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Officials in South Florida Order Charter School to Suspend Hebrew Lessons

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Less than 48 hours after classes began at the nation’s only Jewish-oriented charter school, officials in Broward County, Fla., issued a command of their own: Thou shalt not teach Hebrew, at least for the time being.

The Ben Gamla Charter School ignored the ruling for one day, then decided to cooperate with the Broward County School Board — even though Ben Gamla’s founder, former Democratic congressman Peter Deutsch, said Thursday that his Hollywood, Fla., institution is going strictly by the book.

“I had to literally run around school yesterday telling the Hebrew teachers not to teach Hebrew,” Deutsch said. He insisted that there’s a great deal of confusion over what is being allowed and what’s not. “The school board says we don’t have a contract at this point in time. We say we not only have a contract that allows us to teach Hebrew, but a contract that obligates us to teach Hebrew.”

Nevertheless, Deutsch said that he and the superintendent of schools, James Notter, want exactly the same thing: a Hebrew-English curriculum with no religious content. “It can’t be religious — that would be unconstitutional,” Deutsch said.

By definition, charter schools are publicly financed elementary or secondary schools that are managed privately, with minimal input from local school boards, and whose innovative teaching methods are expected to produce higher academic results.

Ben Gamla’s supporters were already told months ago that the school would be forbidden from teaching Torah or prayer; its original proposal was soundly rejected by school board members on the grounds that overt Jewish symbolism would be involved.

But the teaching of Hebrew as a foreign language was far less controversial and never emerged as a bone of contention until now. Keith Bromery, spokesman for the school board, said it’s possible Hebrew-language instruction may resume Sept. 11, following the board’s next meeting.

“We’re not saying they can never teach Hebrew again. It’s just a temporary suspension,” he said. “We want to bend over backwards to make sure there isn’t any proselytizing going on, other than casual references to religion. We are ultimately responsible for insuring there’s separation of church and state.”

Ben Gamla’s director, Adam Siegel, says that the 400 students at the school — which is now off limits to reporters — are getting lessons in Israeli geography until the 25 faculty members are once again permitted to resume teaching Hebrew.

“I’m disappointed, but I’m not sitting here crying,” Siegel said. “We don’t get depressed. We still have a lot of other subjects to teach. I believe that within three weeks, we’ll be able to resume teaching Hebrew for the rest of the year, and for years to come.”

Siegel said a group of seventh-graders came up to him Thursday with a petition signed by several hundred students, declaring “We want Hebrew.”

Siegel, 37, is an Orthodox rabbi who ran a Jewish elementary school in North Miami Beach before being hired by Deutsch to supervise Ben Gamla. He claims that the Hebrew teachers under his supervision — working closely with the school board’s foreign language department — presented the school board with a meticulously crafted 600-page curriculum.

“They found one reference to a website with religious content, out of the 600 pages we put together,” said a frustrated Siegel, insisting that the school board’s “no Hebrew” ruling has nothing to do with the curriculum itself. “Anybody who tells you that it does either doesn’t know or is playing games with you,” he said. “It’s about money – people feeling that they’re losing control of a customer base.”

Eric Stillman, chairman of the Broward County Jewish Federation, doesn’t buy that.

“As far as I can see, the Broward School Board is focused entirely on the issue of separation of church and state. They are paying no attention whatsoever to the issue of competition or money,” said Stillman, whose organization provides grants to private Jewish day schools.

“The question is whether the instruction is limited to conversational Hebrew, which is of no concern to us. The issue has to do with teaching Jewish culture, and whether religion would be included. At this point, the responsibility lies with the Broward School Board to monitor the school and make clear what is and what’s not acceptable for the school to be teaching.”

Stillman said it appears that the school board “is taking its role very seriously in making sure Ben Gamla is only teaching that which is within the boundaries of separation of church and state.”

In the meantime, Bromery said there would be serious repercussions if Ben Gamla resumes Hebrew-language instruction before Sept. 11.

“If we find that they’re flagrantly violating a board directive, we can take action up to and including revoking their charter,” he warned. “I’m not saying we’re going to do that, but that’s the potential.”

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