Hollywood, Fla. — As a group of boys in the Ben Gamla Charter School here walked through the corridors to their next class, some wore yarmulkes as well as tzitzit that hung out under their shirts. On the sign outside, the school’s name was written in both English and Hebrew.
Students playing soccer on the playground outside wore blue or khaki uniforms with the Hebrew and English names of their school embroidered on their shirts.
On the blackboard just inside the front door, the days of the week were written in Hebrew. And a guidance counselor was reading a note from another teacher that was written in Hebrew.
And on the second floor of this three-story former technical institute, students posted displays about Anne Frank
and magician Harry Houdini, whose real name was Erich Weiss.
No, this is not a yeshiva. It’s a K-8 public school in Broward County — the only charter school in the country in which all students are taught not only English but Hebrew. Perhaps not surprisingly, more than 90 percent of the school’s students are Jewish, and about half have Israeli parents.
“I moved to this school because [Jewish day school] was becoming too expensive,” said Tzipora Nurieli, a mother of three.
“I had my children in a small Jewish school last year, and it cost us $48,000,” she said. “This year we wanted to move them to a larger [Jewish] school and it would have cost us $70,000.”
High day school tuition costs and, more broadly, the state of the American economy are a few of the major reasons parents have transferred their children to Ben Gamla since it opened in September 2007.
After what the school’s principal, Sharon Miller, said was a shaky start with 400 students, the school grew to 600 students this year and has proven so popular that there is now a waiting list for each grade.
Peter Deutsch, the former Florida congressman who is the founder of the school, said things are going so well that he expects to open a Ben Gamla charter high school as early as the fall. He said he is still awaiting a government charter and plans to open in a rented facility. In August 2010, he said he plans to relocate the school to the former Hallandale Jewish Center after 30,000 square feet of renovation there is completed, including the construction of a state-of-the-art computer lab.
Deutsch said the success of Ben Gamla has prompted others to duplicate it “in at least a dozen other cities.” But its success comes in part at the expense of some of the area’s Jewish day schools. One, the David Posnack Hebrew School, a community day school in Plantation, reportedly lost a large number of students. School officials declined repeated requests for an interview.
Another Jewish school, the Brauser Maimonides Academy, a Modern Orthodox nursery through eighth grade school in Fort Lauderdale, scrambled to provide increased scholarships in 2008 to prevent the feared loss of 42 of its 384 students to Ben Gamla, according to Rabbi Avram Skurowitz, its principal.
“I raised $120,000 and made it clear it was a onetime deal to stop the floodgates,” he said, adding that only 18 students left that year. “This year we lost two families and one came back because there was not a great deal of satisfaction with the quality of the education [at Ben Gamla].”
“We’re concerned about next year because of the economy,” Rabbi Skurowitz hastened to add, “but we started enrollment early and it looks like we are not going to lose more than one or two families. …The families we lost are not Orthodox; those who are more committed to Jewish education have stayed.”
Miller, Ben Gamla’s principal, stressed that Ben Gamla is not a Jewish day school and should not be considered a substitute for one. The only difference between Ben Gamla and other public elementary schools, she said, is that Ben Gamla teaches Hebrew.
Nonetheless, about 100 of Ben Gamla’s students previously attended day schools, suggesting that parents clearly view Ben Gamla as an alternative. And as the recession deepens, Miller said she believes “more will leave day schools.”
“That was not his intention,” Miller said of Deutsch. “He just wanted to be able to provide an excellent public school education and to teach students to speak Hebrew.”
Just as it was opening in September 2007, Deutsch told The Jewish Week that he believed the competition Ben Gamla posed to Jewish day schools would simply “make them stronger and better; they are going to have to work harder.”
Deutsch said an examination of the students’ transfer records reveals that about 80 percent of the students at Ben Gamla came from public schools and that most of the others came from Jewish day schools. But he said also that a number of youngsters who left the David Posnack Hebrew School last year returned this year, lured back by substantial scholarships.
Ira Sheskin, a professor of geography and director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami, said the fact that 600 students are now attending Ben Gamla demonstrates that “there is a desire out there for Jewish education that has more emphasis on culture and Israel than the religious connection.”
And noting that about 450 Jewish youngsters formerly from other public schools “are learning Hebrew and a form of Jewish education who would not otherwise” get such an education should outweigh the damage caused to Jewish day schools.
“It’s a price worth paying,” he insisted. “We’re looking at giving the maximum number of students a Jewish education. Even the loss of one or two kids is not a big deal. They might have gone to another public school if Ben Gamla did not exist.”
Told that most of the former day school parents interviewed said the high cost of the Jewish schools was a key factor in their decision to transfer their children to Ben Gamla, Sheskin said his own surveys confirmed that.
“Of 43 Jewish communities surveyed [nationwide], Broward has a median income that is the second lowest — at $86,000 — for households with children,” he said.
Sheskin noted that a 1997 survey he conducted of Jews in Broward County found that 47 percent attributed the high cost of Jewish day schools as the major reason for not sending their children there.
Of the 28 Jewish communities surveyed about this question nationwide, more Jews in South Florida cited cost as the biggest factor than anyplace else. In Charlotte, N.C., for instance, only 11 percent cited cost as a factor, Sheskin pointed out.
In speaking with former Jewish day school parents, Deutsch said he found that some switched to Ben Gamla because “they didn’t want their kids forced to daven [pray],” the cost factor, or because the public school offered help to children with learning disabilities that the Jewish schools could not provide.
April Prince of Pembroke Pines, whose daughter had attended Posnack for two and a half years before she pulled her out in January 2008, offered another reason: disappointment with the quality of the education there.
“She was not getting the education I expected,” she said. “And I was hearing from friends of mine whose children were going to Ben Gamla about how wonderful it was. So we decided to switch. And in her second grade alone, three other families left [for Ben Gamla] … I know of at least 12 families from the elementary school at the Davie campus [of Posnack] who left.”
Prince said she was able to “see the difference” in her daughter’s education right away, and last September put her son in Ben Gamla’s kindergarten.
“He is getting the same, if not better, education, and he is learning the Hebrew language,” she said. “We’re beyond happy.”
Laurence Kutler, the head of school at Posnack, declined repeated requests for comment.
Prince said she and her husband, an accountant, are Conservative Jews who belong to a Chabad synagogue. She noted that she had been working at an advertising company to help pay their children’s tuition at Posnack.
“My husband has a good job, but he doesn’t earn enough to send $24,000” to Posnack each year, she explained.
But with both children now attending Ben Gamla, Prince said she has been able to quit her job and stay home to care for her children. Because children in charter schools in Florida are not eligible for bus service, she said she drives her children 30 to 40 minutes each way to school.
Some of Ben Gamla’s teachers formerly taught at Posnack. One of them, Arinn Hausdorff, a second grade teacher, said she teaches the same curriculum she taught at Posnack. But she said the students here must take the state-mandated Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which she said is more rigorous than the test administered at Posnack. And she said students at Posnack learned Hebrew to study Judaism, not to be conversant speakers.
Another teacher, Vivian Wagschal, observed that the day school students live in a “bubble” in which they “learn from each other, go to the same synagogue and bump into each other on the holidays.” She said she heard students say to each other, “You don’t practice this, what kind of a Jew are you?’”
“Here, everyone has different ways of celebrating the holidays and different levels of observance,” she said. “And the staff is from different cultures. … It’s very multicultural and a warm, accepting environment.”
Attempting to steer clear of any semblance of religion, there are no holiday displays at Ben Gamla, and in fact, the school is still developing a curriculum for the teaching of Hebrew culture and history. Critics of the Hebrew charter school concept argue that it is virtually impossible to teach Hebrew culture without crossing the church-state line.
But Miller disagrees, arguing, “If you were studying Spanish, you could not study it outside of its culture and history.” She added that the new curriculum must first be approved by the state and county to avoid any conflict. Ben Gamla’s opening in 2007 was delayed when the state refused to sign off on its curriculum.
Another Ben Gamla parent, Rivkie Steiner of Hollywood, cited cost and the quality of education as the reasons for moving her three children there. She said her two older children had first attended the Samuel Scheck Hillel Hebrew Day School in North Miami Beach. But she said the long commute became difficult and she wanted her children to have friends in the community, so she moved them to Maimonides before learning of Ben Gamla.
“We’re Orthodox,” she said. “We go to shul and keep kosher, and the nice things about Ben Gamla are that they teach the Hebrew language, that most of the students are Jewish and they provide a better secular education.”
Steiner said her children learn about Judaism in an after-school program taught in a rented building located next to Ben Gamla.
“It’s not what a religious person would want for their kids,” Steiner admitted. “But financially … My husband is a medical doctor, but we can’t afford private [Jewish] schools that cost more than $40,000 — and that’s only for two kids,” she said, adding that they now have a daughter who is in kindergarten.
“This is not something I ever thought I would be doing,” Steiner added. “I’d love for my kids to go to Hillel, but it’s just too expensive.”
Steiner pointed out also that in the public school her children receive free assistance such as speech therapy that Maimonides said she would have to pay for herself.
“I’m hoping [Ben Gamla] keeps growing and that the after-school religion programs gets even better,” she said. “I’d like to see it expand to two hours. Then we would get the best of both worlds.”
The after-school program, called JUMP (Jewish Upbringing Matters Program), is open to all regardless of affiliation, according to its director, Rabbi Yaacov Lyons, who is Orthodox. A total of 220 Ben Gamla students attend the program, which is offered for $75 per month as either a 45-minute or 90-minute program depending on the student’s age and parental requests. It is offered five days a week for the elementary students and four days a week for middle school students.
“The big advantage we have is that we don’t have to teach Hebrew,” he said. “We teach the weekly [Torah portion] and the holidays. We don’t talk of the three branches of Judaism or intermarriage, only that it’s good to be a Jew and to seek meaning in our lives. We stay away from anything that is divisive.”
Deutsch said he now has a charter to open another Hebrew-English elementary school in Miami but that he is still looking for a location for it.
“A year after the school has opened we are thriving and there is a high level of parental satisfaction,” Deutsch observed with obvious pride.