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Hebrew charter school founder looks to ‘Mormon model’

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A public charter school in Florida offers release time for student to study Judaism.

A public charter school in Florida offers release time for student to study Judaism.

Rabbi J. Lyons

Jewish day school education K-12 is the single greatest predictor of Jewish affiliation as adults, and therefore Jewish continuity. – Rabbi Jay Lyons

High school freshman Hayden Mankovitz comes home every day from his Plantation, Fla., school "bubbling over" to share what he's been learning about his family's cultural heritage, according to his mom, Maxine Mankovitz.

Hayden is taking part in an experiment launched this fall in Plantation, Fla. He goes to a public charter high school that teaches in Hebrew. The school also offers a "release-time" program in which he can leave the campus and get religious instruction with a rabbi during the school day.

Mankovitz is thrilled so far. She sees the program as filling a gap in their family's Jewish awareness. "We haven't had too much Hebrew or Jewish background in my home," she said.

"Our spirit was always there but we hadn't had much chance to get much education, and we hadn't belonged for many years to a synagogue," Mankovitz added. "It's just astonishing that is offered to him."

Based on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seminary programs — where high school students go off campus to a neighboring building for religious instruction during the school day — the Florida experiment aims to help Jewish students and families rediscover and transmit pieces of a fading cultural heritage.

It's a controversial vision, as some fear that public schools are being leveraged for religious ends, but its creators and defenders insist they stand on firm legal ground.

An urgent vision

Assimilation, intermarriage and loss of cultural identity are ever-present threats for 21st century Jews. It was in part to counter such risks that Jewish "day schools" developed, roughly equivalent to Catholic parochial schools. The model expanded rapidly during the last two decades of the 20th century.

"Jewish day school education K-12 is the single greatest predictor of Jewish affiliation as adults, and therefore Jewish continuity," said Rabbi Jay Lyons, who teaches Hayden's religion classes at Plantation's Jewish Community Center.

But very few non-Orthodox Jews attend day schools, for reasons ranging from high tuition to limited availability. In recent years, many Jewish day schools have struggled or shut down, and the continued limited reach has many concerned.

One solution is to piggyback religious programs onto the Hebrew language charter schools — with after-school programs for younger children and school-day class time for high school students.

Unlike private Hebrew day schools, these charter schools are tax-funded and thus within reach of middle-class Jewish families. But because they are public schools, and thus tax supported, some critics think their teaching of Hebrew language and culture represent a breach of the separation of church and state.

One such experiment is being pioneered at a Ben Gamla Hebrew-language charter school in Florida.

Peter Deutsch, a former Florida congressman, founded the Ben Gamla Charter School program after leaving Congress in 2004. Today, there are five Ben Gamla Charter Schools in Florida serving more than 1,800 students, including Hayden's Plantation High School.

No longer connected to Ben Gamla Charter School governance, Deutsch has turned his attention to how to more directly connect Jewish students to their heritage.

Deutsch helped develop a hybrid program that allows high school students to study secular subjects, including Hebrew, in the public charter school, and then take religion classes by crossing between the school campus and adjacent, privately funded facilities.

Deutsch and Rabbi Lyons believe the secular charter schools can be blended with off-campus religious education. They looked to the Mormon experience for guidance, consulted closely with LDS educators, and even traveled to Utah to see the model in practice.

A cultural model

But while Deutsch looks to the Mormon experience for guidance, his inspiration for the Ben Gamla charter program itself drew from a Greek-language charter school in South Florida.

Archimedean Academy was founded in 2002 in South Florida. It emphasizes math and modern Greek, using an immersion model in which students learn in Greek 2½ hours a day. The demanding curriculum has been a huge success, and the 950-student campus now has a waiting list of 1,000 students.

The school was founded by Greek Americans who saw their cultural heritage was slipping away.

"My grandparents were forced to leave (Asia) Minor because they wanted to maintain their identity as Greeks and Greek Orthodox Christians. They were willing to give up their entire livelihood to maintain their identity. The least we can do is make an effort to preserve it," founder Aleco Haralambides said in an interview with the Greek Reporter.

Deutsch is very conscious of the parallels between his efforts and Archimedean Academy.

Some critics of Hebrew charters argue that only private day schools can properly blend secular and religious instruction, and that Hebrew charters will offer only a shell without substance.

Deutsch believes, however, that his hybrid of secular Hebrew-language charters juxtaposed with routine off-campus religious instruction can bridge the gap for families that would otherwise be culturally adrift.

Varied motivations

"Day schooling isn't catching on among non-Orthodox Jews, despite two decades and millions of dollars spent pushing the idea," wrote J.J. Goldberg in Forward, a popular Jewish publication, last December. "The proposition that day schools are the answer to assimilation isn't panning out."

Goldberg, a leading Jewish journalist and the former editor of Forward, was particularly struck that, while Jewish day school attendance is nearly static, it is actually in free fall among non-Orthodox Jews. It is, he said, only being propped up by a massive baby boom in the Orthodox communities.

"How can you expect there to be continuity when people know effectively nothing?" Deutsch asked.

"Different parents and community members may be attracted to a charter school for different reasons," said Eric Rassbach, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Ben Gamla to help ensure that the school does not cross constitutional lines.

"We have a variety of families who are here for different reasons — some purely for the language," said Elanit Weizman, principal of the Boynton Beach Ben Gamla campus. "Some because they like the cultural component, some because they like the academic program, and it's a bonus that kids are learning Hebrew, but that's not necessarily the deciding factor."

For Weizman, the essence of Ben Gamla is rigorous, innovative teaching, with individualized instruction rather than lecturing and a strong foreign language curriculum.

The school celebrates and teaches secular Hebrew holidays and traditions, much as Greek, Mandarin or Spanish charter schools teach the respective cultures of their respective languages, Weizman said.

Varied opposition

Much of the resistance to Hebrew charter schools comes from traditional Hebrew day schools — private religious schools that serve Jewish families who want a strong religious foundation.

Deutsch does not see such a conflict or a threat, arguing that tuition for day schools is out of reach for most families. Ben Gamla schools have often opened up in facilities left behind by failing day schools, he said.

Others oppose Ben Gamla as a violation of church and state. "I'm not sure the real objective of Ben Gamla schools is the teaching of the Hebrew language," wrote Rabbi Bruce Warshal in the Florida Jewish Journal last February, "but rather the infusion of this 'Hebrew culture,' which is really Jewish culture, which is really Judaism in another guise."

Warshal calls this "mass prevarication (let's use the real word, lying) in the promulgation of religion" and deems it "unconstitutional."

But Warshal is on dubious legal ground, Deutsch argues. He noted that Ben Gamla keeps an extremely tight guard on anything that might blur the lines of church and state. "The law that is very straightforward, the sanctions are pretty severe, and there are a group of entities that look for violations."

One such entity is Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a prominent watchdog that in 2007 challenged Ben Gamla over a textbook that contained oblique religious references. The school readily agreed to replace the book, and AUSCS has since maintained a quiet but watchful eye.

The challenged textbook — the one instance of friction thus far — was actually already in use by Broward County School Board for Hebrew instruction in public schools, and was recommended to Ben Gamla by the board, according to Rassbach.

Under Section 1983 of the 1871 Civil Rights Act, Deutsch says, groups such as AUSCS have strong incentives to litigate. If the challenger wins, it gets to collect attorney's fees from the school. If it loses, the school still pays its own legal costs.

"If we were doing something improper, they would sue us," Deutsch said, pointing to the early scuffle over the textbook.

"The school has retained counsel to make sure they are toeing the line on the Constitution, because they know these attacks are out here," Rassbach said.

The Mormon model

Ben Gamla maintains a strict separation with regards to the after-school program (for K-8) and release-time programs (starting this year for high school students).

The separation is a fine line, given that most Ben Gamla schools are located at Jewish community facilities.

In Plantation, Fla., the school rents buildings located at the Jewish Community Center. Students cross out of that space to other buildings in the JCC complex for after-school and release-time religious classes.

All five Ben Gamla campuses have an after-school program for grade school children, and Deutsch estimated that roughly 50 percent of the Jewish kids at each school participate.

The director of the religious instruction program at the Plantation campus is Rabbi Jay Lyons, who runs the Jewish Upbringing Matters Program.

"Our goal is to create a situation in public school as close as possible to a Jewish Day School," said Rabbi Lyons, noting that only a tiny fraction of Jewish children are able to attend a religious day school.

In planning the release-time program, Deutsch and Lyons both consulted closely with Mormon educators in Utah, who have a long history navigating church and state separation, with church seminary facilities built separate from but adjacent to public high schools.

"The Mormon church has been doing this for over 40 years, with extraordinary success," Deutsch said. "It's clear that it's constitutional. The bells can ring in both buildings."

Deutsch notes that high school-age LDS youth participate in formal religious "seminary" instruction in numbers that far exceed their Jewish counterparts.

"When I tell people that the Mormon church has no day schools, that they have effectively leveraged public education for religious education ... people are surprised and amazed."

Deutsch sees a similar model working for Jewish communities, using the hybrid Hebrew school model. "The school itself does not teach religion, but it does create a possibility for kids where they can get a meaningful Jewish education," Deutsch said.

So Peter Deutsch plugs on, with the Hayden Mankovitz's of the world firmly in his mind's eye, looking to fill the gaps of commitment and financial resources that hamper cultural and religious transmission.

email: eschulzke@desnews.com