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Fla. Charter School Fuels Church-State Debate

America’s first Hebrew-English charter school is scheduled to open this month — following widespread public debate over its curriculum.

The Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood, Fla., will welcome approximately 430 students, from kindergarten through eighth grade, on August 20. Children at the bilingual school will spend two hours each day learning Hebrew, with words and concepts taught in the context of Jewish culture and history. They will not, however, receive religious instruction.

The bilingual charter-school model is nothing new to South Florida, where schools such as the International Studies Charter High School and the Athenian Academy, a Greek-language charter school, are among the state’s finest. According to Keith Bromery of the Broward County Schools communications department, the school board grants petitioners a charter “if all of their materials are appropriate.” Ben Gamla’s charter, said Bromery, “did comply with state requirements.”

Ben Gamla plans to offer all state-required courses, but to concentrate specifically on Hebrew language through the texts and materials of the Ha-Yesod curriculum, which is used in universities and public high schools that teach Hebrew. The school board had taken issue with a previously proposed curriculum that used religious texts as part of its language instruction, but approved the Ha-Yesod curriculum, which teaches Hebrew in a “cultural context,” much as other languages are taught in other bilingual charter schools.

Former congressman Peter Deutsch, a pioneer in Florida’s charter-school education, presented Ben Gamla’s charter to the school board. Deutsch, who resides part time in Israel, sees Ben Gamla as a new model for Hebrew education. “If you wanted to enroll your child to learn Hebrew a year ago, you had four choices [in Broward County],” he said. “Day schools have had a monopoly on Hebrew-language instruction.”

Given the burgeoning Israeli population in South Florida, Deutsch feels that Ben Gamla is a necessity. More than one-third of Ben Gamla’s applicants listed Hebrew as their first language. “If you have family ties to Israel — business, language, culture — you want your child to learn Hebrew,” he said.

Israelis aren’t the only ones interested. “There are many kids who want a Hebrew education” outside of a religious setting, Deutsch added. “It becomes our communal responsibility to educate them.”

The nonreligious setting is one reason that some people prefer Ben Gamla to day schools; price is another. For many parents, day schools are too costly, with annual tuition often running well over $10,000, while Ben Gamla is free; charter schools are privately run but funded by taxpayer money. Deutsch says that the school will receive about $5,000 per student each year from the Florida Department of Education, 95% of what the department pays at a regular public school.

Margaret Schorr, whose child will be starting kindergarten at Ben Gamla this fall, feels that the school offers “a terrific opportunity to go to a fully accredited school with fully accredited teachers… focus on Hebrew [and] meet children of a variety of backgrounds, as opposed to Jewish day schools.”

Since the school’s opening was announced, Ben Gamla has been besieged by requests for enrollment, with more than 800 applications for barely half as many slots. School officials switched locations to accommodate this unexpectedly large number of students, moving from Hallandale Jewish Center to a larger converted office building. Four-fifths of the students are coming from other public schools, according to Deutsch. Although Ben Gamla is expected to attract mostly Jewish students, it is impossible to provide an exact figure, because as a public school, it is forbidden to ask applicants their religion.

The school will serve kosher meals, although students are permitted to bring nonkosher food from home. And while faculty will not teach Torah or prayer, students will be permitted to say blessings to themselves silently outside of class, as would be allowed at any public school. Though Rabbi Adam Siegel, Ben Gamla’s director, sees no time in the school day for students to organize prayer services, he says he can neither promote nor prevent students from doing so before school begins each day. Critics in South Florida’s Jewish community have taken aim at multiple issues surrounding Ben Gamla, ranging from the school being named after the first-century high priest and religious teacher Rabbi Joshua Ben Gamla to the naming of Siegel, an Orthodox rabbi, as the school’s director. (Siegel was originally tapped to be principal, but Miriam Rube, previously headmaster at a Conservative Jewish day school, will now fill that position.)

Deutsch and Siegel dismiss such criticisms as minor concerns from affected parties. They see Ben Gamla as an appropriate namesake due to his contribution to universal public education, and Siegel’s rabbinical ordination as a non-factor in his hiring: He has years of experience in both business and education. “I didn’t get hired for this job because I’m a rabbi,” Siegel said.

The more significant discourse, however, centers on the essence of Judaism, for if parties cannot agree on that, then the church/state line cannot be objectively defined. How do language and culture fit into Judaism? Can we differentiate modern practices and spoken word from holy, ancient ritual? Ben Gamla’s decision to teach Hebrew in a cultural context has brought these questions to the forefront. According to Reform Rabbi Allan Tuffs of Temple Beth El, which is also in Hollywood, “‘Jewish culture’ is a code word for Judaism. Jewish culture divorced from religion ends up looking very much like any other Western society.”

To Siegel, however, teaching Hebrew in a cultural context should not be a controversial matter: It is essential to immersing a student in the language. He cites the phrase “Shabbat Shalom” as one in which a cultural context is crucial to understanding its meaning, much like when “taking English and hearing ‘grand slam’ and ‘home run,’ you have to understand what baseball is.”

Myrna Baron, executive director of New York City’s Center for Cultural Judaism, agrees that teaching Hebrew in a cultural context “absolutely can work. It is done in universities, cultural supplemental schools, the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the Israeli public school system.” To Baron, “using Hebrew texts as history and literature is different from understanding them as religious documents.”

Still, there are those who are distrustful of Ben Gamla’s real goal. Ivan Reich, a board member and parent at Broward County’s David Posnack Hebrew Day School, feels that Ben Gamla will create a “slippery slope: Muslims and Christians will say, ‘How can you deny us [a charter school]?’” Reich sees Ben Gamla, if successful, as “very dangerous” for the future of Jewish day school education, because people would be going to a school “that they perceive as a Jewish day school, for free.”

Siegel views Ben Gamla as a non-threat to those who value religious education, evidenced by the fact that he has chosen not to enroll his own children, and that not a single student applied from Yeshiva Elementary, the school in Miami Beach where he used to serve as principal. “I am very clear when I say to people that we will not be teaching religion,” Siegel said, “This is a public school. It isn’t a yeshiva, and we don’t want day school students coming and thinking that it is.”

Susan Onori, the charter school coordinator for the Broward school board, agreed. “The Ben Gamla school is not religious in nature at all,” she said. “We do not fund public religious schools in the state of Florida.”

The school will be monitored, Onori noted, and its charter will be revoked if the school is found to be teaching religion. “They have a contract with us,” she said, “and the contract is very clear about separation of church and state.”

— With reporting by JTA

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