Two approved changes to a Hebrew-language charter school contract turned into a standing-room-only debate Tuesday on whether the taxpayer-funded school violates the U.S. Constitution's separation of church and state.
The school in the spotlight is the Ben Gamla Charter School in South Broward, set to open in August.
Backers of the charter school say it is meant to be a dual-language school based on a Hebrew/English curriculum. Opponents say the school also will teach religion, especially when marketed in South Florida's Jewish and Israeli communities.
"We have to be very careful because other religious organizations will come to this board," said board member Phyllis Hope. "And, although I love everyone's religion, and as an American we have the right to practice our religions, this is a very serious thing."…
But supporters such as Eric Johnson said the board's concerns were unfounded. Johnson, assistant to the pastor of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Hallandale Beach, said he's referred about 30 children to Ben Gamla…
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HOLLYWOOD CHARTER SCHOOL REFUSES TO END HEBREW LESSONS, August 23, 2007, South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
Hebrew lessons learned Wednesday at the Ben Gamla Charter School seemed pretty straightforward. Read from right to left. There are no vowels in formal Hebrew.
But one lesson not learned on the taxpayer-funded campus, according to Broward County schools: Hebrew is not to be taught, at least for now.
The command not to teach the language came from the School Board on Tuesday, out of concern the charter school violates the federally established separation between religion and government.
There has been months of debate between the school system and Ben Gamla over whether Hebrew can be taught without also promoting a religion.
"I thought it was pretty evident: They are to suspend teaching of the language," Superintendent James Notter said Wednesday before sending the school a letter ordering them to stop teaching Hebrew pending more review by the county. "They heard the discussion."
The school founder, former U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch, nevertheless said Ben Gamla will not stop what it was established to do: Teach Hebrew. He argues the School Board is overstepping its bounds…
But the board put off approving the new language program until it could be scrutinized by a Hebrew professor hired to help monitor the school. With the backing of the full board, Beverly Gallagher, the board's chairwoman, suggested Ben Gamla teach only reading, writing and arithmetic until a Hebrew curriculum could be found that both sides agree on.
Rassbach said the board's deferment meant lessons previously approved must now be used to teach the 400 students attending the kindergarten through eighth-grade school.
Even though board members complained, they approved language programs in May and again in July saying they had few other options. The board didn't like the two previous programs, which were based in part on traditional Jewish texts and translating phrases such as "The Torah teaches us that every son has to honor his parents."
"The charter agreement says you have to teach Hebrew," Rassbach said Wednesday.
In public discussions, it has been unclear whether the school system could revoke Ben Gamla's charter.
And so, on the third day of the new school year, the students' bilingual education continued. Teachers started sentences in English and then finished in Hebrew. Students practiced the alphabet. Homework was assigned…
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SCHOOL BOARD CLEARS WAY FOR HEBREW CLASSES TO RETURN AT GAMLA SCHOOL, September 12, 2007, South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
A Hebrew-language charter school can now fulfill its purpose and teach Hebrew.
Teachers at the Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood taught reading, writing, arithmetic and Israeli geography -- but not Hebrew -- while an expert hired by the school district scrutinized the taxpayer-funded school's curriculum.
The School Board unanimously approved the curriculum on Tuesday, ending months of debate over whether Hebrew can be taught without promoting a religion. Critics say the school -- with its kosher meals, rabbinical director and lessons on Jewish culture -- is a religious school funded by the public.
The dispute came to a head last month when the board ordered the school to temporarily stop teaching Hebrew out of concern the charter school violated the federally established separation between religion and government.
At first Ben Gamla officials refused, but relented a day later.
"It looks like the Ben Gamla school has scrubbed their Hebrew curriculum clean," said board member Eleanor Sobel, who has been one of the school's most vocal critics. "The issue of religious-free Hebrew has been resolved, but I don't believe it's over."
Tuesday's approval comes with certain stipulations. Ben Gamla must submit monthly lesson plans to the district for approval. Staff at both the district and charter school must undergo training in religious studies to understand the difference between teaching about religion and teaching in a way that promotes religion…
Ben Gamla officials were at Tuesday's meeting to amend its curriculum for the fourth time. This version is almost completely devoid of any religious references, Katz said.
That was not the case with the others. Curriculum No. 1 used the stories from the book of Genesis. Curriculum No. 2 asked students to translate phrases such as "Our holy Torah is dear to us." Curriculum No. 3 named several Web sites as additional resources that board members found questionable…