‘Our schools are not Jewish or religious’

‘Our schools are not Jewish or religious’

Questions for Jonathan Rosenberg

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Montclair resident Jonathan Rosenberg became CEO of the Hebrew Charter School Center on Jan. 2.

A lawyer turned educator, Rosenberg was a civil rights attorney at the Department of Education and general counsel of Edison Schools, Inc., before setting aside his bar association credentials to focus more fully on education. Most recently, Rosenberg was executive director of ROADS Charter High Schools. In a phone interview on Jan. 13 from his office, he told NJJN the new position was “the perfect mix” for him in terms of programs and outcomes, with its multiple focus on diversity, education, and civil rights.

The Hebrew Charter School Center was established in 2009 by the Areivim Philanthropic Group, led by Michael Steinhardt. Its stated goal is to “build a movement of rigorous dual-language” schools that “teach children of all backgrounds to become fluent and literate in modern Hebrew and prepare them to be productive global citizens.” There are currently five schools affiliated with HCSC, including Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick. One more is expected to open in September 2014 in Los Angeles.

Rosenberg also served as CEO of Repair the World, a national organization supporting Jewish service-learning programs. He and his wife, Lisa, have two children, Zoe, 12, and Theo, 10, who both attend public school in Montclair.

He agreed to answer a series of questions about his new role, although he added the caveat that on day seven of the job, some of his responses should be taken as “preliminary,” reflecting “the best of my knowledge at this point.”

NJJN: What’s your vision for the Hebrew Charter School Center? What will success look like?

Rosenberg: Over the long term, I expect to see a lot more schools across the country. In terms of success, we’re looking for exemplary quality education whose graduates not only receive an excellent education as measured by graduation rates and assessments but also by their own post-secular school accomplishments. We want them to emerge from our schools fluent in Hebrew, knowledgeable about the State of Israel and the history of its immigrant communities as global citizens.

NJJN: Is the Hebrew charter school movement really just an end run around the cost of day school education for Jewish families who can’t afford private school?

Rosenberg: Not at all. If that were the case, I would not work here. My background is in public education and looking at ways to ensure the Constitution is upheld in all respects. Day school education may include Hebrew language, but day schools are religious. Our schools are not Jewish and not religious, though they do attract Jewish families. Our kids learn modern Hebrew, not the language of prayers, and they are instructed by certified language teachers. We’re really serious about that. Look, there’s a school in New York City called the Hellenic Classical Charter School. It’s a dual-language school, like ours. It teaches Greek and English. It receives some support from the Greek government. But no one thinks it is an effort to inculcate Greek Orthodoxy in its students.

NJJN: Would you consider it successful, for example, if only 25 percent of kids enrolled are Jewish?

Rosenberg: We have no litmus test for success except that students receive a terrific education, become proficient and fluent in Hebrew, and go on to really good outcomes.

NJJN: The model for this school is similar to Israeli secular schools. How deeply are Israelis involved in the school?

Rosenberg: I know we have a number of teachers who are Israeli. I have to plead a knowledge gap regarding the full extent, but there are many opportunities to expand our partnerships with Israel. The children are immersed in Hebrew for part of the school day, and we need a pipeline of teachers fluent in Hebrew who are also skilled educators. A partnership with Israel would be helpful in terms of teacher training.

NJJN: At some of these schools, the kids are encouraged to go to separate after-school religious school programs. Some of the charter schools even make arrangements for students to attend synagogue schools. To what extent are you encouraging or using this model?

Rosenberg: At the schools we support I am not aware of schools encouraging specific after-school activities. I am aware that there is often an array of after-school options. Among them, available to interested Jewish families, is supplemental Jewish afternoon religious school. That is something that is in place at most if not all of our schools. But it is not part of our school programs. It is not part of our model or our facilities. It’s important that a range of after-school options is facilitated.

NJJN: Why should a Jewish community support these schools? Why are they a good idea from a Jewish standpoint?

Rosenberg: Jewish communities in this country and in many parts of the world are increasingly diverse and live alongside and are seamlessly integrated with other communities. Diverse, pluralistic, global — our values reflect the values of the Jewish community. Second, Hebrew is important to the Jewish community, for its deep historical ties to Judaism and the fact that it is the primary language of Israel. The idea of thousands of Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, learning this language is a terrific outcome for people who care about Israel. The benefit of so many young people being fluent in Hebrew is a big one. Our graduates will be able to travel, conduct business, and engage with Israel’s post-secondary institutions. Finally, in educating people about Israel, we are fostering an understanding and knowledge of the history of Israel. That is of real interest and benefit to the Jewish community.

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