JTA / July 27, 2007
By Larry Luxner
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Margaret Schorr, a marketing and P.R. 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 very first Jewish-oriented charter school.
When the school year starts Aug. 20, Schorr's daughter and Barnett's daughter will be among 430 or so students attending the new Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood, Fla., a taxpayer-funded institution that 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 already the school — the brainchild of the area's former U.S. congressman, Peter Deutsch — 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 say it could serve as a national model for providing families with a financially accessible option at a time when the overwhelming majority of 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.
According to Ben Gamla's director, a 37-year-old Orthodox rabbi named Adam Siegel, students will learn Hebrew, Jewish culture and Jewish history for two hours a day — though faculty will be forbidden from teaching Torah or prayer. 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," Siegel told JTA. "Plenty of Orthodox Jews work as stockbrokers 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 that 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," the school board official 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 currently attend charter schools, with 52 such institutions expected to be up and running by the time classes begin next month.
The new Jewish-themed school is named after Rabbi Joshua Ben Gamla, a first-century rabbi in ancient Israel who is credited with establishing the concept of public education.
"Ben Gamla was the one who saved Torah study for his generation," Tuffs, the Reform rabbi quipped. "He was known for teaching religion, not math or science."
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 school's director.
"The director doesn't call himself rabbi anymore; now he's Mr. Siegel," Tuffs claimed. "This is an Orthodox rabbi who has a B.A. 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 as a Democratic lawmaker 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."
As it turns out, Siegel said that his own four children will not be attending Ben Gamla. "I want them to learn Torah every day," the Orthodox rabbi said. "I wouldn't even consider sending them here."
Eric Stillman, president and CEO of the Broward County Jewish Federation, said he's keeping a close watch on the new school. "We are concerned about the ability of the Broward School Board and its administration to monitor the Ben Gamla Charter School to maintain separation of church and state," he said. "I think there's a legitimate concern that this model could pave the way for other faiths to propose similar schools structured around their culture and history."
According to Deutsch, 80% of Ben Gamla's students are coming from other public schools. He said it's safe to say most of them are Jewish, though it is impossible to provide an exact figure because, as a public school, the institution is forbidden to ask applicants their religion.
"We have a lot of kids from Israel, but we also have Hispanic kids. Obviously, it's a self-selected group," Deutsch said. According to the former congressman, of the 800-plus applicants, 37% had listed Hebrew as their native language, while 17% listed Spanish, 5% French, 5% Russian and 0.5% Portuguese.
The school is being managed by Academica, a firm that currently runs 21 charter schools in Florida. According to Deutsch, the firm will receive from the Florida Department of Education roughly $5,000 per student — 95% of what the state would pay a regular public school. That works out to just over $2 million for Ben Gamla at current enrollment levels.
"Consider that in Broward County, there are approximately 50,000 Jewish kids attending K-12," Deutsch said. "Last year, there were 1,600 kids in Jewish day schools, or less than 5% of the total. Clearly, there is a huge void in Jewish education in Broward County."
For Schorr, the marketing and P.R. consultant who felt day schools were not affordable, the decision to enroll her daughter in Ben Gramla was a no-brainer.
"My husband and I are both products of the public school system, and are huge believers that it provides a good-quality educaton at a great price," said Schorr, a resident of Hallandale Beach who considers herself to be modern Orthodox. "We also know that bilingual children do much better across the board in all subject areas, so the fact that this school has a bilingual program was really appealing to us."
Barnett, the Hallandale Beach attorney who felt a regular day school would not be diverse enough for his daughter, said that "you'll find a lot of parents in South Florida are always willing to try new schools, because our education system ranks near the bottom."
Tzipora Nurieli, an Israeli-born Hallandale woman, said she's registered all three of her children —11-year-old Sara, 9-year-old Ariel and 7-year-old Sharon — at Ben Gamla, thereby saving a combined $48,000 in annual tuition fees.
"I was supposed to send them to Hillel in North Miami Beach, but this school is the most amazing miracle that's ever happened," she said. "It's a combination of teaching my kids Hebrew, but also taking advantage of the public school system. This is like having the best of both worlds."