BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. (JTA) — When Marcia Grayson wanted to take her students from the Hatikvah Hebrew charter school in East Brunswick, N.J., on a field trip to see the Dead Sea Scrolls in Philadelphia last year, she first consulted a lawyer.
As the principal of an elementary school with a mission to teach Hebrew, Grayson thought it would be nifty to show her students an ancient manuscript they actually could read. But as a taxpayer-financed school, Hatikvah must adhere to rules that bar religious instruction in public schools. This is true even for charters, which are run by private groups but sanctioned by public authorities.
So Grayson called the Hebrew Charter School Center, the New York-based group that helped establish Hatikvah International Academy and the Hebrew Language Academy in Brooklyn.
The center’s legal counsel nixed the trip.
“The answer was those texts are religious whether or not you teach kids what those are about, so you can’t,” Grayson recalled. “We are hyper vigilant about church and state. We go so far out of our way to make sure that we are not perceived as a Jewish school.”
Contrast that with the approach at Ben Gamla, the nation’s only other Hebrew charter franchise, whose founder, Peter Deutsch, says the school’s raison d’etre is to provide a Jewish education.
“A lot of Jewish education goes on in the schools, absolutely,” said Deutsch, a former Florida congressman who serves as Ben Gamla’s legal counsel.
“It’s a very Jewish school, just not a Jewish religious school,” he said. “The definition of Judaism is not just a religion, it’s peoplehood — the same way the Irish or Chinese are a people.”
Ben Gamla and HCSC represent two radically different approaches to the rapidly growing Hebrew charter movement.
For Deutsch, the whole point of Ben Gamla, which opened its first school in Hollywood, Fla., in 2007, is to draw Jewish children who otherwise would attend regular public schools into an environment where their Jewish identity can flourish. HCSC, which opened its first school in 2009, seeks to distance itself from any Jewish association and says its goal is to increase Hebrew literacy in America.
“We stay very far away from church-state issues,” Sara Berman, HCSC’s chairwoman, told JTA. “People describe it as a slippery slope; I don’t want to even get near the slope.”
[Watch a JTA VIDEO about the Hebrew charter schools.]
Ben Gamla has four schools and about 1,800 students, all in Florida. HCSC has the two Northeast schools with a total of approximately 600 students and is planning to open three more this fall — in San Diego, Washington and New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. A fourth is slated to open next year in Los Angeles.
Nearly all the schools have proven immensely popular, with long waiting lists and lotteries to enroll.
HCSC and Ben Gamla do have some commonalities: Both consider Israeli culture an integral part of Hebrew instruction, and both serve only certified kosher food — for reasons of inclusivity, they maintain, not religion. But the similarities end there.
The HCSC schools run Hebrew immersion programs, teaching up to 40 percent of the school day in Hebrew — not just in language classes but also in social studies, science, music and physical education.
Ben Gamla uses the same curriculum as Jewish day schools, minus the religion, with less than an hour of Hebrew instruction per day.
With the exception of Israeli Independence Day, Israel’s major holidays are not part of the curricula at HCSC because they are also Jewish holidays. But Ben Gamla teaches the holidays — without the religious component, school administrators say. On Purim, the school holds “dress-up day.” Around Rosh Hashanah, the kids learn about the Israeli custom of eating apples and honey.
“They’re learning about Hanukkah from a cultural and historical perspective,” Elanit Weizman, principal of Ben Gamla Boynton Beach, told JTA.
Public schools are barred from collecting data on students’ religious background, but Deutsch estimates that Ben Gamla’s schools are 85 percent Jewish. At HCSC’s Brooklyn school, Jews seem to be in the minority; most students are black or Hispanic. Hatikvah is about 50 percent Jewish, according to school parent Marc Feiglin.
Most of the Ben Gamla schools are purposely situated on Jewish federation campuses. The Boynton Beach school is located on the second floor of a synagogue. The Ben Gamla high school in Plantation recently hired an Orthodox rabbi, Chaim Albert, as its principal.
Ben Gamla Kendall, just south of Miami, is housed in the former building of Greenfield Day School, a $15,000-per-year Jewish school that shut down and then reopened a couple of months later as a tuition-free, publicly funded charter school with the same principal and most of the same students and teachers. The mezuzahs were removed, the religious plaques were covered up and the curriculum was stripped of religious content.
When the school day at Kendall ends, many of the students walk across a parking lot to the JCC, where they are taught religious Jewish content as part of an after-school program.
“It’s a private school setting with the public school rules and regulations,” Kendall parent Andrea Rubine said. “When I walk into this building, I feel no different than when it was Greenfield.”
At the Ben Gamla in Hollywood, Jewish kids enrolled in after-school religious instruction don’t even have to leave the building. The school’s lease on the classrooms lapses for two hours every afternoon, when a religious school takes over and Orthodox Jewish teachers wheel in carts filled with prayer books and other religious paraphernalia.
After a few minutes of controlled chaos, prayer begins. But at the stroke of 4 p.m. each day, the classrooms, like Cinderella, revert to a public school — no religious material may be left in the classrooms overnight.
As interest in Hebrew charter schools grows, the question of whether they will look more like Ben Gamla or HCSC is likely to depend on local circumstances — and money.
With its $6 million annual budget and the backing of philanthropist Michael Steinhardt — Berman’s father — HCSC is exploring new locations in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago and New York. The organization spends up to $3 million to open each school and bring it to self-sustainability — that is, running entirely on government money. Neither of its schools has reached that point, but Berman says the Brooklyn school will become self-sustaining for the upcoming school term, its fifth in operation.
Deutsch says his schools don’t have the luxury of that kind of financial backing: Aside from help with start-up costs of approximately $200,000 per school, they are run entirely on government funds. For this reason, Deutsch says Ben Gamla is the more sustainable model.
But what may be possible in Florida may not be elsewhere. In New Jersey, Hatikvah spent more than $100,000 fighting the East Brunswick school district just to open three years ago. This year it fought an expensive legal battle with a zoning board.
The executive director in North America of the AVI CHAI Foundation, Yossi Prager, who in January 2011 wrote a scathing critique of a plan to open a Hebrew charter school in Teaneck, N.J., told JTA this spring that even if day schools lose some students, the net effect of Hebrew charters may benefit the Jewish community “because many more kids who would not have gotten anything are at least getting what they can from a Hebrew-language charter school.”
Deutsch goes even further, arguing that it would be folly for Jewish institutions to fight a phenomenon that is delivering millions of dollars of Jewish value at no cost to the community.
“If you are someone who is concerned about Jewish continuity,” Deutsch said, “investing in a model like Ben Gamla gives you the best leverage you can get for your money in the history of the Jewish people.”