Sunday, June 08, 2008

Say It Ain’t So Michael

A wonderful friend who was close to Sir Isaiah Berlin is fond of quoting this principle about philanthropy that was formulated by the great British-Jewish philosopher: In the effort to do good through philanthropy, it is necessary to avoid doing bad.

As American Jewry continues to hemorrhage in commitment and numbers, we have become adept in stratagems claiming that the statistics are actually rosy and we are in good communal health and in developing projects that although far removed from – and even alien to – our heritage will allegedly draw alienated Jews closer. We are awash in Judaism lite, as well as in numbers games showing that intermarriage adds and does not subtract. We flit from one desperate and overly hyped initiative to another, hoping and claiming that American Jews will pay attention and grow in commitment.

Charter schools are one of our current flavors. In fact, we always have at least several because we are a diverse people blessed with a heightened philanthropic instinct and saddled with tons of organizations and projects seeking support. “Jewish” charter schools are being promoted, not because there is an iota of evidence that they can make a meaningful difference, but because public funds are available and this is an easier route to take than promoting and strengthening day schools.

There are significant and well-meaning philanthropists who look at the fifteen years of incontrovertible research showing that day schools are more effective than any other approach to Jewish continuity and then embrace approaches that are far less effective and perhaps totally ineffective. Many of our key philanthropic players in private foundations or federations put their money and bets on what is destined to fail and though they continually lose, as gamblers are wont to, they indulge in self-deception and once more choose the wrong path.

A weak case can be made for Hebrew language charter schools in locations where day school opportunities are limited. Suffolk County, where the Solomon Schechter School is about to close, is one such place. The county has not been hospitable to day schools and this isn’t going to change, so why not try a charter school? In Sheepshead Bay, however, smack in Brooklyn with an abundance of day schools, a charter school is Jewishly irresponsible.

According to the lead article last week in this newspaper, that’s what Michael Steinhardt and his family, along with his Foundation for Jewish Life, are planning. They want to open a charter that is “not for Jews only” which will be entirely bereft of Jewish identity. How this will contribute to Jewish life is not an open question. It is a mirage. Worse yet, if opened, the school will detract from Jewish life because it will attract parents who otherwise would enroll their children in a day school. For some marginally Jewish families, the choice between a tuition-charging school and a free charter is a no-brainer.

Michael Steinhardt is a gambler who knows that the odds are long against this initiative succeeding Jewishly. He is also resourceful and resilient, willing to support far out ideas that have small chance of success. He happily acknowledges this proclivity, arguing regarding day schools that they are mainly for the Orthodox and since only a very small percentage of non-Orthodox children are enrolled in them, alternate Jewish educational means must be utilized to reach out to these families. This argument isn’t watertight, but it has validity. But why charters when the Florida experience and the Arabic school in Brooklyn demonstrate how difficult it is to achieve even modest goals? The evidence from Florida shows conclusively that charters can hurt day schools.

There is a large school in Brooklyn located not far from where the Sheepshead Bay charter may open that is identified by New York educational officials as Jewish. It is called the Big Apple School or Bambi and enrolls about 1,500 students, nearly all of them Russian and I have been told, all of them Jewish. When I visited several years ago along with Jason Cury and Joel Beritz, the outstanding officials of the Gruss Foundation who have done so much for day schools, there was no more than a tiny indication that this is a Jewish institution, although its roots were clearly Jewish, as it was established by an Orthodox rabbi who understood that to attract Russians it was necessary to have a strong academic curriculum together with an effective Jewish component.

Unfortunately, he died soon thereafter and control of the school passed to a Russian educator with no commitment to a Judaic curriculum. When Jason Cury and Joel Beritz offered to provide significant funding for a Judaic component, they were rebuffed. Bambi students graduate after the 8th grade, very few continue in a Jewish school and overwhelmingly they are lost.

The record is apt to be worse for Mr. Steinhardt’s charter, what with its anticipated large non-Jewish enrollment and the planned curriculum. At most, the contribution to Jewish life will be negligible. If he wants to direct some of his giving to a secular cause, as he does in his important involvement in New York University and critical cultural projects, it’s his money that is being spent and what he does is his business. But when a product is marketed as Jewish, somewhat akin to the “Jewish style” cuisine once served by some non-kosher establishments, that’s our business, especially since the non-kosher charter will result in Jewish harm. Mr. Steinhardt and his family have every right to be charter school advocates. They do not have the right to open a school that has a strong prospect of drawing children and their families away from Judaism.

Say it ain’t so, Michael.