The Ben Gamla Charter School

Is, in my opinion, doing something good: they're teaching, right here in Broward County, the Hebrew language, and letting the students receive instruction in one regular class (science, math) per day in Hebrew. I' m not a fan of the "charter school" system (why below), but I think it's a great idea for a public school to serve its community in this way.

“It’s not a religious school,” said Peter Deutsch, a former Democratic member of Congress from Florida who started Ben Gamla and hopes to replicate it in Los Angeles, Miami and New York. “South Florida is one of the largest Hebrew-speaking communities in the world outside Israel, so there are lots of really good reasons to try to create a program like this here.”
Mr. Deutsch said Ben Gamla, named for a Jewish high priest who established free universal schooling in ancient Israel, received 800 applications in one week this summer. About half of the applications were from adjacent Miami-Dade County, but the school admitted only Broward County residents, ensuring that almost everyone from the county who wanted to attend could do so.
School officials have not asked students whether they are Jewish, Rabbi Siegel said, but 37 percent of parents identified Hebrew as their first language. Seventeen percent said Spanish was their primary language, he said, while 5 percent said Russian and 5 percent said French.

The school has a handful of black students, including members of a Baptist church that provides their transportation to and from the school.

There's nothing that improves a person quite like full-on foreign-language instruction. Learning to re-equate thoughts in a new alphabet and syntax has all the mental benefits of chemistry and math, and the added benefit of allowing people to connect with more total humans on earth, which I see as a prima facia good.

However, I also think it's worth their while to go through this painful period of national examination in which they will be forced to undertake the difficult task of removing all references to religion from their curriculum.

Rabbi Siegel said the school was proceeding with such extreme caution that even a neutral mention of religion was unlikely. The sign outside Ben Gamla was going to include a Hebrew phrase for “welcome,” Rabbi Siegel said, but because the literal translation is “blessed are those who come,” he decided against it.

“Even basic things, like if there was a page that had a picture of a shofar, I pulled it out,” Rabbi Siegel said, referring to the ram’s horn used in High Holy Day services. “We went so far overboard, it’s crazy.”

The school board rejected Ben Gamla’s first two Hebrew curriculum proposals after finding they included religious references. The second, which relied on a textbook titled “Ha-Yesod,” asked students to translate phrases like “Our Holy Torah is dear to us” and “Man is redeemed from his sins through repentance.”

Rabbi Siegel said the school would have omitted such phrases from lessons.
I think it is awesome that they are being put under this level of scrutiny, and being forced to respond in this way. This process might just result in the world's first fully-secularized Hebrew instruction curriculum. And that is a very good thing. But perhaps I should now stop praising the try and the conflict itself, and get to why I do not in general like charter schools.

Allan Tuffs, the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Hollywood, said he, too, was worried about the school and what it could lead to. “Jews have thrived in America as in no other nation,” Rabbi Tuffs said, “in large measure due to this concept of separation of church and state.”

He added, “Once a Jewish school like Ben Gamla is established, you know that fundamentalist Christian groups throughout America will be lining up to replicate this model according to their religious tradition.”

The only other charter school I have experience with is the one that my niece and nephews must go to because they live in Red River New Mexico, a very remote town with a very small charter school. It IS a Christian school. End of story. The 400 people in that small town wanted a Christian school for their kids, and they wanted the government to pay for it. And that's exactly what they got. My brother tried to raise his kids atheist and was absolutely run over roughshod -- they even taught his kids the "proper way to pray": how to hold the hands and pose the head and whatnot -- by this stupid Christian school. Rabbi Tufts obviously doesn't know this, but Ben Gamla is being discriminated against for being non-Christian. All over America Christianity is being slopped all over children at charter schools, and no one gives a damn.

Which is my last, and final reason that I like the Ben Gamla school: there might result from this conflict a national strategy for the regulation of charter schools, for keeping religious education from being paid for by all-of-us, and that would also be a very good thing.

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