August 28, 2008
Public money for Jewish schools:
Free not-quite-but-sort-of Jewish education
(Page 4 - Previous Page)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."