Straight Out of Brooklyn: a Black and Jewish School Thrives

Straight Out of Brooklyn: a Black and Jewish School Thrives

Why is the Hebrew Language Academy different?

Published May 26, 2011

Why is a day at the Hebrew Language Academy (HLA) different from that at other New York City public charter schools? It is not that it is located in a largely-Jewish area of Brooklyn.


It is that the children sitting in the school’s kindergarten classes are white and Black, and the latter not only may not be Jewish but some of them are Muslims. The school’s final difference that is reported in a Village Voice article is that “Every bit of written instruction—from the alphabet to science—is explained from left to right in English, and then from right to left in Hebrew.”


The school was once a yeshiva, or Orthodox Jewish academy, and is now a publicly-funded, privately-run school, which begs a question of whether church is separate from state in the building. The adminstrators don't want to talk about it but say that it is not a religious school, and the kids regardless of background don’t care, as they are busy speaking and understanding Hebrew.


Among the faculty in this unusual school are two Black men. One is Qayyim Shabbaz (scroll down), an African-American with a Muslim name who on the day a reporter visited was instructing the school children how to play soccer, in Hebrew.  HLA’s principal, a Black woman named Maureen Campbell says of Shabbaz "He's just great with languages."


The other Black male on the faculty is Esosa Ogbahan. The second grade teacher grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn where a riot occurred between African-Americans and Orthodox Jews in 1991. Now known as Mr. O. , the former Crown Heights teen says “I like being a part of solutions, of bringing people together."


AT HLA 55 percent of families that send children to the school “identify their children as white, 38 percent as black, 6 percent as Hispanic, and 1 percent as multiracial,” says Campbell, “We're the most diverse public school in New York City."


The idealism behind the founding of the school in 2009 may be paying off.



Written by Frank McCoy


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