Church-State Separation Issue at Hollywood's Ben Gamla Charter School Revived After Comments by Founder

Former congressman Peter Deutsch was quoted as saying the school, which teaches Hebrew language and culture, builds Jewish identity among its students

Walk into Ben Gamla K-8 Charter School in Hollywood, look at the student body, and chances are you'll think you're in any other public school, with diversity to match. But Ben Gamla has been controversial since it opened seven years ago, and not for academic reasons, says Principal Sharon Miller.

"My school scored the highest in Broward County for a K-8 school," Miller said. "My science and algebra one at the middle school level are the highest scores in the state of Florida."

The school is controversial because Hebrew language and culture is part of the curriculum.

"There is no religiosity in this school," says Miller. "Our Hebrew language is the same as if you go into a traditional neighborhood school and take Spanish, French, or German."

Miller says she's obsessed with maintaining a separation of church and state, and despite Israeli posters throughout the building, says she follows Broward public school curriculum on everything.

"The love of Israel? The love part doesn't work, an understanding of the culture, the geography, the history, that would be secular, actually, if you look at the middle school history curriculum, they have to learn that not only about Israel but all of the Middle East, and this is public school curriculum," Miller explains.

The church-state separation issue has been revived because of recent comments made by the school's founder, former congressman Peter Deutsch. The Jewish Telegraph Agency quoted Deutsch as saying Ben Gamla builds Jewish identity among its students.

"I think it's up to the Broward school district to find out what they're teaching in Ben Gamla, have they crossed that boundary?" wonders Charlotte Greenbarg, a critic of the school's expansion plans.

Greenbarg isn't so sure everything is kosher, so to speak, with Ben Gamla's curriculum. But she's more concerned with traffic generated by the school.

Greenbarg is president of the Hollywood Council of Civic Associations. That group is fighting the school's plan to build a high school across Van Buren Street.

"It's gonna be chaotic, it's just impossible for that small space to accommodate all of the traffic that's gonna be there," Greenbarg says.

Dismissal on Monday looked rather ordinary compared to other schools. Ben Gamla says it hired traffic engineers to work with the city, and will make sure, if the city approves the high school expansion, that dismissal and arrival times don't overlap with the K-8's traffic. The principal also issued an invitation to opponents:

"I would love to say to the neighbors, come in and see my school, be a part of this community," Miller says.

Greenbarg says members of her group don't oppose the creation of a Ben Gamla high school, they just don't want it built in the congested area across the circle from Hollywood City Hall.

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