Losing my religion

MaimonidesCover2.jpgA move to create publicly funded schools that are secular in name, but offer education in Islamic, Jewish and Catholic culture raises complicated questions -- ones that don't seem to have gotten an overwhelming amount of attention in the mainstream media. Is it possible to leach religion out of culture? What is the line between teaching culture and religious indoctrination?

And what are the intents of those seeking to create such educational institutions?

The birth of Hebrew language and culture charter school, and plans for a center to advocate for more such schools was examined in the Forward last week.

It's a very helpful article for those who wish to explore some of the debate around these new schools. The writer highlights some of the tensions creating dissent among Jewish advocates and opponents.

The lede indicates that the New York charter school is part of a national strategy.

The movement for publicly funded Hebrew language and culture charter schools took a giant step forward as a new charter school for New York City received final approval and plans emerged for a national center to back Hebrew charter school efforts across the country.

On January 13, the New York State Board of Regents approved the application for the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, a school that would teach the Hebrew language and aspects of Jewish culture, largely with public funds. Michael Steinhardt, a former hedge fund manager who has championed a number of high-profile Jewish causes, funded the application. Sara Berman, Steinhardt's daughter and a former editor at this newspaper, was the lead applicant.

Hebrew charter schools have become a hot item in the world of Jewish identity and education, but it is difficult to tell what the latest development will augur. By law, the school must be open to all applicants and be devoid of religious content. Berman has insisted that the school will welcome children from every background, and that its priority is to teach Hebrew to anyone who is interested rather than to instill Jews with a Jewish identity

The writer goes on to provide readers with both a contrasting view (what are the real motivations here) and a great quote from Rabbi Eric Yoffie, one that raises the moral, religious and constitutional questions in a nutshell.

"The idea here is to strengthen Jewish identity, but you can't do it in an open way because you run afoul of the law," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and a critic of Hebrew charter schools. "So you end up having rabbis and Jewish educators involved, and in all probability promoting Jewish commitment is exactly what they are looking to do, but they can't do it openly. It simply will not work."

Yoffie said the idea would not even work on its own terms to promote Jewish identity. "There's absolutely nothing in 4,000 years of experience to suggest you can separate out religion and culture and simply teach culture to the exclusion of religion," he said. "Those two pillars are inextricably intertwined."

The writer goes on to point out that the New York school is opening in the same borough as an Arabic-themed public school that started a "firestorm" of protest from critics--many of them Jewish.

A few questions not answered-what is the Board of Regent's reasoning? Is it the opinion of legal experts that they are opening themselves up for lawsuits? Do laws governing the creation of such schools differ state to state?

Here's another provocative allusion to charter schools from a recent New York Times article on Catholic schools.

The Archdiocese of Washington was so desperate to save seven struggling parochial schools last year that it opted for a solution that shook Catholic educators to the core. It took down the crucifixes, hauled away the statues of the Virgin Mary, and-- in its own word -- "converted" the schools in the nation's capital into city charter schools.

The Washington choice seemed to limn in its most extreme form the predicament facing Catholic education: How to maintain a Catholic school tradition of no-frills educational rigor, religious teaching and character-building -- a system that has helped shape generations of America's striving classes since the turn of the last century -- when Catholics are no longer signing up their children.

What do the schools look like now? Do they retain bits and pieces of their Catholic history?

I wonder how many other media gurus are paying attention to the potentially explosive constitutional and religious issues raised when these schools are created. Let's hope we see more articles--soon.

Picture of Maimonides offering guidance to the perplexed is from Wikimedia Commons

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