Hebrew charter school founder looks to 'Mormon model'

Published: Monday, Sept. 10 2012 10:27 p.m. MDT

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

Rabbi J. Lyons

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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

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