Sometimes it helps to be reminded that there is a need to “draw lines and defend them.” It is in that spirit that we thank Caroline Glick for her March 1 “Our World: Time to Draw Lines and Defend Them” editorial.
Since last year, The Lerner Jewish Community Day School in Durham, NC, has strived to remain true to Jewish values and our mission while we have been vilified in online articles and social media, based solely on the allegations of Guy and Sloan Rachmuth, a family that currently is in a financial dispute with the school.
As The Lerner School’s board of directors, we too are “drawing a line in the sand” to set the record straight about our school, our faculty and staff, our students and their families, and our many supporters.
In Fall 2013, the Rachmuths enrolled their two children at Lerner. During that year, they registered no complaints about the faculty, staff or curriculum, including how Lerner taught about Israel. In February 2014, the Rachmuths re-enrolled their children for 2014-2015 and signed a new contract.
In late spring, the board opened the preschool to children of non-Jewish parents.
When the Rachmuths heard this, they informed Lerner that they did not want their preschool-aged child to be educated alongside non-Jewish children.
That non-Jewish children would be allowed into the preschool was a key reason cited by the Rachmuths for removing their children from Lerner. Hence, a board member’s use of the word “bigotry” with regard to the family had nothing to do with their views on Israel, but rather their views on a non-Jewish child attending the preschool. Any inference that Lerner views “unapologetic Zionism” as “a form of bigotry” is nonsense.
Though the Rachmuths voiced this concern, a concern about the curriculum, a concern about security, and the desire to shield their family from “anti-Semitism,” they did not formally withdraw either child from the upcoming school year before the contractual deadline. When the school reminded the Rachmuths about their contractual obligation, they informed Lerner that they would not pay anything.
Glick’s use of the term “punish” to characterize the school’s action is both inaccurate and inappropriate. The Rachmuths had ample opportunity to withdraw from the contract without owing the full tuition amount. By choosing not to advise Lerner before the deadline that their children would not attend school, the Rachmuths were in breach of contract.
Consistent with its fiduciary responsibility, the board approved that a claim be filed against the Rachmuths, a standard practice among many private schools where tuition provides most operating funds. The Rachmuths filed a counterclaim.
In 2015 the case went before a court-mandated arbitrator who ruled in favor of Lerner. Afterwards, the Rachmuths began to accuse Lerner of being “anti-Israel” and employing “anti-Zionist” and “pro-BDS” individuals.
Glick reported that the family “was dismayed” that the school was “cultivating a learning environment that questioned the legitimacy of the Jewish national liberation movement and of the State of Israel.”
At no time in our 20-year history has Lerner taught students to question the legitimacy of the State of Israel or the Jewish national liberation movement.
Lerner’s Israel curriculum is consistent with other North American Jewish day schools, and we’ve adopted Tal Am’s resource materials so students can learn about Israel in a Hebrew-immersive environment.
Glick wondered if a “turning point” for the Rachmuths was when the school supposedly removed maps of Israel. Had she bothered to contact the school, she would have learned that the maps, along with all other pictures, art and learning aids, are changed based on the history lesson being taught. Moreover, all materials are removed from walls at the end of the school year for cleaning.
Glick wrote that the Rachmuths also were “dismayed that the school had employed a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activist as a Hebrew teacher and when they discovered that the school’s development director and former president of the board was an anti-Israel activist whose group, Jews for a Just Peace – North Carolina, had joined forces with the groups Students for Justice in Palestine and the Palestinian Solidarity Movement.”
The claim that our development director is “anti-Israel” is not only untrue – it borders on character assassination. No individual associated with the school has ever used or would be allowed to use their position as a platform for their personal political beliefs. If any staff, faculty or board member were to do so, we would take all necessary steps to address that situation, including dismissal, if warranted.
Finally, Glick pointed to an allegation by the Rachmuths that the school “refused to back Israel” during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. To explain, this request was posed to a teacher during Lerner’s summer camp for three- and four-year-olds. The teacher’s professional opinion was that discussing a serious military conflict with such young children was not age-appropriate. That is a far cry from “refused to back Israel.”
While Dr. Andrew Pessin did contact Lerner for comment, he admitted in email messages to school officials that he had already “sided in favor of the Rachmuths” with whom he had been in contact numerous times.
To quote Dr. Pessin: “I now see that I gave essentially no thought to concrete ramifications of the [Change.org] petition – the possible damage to the school, which surely looks today as if there is no serious ‘anti-Israel’ problem. For that I’m sorry....
“This doesn’t mean I think the [Rachmuths] are justified in smearing the school – I don’t... I’m just an outsider drawn into it for its philosophical interest, and surely in over my head in getting involved in the nitty gritty.”
Since this situation began, we have repeatedly asked for a meeting with the Rachmuths to reach a fair and mutually agreeable solution. For reasons we do not understand, the Rachmuths have refused all offers to meet with the school outside of a courtroom.
We believe all people have the right to defend their values. But they do not have a right to make deceptive, misleading or false statements that purposefully damage reputation. That is motzi shem rah (slander) defined.
Lerner encourages the The Jerusalem Post to ask any rabbi in the area (including the Chabad and Conservative rabbis whose children attend Lerner), leaders in our congregations and Jewish Federations, or any of the scores of families whose children are currently enrolled (one-third of which are Israeli) about how Lerner teaches about Israel.
This isn’t about hatred, bigotry or being denied the ability to defend one’s values.
It is about a small Jewish day school that for 20 years has educated and provided a strong Jewish, pro-Israel foundation for our next generation. The mission of Lerner is the education of young Jewish children; it is not – and will not become – political.
We are proud of our record, proud of our heritage and proud of our mission.
That is our line in the sand, and we’re proud to defend it without apology.
Hollis Gauss is the president of the Lerner Jewish Community Day School board of directors. Allison B. Oakes is head of school.