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When the Ben Gamla Charter School opened its doors this fall to 400 students in South Florida, it burst open the gates of controversy among American Jewry about how the Jewish community should be educating its children - and what a potential proliferation of language-based charter schools means for the America they live in.

Charter schools are privately run but funded by tax money. Dual-language English-Hebrew charter schools - Ben Gamla, in Hollywood, some 20 miles north of Miami, the only one in existence to date - would offer Hebrew as well as Jewish culture, history and literature (including Bible) to students in kindergarten through 8th grade, without teaching ritual and religious studies. Doing the latter would put the school on the wrong side of the constitution's church-state divide. Proponents of such schools say they could offer an alternative to the high and rapidly rising tuitions of most Jewish day schools. Others herald them as a solution for many non-Orthodox Jewish families averse to sending their children to religious schools.

When there was resistance to the school in Broward County, where Ben Gamla is located, the school board took the unusual step of hiring an academic consultant to monitor the school, so as to ensure it didn't breach the church-state divide. Across the country, opposition has rapidly emerged, in many cases expressing itself via dozens of blogs - Ben Gamla founder Peter Deutsch estimates that there are more than 50. And leaders in Jewish education and influential onlookers are watching the fray carefully and debating quietly among themselves. Meanwhile, Deutsch says he has received dozens of calls from community leaders nationwide expressing interest in setting up similar schools, from such disparate locations as northern New Jersey, Atlanta, Detroit and Orange County, California.

That's certainly what Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt is hoping for. The "birthright Israel" program he helped co-found, which offers a free trip to Israel to every interested young Jew, is also an attempt to engage Jewish youths with few ties to Judaism and Israel. Through the nonprofit organization he is launching, the Areivim Philanthropic Group, Steinhardt, who made his billions as a hedge-fund pioneer and in other Wall Street activities, is drawing up plans for a series of Hebrew charter schools. In 2003, he announced that he is putting forth $10 million of his own money and challenged other Jewish philanthropists to provide another $90 million for Jewish educational initiatives, including charter schools. Today the fund is nearly at its $100 million goal; other donors include Eugene Applebaum, Bill Davidson and Harold Grinspoon.

A new statistic is fueling Steinhardt's push for charter schools. After pouring more than $125 million into Jewish educational projects in the last 12 years, Steinhardt was startled earlier this year when the research group he funds at Brandeis University, the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, found that only 3 percent of non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S. attend Jewish day schools. "I can't pour enough scorn on the professional Jewish world for the fact that it has stood by and watched the Jewish population assimilate and not come up with any serious way to stop it," he says.

Jonathan Sarna calls that statement "ridiculous." The Brandeis University professor of American Jewish history notes that "compared to where we were 40 or 50 years ago in Jewish education, it's night and day. Then, it was unfathomable that there would be Jewish day schools in every major Jewish community in the country, and in many cities there are multiple choices nowadays. From a historian's perspective, this has happened in the blink of an eye."

But assimilation, too, has come fast and strong, says Steinhardt. "The Orthodox believe in Jewish literacy, and most of the rest of us couldn't care less... Rabbis and other creatures have a monopoly on Judaism. This is a turnoff in a world that is increasingly secular and that has turned away from religion. Jews are simply turning away from Judaism."

Hebrew charter schools, he says, "are the only serious possibility we have of there ever being a substantial proportion of the Jewish population that knows how to speak Hebrew and be literate enough about Judaism."

Law vs. policy

In the background of the debate is a wide-sweeping national discussion about whether charter schools in general are the appropriate response to a failing public school system. Voices on both sides of the Hebrew charter school debate are closely watching developments with other charters, including a current episode in which several Catholic schools in Washington D.C. with declining enrollment are weighing becoming charter schools, and another in which a Harlem church sued the State of New York after it turned down the church's request to start a charter school. Making the matter even more complex is the fact that each state has its own charter regulations, which make establishing schools and receiving funds for them easier or harder - so the establishment of one school in Florida hardly provides a guide for what is to be expected in other states.

Opponents say the schools won't work - or shouldn't work - because they'll breach the church-state divide. Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, is one of them. He worked with Steinhardt in developing the curriculum for what was to be a private, secular Jewish school in Manhattan. Botstein believes there is a "huge need" for secular Jewish education. But, he says, "I'm a firm believer in the separation of church and state, and I think charter schools will inevitably cross that line, so I'm opposed to them."

But Botstein's private-school idea, which he and Steinhardt had hoped would become the "Jewish Dalton," the top-notch Manhattan prep school, and for which Steinhardt invested more than $1 million trying to get it started, fell apart after getting mired in a debate about its mission.

It was a complex one: Steinhardt and Botstein intended to teach Hebrew, Jewish culture and Bible, and anticipated admitting non-Jews as well as Jews. The concept, says Botstein, was to "mainstream the Jewish intellectual tradition - to make Judaism relevant in secular life and relevant to non-Jews."

Yet Sarna says Jews who say they are opposed to charter schools on legal grounds, the church-state line, aren't focused on the right issue. "When they cry out 'unconstitutional,' and then the conservative U.S. Supreme Court we have now doesn't strike down these kinds of schools, many people in the Jewish community run the risk of getting egg on their faces," he says. "This is a public-policy issue, not a legal one."

Good for the Jews?

Even if Hebrew charter schools did pass muster with church-state watchdogs and emerge victorious in a public policy debate, there is little agreement about what contribution they would make to educating Jewish kids about Judaism. Yossi Prager is on the fence on this subject. Nevertheless, Prager, the Avi Chai Foundation's executive director for North America, which funds day schools and other Jewish educational initiatives, is a key voice in this debate. "Hebraic charter schools could help to educate a wider swath of Jewish children who would otherwise go to regular public schools, by giving them at least Hebrew language and some exposure to Jewish culture," says Prager. "The concern is that these schools could potentially draw students away from day schools." (At Ben Gamla, 80 percent of students came from public schools, 20 percent from day schools.)

Since a charter school could not legally replicate a serious day school education - and would be a "very poor alternative," Prager says - the question becomes, "Can charter schools be formulated or situated so that they attract large numbers of non-day school families without drawing many students from day schools?" Right now, he concludes, more market research must be done to determine demand.

In South Florida at least, with a Jewish population of some 700,000, there is "tremendous" demand, says Peter Deutsch, a former U.S. congressman from the region, and Ben Gamla's founder. He says he could fill as many as 10,000 desks at Ben Gamla-like schools in the region, and he has applied for four more charters. The area's burgeoning Israeli population is part of the source of that demand: 37 percent of Ben Gamla's students list Hebrew as their first language. Some families are day-school refugees who decamped because of high tuition fees. Others with disabled children say area day schools weren't able to provide them with the educational support they needed. (Public schools are required to provide such support.)

Perhaps the most common objection to such schools is the claim that it's impossible to separate Jewish religion from Jewish culture, and that the attempt to parse them apart is just a waste of time and resources and invites unwanted scrutiny. Marvin Schick, an expert on constitutional law and a senior consultant to Avi Chai, noted in a recent article for the New York Jewish Week that Ben Gamla "is being scrutinized by an army of watchdogs, including the ever-alert guardians of the Constitution, public education officials and Jewish church-state vigilantes." Jewish charters, he told Haaretz, "will require an enormous amount of monitoring." Schick thinks the community is better off figuring out a way to improve stagnant enrollment in day schools.