Hebrew Charter School Spurs Dispute in Florida

Hollywood, USA - 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 nation’s 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 Florida.

“It’s 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. “Let’s give it a shot, but let’s 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 didn’t 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 school’s 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 school’s 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 ram’s horn used in High Holy Day services. “We went so far overboard, it’s crazy.”

The school board rejected Ben Gamla’s 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 school’s 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 don’t envision myself doing bar mitzvahs for the middle school kids.”

Eleanor Sobel, a school board member who is among Ben Gamla’s most vocal critics, said making sure the school did not stray from constitutional rules would take a near-impossible level of supervision.

“I don’t know how to monitor this, and that’s why I have great concern,” Ms. Sobel said. “Accountability is real important when you’re 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 Florida’s 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.”