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, Fla., 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 on Aug. 24, 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 vouchers 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, Ben Gamla has revealed that 37 percent of the students say that Hebrew is actually their first language. That 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 to 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 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 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.
They 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, which led to exponential post-World War II growth, day-school enrollment has stalled 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 the cost of 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, then American Jewry will be effectively shooting itself in the foot.
In response, some have proposed campaigns to fund across-the-board lowering of tuitions, a measure that is bound to increase enrollment. But even in those areas, like Philadelphia, where communal leaders appear to have recognized that day schools must be our 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, then foolish alternatives are bound to prosper.
Monuments to Vanity
Ironically, funds have apparently been available for other Jewish causes, such as the $100 million raised for the building of a new expanded National Museum of American Jewish History that will rise on Independence Mall in the near future. If it goes up while measures to lower day-school tuitions continue to fail, we'll have to wonder about our priorities.
While the appeal of Jewish museums, which have sprouted up in North America like "opera houses" in the 19th-century American West, speaks volumes about the desire of American Jews to create monuments to our own colossal communal vanity, it can at least be said that the host of new Jewish history and Holocaust museums on these shores are contributions to education.
But talk of funding education via museums is as much of a dodge as the notion that a Hebrew charter school can accomplish what a full-time comprehensive Jewish day school can.
If we'd rather fund monuments to our past than the schools that are a platform for our future, then perhaps we might as well just 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 any other attempt to change the subject, the failure to create a Jewish education safety net will be our golden ticket to oblivion.