The Sela Hebrew charter school experiment


The Sela Public Charter School, which opened its doors in Washington on Monday, is a Hebrew-immersion school. It is not a Jewish school. And it is not an Israeli school. It is something quite different, and it could deliver results that will go beyond the learning of an old-new language.

Sela is an American school where students of all backgrounds will be immersed in the Hebrew language — a Hebrew language public school.

Most American Jews are not used to thinking about the Hebrew language disconnected from liturgy, Torah and Jewish learning. But Sela’s charter forbids the teaching of any religion or religious doctrine. Instead, the students — this year in prekindergarten through first grade and eventually through fifth grade — will be able to draw from Israel’s largely secular Hebrew culture for their lessons. And even here, the lessons are grounded in Washington realities. While the classrooms are named for Israeli cities, none is named for Jerusalem, whose final status is to be determined by negotiations. Things like that help Sela steer clear of controversies that are outside its mandate — to immerse children in the Hebrew language.

The Sela experiment could help spread the idea that Hebrew is a language that anyone can learn, just like Spanish, French, Arabic and Chinese. There once was a Hebrew cultural movement in this country, alongside the much stronger Yiddishist movement. Both were secular and both disappeared as American Jews assimilated. Sela, and other Hebrew-language charter schools around the country, may plant the seeds of a new American Hebrew culture.

While there are lots of questions about Sela, one thing is for sure: It can raise students’ affinity for the country where Hebrew culture is thriving. Indeed, at a time when younger Americans don’t identify with Israel as earlier generations did, the establishment of a connection through language could lead to business, cultural and political connections later on. The experience could translate into support and identification with the country where the language Sela students learned in school is spoken every day.

We wish Sela much hatzlacha.

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