On its face, it is the quintessential story of the success of American Jewish life: a public school where the teaching of Hebrew will be at the center of its core curriculum. But behind this facade, the founding of the Ben Gamla School in Broward County, Florida, has generated controversy and criticism.
As reported in a recent dispatch by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and a front-page story in The New York Times, the opening of the Ben Gamla School has sent civil libertarians into a tizzy.
The problem is that Ben Gamla, which was 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 in which all such institutions live, as it is run privately but funded publicly, and therefore 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 has heretofore doomed any efforts to advance school choice or voucher plans.
In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union and public-school advocates are up in arms about what they feel is the certainty that Ben Gamla’s Hebrew orientation will inevitably wind up preaching religion on the government’s dime. With these concerns in mind, three proposed courses of Hebrew instruction have already been canned because they contained texts or statements that related to Jewish observance.
But for all the huffing and puffing, such concerns are misplaced. While knowledge of Hebrew is absolutely essential to a meaningful Jewish education, it is entirely possible to teach the language without inculcating anyone with Jewish values of any sort, as some observers of many Israeli schools can attest. Teaching modern Hebrew by itself is no more an unconstitutional establishment of Judaism than the teaching of Latin is of Catholicism, or Arabic of Islam.
The real problem is that the school will ill serve its primary market: Jewish parents who are unable or unwilling to afford a private Jewish school. Interestingly, 37 percent of Ben Gamla students say Hebrew is their first language, which means that more than a third of the school is probably composed of expatriate Israelis.
No doubt, most of these people are, like most Israelis, largely secular. Many former Israelis living here have mentioned their desire to retain some sense of their “Israeli” identity rather than become Diaspora Jews. They aren’t interested in religious instruction, but do worry about their kids not retaining the language. Thus, a tuition-free school where Hebrew is taught – yet Judaism avoided like the plague – is bound to appeal to them.
But the problem is that Hebrew alone isn’t something that can sustain an identity. In fact, the sole focus on Hebrew is as viable a formula for the Jewish future as the old 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 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 remain a dead end.
In fact, they are more than that since, as Deutsch openly admits, religious day schools are his scheme’s competition. Lamentably, Deutsch intends to duplicate his formula elsewhere in the country, with plans to create 100 similar schools around the nation.
Ben Gamla therefore must not be viewed as a mere curiosity, but as a direct threat to the one institution proven to be our best investment in our future – though even that is not a magic formula for continuity. Despite their proven success, day-schools have suffered stalled enrollment in the last decade.
One problem is that a large proportion of American Jews are so averse to Jewish particularity that a specifically Jewish school is abhorrent to them. There may not be much we can do to market day schools to such people, though it must be said that no one has given such an effort a real try.
But 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 tuition is so high that it has become virtually prohibitive for middle-class families, especially those with more than one school-age child. Unless we support the sector of the population that actively wishes to affiliate, American Jewry will be effectively shooting itself in the foot.