Florida: Hebrew Charter School Spurs Dispute

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Aug 24 14:19:04 UTC 2007

August 24, 2007
Hebrew Charter School Spurs Dispute in Florida

HOLLYWOOD, Fla., Aug. 23 The new public school at 2620 Hollywood Boulevard
stands out despite its plain gray facade. Called the Ben Gamla Charter
School, it is run by an Orthodox rabbi, serves kosher lunches and
concentrates on teaching Hebrew. About 400 students started classes at Ben
Gamla this week amid caustic debate over whether a public school can teach
Hebrew without touching Judaism and the unconstitutional side of the
church-state divide. The conflict intensified Wednesday, when the Broward
County School Board ordered Ben Gamla to suspend Hebrew lessons because
its curriculum the third proposed by the school referred to a Web site
that mentioned religion.

Opponents say that it is impossible to teach Hebrew and aspects of Jewish
culture outside a religious context, and that Ben Gamla, billed as the
nations first Hebrew-English charter school, violates one of its paramount
legal and political boundaries. But supporters say the school is no
different from hundreds of others around the country with dual-language
programs, whose popularity has soared in ethnically diverse states like

Its not a religious school, said Peter Deutsch, a former Democratic member
of Congress from Florida who started Ben Gamla and hopes to replicate it
in Los Angeles, Miami and New York. South Florida is one of the largest
Hebrew-speaking communities in the world outside Israel, so there are lots
of really good reasons to try to create a program like this here. The
battle over Ben Gamla parallels one in New York over Khalil Gibran
International Academy, a new public school that will focus on Arabic
language and culture. But some who have followed the evolution of both
schools say Ben Gamla could prove more problematic. As a charter school
that receives public money but is exempt from certain rules, they say, it
is subject to less oversight.

Charter schools have greater autonomy than a school being run by the Board
of Education, said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the
Anti-Defamation League. Lets give it a shot, but lets watch it very, very
carefully. Mr. Deutsch said Ben Gamla, named for a Jewish high priest who
established free universal schooling in ancient Israel, received 800
applications in one week this summer. About half of the applications were
from adjacent Miami-Dade County, but the school admitted only Broward
County residents, ensuring that almost everyone from the county who wanted
to attend could do so.

The students are in kindergarten through eighth grade. About 80 percent
transferred from other public schools, Mr. Deutsch said, and many, if not
most, of the rest came from private Jewish day schools. I just didnt
appreciate the demand at all, said Mr. Deutsch, who splits his time
between South Florida and Israel. If I had 5,000, maybe 10,000 desks
available in South Florida today, I think I could fill them. Under the
schools charter agreement, students are to spend one period a day learning
Hebrew. They will have a second daily class math or science, for example
conducted in a mix of Hebrew and English.

There are no separate classes on Jewish culture, but Rabbi Adam Siegel,
the schools director, said it would come up during Hebrew instruction.
Teachers might also do special units on aspects of Jewish culture, he
said, like Israeli folk dancing. School officials have not asked students
whether they are Jewish, Rabbi Siegel said, but 37 percent of parents
identified Hebrew as their first language. Seventeen percent said Spanish
was their primary language, he said, while 5 percent said Russian and 5
percent said French. The school has a handful of black students, including
members of a Baptist church that provides their transportation to and from
the school.

Mr. Deutsch and Rabbi Siegel, a former Jewish day school director, said
their critics were mostly defenders of Jewish day schools that stand to
lose students and tuition money. No one has sued to stop the school, but
Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of
Florida, said a lawsuit was possible. Whether this is going to cross the
line or not will depend on what goes on in the classroom, Mr. Simon said.
Will they neutrally and academically address religious topics, or will
there be more preaching than teaching going on in the classroom? It is too
early to tell.

Rabbi Siegel said the school was proceeding with such extreme caution that
even a neutral mention of religion was unlikely. The sign outside Ben
Gamla was going to include a Hebrew phrase for welcome, Rabbi Siegel said,
but because the literal translation is blessed are those who come, he
decided against it. Even basic things, like if there was a page that had a
picture of a shofar, I pulled it out, Rabbi Siegel said, referring to the
rams horn used in High Holy Day services. We went so far overboard, its
crazy. The school board rejected Ben Gamlas first two Hebrew curriculum
proposals after finding they included religious references. The second,
which relied on a textbook titled Ha-Yesod, asked students to translate
phrases like Our Holy Torah is dear to us and Man is redeemed from his
sins through repentance.

Rabbi Siegel said the school would have omitted such phrases from lessons.
On Tuesday, the school board hired Nathan Katz, a religious studies
professor at Florida International University, to vet the latest
curriculum proposal before its next meeting on Sept. 11. The school cannot
teach Hebrew before then, a school board spokesman said. Rabbi Siegel was
originally the schools principal, but he hired someone else after people
said it was inappropriate for a rabbi to oversee instruction. Rabbi
Siegel, who does not have a congregation, said it should not have
mattered. One of the most ridiculous complaints is that the line between
culture and religion is so thin, he said. Who better to make that
distinction than a rabbi?

Wryly, he added, I dont envision myself doing bar mitzvahs for the middle
school kids. Eleanor Sobel, a school board member who is among Ben Gamlas
most vocal critics, said making sure the school did not stray from
constitutional rules would take a near-impossible level of supervision. I
dont know how to monitor this, and thats why I have great concern, Ms.
Sobel said. Accountability is real important when youre dealing with
taxpayers money. Allan Tuffs, the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Hollywood,
said he, too, was worried about the school and what it could lead to. Jews
have thrived in America as in no other nation, Rabbi Tuffs said, in large
measure due to this concept of separation of church and state.

He added, Once a Jewish school like Ben Gamla is established, you know
that fundamentalist Christian groups throughout America will be lining up
to replicate this model according to their religious tradition.
Undeterred, Mr. Deutsch is seeking four more charters for Ben Gamla
schools in Broward and Palm Beach Counties, he said, and has already
received one for a school in Miami. He said he hoped to eventually open
100 Hebrew-English charter schools around the country. The school here is
managed by Academica, a private company on whose board Mr. Deutsch has
served, which manages 35 of Floridas roughly 350 charter schools.

Tzipora Nurieli, the mother of three Ben Gamla students, said she had
spent more than $40,000 a year in tuition at a private Jewish day school.
Ms. Nurieli, who immigrated from Israel, said that while her children
could learn religion at home, they needed formal schooling in Hebrew. I
believe we are creating a better world at this school because language is
a bridge, she said. I see all different kids in this school, and I know my
children are becoming part of the universe.


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