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Public money for Jewish schools:
Free not-quite-but-sort-of Jewish education

by Julie G Fax

August 28, 2008 | 1:49 am

Ben-Gamla photos by Nadia Malove

Ben-Gamla photos by Nadia Malove

At the Ben Gamla school in Hollywood, Fla., students can get kosher food in the cafeteria, and many wear kippahs to school. They engage in acts of chesed, they worry about speaking lashon hara, and they are taught to treat each other and their teachers with derech eretz. But administrators at the school say that using those Hebrew words to describe the universal values of kindness, not gossiping and respecting one another doesn't make this a Jewish school. In fact, it is not allowed to mean students are getting a Jewish education, because Ben Gamla is a kindergarten through eighth-grade public charter school funded by the State of Florida's taxpayers.

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 ALTTEXTNew 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."

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