Hebrew at Florida charter school approved, challenges remain

It’s 7:55 a.m., and parents are dropping off their kids in front of the Ben Gamla Charter School along busy Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, Fla. Amid a noisy melange of languages — English, Spanish, Hebrew, French and Russian — the uniformed children say their goodbyes and rush off to class at one of the nation’s first Jewish-oriented charter schools.

Few of the children notice the ominous sign at the school’s entrance: “Warning: Protected by Mossad Security.” Inside, an Israeli private security guard contracted by the school sits at his desk looking out for potential troublemakers.

But Ben Gamla’s biggest problems to date aren’t neo-Nazis or Arab terrorists.

Officials have been much more preoccupied with toilets that don’t flush, air-conditioning units that don’t cool — and local critics who insist that Ben Gamla is little more than a religious school bent on inculcating students with Judaism at taxpayers’ expense under the guise of a dual-language Hebrew-English curriculum.

At least on one of these three fronts, the school has received some relief: The Broward County School Board voted unanimously last week to allow Hebrew to be taught at Ben Gamla. The long-awaited, hotly debated Hebrew classes finally began Monday morning.

“In the long term, this was definitely worth the wait,” said Ben Gamla founder Peter Deutsch, a former Florida congressman. “We wanted to work with the school board, and now the members are feeling much more comfortable about it.”

At its Sept. 11 meeting in Fort Lauderdale, the school board approved the Hayesod curriculum for teaching Hebrew. A previous curriculum known as NETA had been rejected as too religious for use in a public school, since it contained too many references to Jewish holidays and religious practices.

One of Ben Gamla’s most vociferous opponents has been Rabbi Allan Tuffs of Temple Beth El, a Reform congregation in Hollywood. Following the vote, however, Tuffs said Ben Gamla now “seems to be making an effort to teach Hebrew as a modern language” rather than as a religious subject.

“As long as the school doesn’t try to replace a Jewish day-school education, I think it will be acceptable, but I still have concerns,” Tuffs said. “We’re going to have to see how things play out over the next two months. The school will have to be monitored very carefully.”

Under the agreement worked out last week, Ben Gamla must submit monthly lesson plans to the school district for approval, while the school’s 25 or so teachers — many of them Israeli — must take special classes to understand the difference between teaching about religion and teaching in a way that promotes religion.

Although not a “Jewish school” per se, Ben Gamla is clearly oriented toward Jewish culture. Kosher food is served in the cafeteria, and the vast majority of Ben Gamla’s 430 students are Jews. No one can say exactly how big that majority is — as a public institution, asking a child’s religion is forbidden.

“There’s been lots of urban legends about this school. I even read that Chabad was running minyans here,” Deutsch said, laughing. “The law is pretty clear; we don’t even have mezuzahs on the doors.”

Indeed, no Chasidim were in sight the day this reporter visited Ben Gamla, a week before the school board decided to allow Hebrew classes. And not a single mezuzah could be found throughout the school, which consists of 20 classrooms on three floors.

Just about every classroom has a hand-colored map of Israel, yet the names of the teachers on the doors weren’t necessarily Jewish. Walking through the hallways, painted in yellow and blue pastels, one could peek in on classes being taught by Kelly Ryan, Courtney Smith and Lauren O’Brien.

A number of black Baptist children are attending Ben Gamla, which takes its name from a first century Jewish high priest.

Eric Johnson, speaking on behalf of his father, the Rev. Joe Johnson of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in nearby Hallandale, was recently quoted by the Florida Jewish News as saying at a school board meeting that “we have enrolled kids from our church in this school because we see this school as the best place for them. Now we need to stop all this talk and start focusing on the kids.”

For school director Adam Siegel, a 37-year-old Orthodox rabbi, this meant dealing with a host of building and maintenance problems. A hands-on administrator, Siegel talked in between inspecting a broken toilet on the second floor and trying to figure out why the air-conditioning unit on the third floor wasn’t working, leading to stifling classrooms.

“We didn’t get our certificate of occupancy until 15 minutes before classes started,” Siegel said, explaining that lots of kinks still have to be worked out at Ben Gamla, which from the outside looks more like an office building than a typical Florida elementary or middle school.

Due to space limitations, children get their physical education at a parking lot across the street that has been roped off temporarily with huge potted palm trees and converted into a playground.

Marci Rachman, watching her kindergarten class enjoy the swings and slides, thinks the whole Hebrew controversy has been blown out of proportion.

“Why does everyone think that if we teach Hebrew, we’re teaching the Jewish religion?” she asked. “It’s a language. They don’t say that about Chinese.”

Before coming to Ben Gamla, Rachman taught at the David Posnack Hebrew School in nearby Plantation for 10 years. But she and several colleagues were let go when that school, which charges $12,000 a year to enroll a child in kindergarten, started losing students to Ben Gamla.

“They’re afraid that it’s taking away from private Jewish day schools because Ben Gamla is free,” she said.