August 9, 2007
Jewish-oriented charter school in Florida to open amid controversy
Margaret Schorr, a marketing and public relations consultant, wanted her 5-year-old daughter, Hannah, to learn Hebrew, but she wasn't willing to pay the $8,000 to $13,000 annual tuition that Jewish day schools in south Florida typically charge for kindergarten.|
For attorney David Barnett, price wasn't the issue -- he wanted his daughter in a more diverse environment.
Both families are set to take advantage of a groundbreaking option: the nation's first Jewish-oriented charter school.
When the school year starts Aug. 20, Schorr's daughter and Barnett's daughter will be among the 430 or so students attending the new Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood, Fla. The taxpayer-funded institution says it will offer two hours of instruction a day in Jewish-related topics but not religion.
Not a single class has been taught, but the school is generating controversy among the estimated 240,000 Jews living in Broward County, which also has one of the nation's largest concentrations of Israelis.
Ben Gamla's charter was approved in March, but the school was still the hot topic at a July 24 school board meeting that drew a standing-room-only crowd. Supporters of the school -- the brainchild of the area's former U.S. Democratic congressman, Peter Deutsch -- say it could serve as a national model, providing families with a financially accessible option at a time when most non-Orthodox households are opting not to send their children to Jewish day schools.
Some critics, on the other hand, worry that the school's main contribution will be to serve as a road map for religious communities seeking to lower the wall separating church and state.
"In other countries, we Jews were forced to support religious institutions of the dominant religions," said Rabbi Allan Tuffs of Temple Beth El, a Reform congregation in Hollywood. "The Jewish community has succeeded in America, largely thanks to the principle of separation of church and state."
"But with charter schools like Ben Gamla, we are opening the door for public money to be used to support all sorts of religious ideologies across America," Tuffs warned. "What will we say to the imam down the street who says he wants to teach Arabic within an Islamic cultural setting? Or the fundamentalist Christian group that wants to start a school to teach Christian culture?"
By definition, charter schools are publicly financed elementary or secondary schools that are managed privately, with minimal input from local school boards, and whose innovative teaching methods are expected to produce higher academic results.
Ben Gamla's director, Adam Siegel, an Orthodox rabbi, said students will learn Hebrew, Jewish culture and Jewish history for two hours a day -- faculty will be forbidden from teaching Torah or prayer. Siegel, 37, said the school will serve kosher meals, and students will be permitted to organize their own worship services.
"I didn't get hired for this job because I'm a rabbi," he said. "Plenty of Orthodox Jews work as stock brokers and lawyers without converting people. If you're a math teacher, you focus on the math. It's not my job to chase people and make them Jewish."
Susan Onori, charter school coordinator for the Broward school board, said her agency rejected Ben Gamla's original curriculum, which utilized textbooks replete with menorahs, Stars of David and other religious symbols.
"We felt that was inappropriate for a public school," Onori said. But, she added, the school made changes and is now in compliance with the law.
"The Ben Gamla school is not religious in nature at all," Onori said. "We do not fund public religious schools in the state of Florida."
Onori vowed that the school would be monitored and have its charter revoked if it was found to be teaching Judaism.
"They have a contract with us," she said, "and the contract is very clear about separation of church and state."
About 16,500 of the county's 236,000 students attend charter schools, with 52 such institutions expected to be operating by the time classes begin.
The new Jewish-themed school is named after Rabbi Joshua Ben Gamla, a first century rabbi in Israel who is credited with establishing the concept of public education.
Reform rabbi Tuffs accused Deutsch of misrepresenting the school as secular in nature, while heavily marketing it through Chabad Lubavitch congregations as providing the equivalent of a Jewish day school education. He also criticized Siegel.
"The director doesn't call himself rabbi anymore; now he's Mr. Siegel," Tuffs said. "This is an Orthodox rabbi who has a bachelor's. He's got no credentials of any kind, other than having run a yeshiva-style school. If you really want to have a Hebrew language program, you hire an Israeli with an advanced degree in pedagogy. It's so disingenuous."
School board member Eleanor Sobel also raised concerns about the school and its director. During the recent school board meeting, she noted that she and her brother had learned Hebrew in a public school and said that she had originally been excited by the idea of Ben Gamla.
"But your principal is an Orthodox rabbi, and your original location was going to be a synagogue," she said, according to the Florida Jewish News. "The only way we can know what's really going on is if we have a mole in your school."
Deutsch insisted that "Ben Gamla is not a Jewish day school but a public school open to anyone who lives in Broward County, regardless of religion."
"Trust me," he said, "if we were doing anything in violation of that, we would have already been sued."
Deutsch and Onori both asserted that the school's main detractors are backers of expensive private Jewish day schools terrified of losing students to Ben Gamla. Representatives of day schools who raised questions about Ben Gamla at the recent school board meeting cited legal concerns.
A champion of the charter school movement during his time in Congress, Deutsch said Ben Gamla is licensed to have 600 students, but because of space restrictions, there can only be 430 for now.
"We have an additional charter from Miami-Dade County for another 600 kids," he added, "and our expectation is that we will be applying for more charters in Palm Beach County and, most likely, several places outside of Florida."