Ben Gamla is currently entering its second year, with 600 students enrolled and many more who didn't get in. Ben Gamla is one of several nascent efforts to found Hebrew-language charter schools and has caught the attention of Jewish parents, including some in Los Angeles, who have begun to lay the groundwork for a school here.
Publicly funded Hebrew instruction is seen by some as an important component for the future of Jewish education, either as an alternative to a costly private Jewish education or as a way to reach the significant minority of Jewish children who are not getting any Jewish education at all. Others are simply excited about creating an academically excellent public school where children can graduate fluent in Hebrew.
The movement to create such schools got a high-profile bump last May when the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life in New York, the philanthropic entity behind some of this generation's most innovative and successful programs, threw its backing behind a Hebrew charter start-up in Brooklyn.
But where some see innovation, others see a duplicitous and threatening end-run around the Constitution, trying to get the state to fund what almost amounts to a religious day school. Critics say enterprises like Ben Gamla, the first Hebrew-language charter school in the country, are a lose-lose proposition: If the school is teaching Hebrew stripped of its Jewish resonance, as required by church-state separation, the Hebrew language and Jewish education suffer. Conversely, if too much of the cultural context or flavor of Judaism seeps in, the school threatens to breach the church-state wall Jews have spent decades fortifying.
They also worry, with good reason, that free Hebrew schools -- where not all, but most of the kids are Jewish and some Jewish culture is embedded in the curriculum -- will threaten existing day schools and congregational schools.
The debate, while important in formulating a community approach, will not determine whether these schools are founded. Charter schools -- paid for by school districts, but run privately -- can be established by anyone with enough vision, energy and startup money to make it happen. Spanish and Japanese charter schools already are flourishing in Los Angeles, and Arabic, Greek and Chinese schools are among those succeeding elsewhere.
Now, at least two separate efforts by parents in Los Angeles have begun pursuing Hebrew charter schools.
"This is going to happen, whether we do it or someone else does it," said Tanya Mizrahi Covalin, a former journalist for NBC News who is laying the foundation for a Hebrew language elementary school in Venice Beach. Covalin calls Hebrew an integral part of her identity; she grew up in Montreal and her husband is from Mexico City. Their three small children speak English, French and Spanish, and Covalin and her husband speak Hebrew when they don't want the kids to understand.
"Talk about the American dream," she said of the charter school process. "I can make the school I want for my kids. I can put in the elements I want and find amazing people to help make it happen."
Covalin envisions a progressive, developmentally directed program with a strong Hebrew language component, located, most likely, in the Venice area. She doesn't have a firm timeline, but has already paired up with some forward-looking educators to generate the vision and plans necessary for applying to the school board for a charter.
A separate group of parents, many of them day school parents, have been discussing for about a yearthe notion of a Hebrew language charter as an alternative to costly day school education.
Covalin doesn't see her vision as a Jewish endeavor at all, and she has not attempted to engage Los Angeles' organized Jewish community. But if the plans move forward, Covalin's school will find itself at the center of an educational experiment that will most likely have a significant impact on existing Jewish institutions and Jewish families across the city.
"The leadership, lay and professional, of the Jewish community in Los Angeles and in any other places where they are building these schools should work together from the beginning to make sure they understand everything, make sure they work in a collaborative manner, not one against the other," said Moshe Papo, executive director of the Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education in Broward County, Fla.,where Ben Gamla is located. "Work together to make sure it is suitable for your community, or you will wake up in the morning and find out it's not good for you and it's hurting your schools."
Case Study in Florida
Papo is speaking from experience.
When Ben Gamla opened with 400 kids last year, around 100 kids left day schools in the surrounding area, which hit non-Orthodox day schools particularly hard. Supplemental religious schools don't seem to have lost as many students in the first round, but if more charter schools open, as Ben Gamla's founders plan, a drain from those schools could significantly impact synagogue membership.
Last year, nearly half the kids at Ben Gamla came from Hebrew-speaking homes, and about 20 percent to 30 percent are former day school students. An estimated 10 percent of the students are believed to be not Jewish, though the school is not allowed to ask about religion.
Ben Gamla's curriculum meets Florida's state standards, as required by state law, and in addition the school teaches one period of Hebrew a day. Israeli culture and the historical milieu of Hebrew are integrated into social studies curricula, and Hebrew is used in music, art, and sports, and some middle school math classes.
Religious study happens outside of school hours at Ben Gamla. Parents have arranged for an independent morning prayer service before school hours in rented space in the same building the school leases. An afterschool program, also in rented space in the building, teaches Bible, holidays, philosophy and other topics the school is not allowed to touch.
"This has the potential to be a paradigm shift in Jewish education in America," said Peter Deutsch, a former U.S. Democratic representative for South Florida, who gave both significant time and money to help found the school.
With less than 10 percent of Jewish kids nationwide attending day schools, Deutsch sees Hebrew language charters as a way of expanding Hebrew literacy and basic Jewish knowledge in a more effective way than supplemental religious schools, which educate about 70 percent of Jewish kids nationwide.
"More Jewish kids will have the potential to receive what can be a relatively significant language, cultural and historical component within a public school environment and also the opportunity, outside the school environment, if they choose, to easily access the religious component," he said.
Deutsch thinks the market for a school like this is deep. He has purchased a building and applied for three more charters.
About 85 percent of last year's Ben Gamla students came back for year two.
"We're not fancy, with science labs and swimming programs, but we did create a culture here that really has a special sense of purpose, that the kids are here to learn Hebrew," said Adam Siegel, an Orthodox rabbi with a background in business who is the school's executive director.
Siegel emphasized that Ben Gamla's offerings should not be confused with a Jewish education.
"Think about the difference between preaching and teaching," he said. "For example, it's 100 percent appropriate to explain that that it is the custom of the Jewish people to bake matzah on Passover. It is inappropriate to say 'We eat matzah because God did a miracle for the Jews when he took us out of Egypt.'"
He focuses on building character grounded in universal values.
"We don't tell kids it's an aveira [transgression] to speak lashon hara. We say lashon hara is a bad thing even if you don't know God said it's bad. No one likes someone who gossips, and it's rude not to speak nicely."
Some Jewish educators see that as a disingenuous obfuscation.
"You have to be careful about universalizing everything without making absolutely clear that these ideas come from our particularistic thread and from very powerful religious values," said Bruce Powell, founder and head of school at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills. "We don't speak lashon hara because we are created in God's image and you can't bespoil God's image. I want our kids in day schools to understand that this is one of Judaism's greatest contributions to moral imagination -- that every human being is created in God's image. That is a transformative idea, and you can't tell them to own that in a public school."
Even without bringing God into the picture, trying to teach Hebrew while steering clear of religious references is not an authentic way to teach Hebrew, and nearly impossible, others argue. Thus, you can either have a school that honors the letter and spirit of the establishment clause, or that does a good job of teaching Hebrew in an intensive way -- but you can't have both in one school.
Separating out what is Jewish culture and what is religion is fraught with tricky nuance. And if Jewish culture and language is taught at public schools, why not Christian or Muslim culture?
"If one fully believes in the principal of separation of church and state, one has to be exceedingly careful with the Hebrew language, because it's really difficult to teach, for example, Hebrew literature without references to the fuller resonance of the language based on years and years of Jewish literature," said Michael Zeldin, dean of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. "This can become very problematic."
Jewish Education, Minus $15,000 Tuition
But with a growing number of Jews defining themselves as secular or cultural rather than religious, a Hebrew education with some basic Jewish context might be just right.
Rami Wernik, dean of the Fingerhut School of Education at American Jewish University (AJU), formerly the University of Judaism, visited Ben Gamla while on a conference in Florida. An ardent proponent of day school education, he calls the development of charter schools fascinating. Wernik said he is "straddling the fence" on whether this is a positive or negative development for Jewish education.
"Assuming the school is stellar according to general standards, the question will be is this a robust enough Jewish education? Is it coherent to teach Hebrew without reference to Tanach [Bible] or siddur [prayerbook]? Does it make sense to have a school like this in the United States of America? These kinds of questions are open-ended. They are philosophical and ideological," Wernik said.
The community has to grapple with those questions if it wants to continue raising a significant number of Jewishly literate children, argues Jonathan Schreiber, a marketing executive with a master's in Jewish education.
"I have this deep-seated belief that the Jewish community has probably built an unsustainable educational model over the long term in community day schools," said Schreiber, who sends his kids to Valley Beth Shalom Day School, where he sits on the board.
He thinks charter schools can offer an alternative to day schools and historically ineffective -- though improving -- congregational schools.
Tuition at day schools is around $15,000 for elementary school and about $25,000 for high school, and Schreiber said it is rising at rate of about 11 percent a year. With numbers like that, the vast majority of Jews don't even consider day school education. Schreiber has been canvassing other parents about getting the ball rolling on a Hebrew-language charter school.
Recently he was put in contact with Tanya Covalin, who is further along in the process.
Excellent School, Hebrew a Plus
Unlike Schreiber, Covalin is not looking to create another Jewish educational model, but rather is excited about the idea of molding an excellent school that will also include Hebrew. She is hoping to open a K-5 developmental charter in Venice Beach with a Hebrew language component within the next few years.
Covalin researched the best educational models and parenting methods even before her children were born, but when it came to looking for an elementary school for her oldest, now entering kindergarten, she couldn't find the progressive, developmental approach she had found in the best preschools.
Then this summer her son flourished in a dinosaur class at the cutting-edge University Elementary School (UES), a private school that serves as a laboratory for UCLA's Graduate School of Education. Already exploring the idea of a charter at that point, Covalin got in touch with Lisa Rosenthal Schaeffer, a former employee at UES and now a pedagogical consultant with Para Los Ninos, a nonprofit aiming to bring disadvantaged families out of poverty through educational opportunity. The group runs nine preschools, a charter elementary school and a charter middle school, all based on the idea that kids can have a part in determining how and what they learn.
A developmental Hebrew charter in Venice could serve both a diverse neighborhood population along with the nearby Jewish and Israeli communities. Interest from non-Jewish families might stem from the fact that teaching young children a foreign language has been proven to increase their intellectual capacity.
Covalin is considering following the Hebrew curriculum offered at Arab schools in Israel.
She might also find a model in the curriculum being developed for the Hebrew Language Academy, the charter in Brooklyn, N.Y., being created with startup funds from the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.
Sara Berman, a mother of five day-school students and a New York Sun columnist, is heading up the effort to found a school focused on academic excellence, with Hebrew as a bonus. Berman is the daughter of Michael Steinhardt, whose foundation is backing the school. He is a founder and primary funder of Birthright, the program that builds Jewish identity by offering a free trip to Israel to Jewish 18-26 year olds.
"I really want the school to be a first-rate school -- I think that is what attracts parents," Berman said. To that end, a language teacher from the Middlebury College in Vermont is developing a Hebrew curriculum, and a founder of the Heschel School in New York is developing a social studies curriculum that will integrate Jewish culture. Berman plans to make the curriculum available to other Hebrew-language charter schools.
Berman filed the application for the K-5 school in June and will hear this winter whether the charter has been accepted. She hopes to open in September '09.
Steinhardt initially latched onto the idea of charter schools as a way of furthering Jewish education and identity. But the Foundation has since distanced itself from that idea.
"Originally that might have been one of the reasons why my dad was so interested, but the truth is, that doesn't fit in with what a charter school is about," Berman said. "He realizes that, and he is still just as excited about it. He is interested in education on its own, without the Jewish piece of it."
The Foundation declined to reveal the amount of money it has contributed to the school.
Steinhardt's involvement probably helped the school get local Jewish community support. Berman reached out to the UJA-Federation of New York, which appended a letter of support to the school's charter application.
Not a Jewish School, But a Community Issue
In Florida, that kind of outreach didn't happen, and initially the community saw the school as a threat to local equilibrium.
While many educators still resent the school, leaders are beginning to concede that Ben Gamla cannot forever be seen as an interloper, but rather as a part of Florida's Jewish educational landscape.
"I think that once the initial shock has worn off, the community as a whole and the individual institutions that make up the organized Jewish community have responded very realistically and have embraced the need to adapt to the changing marketplace," said Eric Stillman, CEO and president of the Jewish Federation of Broward County.
The Federation is actively reaching out in the area, especially among the Israeli population. Schools launched a marketing campaign about Jewish education at Jewish schools.
At one point last year, Papo, who heads South Florida's Jewish education umbrella organization, floated ideas such as bussing kids from Ben Gamla to after-school Judaic programs, or offering a special Ben Gamla track for kids already fluent in Hebrew. But a meeting of day -- and congregational-school educators balked.
"In the end they said, 'Let's just leave them alone. Let them do what they want —80 percent of them are not affiliated anyway,'" Papo said.
This year about 200 Ben Gamla students are expected to attend Totally Hebrew School, an after-school program renting space in the school building and run by an Orthodox outreach organization.
Some argue that more liberal educational organizations should be clamoring to tap into this educational goldmine -- mostly unaffiliated families who are making a strong statement about their desire for some kind of Jewish education.
"The decision to found or not to found a Hebrew charter school is not one which will be made by any sort of plebiscite in the larger Jewish community," acknowledged Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles. "The question then becomes, how do we relate to that school? If there are Jewish children enrolled there, as in any other public school, can we imagine a program that best meets the needs of these families and encourages their participation in a richer Jewish educational opportunity?"
It might also force existing schools to learn from what attracted parents to Ben Gamla -- a free education. Last year and this, south Florida day schools managed to raise more scholarship money than ever before to keep families from defecting.
"The big question is, is this indeed a zero-sum game for the community?" asks Wernik of AJU. "Is there a way for it to be win-win for day schools and supplementary schools and for charter schools? That is the $64,000 question right there."