Review Jewish-oriented charter school in Hollywood, board urged

Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch says the Ben Gamla school "is obsessive with compliance with separation of church and state."
Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch says the Ben Gamla school "is obsessive with compliance with separation of church and state."
Miami Herald file / 2008

A Broward civic activist has urged the School Board to determine whether the publicly funded Ben Gamla charter schools violate the Constitutional separation of church and state.

In response, a top district official has asked for a review of the matter.

Charlotte Greenbarg of Hollywood contacted board members after reading a July 21 article by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an Israeli newspaper about school founder and former Democratic Congressman Peter Deutsch and his endeavors to create Ben Gamla schools in South Florida.

In her Aug. 10 email, Greenbarg cited this line from the article: “Deutsch is unabashed about using public money to support what he describes as Jewish identity building. Out of Ben Gamla’s collective budget of $10 million a year, Deutsch says 80 percent serves Jewish communal purposes.”

“This needs to be re-examined quickly,” Greenbarg said.

“People can have any opinion they want,” said Deutsch. The School Board, he said, carefully vetted the issue in 2007 before approving Ben Gamla for a kindergarten-through-eighth grade charter school at 2620 Hollywood Blvd., off City Hall Circle. “We are careful not to teach religion. It’s illegal to teach religion.”

The controversy was renewed as the Ben Gamla charter school group faces new neighborhood and community opposition to its proposal to build a 1,050-student middle and senior high school on nearby Van Buren Street.

Special exemption needed

The school needs a special exemption from Hollywood to construct the four-story school building, a joint effort with Doral Preparatory Academy in Miami-Dade. The School Board also must approve it.

After Greenbarg’s complaint, the office of Broward School Board Chairwoman Laurie Rich Levinson responded, saying her email and the article about Deutsch were forwarded to the district’s Charter School Department “for review and response.” Levinson could not be reached for comment.

The JTA report describes Deutsch as an “expatriate” who has lived in Israel the past eight years. It describes Deutsch as an Orthodox Jew who believes that most American Jews “view their Jewish background much as he did when he was younger, and with the same dispassion as Americans of Greek or Polish or Italian extraction might view their ancestral origins — as little more than a footnote to their identity.

“The Ben Gamla charter schools are Deutsch’s effort to change that,” the story says. “He wants to give Jewish kids who otherwise would attend public school an opportunity to be in a Jewish environment and develop a Jewish identify — at taxpayer expense.”

Asked about the story, Deutsch said his quotes were accurate but that he could not attest to the complete accuracy of the story without reviewing it. He added that he had not made a complaint about any part of the story.

“The school complies with every aspect of separation of church and state,” Deutsch said. “The school is obsessive with compliance with separation of church and state. The process is 100 percent transparent.”

Ben Gamla schools provide some instruction in Hebrew and studies in Jewish history and the state of Israel, Deutsch said. The result, Deutsch said, is a “communal benefit.”

The article stated that about 85 percent of Ben Gamla’s students are Jewish. Deutsch said he did not know the exact figure, but that the majority of students are Jewish.

Students from other ethnic groups also attend, Deutsch said, including many from middle- and lower-income families.

Public funding

The School Board’s 2007 approval of the K-8 school made Ben Gamla eligible to receive public funding from the state in an amount equal to that received for each student by a public school. Since then, Ben Gamla has opened three other schools — one more in Broward and one each in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. A 40-student Ben Gamla School in Clearwater, near St. Petersburg, closed in June.

Greenbarg is president of the Hollywood Council of Civic Associations, representing 15 associations throughout the city. She told board members, “When this school came before the board . . . Peter Deutsch promised it would be focusing on the Hebrew language, not religion, which would be a violation of the Constitution. Apparently, that’s not what has happened as the article … illustrates.”

Greenbarg said her group supports three homeowner groups in opposing the proposal for the Doral-Ben Gamla Preparatory Academy adjacent to the K-8 school.

The group, she said, opposes the project because the traffic is already difficult in the area, just east of Interstate 95. “It’s a terribly congested place. It’s going to be bad for the community.”

Deutsch said Ben Gamla representatives had met with the area’s residents and that they generally supported the school.

William Gjebre can be reached at

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