About 400 students started classes at Ben Gamla [a new K-8 charter public school in Hollywood, Florida] this week amid caustic debate over whether a public school can teach Hebrew without touching Judaism and the unconstitutional side of the church-state divide. The conflict intensified Wednesday, when the Broward County School Board ordered Ben Gamla to suspend Hebrew lessons because its curriculum — the third proposed by the school — referred to a Web site that mentioned religion.
Opponents say that it is impossible to teach Hebrew — and aspects of Jewish culture — outside a religious context, and that Ben Gamla, billed as the nation’s first Hebrew-English charter school, violates one of its paramount legal and political boundaries.
Of those of you who went to public school, how many of you learned anything about Christianity? Maybe the Crusades, or the Protestant Reformation? How many of you sang a Christmas carol (or five) in the winter pageant, or learned to play "church music" (including just about anything by Bach) if you were in the school orchestra? Was there a Halloween parade? In your Spanish or French or Italian class, did you learn to say "Feliz Navidad" or "Joyeux Noel" or "Buon Natale?" In your world history course, did you learn about such "exotic" philosophies as Buddhism and Baha'ai? And, of course, were you asked to start each day with the God-inclusive Pledge of Allegiance?
Eleanor Sobel, a school board member who is among Ben Gamla’s most vocal critics, said making sure the school did not stray from constitutional rules would take a near-impossible level of supervision.
Okay, Ms. Sobel. I hope you're exerting just as much effort to take Christianity out of the rest of the public schools in your district. Don't forget to reschedule the "Winter Break" so it doesn't deliberately overlap with Christmas every year. We wouldn't want anyone thinking that our public schools endorse any given religion, and, besides, the semester ends in late January, which is a much more logical time for a school vacation.
Culture and religion and history and language are interwoven. We do our children a great disservice when we try to pretend otherwise. We don't need less exposure to religion in our public schools - we need broader exposure. Children should know that we commonly note numbers in "Arabic numerals" and that we have Muslim scholars to thank for much of our science and math. They should know about the pagan origins of Halloween/Samhain (bonus points if you distinguish among the various religions that are currently lumped under the pagan umbrella), and the Catholic "All Souls Day" spin-off. They should know that being "zen" doesn't jsut mean chilling out, and that "yoga" is more than an exercise class. A survey of world religions should not be limited to a couple of days of "...and this is what they do in other countries in December."
So, yeah, teach Israeli folk dancing to those public school kids, including the 17% whose parents' primary language is Spanish and the "handful" of black students, some of whom are bussed over to the school by their Baptist church.
You know what really gets me, though? This bit (if it's true):
Mr. Deutsch and Rabbi Siegel, a former Jewish day school director, said their critics were mostly defenders of Jewish day schools that stand to lose students and tuition money.
About 80% of the students at Ben Gamla are transfers from other public schools, not from Jewish day schools. Of the students who did transfer out of the day schools, I would not be surprised to discover that a significant portion of them were there not for the religious education, but only for the Hebrew language exposure, or perhaps a little bit of cultural support. Some secular Israelis who have moved to the U.S. choose to send their children to Jewish day schools for the sole purpose of having somewhat familiar surroundings for their children, who may not speak English very well at first, or who may not feel comfortable being inundated with Christmas! come December.
While I certainly understand the day schools' interest in retaining students, I find it morally repugnant that their leaders would seek to undermine an effort to bring exposure to Hebrew language and Jewish culture to a greater number of students - including non-Jewish students.
Allan Tuffs, the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Hollywood, said he, too, was worried about the school and what it could lead to. “Jews have thrived in America as in no other nation,” Rabbi Tuffs said, “in large measure due to this concept of separation of church and state.”
He added, “Once a Jewish school like Ben Gamla is established, you know that fundamentalist Christian groups throughout America will be lining up to replicate this model according to their religious tradition.”
Not so fast, my friend. They'll have to create their own language first.