For Hebrew charter school kids, religion comes after school

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (JTA) — It’s dismissal time at the Ben Gamla Hebrew-language charter school in this South Florida suburb, and kids wearing identical blue or white polo shirts with the school’s logo are pouring out of the building.

Some make their way to waiting buses, but about 150 students mill around for a few minutes before heading back to the classrooms. They are followed by Orthodox rabbis with dangling tzitzit fringes and black-velvet yarmulkes pushing carts laden with prayer books and snacks.

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Within a few minutes, the kids are chanting morning prayers — even though it’s afternoon and until a few minutes earlier, the classrooms had belonged to a taxpayer-funded public school.

That’s because Ben Gamla’s lease on the building lapses at about 2:15 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. For the next two hours, the classrooms are taken over by a religious Jewish after-school program.

It’s all part of an effort to offer as much Jewish content as possible to Jewish students at Ben Gamla’s network of charter schools.

The Ben Gamla schools, all in Florida, are infused with Jewish culture: Everyone studies Hebrew, the vast majority of students are Jewish, and the curriculum integrates Israeli culture, history and holidays. Some are located on Jewish federation campuses; one is on the second floor of a synagogue.

But the tuition-free schools are constitutionally prohibited from teaching religion. That’s where the after-school programs come in.

At the Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick, N.J., a program called Nefesh Yehudi offers students a religious education at a nearby Reform synagogue. Hatikvah is affiliated with the New York-based Hebrew Charter School Center (HCSC), which provides financial support and curriculum development assistance to Nefesh Yehudi.

“It’s a whole new model for Jewish education,” said Rabbi Shlomo Landau, the program’s director.

Traditional Hebrew schools typically offer only a couple of hours on a Sunday. Nefesh Yehudi gets the kids for nearly two hours every school day except Fridays. With HCSC’s help, the program developed its own curriculum because existing Jewish educational materials were a poor match for children with relatively good Hebrew skills. The program also includes fun time: Before the Shavuot holiday in May, a group of children worked on a crafts project building mini Mount Sinais to mark the giving of the Torah.

“This is more school-like than Sunday school,” said Marc Feiglin, a Hatikvah parent who helped found Nefesh Yehudi, which charges an annual fee of $2,500 per student. “It has a planned curriculum.”

Jack Wertheimer, who studies Jewish education and teaches American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said the combination of after-school religious instruction and a Hebrew charter school might offer a better education than traditional Hebrew schools.

“Because the kids will develop greater ease with the Hebrew language, the programs are probably superior to the average Hebrew school or congregational school,” Wertheimer said. “On the pitfall side, the young Jews don’t necessarily affiliate with synagogue life, so the potential losers are the synagogues.”

Peter Deutsch, the former Florida congressman who founded the Ben Gamla schools, says the religious after-school programs have two additional advantages over traditional Hebrew schools: The programs don’t have to waste time on bar-mitzvah prep, and they can focus on religion because the kids are learning Hebrew elsewhere.

“This is an opportunity to be transformational,” Deutsch said. “From a Jewish communal perspective, there’s nothing comparable in America.”

Rabbi Jay Lyons runs the after-school Jewish Upbringing Matters Program, or JUMP, at the Ben Gamla schools in Hollywood and Plantation.

The program, which costs $140 per month, begins in kindergarten with an introduction to Judaism, including songs, holidays and the weekly Torah portion. As the children get older, it encompasses Torah study, kosher laws and Jewish values, practices and philosophy. All the instructors — men and women — are Orthodox, though the students come from all denominations. About a quarter of the program’s time is spent on prayer.

“The idea is we want them to be comfortable in any synagogue they go to for the rest of their life,” Lyons explained.

The challenge with after-school programs, administrators say, is keeping the kids engaged at a time of day when their attention typically wanes. Both JUMP and Nefesh Yehudi integrate snacks, playtime and experiential learning into the curriculum.

At Ben Gamla Plantation’s high school, the religious program run by JUMP takes place in an adjacent building for an hour or so in the middle of the school day. The practice, called “released time,” has been upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court and is used by many Mormon communities in Utah.

In Phoenix, Chabad is preparing to launch a new program this fall that will provide a daily Jewish morning program for students enrolled in Career Success High School, a charter school whose day begins in the afternoon.

As the charter school movement grows — HCSC is opening three schools this fall, in San Diego, Washington and New York, bringing to nine the total number of Hebrew charter schools in America — Ben Gamla and HCSC say they do not want to lure students away from day school families.

But the Jewish after-care programs are helping make Hebrew charter schools a more palatable option for day school parents. Some students, such as Feiglin’s son, are former Jewish day school students or have siblings at day schools.

When he moved to the Kendall area, parent Josh Harris planned on sending his kids to the local Jewish day school, Greenfield Day School. But Greenfield closed and a Ben Gamla charter school opened in the same building — with the same principal and nearly all of Greenfield’s students. In the afternoons, many of the Ben Gamla kids now walk across the parking lot to the JCC, which runs a Jewish after-school program.

“The flavor and values and kids from Greenfield have stayed in this setting,” said Harris, whose son Jacob just finished second grade. “With the help of the after-school program, they’re still getting the Judaic background.”