Hebrew Charter School In Florida Sparks Church-state Debate

A proposed Florida charter school that will focus on Jewish culture and teaching of the Hebrew language is drawing fire, with critics charging that it will merge religion with public education.

The Ben Gamla School has received approval from the Broward County School Board and was set to open in time for the 2007-08 school year. Concerns about the school were raised early on when its leader announced it would be sited at a synagogue.

Opponents also raised objections to the school’s curriculum. For example, one Hebrew textbook presents for translation such sentences as, “God created heaven and earth,” “God will send us blessings from heaven” and “Mount Moriah is a holy mountain because the Temple stood on it.”

Americans United sent a letter to Broward school officials Aug. 7 warning that use of the Ha-Yesod Hebrew language curriculum at Ben Gamla would violate church-state separation.

Charter schools are publicly funded and are considered part of the public school system. However, they are often run by community groups. To address the objections, Ben Gamla founders have reportedly agreed to change the curriculum.

But other concerns remain. County school board member Eleanor Sobel said she originally backed the school but changed her mind.

“[Y]our principal is an orthodox rabbi, and your original location was going to be a synagogue,” Sobel said during a July 24 meeting. “You’ve brought this on yourselves by dressing your school in religion. The only way we can know what’s really going on is if we have a mole in your school.”

Susan Onori, Broward County coordinator for charter schools, told the board she would monitor the school for any violations.

Some Jewish leaders in the area have expressed concerns about the school. Rabbi Allan Tuffs of Temple Beth-El in Hollywood, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “Nobody’s got a problem with teaching modern Hebrew. What I’m worried about is that if Ben Gamla succeeds, every religious group in America will want to have their own segregated, religious school funded with public money.”