Hebrew sometimes feels like a language exclusive to the Jewish community, one that only Members of the Tribe benefit from learning.
But at Hebrew Public, a network of nonprofit public charter schools, students from a diverse array of racial, ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds study a curriculum that focuses on modern Hebrew and Israel.
“We’re part of a number of schools around the country that focus on world language instruction, with an accompanying focus on some cultural and historical studies on the countries from which that language comes,” said Jon Rosenberg, president and CEO of Hebrew Public. “In this respect, we’re really similar to a school that might focus on French, or Mandarin, or Turkish, or Greek, like the Hellenic [Classical] Charter [School] in New York City.”
At a School Reform Commission meeting on May 24, the members present voted to approve with conditions the charter of a new Hebrew public school, the Philadelphia Hebrew Public Charter School. The school is set to open in the Falls Center, a multiuse facility in East Falls, in the 2019-2020 school year.
For its first year, the school will only have a kindergarten and first grade, then will expand one additional grade each successive year until it reaches eighth grade. Students from across Philadelphia can apply. If the school is oversubscribed, the student body will be selected by random lottery, with siblings in successive years having priority. The formal application will launch later this year, and the school expects to enroll 156 students in kindergarten and first grade.
Hebrew Public already manages three schools in New York City and supports an affiliate network of schools in New Brunswick, N.J.; Washington, D.C.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Los Angeles and San Diego.
Rosenberg said the organization is always looking for new communities to open schools and had been interested in Philadelphia for several years. The city’s large, diverse international makeup, as well as its proximity to New York City, made it a good candidate.
An important guiding principle for the school is global citizenship — the concept of preparing students to become members of the global community, Rosenberg said. This involves creating students that are multilingual, empathetic and skilled in cross-cultural communication.
As a diverse-by-design public charter school, Philadelphia Hebrew hopes to draw in students that match the city’s overall demographics.
“Our mission is not only around running excellent public charter schools that have a focus on Hebrew and the study of Israel, but doing that in a context that creates racial and economic integration,” Rosenberg said. “So our outreach was not concentrated in the Jewish community. Our outreach was really spread broad community-based outreach in Philadelphia.”
The school’s founding coalition, as well as the more than 200 intent-to-enroll forms they’ve already received, exemplify the diversity the school is seeking.
That diversity is why Emily Hurst, the school’s start-up adviser, became interested in bringing the school to Philadelphia. In August 2016, she started by doing a feasibility study to gauge if there was interest and need for this school model, as well as where would be best to locate it.
“People gravitated to it for a lot of different reasons,” Hurst said. “Some families are looking for a high-quality school. Some families have a culture of personal affiliation with modern Hebrew. Some families were really passionate about this concept of global citizenship and the values that are instilled throughout the curriculum and the school day, from … empathy to caring to teamwork.”
She said that families of diverse backgrounds, from immigrants from around the world to multigenerational Philadelphians, expressed interest in the school’s unique model.
At another one of Hebrew Public’s schools, Hebrew Language Academy Middle School in Brooklyn, N.Y., eighth-graders went on a capstone trip in the fall to Israel. Hebrew Language Academy Middle School is the first of Hebrew Public’s schools to have an eighth-grade class. Rosenberg said that this capstone trip to Israel will be the goal of the Philadelphia school when it has an eighth- grade class.
“The benefits of learning a world language really go far beyond just the particular interest in the specific language being taught,” Rosenberg said. “Modern Hebrew both has its roots in a very, very ancient language, as well as being a language that was really created anew in the 1800s and is spoken by millions of people worldwide.”
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