Kemp Mill parents plan effort to bring Hebrew to public school

Kemp Mill Elementary School: A group of parents would like to start Ph Hebrew classes there. Photo by Daniel Schere
Kemp Mill Elementary School: A group of parents would like to start Ph
Hebrew classes there. Photo by Daniel Schere

A group of Orthodox parents in the Silver Spring neighborhood of Kemp Mill is beginning to develop a plan to bring extracurricular Hebrew and Judaics instruction to their community’s public elementary school.

A small group of parents, meeting last week, discussed the need to devise a realistic approach to adding Jewish education to Kemp Mill Elementary school in a before- or after-school program.

“What we need to start thinking about is the curriculum, what time school starts now, and what time we can reasonably have our kids there,” said Simone Ribke of Kemp Mill, a parent who is taking the lead in organizing the effort.

She emphasized the need for parents to take a gradual, realistic approach to adding a Jewish component to the public school day.

As an extracurricular activity, Hebrew and Judaics instruction could not be associated directly with the school, and parents would be responsible for supplying most of the learning materials, Ribke said.

But a privately-run program could rent space at the school for an hourly rate.

The group met for the first time since an initial gathering in March over what they say is their increasing difficulty in affording rising day school tuition. Some 2,600 students are enrolled in the Washington area’s six Jewish day schools, where tuition can run more than $15,000 a year per child.

“In terms of getting going, I think you need more time on Jewish subjects — three hours — for it to attract enough of a critical mass of Orthodox families,” Ira Ungar, president of the Kemp Mill Civic Association, told parents at the meeting.

Later, during an interview, he said that the program the parents are considering would require at least 20 interested parents, some of whom are teachers, to get off the ground.

Ungar said it will take at least two years to determine the program’s daily length and course materials.

Shana Siesser said she’s willing to pay tuition at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville. What her three children get there can’t be duplicated outside a day school, she said.

But she agreed that some families cannot afford a day school education.

“The cost of just living an Orthodox lifestyle in general is prohibitive,” she said. “You have to have certain foods, you have to live in certain neighborhoods to be in proximity to the school. I wish I knew the answer, but I think it’s a big problem even for the people who can afford it.”

She said she is pleased that her children are not required to take standardized tests or have Common Core standards forced upon their education. She thinks that adding Hebrew classes in public school could be positive for students, but said it will not necessarily connect them with their heritage.

Parents at the meeting noted the presence of several language-immersion programs in Montgomery County Public Schools, including Kemp Mill’s Spanish-immersion program. Ribke said this recognition of Montgomery County’s diversity should be extended to the Jewish community.

“We have a tremendous Jewish population,” she said. “There’s no reason they can’t teach Hebrew as a second language. It doesn’t have to be religiously associated.”

MCPS spokesman Derek Turner said the school system has had positive experiences with its language-immersion programs, adding that school system leaders are open to the idea of adding a Hebrew component at Kemp Mill.

Turner referred to the idea as “long-term planning” and said progress will depend on how much interest there is in the program.

He said he does not know how many Jewish students attend Kemp Mill Elementary School because MCPS does not gather data on the religious affiliation of its students.

More than 100 people are members of the Facebook group “Finding Unorthodox Solutions for Orthodox Elementary Education.”

Parents Ami and Rivka Schreiber are experimenting with public school by sending one of their sons, Boaz, to Kemp Mill Elementary School next year for kindergarten. They plan to send him to a Jewish day school in first grade.

They say they’re interested in public school to prove a point.

“What we really wanted to do was set this precedent where public school shouldn’t be viewed [by other parents] as you’re some kind of failure or you’re a kid with issues or you’re poor,” Ami Schreiber said. “We can comfortably pay the day school tuition, but we don’t want to.”

He said he hopes other day school  parents will follow their lead.

“Once we can start that momentum, then you’re going to find it a lot easier to create the Judaics or Ivrit [Hebrew  instruction], because you’ll have more people and have broken that taboo,”  he said.
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