The Ben Gamla Boom
Tue, 08/23/2011
Associate Editor
Ben Gamla High School, which opened on Monday, is the nation's first charter high school to require Hebrew.
Ben Gamla High School, which opened on Monday, is the nation's first charter high school to require Hebrew.

When Einav Cabrera moved with her family from Israel to Florida two decades ago at the age of 10, her mother sent her to a Jewish day school so she would continue being exposed to Hebrew and Israeli culture.

But since the family wasn’t at all religious, “I wasn’t happy there; it wasn’t the environment I was used to,” Cabrera recalled.

She ended up switching to public school, but missed the Hebrew.

Now she is the principal of Ben Gamla Charter South — a school in Plantation, Fla. (in Broward County) that last week opened what founders say is the nation’s first Hebrew charter high school.

“If there were something like this when I was growing up, it would have been great,” Cabrera said.

The new high school, which opens with 75 students in 9th and 10th grades, shares a building with Hebrew charter elementary and middle schools (Cabrera is principal of all three) but plans to move into its own space sometime in the future. The goal is for the three combined eventually to enroll 1,500 kids in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Ben Gamla High is part of South Florida’s rapidly expanding “Ben Gamla” network of state-funded, tuition-free Hebrew-teaching schools, founded four years ago by former Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) and named for the Israelite high priest who established a universal educational system.

Five Ben Gamla schools — including two elementary schools that opened last week, one in Kendall (suburban Miami) and the other in Boynton (Palm Beach County) — now enroll approximately 1,600 students, all of whom study Hebrew at least one hour per day. The schools serve kosher food, and, while open to all, are believed to be overwhelmingly Jewish.

In both enrollment and number of schools, the Ben Gamlas dwarf the other Hebrew charter schools taking root elsewhere throughout the United States. Outside Florida, while various projects are in the planning stages, only three Hebrew charter schools are currently operating: Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy (315 students), East Brunswick, N.J.’s Hatikvah International Academy (152 students), and Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences, a combined middle and high school in Santa Clarita, Calif. (260 students). And not everyone considers Einstein, which opened in August 2011, to be a Hebrew charter school. Although its founder, a Reform rabbi, describes it as such, it does not actually require Hebrew, and last year fewer than half of its students opted to study the language.

Outside Florida, many Hebrew charter school efforts have been stymied by difficulties obtaining charters and legal battles. But Ben Gamla has managed to grow rapidly, despite initial criticism from church-state watchdog groups — even though many of its schools are located on Jewish community center campuses and the sites of former Jewish day schools, a fact that might raise eyebrows among those worried about a blurring of church-state boundaries.

Indeed, Ben Gamla is poised for further expansion: a charter was recently approved in Pinellas County, which would be the first Ben Gamla outside South Florida. The National Ben Gamla Charter School Foundation (Deutsch, who now lives in Ranaana, Israel but shuttles back frequently to Florida, is not officially on the board but does serve as a pro bono lawyer for the foundation) has eight more charter applications pending and has created its own principals’ training program.

Deutsch insists that, despite the rapid growth, the Ben Gamla movement seeks quality, not quantity.

“Our goal is not to fill the building, but to create a great school,” he says. “The goal is for our schools to be the best schools in South Florida: not the best charter schools, not the best public schools but the best schools.”

Ben Gamla High, like the elementary and middle school with which it shares space, is located on the campus of the Soref JCC, and in a building that formerly housed the David Posnack Hebrew Day School.

The JCC campus also hosts JUMP, an optional after-school Judaic studies program that runs programs near other Ben Gamla sites and recently expanded to offer various clubs and activities for high school students.

The new high school is striving to be on the cutting edge of technology: each student is equipped with a tablet computer (which stores all textbook content), the classrooms all have Promethean electronic whiteboards and wireless Internet connections, and instruction is via “blended learning” — a mix of online and face-to-face instruction.

All electives are being offered through the Florida Virtual School, which “allows us the freedom to be able to offer a variety of electives — everything from game design to keyboarding,” Cabrera says.

“We can have 25 kids in a lab and each is taking a different elective,” she adds.

Parents, particularly ones who already have younger children in Ben Gamla elementary schools, say they are excited about the new school.

Nori Hoch, who is Modern Orthodox, has two daughters at the Ben Gamla elementary school in Plantation, and her son, who has been in a Jewish day school, just started in the high school.

“I feel like we’re really getting the best of both worlds,” she says, praising the Hebrew, the Orthodox-friendly culture (kosher food, accommodations made when students miss school on Jewish holidays) and the fact that it’s also a public school.

“I like that it’s transparent,” she says. “It’s very clear what the rules and regulations are; it’s a very objective kind of system.”

Like Hoch, Marty Jacob is Orthodox and, after being pleased with two younger children’s experience at Ben Gamla elementary schools, decided to transfer an older child from day school to the new Ben Gamla high school.

Although they could have afforded Jewish day school, Jacob and his wife decided “it would be more valuable to their growth as Jews” to send the children to Ben Gamla and use the saved tuition money for a private Judaic studies tutor, Jewish sleep-away camp and a family trip to Israel.

Jacob estimates that in a typical class of 20 at Ben Gamla, “maybe two or three” students are Shabbat-observant and “maybe two or three” are not Jewish.

When Jacobs and his wife decided to enroll their children in Ben Gamla, “a rabbi said to me, ‘Do you realize 20 percent of Ben Gamla is not Jewish?’ I said, ‘Do you realize 99 percent of the world is not Jewish?’ My children are learning how to interact and establish respect with non-Jews.”