurer to withhold all school state aid from East Brunswick. The directive followed an appellate court ruling allowing the school to open.
Hatikvah has received $50,000 to cover application costs and another $25,000 grant to cover start-up costs from the Hebrew Charter School Center of the Areivim Philanthropic Group. Launched by Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and the late William Davidson, Areivim provides seed money and free consulting to aspiring Hebrew-language charter schools throughout the country.
The school day runs from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. after which many children stay for an afterschool enrichment program in the arts, sports, and the food, culture, and dress of youngsters around the world.
Some opt to attend an after-school Jewish studies program offered by the Chabad of East Brunswick, which received a grant from the Hebrew Charter School Center (see sidebar). That program, held at the Chabad, is separate from the Hatikvah school, although it was specifically designed to complement the intensive Hebrew language instruction.
Whitney Rockwell is Hatikvah’s PTO president and the mother of a second-grade girl and kindergarten boy. “We love it,” she said of the school. “They have everything they need there. They come home so excited and singing songs they learned.”
She said she and her husband were drawn to the school by its 11-to-one student-teacher ratio and the opportunity for their children to learn a foreign language at a young age.
“Any language is great for them to learn,” said Rockwell, who is not Jewish. “So it’s Hebrew — that’s great. Everything they’ve been doing we’ve been really happy with.”
Oshrat Hoffman, who has a son enrolled as a first-grader, is about to start as the school’s occupational therapist.
“I was very impressed by the academics,” said Hoffman, who is Jewish. “It seems like a warm and nurturing environment.”
Drewitz said the small class size allows the school to focus on the capabilities of individual children rather than getting “the whole class from point A to point B.”
Stacy Feldman, an educational consultant on Hatikvah’s school board, said she enrolled her second-grade daughter in the school because of its “pedagogical philosophy.”
“Its philosophy is based on inquiry-based learning, that all things have to make sense and have meaning,” said Feldman, who is also on the religious-school board at East Brunswick Jewish Center. “This is exactly what I teach teachers to do, so when this opportunity came about for my daughter I couldn’t say no.”
She said she was never interested in a day school education for her daughter, who attends afternoon school at EBJC to learn Jewish ritual and prayers.
“For me the Hebrew at Hatikvah is just a bonus,” said Feldman. “I wouldn’t have cared if they were teaching Swahili. For me it is all about the inquiry-based learning…. So far, so good. We’ve been very happy.”
‘A prime location’
On Dec. 22, Drewitz led a visitor on a tour of the school, housed in a single large room with classrooms separated by partitions. The Hebrew alphabet is a prominent classroom decoration.
“Even though we may not have walls around us, we have a prime location and [are] doing what we have to for our children,” she said.
Each class is assigned both a Hebrew studies and general studies teacher. The Hebrew teacher speaks only Hebrew and supports the general studies teacher.
In a second-grade class, students learning the names of foods grabbed Velcro-backed cloth cut-outs of tomatoes, lettuce, and other items that might go on a sandwich. They called out the name of the food in Hebrew and tossed the cut-outs to teacher Sara Schwartz, who attempted to catch them on the piece of “bread” she wore over her hand.
In a first-grade class, students were standing in a circle and singing, including one song about fingers, called “Eifo Ha’agudal” (“Where is the thumb?”)
Two students linked arms and danced in the middle and as soon as one returned to the circle, the remaining student chose someone else to take a spin with.
“I feel more freedom here to do more and be more creative,” said their teacher, Ronit Mizrahi, who formerly taught at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley. “Being able to do more verbal lessons rather than written has given me a lot more space. Every day at the end of a lesson we sing and dance. Children love to dance.”
As they sat down, student Reva Bahuguna said she liked learning Hebrew because “it was really fun to get to listen to the teachers and the other students talk.”
“I can talk a little bit of Hebrew, but not a lot,” said Reva, but was quickly corrected by the little girl sitting next to her.
“That’s not true,” she explained. “You can talk to animals in Hebrew.”
Kindergartner Rishika Raghavan, who sat at a table drawing with classmates, added, “I like this school because I get to play with my friends and because I’m learning.”