BY RABBI LEE BUCKMAN / AJT //

Every few weeks, I receive an email from a panicked parent about the threat of Hebrew charter schools opening here in Atlanta. With day school tuition rising, how can a parent refuse a no-cost option like a charter school?

First graders Yael Mainzer and Natalie Grosswald admire their new siddurim. PHOTO / GHA

First graders Yael Mainzer and Natalie Grosswald admire their new siddurim. PHOTO / GHA

After all, although no religious education is permitted, children can learn the modern Hebrew language in an environment that presents some Israeli culture…and it’s free.

Recently, I was reminded of a powerful response to that question: Chagigat HaSiddur. It’s a momentous, emotional event; excited students nervously anticipate it for months beforehand.

This past Friday, our own GHA first graders experienced this joy of receiving their first siddur. During the ceremony, the children could hardly contain themselves, and the memory is undoubtedly one that they’ll speak about and cherish through adulthood.

It is important to learn about and study our tradition, but it’s even more important to feel it and love it with a community of friends, and that’s why this ceremony is so powerful. It captures a child’s heart, not just her or his mind.

Indeed, Chagigat HaSiddur is about the pure, unadulterated excitement that children feel about being able to read Hebrew and connect to G-d with their personalized siddur. And that, I say, is why Hebrew charter schools are no match for it.

In our particular case, what distinguishes GHA from other types of schools is not just that we immerse children in the texts, culture, language, history and heritage of our people. It’s that we create an emotional bond with Judaism for our children; we integrate the heart with the mind.

We embrace children with the love, warmth and joy of Judaism.  We provide moments of transcendence – not just at their siddur ceremonies but, every day – that integrate one’s identity as a Jew, a mensch, a lover of Israel and a speaker of Hebrew.

At GHA, students don’t just learn about Torah and Israel and G-d; they experience ahavat Torah (the love of Torah), ahavat ha’aretz (the love of Israel), ahavat Yisrael (the love of the Jewish people) and ahavat Hashem (the love of G-d). We provide a Jewish context for Jewish living through which the Hebrew calendar and holidays are experienced, celebrated and lived.

And given the Constitutional limitations, no Hebrew charter school can provide such fertile ground to cultivate and nourish the soul and heart of children.

Chaim Nachman Bialik once wrote, “the beit midrash is the incubator of our people’s soul.”  He had it right.

Yes, day school education is costly. I do not minimize the sacrifices that families need to make to send their children to a quality school like GHA, and I know that alternatives are tempting. However, what we offer is priceless.

With all the forces that attempt to lure children away from their Jewish roots, the battle for the heart and emotions of our children is the most critical one of all.  And that battle is won at Greenfield Hebrew Academy.