Chartering hope

The Florida Jewish community is needlessly divided over a new concept in education.

hebrew 88 (photo credit: )
hebrew 88
(photo credit: )
There is a war raging in the usually quiet south Florida community that I live in. It's a war over education, and it has Jews facing off against Jews. A new charter school is opening up in our neck of the woods, the Ben Gamla Charter School, touted as being the first Hebrew-language charter school in the United States. A controversy over the school's opening has risen to the boiling point, with the quest to keep Ben Gamla's doors shut mostly led by members of the Jewish community itself. Chartering allows schools to run independently of the traditional public school system and tailor their programs to community needs. While religious studies are prohibited and the school is open to all, cultural studies - such as a Hebrew- or Arabic-language curriculum - are permitted. Still, a controversy has arisen over whether "religious-leaning" charter schools violate the Constitution's separation of church and state requirement. What I find flabbergasting is that for all the accusations of possible church vs. state infractions flying around, you would think that Ben Gamla was the first of its kind to ever appear in this country. It's not. RECENTLY, for instance, quoted Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico as saying his state has a public school opening under the auspices of a Catholic Church. Is the Christian community up in arms over that school? I would hazard a guess they are not. And I just saw a piece on morning TV about a new town being built in western Florida called "Ave Maria." Literally, it's built around a cathedral-like chapel as its centerpiece, like in medieval times. The report said suggestions were being made to pharmacy owners who would open up shop there to refrain from selling birth control, so as not to offend the community. Aside from a Catholic university being built in Ave Maria, other schooling was not mentioned. A bit more research revealed that private religious grade school education was going to be available in the town, and public schools are also being planned. The TV piece showed pictures of happy families unpacking and sound bites from mothers saying how happy they were to have nice Christian neighbors and the great possibility of a good Catholic education for their children. Ya think those public schools will be 100% secular? Give me a break! Oh, and for the record, the ACLU is already all over that one (as well as on top of Ben Gamla). THOSE ARE just two examples. The Ben Gamla people swear up and down that there will be no religion infused into their curriculum. I believe them. But I suppose the real question is, even if there was some religious content, in this day and age, with the massive failings of the public school system in the US, would it be so horrible to add some spiritual values? Even if there was a sliver of religious tinting, who cares? Would it really be so bad? Florida schools are notoriously lacking in quality education. I can't help wondering why any caring Jewish person would deny children a chance to get some Hebrew/Jewish cultural education and potentially raise the standard of public school education. With examples of other religious communities setting up or backing "cultural" charter schools without much fuss, why can't the Jewish community back one as well? The whole situation saddens me. What does it say about us that there are Jews who would deny any snippet of Hebrew education to children who can't afford the full-blown day school route? I support a solution for the problem of universal Jewish education. But without one in the offing, Ben Gamla is the only game in town. WHY ARE the Federation and others are wasting so much time trying to bring down Ben Gamla when they should be using its presence as a catalyst to focus efforts toward creating a solution? This could be their golden opportunity - solve the day school dilemma and finally give us a real affordable option. You can bet that many of those Ben Gamla parents would be interested. Many do want the religious component, they just can't afford it. But, no, instead community leaders have been plastered all over the local media, doing their best to stop Ben Gamla. The Broward County school board has given what is, I hope, the final OK for the school to proceed in the coming school year; under watchful monitoring of course. I consulted with my rabbi. He informed me that while in his former Wisconsin pulpit, he was regularly sought after to teach Bible classes in the public school system; and that one of the most successful public schools in his district was segregated on purpose, run by Baptist educators. No one complained because amidst the other horrendous failing public schools, this school exuded pride and quality education. My rabbi concluded: "It is an oddity to have the Jewish community trying to convince the non-Jewish community that they are being too lenient with the Jews. It is a theater of the absurd." Indeed. The writer is based in south Florida.