On its face, it is the quintessential story of the success of American Jewish life: a public school where teaching Hebrew will be at the center of its core curriculum.
But behind this facade, the founding of Ben Gamla School in Broward County, Fla., has generated controversy and criticism.
As reported in a recent dispatch by the JTA and a front-page story in the New York Times on Friday, Aug. 24, the newly opened Ben Gamla School has sent civil libertarians into a tizzy.
The problem is that Ben Gamla, founded by former Florida Democratic Congressman Peter Deutsch, is a charter, not a private or parochial school. As such, it operates in the no-man’s land all such institutions live in — it is run privately but funded publicly, which means it must abide by the rules of all government-run schools.
Strict separationists who oppose anything that smacks of government-funded Jewish schools think charters might be a way around the logjam that previously has doomed any efforts to advance school choice or vouchers plans.
In actuality, the American Civil Liberties Union and public school advocates are up in arms about what they feel is the certainty that the school’s Hebrew orientation will inevitably wind up preaching religion on the government’s dime. With these concerns in mind, three proposed Hebrew courses already have been canned because they contained texts or statements that related to Jewish observance.
For all the huffing and puffing, such concerns are misplaced.
While knowledge of Hebrew is essential to a meaningful Jewish education, it is possible to teach the language without inculcating anyone with Jewish values of any sort. Teaching modern Hebrew by itself is no more an unconstitutional establishment of Judaism than teaching Latin is of Catholicism, or Arabic is of Islam.
The real problem is that the school does a disservice to its primary market: Jewish parents unable or unwilling to afford a private Jewish school.
Interestingly, Ben Gamla reported that 37 percent of students say Hebrew is their first language. That makes it likely that more than a third of the school consists of expatriate Israelis.
No doubt most of these people are, like most Israelis, largely secular. Many former Israelis living here have told me about their desire to retain some sense of their “Israeli” identity rather than to become diaspora Jews. They aren’t interested in religious instruction but worry about their kids not retaining the language. A tuition-free school where Hebrew is taught but Judaism is avoided is bound to appeal to them.
The problem is that Hebrew alone isn’t something that can sustain an identity. Indeed, the sole focus on Hebrew is as viable a formula for the Jewish future as the old Socialist Bundist belief in secular Yiddish culture. Devoid of faith and a connection to a living civilization, its heritage and values, neither Yiddish nor Hebrew alone is what the sociologists term a transmissible value.
So if what American Jews are actually interested in is an education for our children that will give them Jewish literacy in all of the aspects of our complex religious and ethnic identity, charters like Ben Gamla are a dead end.
Day schools are not a magic formula for continuity. Summer camps, trips to Israel and Jewish involvement in the home, are also important. But despite their proven success, day school enrollment has stalled in the last decade.
One problem is that a large proportion of American Jews are averse to Jewish particularity. There may not be much we can do to market day schools to such people, although it must be said that no one has given such an effort a real try.
The other crippling drawback for day schools is that a large number of those who would send their children to them can’t do so because the cost of tuition is so high. Unless we support this sector of the population that actively wishes to affiliate, American Jewry will be effectively shooting itself in the foot.
In response, some have proposed campaigns to fund an across-the-board lowering of tuitions, a measure that is bound to increase enrollment. But even in areas like Philadelphia, where communal leaders appear to have recognized that day schools must be a priority, such campaigns have yet to materialize because there is no indication that the large amount of money needed for such a project is available.
It is in this context that the initial popularity of the Florida charter scheme must be understood. When communities fail to invest in the right choices, foolish alternatives are bound to prosper.
Ironically, funds have apparently been available for other Jewish causes, such as the $100 million raised for an expanded National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall in Philadelphia.
If we would rather fund monuments to our past than the schools that are a platform for our future, then we might as well slip inside a high-tech diorama and smile for the curious visitors who will one day have to visit museums to see what a Jewish community looked like.
Like Hebrew charters and other attempts to change the subject, the failure to create a Jewish education safety net will be our golden ticket to oblivion.
Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.