- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 15, 2007

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (AP)

The towering piles of books and summertime stream of construction workers give no hint, but this school is like no other. It takes its name from a Jewish high priest. Its director is a rabbi. The food is kosher. Hebrew will be uttered throughout.

Oh, and it’s a public school.

Ben Gamla Charter School is billed as the first publicly funded Hebrew-English school in the United States. Its opening Monday has prompted fears of religion creeping into public schools and has drawn unlikely criticism from groups that defend Jewish causes.

Ben Gamla is the brainchild of former Rep. Peter Deutsch, Florida Democrat, who said he was as surprised by the controversy surrounding the school as by the interest in it. Organizers say the school will teach the Hebrew language and culture, but not the Jewish religion.

“To me, it’s very obvious that we’re not teaching religion,” said Rabbi Adam Siegel, the school’s director. “Religion is prayer, it’s God, it’s Bible. And so if you stay away from there, you’re not teaching religion.”

Ben Gamla originally leased space from a Hallandale Beach synagogue, with enough room for 100 children in kindergarten through third grade. Within weeks of publicizing its opening, Mr. Deutsch said, the school received more than 800 applications.

Charter schools are publicly financed and run independently, sometimes by private entities.

Mr. Siegel ran into tough opposition at Broward County School Board meetings when proposing Hebrew textbooks that included passages criticized.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the school sets a dangerous precedent.

“Whenever you have a public school, a public charter school, that focuses on a particular culture that has an intense religious connection, there is the risk that you will end up teaching that religion,” he said.

Even the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Federation of Broward County have expressed church-state separation issues.

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