Friday, August 31, 2007

Can a school that teaches Hebrew be secular?

I'm visiting my parents in South Florida for a few days with my son, and in addition to the hot-as-Hades weather, something else is hot here that I hadn't realized: a controversy over a new charter school that is teaching Hebrew as a language only. It seems that this newly-created school, called the Ben Gamla Charter School, is trying to do something that has never been done before: teach Hebrew without teaching Jewish culture or religion. Or rather, the culture part is okay, but not the religion part.

Now, this sounds fine initially, but anyone who knows anything about Judaism knows that it is BOTH a culture AND a religion: you really can't separate the two. Here's an example. You are a kindergarten teacher and you are teaching your kids the days of the week. Here we go: yom rishon (first day, which is Sunday), yom sheni (second day, which is Monday) and so on, until you get to Saturday, which is Yom Shabbat. There is no "yom shevii" (seventh day), there is only Shabbat. That is the beauty and the curse of Judaism: the religion is an integral part of the language. Even secular Israelis call Saturday "Yom Shabbat," people who never intend to celebrate the day as the Sabbath. But that's what it's called.

Apparently, this story is getting a lot of press, such as this story in the Boston Globe and this from the New York Times. Charter schools are publicly funded, and aren't supposed to be teaching any particular religion or ideology.

Now, I may be a bit biased, because my son goes to a Jewish day school which intentionally integrates Jewish culture and religion into ALL it's classes. But I think that it is impossibly to separate the religion from the Hebrew language, and the idea that somehow educators can take the Judaism out of the Hebrew curriculum at this school is ludicrous.

My dad is a former Jewish educator, and he feels that it's one thing to teach Hebrew to high school kids as a language, but with small children, it's really impossible to take the religion out. And I agree.

So for now, it's an interesting experiment in the separation of church and state and how that plays out. Stay tuned.

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