New charter school must stop teaching Hebrew &mdash for now

Less than 48 hours after classes began at the nation’s only Jewish-oriented charter school, officials in Broward County, Fla., issued a command of their own: Thou shalt not teach Hebrew, at least for the time being.

The Ben Gamla Charter School ignored the ruling for one day, then decided to cooperate with the Broward County School Board — even though Ben Gamla’s founder, former Democratic congressman Peter Deutsch, said on Aug. 23 that his Hollywood, Fla., institution is going strictly by the book.

“I had to literally run around school yesterday telling the Hebrew teachers not to teach Hebrew,” Deutsch said. He insisted that there’s a great deal of confusion over what is and isn’t allowed. “The school board says we don’t have a contract at this point. We say we not only have a contract that allows us to teach Hebrew, but a contract that obligates us to teach Hebrew.”

Nevertheless, Deutsch said that he and the superintendent of schools, James Notter, want exactly the same thing: a Hebrew-English curriculum with no religious content. “It can’t be religious — that would be unconstitutional,” Deutsch said.

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.

Ben Gamla’s supporters were already told months ago that the school would be forbidden from teaching Torah or prayer. Its original proposal was soundly rejected by school board members on the grounds that overt Jewish symbolism would be involved.

But teaching Hebrew as a foreign language was far less controversial and never emerged as a bone of contention until now. Keith Bromery, spokesman for the school board, said it’s possible that Hebrew-language instruction may resume Sept. 11, following the board’s next meeting.

“We’re not saying they can never teach Hebrew again. It’s just a temporary suspension,” he said. “We want to bend over backwards to make sure there isn’t any proselytizing going on, other than casual references to religion. We are ultimately responsible for insuring there’s separation of church and state.”

Ben Gamla’s director, Adam Siegel, says that the 400 students at the school — which is now off limits to reporters — are getting lessons in Israeli geography until the 25 faculty members are once again permitted to resume teaching Hebrew.

Siegel, 37, is an Orthodox rabbi who ran a Jewish elementary school in North Miami Beach before being hired by Deutsch to supervise Ben Gamla. He claims that the Hebrew teachers under his supervision — working closely with the school board’s foreign language department — presented the school board with a meticulously crafted 600-page curriculum.

“They found one reference to a Web site with religious content, out of the 600 pages we put together,” said a frustrated Siegel, insisting that the school board’s “no Hebrew” ruling has nothing to do with the curriculum itself. “Anybody who tells you it does either doesn’t know or is playing games with you,” he said. “It’s about money — people feeling that they’re losing control of a customer base.”

Eric Stillman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Broward County, doesn’t buy that.

“As far as I can see, the Broward School Board is focused entirely on the issue of separation of church and state. They are paying no attention whatsoever to the issue of competition or money,” said Stillman, whose organization provides grants to private Jewish day schools.

“The question is whether the instruction is limited to conversational Hebrew, which is of no concern to us. The issue has to do with teaching Jewish culture, and whether religion would be included. At this point, the responsibility lies with the Broward School Board to monitor the school and make clear what is and what’s not acceptable for the school to be teaching.”