Hebrew charter school founder looks to 'Mormon model'

Published: Monday, Sept. 10 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

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."

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