Three Hebrew Charters Open, Original In Florida Under Review

Three Hebrew Charters Open, Original In Florida Under Review

Two new Hebrew charter school opened their doors Monday, collectively enrolling approximately 300 students in kindergarten and first grade.

Harlem Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Manhattan and Sela Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. are among three new schools affiliated with the New York-based Hebrew Charter School Center (HCSC) opening this school year: the other one, in San Diego, opened last week.

Another Hebrew charter school, Eleanor Kolitz Hebrew Academy, opened this month in San Antonio, replacing a Jewish day school.

Meanwhile, the nation’s first Hebrew charter school — Ben Gamla in Hollywood, Fla., — is under review by local authorities in the aftermath of a JTA article about its founder, former U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.).

Hebrew charter schools are publicly funded, tuition-free schools that teach Hebrew language and some secular aspects of Israeli and Jewish culture.

Neither Eleanor Kolitz nor Ben Gamla is affiliated with HCSC, which is funded primarily by American Jewish philanthropists, but seeks to support schools serving racially and religiously diverse populations. (Its school in Brooklyn is more than 40 percent African American.)

Ben Gamla Hollywood, founded in 2007, is one of four Ben Gamla Hebrew charter schools, all in South Florida. A fifth, in Florida’s Pinellas County, closed after one year of operation. The Ben Gamla network schools are open to children of all backgrounds, but the majority of their student are believed to be Jewish.

According to the Miami Herald, the Broward School Board has forwarded a local woman’s complaint about Ben Gamla to the district’s Charter School Department “for review and response.” Charlotte Greenbarg of Hollywood, Fla., on Aug. 10 contacted board members requesting they investigate whether it is violating the separation of church and state. Greenbarg cited a JTA article about Deutsch and the Ben Gamla schools, quoting the following lines: “Deutsch is unabashed about using public money to support what he describes as Jewish identity building. Out of Ben Gamla’s collective budget of $10 million a year, Deutsch says 80 percent serves Jewish communal purposes.”

Ben Gamla is facing other challenges as well. A recent state audit of Florida charter schools found that three of the Ben Gamla schools have a combined deficit of $321,000, according to the Sun-Sentinel. In addition, a proposal to build a Ben Gamla middle and high school in Hollywood, which needs a special exemption from the municipality and must get approval from the local school board, is facing local opposition.

The Jewish Week visited all four Ben Gamla schools and interviewed Deutsch extensively in 2012; in a March 2012 article, it wrote that “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.”

In addition to serving a majority-Jewish student body, the Jewish Week article noted, three Ben Gamla schools are located in space leased from Jewish institutions and three have Jewish principals. One replaced a Jewish day school, enrolling the majority of that school’s students and hiring more than half of its teachers. The Jewish Week reported at the time that, other than a skirmish over the Hebrew textbooks in use at Ben Gamla Hollywood the Ben Gamla schools “have encountered no legal challenges and only minimal public criticism recently.”

The Ben Gamla schools collectively enroll more than 1,500 children.

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