Hebrew charter school draws critics

Hollywood, USA - A school opening this month is named for a Jewish high priest, is directed by a rabbi, will have kosher food and will teach Hebrew. It's also a public school, funded by public tax dollars and following state curriculum guidelines.

Ben Gamla Charter School, billed as the nation's first publicly funded Hebrew-English school, has prompted fears of religion creeping into public schools and has even drawn criticism from groups that defend Jewish causes. Similar criticisms have been raised against Arabic-language charter schools elsewhere, with some saying those schools teach Islam.

Organizers insist that while Ben Gamla will teach Hebrew language and culture, it won't cross the divide between church and state.

"To me, it's very obvious that we're not teaching religion," said Rabbi Adam Siegel, the school's director. He previously directed two private Jewish day schools in Miami Beach. "Religion is prayer, it's God, it's Bible. And so if you stay away from there, you're not teaching religion."

Ben Gamla is the brainchild of former U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch, who said he was as surprised by the controversy surrounding the school as he was by the interest in it.

Its new building, set to open Aug. 20, will replace earlier quarters leased from a synagogue that had only enough room for 100 children in kindergarten through third grade. Within weeks of publicizing its opening, Deutsch said, the school received more than 800 applications. The three-story building the school is moving into has space for more than 400 students, through eighth grade.

"If we had 50 kids I would have been happy," said Deutsch, who hopes to open other schools in Miami, New York and Los Angeles.

Charter schools are publicly financed and run independently, sometimes by private entities. Some specialize in a language, a trade or some other subject.

Ben Gamla students will follow state curriculum, but also will take a Hebrew language course, and one of their core subjects — math or physical education, for example — will be taught bilingually.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the school sets a dangerous precedent.

"Whenever you have a public school, a public charter school, that focuses on a particular culture that has an intense religious connection, there is the risk that you will end up teaching that religion," he said. "It could happen because some people believe culture and religion are inseparable, or it could happen because many of the teachers and administrators are of one religion and don't recognize the problem."

Even the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Federation of Broward County have expressed concerns.

"There are unanswered questions as to how the subject matter of Jewish culture can be taught without also teaching the Jewish religion," said federation head Eric Stillman.

Deutsch and Siegel claim the federation's concerns about Ben Gamla are fueled by worry that it will draw students away from Jewish day schools. The federation supports five such schools in Broward County, but says that is not a factor in its reservations.

There are already numerous foreign language-centered public schools around the country, including Arabic ones that have drawn questions of whether they are Islamic schools in disguise.

New York City has a new public high school centered on Arab language and culture due to open next month. The Khalil Gibran International Academy has prompted concerns that Islam will seep into the curriculum. Critics have even suggested it could become a breeding ground of militant Islam.

At the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., many of the girls wear head scarves and many children fast during Ramadan. That charter school's executive director, Asad Zaman, said state officials made frequent visits after its 2003 opening to ensure religion was not a part of the curriculum. But he said public response was fairly tame compared with the reaction in Florida over Ben Gamla.

Hallandale Beach resident Margaret Schorr is sending her daughter Hannah to kindergarten at Ben Gamla and said she was told clearly the girl would not receive any religious education. She thinks concerns have been valid, but have ignored the fact that religion already has a place in public schools.

"If I were to send her to any other public school, you better believe that come December, she'd be learning Christmas carols," she said. "You better believe that they'd be wearing Halloween costumes at the end of October."