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

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.”


Sheket, b’vakasha!

Shutting Jewish Mouths

We were surprised to read the mischaracterization of the American Jewish Committee (AJCommitee) in Rob Eshman’s column (“Shutting Jewish Mouths,” Feb. 16).

As our 175,000 constituents know, we welcome a wide range of viewpoints in the AJCommitee “tent” and our members count themselves as liberals, conservatives and everything in between. AJCommitee is a strictly nonpartisan organization, long viewed as centrist in its orientation and we pride ourselves on a deliberative style of discussion and debate on policy matters. Contrary to Eshman’s view, there is no “party line” at AJCommitee.

Legitimate and informed discussion of Israeli policies is welcome, and, as ardent defenders of the Jewish state, we have been long-time participants in that debate. Indeed, AJCommitee is a leading advocate for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But we must take umbrage with anyone, even fellow Jews, who call for Israel’s demise.

The essay by professor Alvin Rosenfeld of Indiana University addresses a very real threat that a Jewish imprimatur gives to the campaign to challenge Israel’s very legitimacy. As the American Jewish community’s leading think tank, the AJCommitee chose to publish the essay because it is important to illuminate views held by those on the political fringes asserting that Israel has no right to exist and should either be destroyed or morphed into a so-called bi-national state, which means the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

Their language needs to be read to understand why professor Rosenfeld, a highly regarded scholar, felt compelled to write his essay and why AJCommitee chose to publish it. It can be found at

Meanwhile, those who claim that an effort is underway to stifle debate are just wrong. Discussion online and offline has been vibrant, and we hope interest in the Rosenfeld essay will spark serious conversation on the important issues he raises.

Sherry A. Weinman
Los Angeles Chapter
American Jewish Committee

Bravo, well said … and it needed to be said. I admire your courage in speaking out against an increasingly stultifying establishment… which, of course, was itself the point.

No matter how much heat you catch — and I’m sure it will be plentiful — know that you have many readers who respect your resolve to deliver real journalism. Kol hakavod l’cha.

Rabbi Ken Chasen
Leo Baeck Temple

Your statement about being the former head of Americans for Peace now [in Los Angeles] made everything clear about how you have used The Jewish Journal to put down the religious Jews who really care about their G-d-given birthright, the land of Israel and the nominally Jewish traitors who would sell their soul for a fake peace with the Islamic terrorists who want nothing more than to eradicate Jews from the face of the earth.

If ever there were a case for removing a traitor from a “Jewish” publication, it is you. You are a pogrom all by yourself.

Bunnie Meyer
via e-mail

In “Shutting Jewish Mouths” (Feb. 16), Jewish Journal Editor in Chief Rob Eshman makes an almost comical argument: the American Jewish Committee can stop Peace Now’s abusive criticism of Israel.

But pacifists, whether in England in the 1930s, West Germany in the 1970s or in the West today, always blame the victim first.

Thus, while friends of Israel seek to improve Israel’s public image, Peace Now supplies the raw materials for anti-Israel coverage. While Israel seeks new markets for its products, Peace Now assists in economic boycotts. While the IDF maps Iranian nuclear sites, Peace Now maps settlements. While Hamas prepares to introduce sharia, or Islamic law, into the formerly “occupied” Gaza strip, Peace Now advocates splitting Jerusalem. While Hezbollah and Syria plan another round of missile strikes, Peace Now demands that Israel surrender the Golan.

It’s true that we all love Israel. But love from pacifists tends to hurt — a lot.

Nathan D. Wirtschafter
Rehovot, Israel

Justice Takes a Beating

Joe R. Hicks’ otherwise excellent article about the sentence of freedom given to the gang that nearly beat to death three innocent young girls on the street while screaming anti-white racial epithets against them left out the most important information: the judge’s name (“Justice Takes a Beating in Racial Hatred Case,” Feb. 16).

It is Superior Court Judge Gibson Lee, not only the object of worldwide scorn via the Internet and talk radio, but thankfully the subject of a recall petition. Lee is a disgrace to the bench and to America, and should resign immediately.

Caroline Miranda
North Hollywood

Dennis Prager

In the course of his lukewarm, non-defense of Dennis Prager, David Klinghoffer adds insult to injury by claiming that the “Muslim scriptures do not deserve” the same recognition as the Bible because “what has made America so special” can be traced to “a unique blending of Christian and Jewish beliefs,” in which the “Quran played no role whatsoever” (“Prager Shouldn’t Lose His Museum Post,” Feb. 16).

Klinghoffer needs to go back and study his U.S. history. What made America so special is not some Christian/Jewish exclusion of other religions, but the inclusive principle of religious tolerance.

Campaigning for religious freedom in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson demanded recognition of the religious rights of the “Mahamdan,” the Jew and the “pagan.” Richard Henry Lee asserted: “True freedom embraces the Mahomitan and the Gentoo [Hindu] as well as the Christian religion.”

Jefferson recounted that in the struggle to pass his landmark Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), the Virginia legislature “rejected by a great majority” an effort to limit the bill’s scope, “in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan.”

Officials in Massachusetts were equally insistent that their influential Constitution of 1780 afforded “the most ample liberty of conscience … to Deists, Mahometans, Jews and Christians.”

Obstacles Remain in Post-Arafat Era


The post-Arafat era has begun with high hopes in Washington, London, Jerusalem and even Ramallah — but many of the obstacles that prevented peace in Arafat’s day remain, and it’s not clear whether any of the major players has the single-minded determination to make peace happen.

The United States is not as actively involved as it may have to be; the Europeans, who would like to be intimately involved, don’t have the necessary political clout; the Israeli leadership, insulated by strong American backing and facing a recalcitrant right wing, sees no need to hurry, and the new Palestinian leaders, hamstrung by radical, violent opponents, may not be able to make concessions beyond what the late Palestinian Authority president countenanced.

President Bush gave an inkling of the ambivalence inherent in American policy after a meeting last week in Washington with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Bush rejected Blair’s call for an international conference and a speedy transition to talks on a final peace agreement, saying the Palestinians first would have to stop terrorism against Israel. At the same time, however, Bush said he still believed the establishment of a Palestinian state is the only way to resolve the conflict.

The essence of American policy can be gleaned from those ostensibly incongruous statements: The United States will help the Palestinians achieve statehood on condition that they stop violence and carry out economic, security and political reforms. In other words, it’s up to them to make the first move.

Bush also seemed to alter the time frame for Palestinian statehood. Whereas the “road map” peace plan — presented in 2002 — spoke of 2005 as the target date, Bush said he was determined to work toward a Palestinian state by the time he leaves office, in January 2009.

This reinforced the president’s main message to the Palestinians: They must get their act together before the United States will be ready to help. If they’re slow, there will be a price to pay in the deferral of national aspirations. The quicker they act, the quicker statehood can be achieved.

European officials believe the American role primarily should be to help the new Palestinian leadership establish its legitimacy. First, they say, the United States can help with elections for a new P.A. president by leaning on Israel to allow optimum conditions for a free election, with as few signs of occupation as possible.

The election process will have two salutary effects, the Europeans argue: bringing to power a Palestinian leader accepted by the people and creating a sense of democracy at work.

The Europeans also believe that they and the Americans can aid Palestinian democratization by helping to build institutions and train P.A. security forces. But they know that Europe alone cannot affect a breakthrough, and that the United States must take the lead.

As for the Palestinians, they cannot take things forward unless the new leaders establish a stable government. So far, the signs do not augur well.

An incident Sunday in which militiamen from the PLO’s mainstream Fatah movement opened fire on the mourners’ tent for Arafat — when his heir apparent, Mahmoud Abbas, and Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan were inside — is symptomatic of a fairly widespread refusal to accept Abbas’ authority. Two of Abbas’ bodyguards were killed.

Though it apparently wasn’t an assassination attempt, the shooting was meant to warn Abbas not to diverge from Arafat’s hardline. The assailants shouted, “No Abbas, no Dahlan and no CIA,” suggesting that some Palestinians see the two as American puppets capable of selling out Palestinian interests.

For his part, Abbas believes only America can deliver the goods.

On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to give Abbas every chance, or at least give the impression of doing so. Despite opposition from some of his closest supporters in the Cabinet, Sharon seems set to allow eastern Jerusalem Arabs to vote in the Palestinian election, even though that part of the city was annexed by Israel in1968 and Israeli officials have been wary of any step that could bolster Palestinian claims there.

Sharon also has the defense establishment working on contingency plans: The National Security Council is considering how Israel’s planned unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank can be coordinated with the Palestinians, and the Israel Defense Forces and the Defense Ministry are drafting blueprints for Palestinian security reforms as well as steps to end the intifada.

Sharon also is contemplating gestures that could help Abbas build authority, such as releasing prisoners and withdrawing the Israeli army from Palestinian cities. On Monday, for example, after an operation that lasted several weeks, Israeli forces withdrew from the West Bank city of Jenin.

But Sharon faces constraints of his own. If he is finding it so difficult politically to withdraw from Gaza and a small part of the West Bank, Israeli pundits ask, how will he be able to withdraw from the huge amounts of territory that a peace agreement would entail?

For now, Sharon is pleased with the way Bush’s policy is shaping up, especially his apparent commitment that the United States will not pressure Israel to engage in peace talks until the Palestinians end violence.

But on the center left of Israeli politics, there’s a growing sense that if the Americans don’t change course and start pressuring both sides, nothing good will happen. Writing in the economic newspaper Globes, journalist Matti Golan was the latest to articulate the feeling that the only way the deadlock can be broken is through a more proactive American policy.

In an editorial addressed personally to President Bush, Golan called for “an imposed settlement, please.” Bush, he maintains, should not be “behind Sharon,” but rather should give both sides an American lead.

Bush should put a deal on the table and tell the parties that “anyone who doesn’t sign, or even starts to argue, won’t see a single penny, not from you nor the Europeans.”

Golan concludes, “At first, Mr. Bush, there will be howls of protest. But if you hold your nerve, in the end everyone will thank you.”

The belief that only America can pull the Israeli and Palestinian chestnuts out of the fire is growing in Europe, Israel and among the Palestinians. The question is: Will George Bush’s Washington be ready to take on all that entails?