1st Jewish-oriented charter school to open in Florida

hollywood, fla., – Margaret Schorr, a marketing and public relations 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 first Jewish-oriented charter school.

When the school year starts Aug. 20, Schorr’s daughter and Barnett’s daughter will be among the 430 or so students attending the new Ben Gamla Charter School in this city. The taxpayer-funded institution 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 the school 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 — the brainchild of the area’s former U.S. congressman Peter Deutsch — say it could serve as a national model, providing families with a financially accessible option at a time when most non-Orthodox households are opting not to send their children to Jewish day schools.

Some critics 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.

“We are opening the door for public money to be used to support all sorts of religious ideologies across America,” said Rabbi Allan Tuffs of Temple Beth El, a Reform congregation in Hollywood. Fla. “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?”

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.

Ben Gamla’s director, Orthodox Rabbi Adam Siegel, said students will learn Hebrew, Jewish culture and Jewish history for two hours a day — but faculty will be forbidden from teaching Torah or prayer. Siegel, 37, said the school will serve kosher meals, and students will be permitted to organize their own worship services.

Susan Onori, the charter school coordinator for the Broward school board, said her agency rejected Ben Gamla’s original curriculum, which used textbooks replete with menorahs, Stars of David and other religious symbols.

“We felt that was inappropriate for a public school,” Onori said. The school made changes and now complies with the law, she said.

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, and the contract is very clear about separation of church and state,” she said.

About 16,500 of the county’s 236,000 students attend charter schools; 52 such institutions are expected to be operating by the time classes begin.

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.

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.

“This is an Orthodox rabbi who has a B.A,” he said. “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.”

Deutsch insists “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. If we were doing anything in violation of that, we would have already been sued,” he said.

Deutsch and Onori assert 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.

Eric Stillman, president and CEO of the Broward County Jewish Federation, said he is keeping a close watch on the new school.

“There’s a legitimate concern this could pave the way for other faiths to propose similar schools structured around their culture and history,” he said.

According to Deutsch, 80 percent of Ben Gamla’s students are coming from other public schools. He said it is safe to say most are Jewish. But he could not provide an exact figure because, as a public school, the institution is forbidden to ask applicants their religion.

The former congressman said of the more than 800 applicants, 37 percent listed Hebrew as their native language, while 17 percent listed Spanish, 5 percent French, 5 percent Russian and 0.5 percent Portuguese.

The school is being managed by Academica, a firm that 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 percent of what the state would pay a regular public school. That works out to more than $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 percent of the total. Clearly there is a huge void in Broward County.”

Tzipora Nurieli, an Israeli-born Hallandale woman, registered her three children — ages 11, 9 and 7 — saving a combined $48,000 in 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 the best of both worlds.”