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Hebrew Language Academy prepares to open under scrutiny

The city’s first Hebrew-language school will open this fall, but the charter school’s ethnic makeup and curriculum are causing some to worry that it will cross the church-state divide.

In an article in this week’s Forward, Gal Beckerman profiles the controversial Hebrew Language Academy, which is cohabiting with a Yeshiva in Mill Basin, Brooklyn after a long search for building space. Principal Maureen Campbell, a former city public school teacher and administrator, tells Beckerman that she’s not fretting about treading on the line between church and state.

As for whether she felt worried about the line between religion and state that critics said the school was toeing: It’s actually not a thin line, she said. It is a line that is very clear. The church and state separation in New York is very clear. You can teach a culture and a language without encouraging the observance of a religion.

The piece delves into the school’s racial composition, which is drawing criticism from those who worry it will inspire discrimination by becoming an enclave of white Jewish children in a racially diverse neighborhood.

There is sure to be even more skepticism about the school, now that the ethnic makeup of its first incoming class of 150 first graders and kindergarteners is being made public. The school’s charter spoke of expecting the student body to reflect the population of the target community, which is 47% black, 13% Asian, 12% Hispanic and only 27% white. But according to statistics provided by the school, 61% of its students are white, and of those, an overwhelming number speak Russian or Hebrew as a first language at home and have parents who were born in the former Soviet Union or in Israel… …The charge that the school will create an ethnically white enclave in an otherwise multiracial district is challenged vigorously by the school’s defenders. They claim that the Hebrew Language Academy actually will be the most diverse primary school in the district. School District 22 is otherwise extremely segregated, school supporters argue, pointing to two primary schools within a few miles from each other, P.S. 195 and P.S. 194, which have student bodies that are 93% and 8% white, respectively.

Campbell, who is the child of Jamaican immigrants, is also discussed in the piece, as some wonder whether her race played a factor in her hiring. Marc Stern, co-executive director of the American Jewish Congress, says that she was brought in to “more easily neutralize opposition,” while David Gedzelman, who works for the school’s founding philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, calls Campell’s background “an unintended consequence that is positive.”