US school ordered to halt Hebrew classes

Superintendent calls for temporary suspension over concerns that class is pushing Jewish faith.

supreme court us 88 (photo credit: )
supreme court us 88
(photo credit: )
A charter school has been ordered to temporarily suspend Hebrew classes while officials try to determine whether teachers are advocating the Jewish faith. Broward Schools Superintendent James Notter sent a letter to officials at the Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood on Wednesday advising them to halt Hebrew classes until the school board could further examine the curriculum. "If it comes up in the course of conversation, that is one thing but if it comes to promoting religion or proselytizing, we don't want it to happen," said Keith Bromery, a spokesman for the Broward schools. Ben Gamla is in its first week of operation as the country's first Hebrew-language charter school, but school founder Peter Deutsch, a former Democratic congressman, said he told teachers Thursday to halt the classes. He said he shared Notter's aim to ensure religion doesn't enter a publicly funded school. "His goal and my goal are really exactly the same," Deutsch said. The ban on Hebrew will extend at least until Sept. 11, when the board next meets. Until then, time that would have been spent on language instruction will be used teaching Israeli geography and Jewish history and culture. Deutsch said he believes the school has every right to continue Hebrew classes, but decided to stop them to ease concerns. Both he and school board member Eleanor Sobel, in whose district Ben Gamla is located, have described their efforts as "bending over backwards" for one another. Ben Gamla presented its curriculum to the board for a third time Tuesday, but Sobel said it still had religious overtones. "We're going into the fourth round now and maybe that's what it takes to get it right," she said. Ben Gamla, which has about 400 students in kindergarten through eighth grades, has generated controversy since it was proposed. Students follow state curriculum, but also were to take a Hebrew language course, and one of their core subjects - math or physical education, for example - was to be taught bilingually as well. School officials ran into tough opposition at Broward County School Board meetings when proposing Hebrew textbooks that included passages criticized as being too religious. Even the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Federation of Broward County have expressed church-state separation issues. Ben Gamla hopes to expand further in South Florida and to open schools in New York and Los Angeles. It takes its name from a Jewish high priest, serves kosher food, and its director is a rabbi. Without Hebrew classes, though, Deutsch said its most central component is missing. "It is kind of crazy - the only Hebrew-English charter school in America doesn't teach Hebrew," he said.