Boynton Beach, Fla. — As you turn off the main road and a large Torah scroll-shaped sign on your right welcomes you to the “Temple Torah Campus of Jewish Learning,” you could be forgiven for assuming the K-6 school you are about to visit is a Jewish day school.
That assumption might continue even as you walk inside the 190-student Ben Gamla Boynton, which is on the second floor of a Conservative synagogue, in a wing originally intended to house a Solomon Schechter school. Or when you meet Principal Elanit Weitzman and see the Hebrew translation of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” displayed above her desk.
But Ben Gamla Boynton, which opened last August, is not a Jewish day school. It is one of seven Hebrew charter schools in the United States, one of four in the fast-growing Ben Gamla network founded five years ago in South Florida by former Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.).
A fifth Ben Gamla is slated to open in August, in Florida’s Pinellas County, and organizers from more than two states are in active discussions with Deutsch and the Ben Gamla Charter School Foundation about replicating the model. (Ben Gamla schools have no ties to the two New York-area schools under the auspices of the Hebrew Charter School Center, a group that has a different philosophy and curriculum and is supporting projects underway in Manhattan, San Diego, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.)
Charter schools of all kinds are growing in influence, even as their performance, when compared to that of public schools, is both uneven and hotly debated. With Hebrew charter schools offering the chance to educate large numbers of American Jewish children in Hebrew and in the secular aspects of Jewish and Israeli culture — all at the taxpayers’ expense — and with the movement’s leaders determined to keep expanding, this phenomenon has the potential to have a major impact on education, American Jewish life and, possibly, church-state norms.
Already, while many Florida day schools watch Ben Gamla warily, worried the movement will lure away tuition-paying students, other Jewish institutions, particularly Jewish community centers, are eagerly capitalizing on the opportunities the charter schools offer. These include a chance to fill — and earn rental income from — underused facilities, along with the opportunity to reach unaffiliated young Jewish families.
Howard Teplitz, executive director of Temple Torah, which leases its second floor to Ben Gamla Boynton and runs an after-school program that enrolls 50 Ben Gamla students, says the charter school, which opened in August, has drawn new members to the synagogue, helped boost the congregation’s preschool enrollment and “enabled this synagogue to look in new directions. It’s a perfect marriage.”
On The Church-State Border
As taxpayer-funded institutions, the Ben Gamla schools — which collectively enroll nearly 1,400 children this year — do not teach religion. Classrooms have been carefully stripped of mezuzahs and other religious symbols, enrollment is open to children of all backgrounds and recruitment for Jewish after-school programs is not allowed inside the school. Indeed, when it comes to church-state separation, these schools adhere strictly to the letter of the law. However, they arguably push as close to the border of what’s allowable as possible, and some of their practices might raise a few eyebrows.
Consider the following:
♦ While the schools are forbidden by law from asking students their religious identity, several parents, when prodded by a reporter, speculate that at least 80 percent of Ben Gamla students are Jewish. It is an assessment Deutsch makes as well.
♦Three of the four schools have Jewish principals; in the fourth, a gentile principal and a Jewish director are co-administrators.
♦ Three of the four schools rent space from Jewish institutions; the Pinellas school, slated to open this August, will rent from a Reform temple. Optional after-school Jewish studies programs (and no offerings from other religious groups) take place in the classrooms of two Ben Gamla schools.
♦ Ben Gamla Kendall occupies a building that long housed a Jewish day school, Greenfield Day School, which closed in June. The overwhelming majority of Greenfield’s students transferred to the new charter school, and seven of its 10 teachers now work at Ben Gamla. The Greenfield Parent-Teacher Organization president is now the president of the Ben Gamla PTO.
Other than a skirmish in the first year over the Hebrew textbooks in use at Ben Gamla Hollywood — which was the first Hebrew charter school in the country — the schools have encountered no legal challenges and only minimal public criticism recently.
Last month, after Deutsch spoke about the Ben Gamla schools to the Palm Beach Board of Rabbis, one local Reform rabbi published an op-ed in the Florida Jewish Journal arguing that the schools are a “threat to Judaism and the Constitution” and that “the majority of rabbis present expressed great concern over the concept of a Hebrew charter school.”
However, the column, by Rabbi Bruce Warshal, the Journal’s publisher emeritus, has generated little response; when contacted by The Jewish Week, Rabbi Alan Sherman, the executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis, said Rabbi Warshal’s “opinion was not unanimous,” at the meeting. Asked his own view, Rabbi Sherman said, “The whole issue hinges on whether or not this is constitutional,” adding “until it is tested in court one way or another I’m not going to oppose it.”
Interviewed by The Jewish Week, Rabbi Warshal reiterated his objections to the Ben Gamla schools, but he acknowledged not knowing all the facts about them, expressing surprise when told that the schools do not have mezuzahs and that student admission is open to all and is based on a lottery.
Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., told The Jewish Week his group filed a complaint letter back in 2007 about Ben Gamla’s plan to use the “HaYesod” Hebrew curriculum, which includes biblical and other religious texts. The school replaced the curriculum with a mix of approved materials.
In 2009, shortly before Ben Gamla Plantation opened in a building formerly occupied by the David Posnack Hebrew Day School on the campus of the Soref JCC, Americans United sent a “cautionary letter” to Ben Gamla officials, Luchenitser said. That letter identified “several areas of constitutional concern” raised by the opening of a school on a campus “where religious activities commonly occur and religious rules are in effect,” and urged Ben Gamla “to heed all applicable legal requirements.”
Americans United “periodically” receives complaints about the Ben Gamla schools, especially when a new one opens, but “we haven’t uncovered any evidence of them directly injecting religion into their program.”
“Certainly this enterprise raises church-state issues, and it raises constitutional issues, but we don’t have evidence that they’ve crossed a constitutional line,” Luchenitser said.
Of potential concern to church-state watchdogs are the various Jewish after-school programs that have sprung up to serve Ben Gamla students — programs at Hollywood and Kendall take place in the exact same facilities where school is held. While Ben Gamla Hollywood also has a secular and nondenominational after-school program onsite, the Kendall school has only Shoresh, a program run by Miami’s Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE).
Americans United’s 2009 letter to Ben Gamla emphasized that the school “is not permitted to give preferential after-school access to religious groups over non-religious groups, or to Jewish groups over groups associated with other faiths.”
However, because Ben Gamla, like many other charter schools, rents space, and does not occupy government-owned buildings, there is a loophole of sorts: the school officially has no control over who uses its facilities when its lease (allowing it access only during the school day) is not in effect. While a public school has to provide equal access to all groups seeking to rent its facilities after hours, Ben Gamla’s landlords are apparently under no such legal requirement; they can rent to whomever they choose, provided they do not run afoul of fair housing laws.
Hollywood’s landlord is a private individual, and Kendall’s is the Miami-Dade Jewish Federation, Deutsch said.
Asked what might happen if a Christian group — or even a Jews for Jesus group — wanted to offer an onsite after-school program for Ben Gamla students, Deutsch said, “They’d have to go to the federation and ask if they could lease the space. They would not go through Ben Gamla, because Ben Gamla has nothing to do with the aftercare.”
Told of this situation, Americans United’s Luchenitser said, “If there’s regular activities in the place where the school occurs after school involving primarily the students of the school … and some kinds of clubs are treated differently from other kinds of clubs, that definitely seems like it might be a way of getting around the law.
“The legal question is, does the school bear responsibility for the situation or does the landlord in effect become a state actor if the primary activities that occur in the space after school are after-school activities relating to the school itself?”
According to Luchenitser: when a school is based in a place “associated with one religion, and all the after-school programs relate to that religion, it can cause the school itself to be associated with that religion.
“Other members of the community could perceive there’s favoritism,” he added.
In the same way that the nuances of Ben Gamla’s lease agreements enable Jewish after-school programs to legally associate so closely with the schools, founder Peter Deutsch’s ambiguous role at the schools further enables the connections between the school and the after-school programs.
Neither on the board nor on the staff, he serves, officially, only as “pro bono attorney,” and he frequently notes that in speaking about Ben Gamla he is offering only his personal opinions. However, he attends most board meetings (which are open to the public), is intimately familiar with the details of all the schools and after-school programs and is actively involved in securing locations for future schools. Two board members are former employees from Deutsch’s congressional office. During a recent visit by The Jewish Week, Deutsch introduced this reporter to school administrators, parents and after-school program directors.
A Bronx native who moved to Florida in 1982, shortly after graduating from Yale Law School, Deutsch served in the Florida State Legislature almost 10 years until winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992. Although raised in a secular/Reform household, he became religiously observant in his late 20s, while a state legislator, and now belongs to an Orthodox synagogue. After an unsuccessful Senate run in 2004, he moved with his family to Israel, although they did not make aliyah. Deutsch, now 54, and his wife Lori currently divide their time between homes in Broward County and Ra’anana, a Tel Aviv suburb; their daughter is a college student in Israel, while their son is in a hesder yeshiva, combining Israeli army service and Jewish studies.
Interestingly, the father of Hebrew charter schools does not actually speak much Hebrew himself. “I’ve never been good at languages,” he told The Jewish Week.
That hasn’t stopped him from championing Hebrew charter schools as vehicles for revitalizing American Jewry and “changing lives,” even as he carefully notes, “I’m not Ben Gamla. My motivations are Peter Deutsch’s, not the school’s. I can be supportive for reasons different than the school’s reasons.
“If you look at the funnel of the Jewish community in America, it’s looking into the narrow end,” he said, referring to the population decline from assimilation. “This is how to change that.”
Currently, 32 percent of Ben Gamla students pay to attend one of the Jewish after-school programs, which run Monday through Friday for an hour and a half. (The program at the Boynton JCC runs longer.)
Free from the constraints with which most Hebrew schools struggle — the need to teach Hebrew, Israel and Jewish history in just one or two sessions a week — the optional after-school programs for Ben Gamla kids can focus on prayer, Bible and other topics that tend to get short shrift in most part-time Jewish education programs.
Serving Hollywood and Plantation, the Jewish Upbringing Matters Program (JUMP) is the oldest program for Ben Gamla kids and, so far, the largest, with 270 children. JUMP’s director, Rabbi Jay Lyons, says it aims to be fun and informal, using games and hands-on activities whenever possible.
“Our approach is trying to get everyone excited about Jewish learning, trying to accomplish a revolution in Jewish culture by promoting Jewish learning and Jewish unity — a knockout punch to apathy,” he says.
On a recent afternoon after school, the modular prefab annex to Ben Gamla Hollywood’s main building was bustling with JUMP activities.
In one classroom, the children were auditioning for a play about the exodus from Egypt, while in another one first graders were running around, bumping into tables and chairs while playing “Parsha Tag” — a variation on freeze tag, in which kids have to quickly answer a Torah portion-related question.
A day later at Ben Gamla Boynton, similar scenes were unfolding; some children followed JCC staff across the parking lot, for an afternoon of playground time, homework, hamantaschen-baking, music and Jewish stories, while others gathered in Ben Gamla’s multipurpose room to meet up with their Temple Torah teachers.
A charismatic, middle-aged Israeli teacher with high-heeled sandals and a bright red pedicure led the kindergarten and first-grade students in a Purim song as they walked down the stairs to Temple Torah.
At the bottom of the stairs, each boy selected a yarmulke and placed it on his head.
Next week: The Ben Gamla Effect: The Hebrew charter schools’ impact on the South Florida Jewish community.