Hebrew charter school founder looks to 'Mormon model'

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

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

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