‘Boker tov, Sela’


As opening day began at Sela Public Charter School on Monday, Washington Mayor Vincent Gray accompanied the students to their new classrooms.

Ready, set, go: Sela Public Charter School students line up to begin their first day at the Hebrew immersion school. Photo by David Stuck
Ready, set, go: Sela Public Charter School students line up to begin their first day at the Hebrew immersion school.
Photos by David Stuck

First-graders, who spent last week at the new school for orientation, greeted the mayor with shalom, which they explained means “hi,” and boker tov, “good morning.”

The 90 students in prekindergarten through first grade are the first to test whether Washington has an appetite for a Hebrew-language immersion school. As a charter school, Sela, in Northeast Washington, receives public funds to serve the community at large. To conform to its charter, which prohibits the teaching of religion, the school is free of Hebrew’s Jewish religious and ethnic associations, and instead focuses on the secular Hebrew culture of Israel.

“My expectations are that the kids will learn the basics, they’ll learn friendship,” Gray said. “And at the same time the kids will learn other cultures that they otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to.”

Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray visits a kindergarten class as school executive director Jason Lody watches.
Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray visits a kindergarten class as school executive director Jason Lody watches.

Board chair Bryce Jacobs said she has been working toward this day since 2009, when planning for Sela began. “To want a diverse school is one thing. But to see it is another,” she said. “Our efforts have paid off.”

The two-story building, a former public charter high school, is all fresh paint and brand new desks. The plan is for the school to eventually grow to fifth grade, and there is room on the upstairs floor to expand.

In prekindergarten, the majority of classroom activities will be in Hebrew. Kindergarten and first grade classes will alternate between Hebrew and English days of instruction.

“American kids don’t have foreign language proficiency like their peers in Europe,” said Jessica Lieberman, vice chair of the board and a school founder, whose daughter is a Sela first-grader. “I wanted that for my kids.”

The idea of immersion in a foreign language is what attracted many parents of the largely African American student body to Sela.

“I grew up in Riverdale, N.Y.,” where there is a large Jewish community, said Diamond Piper, who is sending her two daughters to Sela. “I’m open to [the daughters] learning Hebrew, and language immersion is very important. They’re learning something they’re not going to learn from home.”

Alexandra Fox, whose daughter is one of 10 first-graders, said she and her husband are picky about schools. “We homeschooled last year,” which included Latin with a tutor, she said.

Having just moved from Rockville to Washington, the Foxes looked for charter schools. “It’s hard to get into a charter school and private schools are horribly expensive,” she said. “Sela just happened to come up.”

The family turned out this summer to paint murals on the school walls. “It’s a really small community and that’s appealing to us.”

Kristen Mandel, whose daughter is in prekindergarten, likes being part of a brand-new school. “We wanted language immersion,” Mandel said. “For us the question of what language is secondary.”

In the years during which Sela was developing from an idea, it was criticized by some who believed it would become a publicly funded Jewish school, that it would lure students away from area Jewish day schools, or that there was insufficient demand in Washington for a Hebrew-language school.

Sela executive director Jason Lody said the reality of the first day “washes away” those concerns.

“You see our population, you see our families. You see all the interest in a quality public school,” he said.

Sela is one of six Hebrew charter schools nationwide associated with the Hebrew Charter School Center. With $3.2 million in backing from Jewish philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and the late Bill Davidson, HCSC provides seed money and free consulting to aspiring Hebrew charter schools. The HCSC seeks to distance itself from any Jewish association.

Such sensitivity is reflected in Sela’s top staff, only one of whom is Jewish. Lody is a Catholic priest.

Sela opened as a group of four Florida-based Hebrew charter schools not affiliated with the HCSC came under scrutiny, after its founder described the publicly funded schools as builders of Jewish identity.

The chairwoman of the Broward County school board, Laurie Rich Levinson, asked the district’s Charter School Department for “review and response” of the Ben Gamla schools after receiving a complaint.

Those schools were founded to primarily serve the Jewish community, according to the schools’ founder, former U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch. “If you really want to change the Jewish community, what’s so great about a gentile speaking Hebrew?” he told the New York Jewish Week in 2010. “It’s amazing, but not important from a Jewish communal perspective.”

Ben Gamla has a history of testing the wall between religion and state. It has hired Orthodox rabbis as school principals. Most of the schools are purposely situated on Jewish federation campuses. One school meets on the second floor of a synagogue.

“To me, it is literally the best leverage that I’m aware of in Jewish communal stuff in the history of the Jewish people,” Deutsch said. “Jews need to be supportive of this endeavor.”

Despite the strong Jewish connections, Ben Gamla schools do not teach religion, he said.

“The school complies with every aspect of separation of church and state,” Deutsch told the Miami Herald. “The school is obsessive with compliance with separation of church and state. The process is 100 percent transparent.”

Sela has a different agenda and is trying to avoid controversy. Its four classrooms are named for Israeli cities — but not for the holy, politically contested Jerusalem.

[slideshow id=”First day of school at Sela Public Charter School”]

[email protected] Twitter: @davidholzel

JTA contributed to this report.

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