August 28, 2008
Public money for Jewish schools:
Free not-quite-but-sort-of Jewish education
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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."