My visit to a black school in Harlem that teaches Hebrew and Israeli culture

Harlem is a place known for its rich history, from black music, literature and culture to art and the Jewish community. These streets walked Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and, once upon a time, over 175,000 Jews – the third largest Jewish quarter in the world, just behind Warsaw and the Lower East Side (my current residence). the twentieth century dragged on, but clues could still be found as to the number of restless Yiddish-speaking immigrants who had once made their home in Harlem in the sight of closed synagogues and delicatessens scattered throughout. And yet a heart of Jewish culture still beats, not made up of Jews and made for Jews, but of the diversity of modern Harlem. Harlem Hebrew Language Academy is the prime example of this diversity: a predominantly black school nestled between soul food restaurants and jazz clubs that forces its students to study Hebrew and the State of Israel.

Naturally intrigued, I hopped on the nearest downtown train to see for myself.

Upon entry, HHLA looked and felt like a normal K-8 school. There were kids in the gym dancing to “Can’t Stop the Feeling”, there were kids on the basketball court, there were kids in math class writing in their notebooks. But as I venture down the halls, I noticed that each classroom was named after a different Israeli city, supplemented with student work and projects written in Hebrew decorating the walls. My guide, an administrator named Valérie, told me that since the school opened in 2013, another class of students has been added every year, with the whole class ready to learn to write and speak. Hebrew and learn about Israeli culture and society.

All students study Hebrew for forty-five minutes per day in a completely secular environment. The school is “for those who want diversity, who are interested in Israel as a pluralistic society, without religious inclusion”. I asked how it was that six-year-old children, who clearly did not express a passion for Hebrew, found themselves enrolled in such a place. “There is no one right answer,” I was told. “The first is if you live in the South Bronx, this is a better option than any public school in your area. So, you are ready to put your kid on a bus because it is simply a better choice. Some families want a foreign language education to open the mind of their child. And some families specifically want Hebrew. We as Jews are so surprised, but I often hear that Israel is a start-up nation, and therefore parents want their children to have the opportunity to work in Israel because it is such an innovative place. . Then we have a religious group, who believe that if their children learn Hebrew, they can read the Bible better. And then we have families who want their children in a diverse socio-economic environment. “

Harlem Hebrew’s goal is not to indoctrinate students into a specifically pro-Israel political mindset, but rather to illuminate one corner of the earth as a “case study” of how the rest of the world works.

As I walked past ceilings covered in world flags, I learned that Harlem Hebrew’s goal is not only to teach modern Hebrew, but also to educate “citizens of the world”, hoping that Through Israeli education, children are exposed to environments outside of their own and become more worldly, more curious and more inclusive in their thinking. Modules on Israeli singers, Israeli religious minorities, Israeli cuisine, Israeli geography and more are packed into lessons throughout the day. Harlem Hebrew’s goal is not to indoctrinate students into a specifically pro-Israel political mindset, but rather to illuminate one corner of the earth as a “case study” of how the rest of the world works.

“We are not representatives of the State of Israel,” said an administrator I met on my tour. “We are there for our community, we are there for our children. When we teach Israel, we don’t say, “We are celebrating Hanukkah! We say there are people who celebrate Hanukkah in Israel, and others who celebrate Ramadan, and others who celebrate Christmas. From a young age, these children know that Israel is a complicated place with a lot of different people, not that different from any other country in the world. “

Each year, eighth grade students venture to Israel, a trip that for some will be their first time on a plane, and for others their first time outside New York. “For these children, hiking in Masada or Mount Carmel is an important step,” Valérie tells me. “I see the kids coming out of the hiking experience with a whole different person because they know they can actually do it – they’re exposed to something they’ve never done before. Valerie added how impressed many Israelis are to discover that these young, non-Jewish Americans can speak Hebrew so well, which helps build the student’s self-confidence.

Like New York, Israel is constantly reinventing itself, constantly giving birth to new ideas for the rest of the world to use.

Once a year, the school holds an “Israel Day”, where classrooms are transformed into shuks and restaurants that one might find in Tel Aviv, and several months later, it’s “ Harlem Day, ”where students are immersed in the character and history of their present life. trampling patterns. Holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Tu Bishvat are discussed, but not celebrated, so as not to distract from the central mission of HHLA. Through their programming, curriculum and field trips, Harlem Hebrew perfectly merges the spirit of Israel with the spirit of New York City, spirits that I believe are related. Like Israel, New York City is a tapestry of immigrants from all corners of the earth. Like New York, Israel is constantly reinventing itself, constantly giving birth to new ideas for the rest of the world to use.

One of my last questions was how the Harlem community reacted to this cultural addition to their neighborhood. “We only go to a community that wants us,” I was told. “And if we are here, it means we are welcome here.”

I thanked my tour guides, smiled at various students and teachers, and returned to the New York world. I had a cup of coffee at Columbia University, an anti-Israel ideology petri dish that sits on the Harlem border, knowing that many of the busy students walking past me were convinced that Israel was an apartheid and racist entity. I wondered how many knew that a community that looks like everything they claim to stand for – diversity, fairness, inclusion – celebrated Jewish self-determination in their ancestral homeland a few blocks away.


Blake flayton is director of new media and a columnist for the Jewish Journal.

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