The Uncharted Territory Of Charter Schools

bus tlsBy Shimmy Blum. A volatile national debate over a revolutionary educational model has struck at the heart of several Jewish communities across America. As Englewood and Teaneck, New Jersey, begin to grapple with the opening of Hebrew charter schools, Mishpacha takes an in-depth look at this phenomenon and what effect it may have on traditional yeshivos and the education of our children in those communities — and well beyond

Shimmy Blum  

The adjacent Northern New Jersey cities of Englewood and Teaneck, home to sizable Jewish populations, are involved in a heated battle, one that could have ripple effects for Jewish children across the Garden State and the nation as a whole.

Governor Chris Christie recently approved the September 2011 opening of Englewood’s “Shalom Academy” Hebrew charter school, which will serve Englewood and Teaneck youngsters from the ages of kindergarten through fifth grade.

The charter school movement in the US began two decades ago, seeking to offer an alternative to the lackluster public school system. The movement has grown to approximately 4,000 such institutions nationwide. Charter schools receive government funding but are privately run, and must abide by the basic guidelines of the nation’s public schools. Faculty and students are drawn from all races and religions. Charter schools are not allowed to offer religious instruction and perhaps most important of all, from the perspective of some Jewish parents, they charge no tuition.

Charter schools by nature are more autonomous than public schools and can tweak their curricula to focus on specific subjects, teaching techniques, or cultural nuances, provided that they fall within the general guidelines and that their curriculum plans are approved by their local board of education. 

Hebrew charter schools, of which Shalom Academy is the sixth to open nationwide, teach Hebrew as a foreign language and incorporate some Hebrew when teaching general studies as well. They also touch on some aspects of Jewish culture and history, but must avoid religion in an almost draconian fashion. For instance, when the Ben Gamla Hebrew charter school in Hollywood, Florida, became the first of its kind to open in the United States in 2007, it was forced to drop one of its proposed courses because it included a reference to a website that mentions religion.

The schools’ leaders take pains to convey the nonreligious nature of charter schools. Former Florida congressman Peter Deutsch, who founded Ben Gamla and is considered to be the “father” of the national Hebrew charter school movement, flatly told the New York Times that Ben Gamla is “not a religious school.” Ben Gamla’s former director, Rabbi Adam Siegel, an Orthodox educator, refrained from posting a welcome sign in Hebrew — “B’ruchim HaBa’im” — because of the religious connotations of the word “blessed.” He also had to decline the position as the school’s principal because people found it inappropriate for a rabbi to hold the job.

As a result, many non-Jews found the school attractive too. In fact, a group of African-American children were enrolled in the school and were transported there daily by a local Baptist church. 

Trade-Off Shalom Academy of Englewood will likewise adhere to a strict nonreligious framework. Nevertheless, it counts at least one Orthodox person among its founders and has reportedly engendered significant interest from within the local Orthodox community, which is said to be devising an independent after-school religious studies program to be made available for the charter school’s students.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, rav of Congregation Ahavath Torah of Englewood, sees the establishment of the charter school in his community as a mixed bag. “On the one hand, Shalom Academy may attract children who would otherwise attend public school and get no Jewish education at all, which is a step in the right direction. On the other hand, most unfortunately, some families are pulling their children out of Jewish day schools and placing them in the (tuition-free) charter school instead.”

Though Shalom Academy’s founders remain mum to the public, the community response has been enthusiastic overall, with more applicants than slots for all but the highest grade. Media reports suggest that a solid majority of students enrolled for next year (who were selected by lottery) are Jewish, and few of them previously attended public schools. And not an insignificant number of their parents are said to be Orthodox couples who plucked children out of religious day schools, or would have enrolled their preschool children in a religious day school in absence of the new choice.

Rabbi Goldin relates that among his frum congregants and acquaintances, reactions to the new school range from excitement, to “wait and see,” to opposition. He, however, made his opinion clear. “Several Shabbosim ago, I spoke at the shul pulpit and stated very strongly that it would be tragic for parents to choose a charter school over a yeshivah or day school.”

The risk that the charter school movement poses to yeshivos is that some frum parents will find its Hebrew instruction and the limited extracurricular religious curriculum to be sufficient for their needs. If so, a sizable slice of the America’s frum communities may find Shalom Academy, and potential replicas, to be an attractive alternative to paying $15,000 or more in yeshivah tuition. Countless children would then be deprived of a Torah education, and many religious day schools may have to close, or cut back, or significantly raise their tuition rates to compensate for reduced enrollment.

Other Jewish communities across the nation may follow suit; activists in Manhattan’s West Side and other Jewish neighborhoods are already working to gain approval for charter schools. 

The Effects of Competition Though Shalom Academy’s long-term effect on Englewood and Teaneck is unpredictable, observers point to the five other operational Hebrew charter schools as possible indicators of what may lie in store.

The newest Hebrew charter school, the Hatikvah International Academy in East Brunswick, New Jersey, opened for the current school year, with its students able to join an independent after-school Judaic studies program.

While each neshamah that loses the opportunity for a proper chinuch is an immeasurable negative, Hatikvah’s current statistics offer some solace.

Enrollment among the local Orthodox population, which includes Edison and Highland Park, is feeble. Sources who are familiar with the school’s enrollment figures tell Mishpacha that only about 50 percent of Hatikvah students are even Jewish, and less than 10 percent of the total student body would either certainly or likely have otherwise attended a yeshivah or day school. In fact, school principal Naomi Drewitz told the AP last year, “We’re always trying to dispel the misconception that we’re a Jewish school.”

Some warn, however, that the threat to frum children and mosdos in that region hasn’t abated, as many Orthodox parents are still “on the fence” waiting to observe the charter school’s initial year, and may send their children there in the future if they feel that its students are afforded what they consider an adequate Jewish education. Read full story in this week’s Mishpacha Magazine.

This content, and any other content on TLS, may not be republished or reproduced without prior permission from TLS. Copying or reproducing our content is both against the law and against Halacha. To inquire about using our content, including videos or photos, email us at [email protected].

Stay up to date with our news alerts by following us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

**Click here to join over 20,000 receiving our Whatsapp Status updates!**

**Click here to join the official TLS WhatsApp Community!**

Got a news tip? Email us at [email protected], Text 415-857-2667, or WhatsApp 609-661-8668.


  1. Charter Schools are a great idea,there should be more of them.Except one thing our Yiddish kids belong in Yeshivas!!! Period, no compromise -no excuses.

  2. If you make a yissish speaking charter school you proobly wont have a good deal on your hadns. Who speaks yiddish these days….

  3. At least we know that the heiliger yeshivos will never compromis on even seemingly small things like buses, it starts with a little and look whats happening to the more libiral ‘less fanatical’ comunities. They must keep on modernizing in order to stay modern. . .rc’l

  4. to number 8
    if by illegals you mean mexicians, the answer is yes. charter schools are open to all cultures.They don’t discriminate.

    By the way in case you didn’t know Mexicans have been on this Continent since before Columbus landed, so technically they are not illegals but original natural Americans.

    All others that came over by BOAT ,can be considered ILLEGALS

Comments are closed.