How a Little Jewish Day School in Durham Became Embroiled in an International Controversy | Durham County | Indy Week
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How a Little Jewish Day School in Durham Became Embroiled in an International Controversy 

The Sandra E. Lerner Jewish Community Day School

Photo by Alex Boerner

The Sandra E. Lerner Jewish Community Day School

On October 7, the ultraconservative website Frontpage Mag published an unusual article titled "BDS Infests a Jewish Day School." FPM typically aims its outrage at national and international issues (recent headlines include "Pope Francis' Jihad on Christianity" and "Why the Left Loathes Western Civilization"). But this piece had a much smaller target: the Lerner School, a quiet preschool and elementary school of about 130 students on Cornwallis Road in Durham.

In it, FPM—a publication founded by David Horowitz, a New Left leader turned right-wing crusader—criticized Lerner for employing a teacher, Tal Matalon, who has attended rallies supporting the left-wing Students for Justice in Palestine and the BDS ("boycott, divestment, and sanctions") movement, which seeks to apply economic and political pressure to force Israel to change its policies toward Palestinians.

"My political views had nothing to do with my work at Lerner," says Matalon, who left the school last year.

The story also noted that Lerner's director of development participated in a conference that included the Palestine Solidarity Movement, and that the wife of a former Lerner board member signed a petition calling for Arab refugees to be allowed to return to Israel.

That a small Jewish day school—particularly one in an intellectual, university-rich region like the Triangle—would employ people with differing opinions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might not seem like news. But a raft of similar stories in the worldwide Jewish media followed anyway.

In February, the Algemeiner newspaper reported on the controversy at Lerner. A week later, the Jewish News Service took a lengthy, two-part crack at Lerner. Later that month, The Jerusalem Post ran an op-ed criticizing the school.

"It caught us completely by surprise," says Allison Oakes, Lerner's head of school. "We're a community day school for little kids. We don't get into international politics here."

What was clear to Lerner, though, was who was behind the sudden attention: Sloan and Guy Rachmuth, with whom the school was, and still is, embroiled in an extended legal dispute. (The Rachmuths have never admitted to tipping the Jewish media.)

The Rachmuths' two children—one of whom was in preschool, the other in elementary—attended Lerner for the 2013–2014 school year. Prior to that, they were at Kehillah Synagogue's preschool in Chapel Hill. As Sloan Rachmuth, who owns reCharge Pilates and Barre in Durham, states in a court affidavit, the Rachmuths pulled their children from Kehillah because of the preschool's "ambivalence toward Israel" and "tolerance for the views ... of those who advocate anti-Israel positions." The problem, according to court records, was that they "discovered that the school's senior official publicly expressed ambivalence toward the State of Israel."

In February 2014, the Rachmuths signed a re-enrollment contract for the following school year at Lerner. But then that May, Lerner announced that it would be opening its preschool—though not its elementary school—to children of all faiths. In July, Oakes met with Sloan, who expressed concerns about the school's dedication to its Jewish identity, Oakes says.

"I told her that we weren't changing the Jewish practices at the preschool at all, and that we were not opening the elementary school up to non-Jews," Oakes says. "We walked the halls. She met her son's first-grade teacher for the next year. Nothing about our meeting gave me any indication about what would happen over the next eighteen months."

But later that month, the Rachmuths notified the school that they intended to withdraw their children for the 2014–2015 school year—two weeks after the school's cutoff date. The school sent an invoice asking them to pay what was owed under the contract, about $19,000. The Rachmuths refused. The school filed suit for breach of contract, and an arbitrator affirmed in February 2015 that the contract was binding.

The Rachmuths then countersued, claiming that "false assurances and misrepresentations" led them to enroll their children at Lerner. The arguments in the Rachmuth's lawsuit mirror those presented in FPM: Lerner's employment of Matalon and Bearman; an allegation that the school removed modern maps of Israel from classrooms (school officials deny this, and the INDY saw several such maps during a recent visit); and a general culture that is insufficiently pro-Israel. In an affidavit, Guy Rachmuth said that paying the tuition would be "tantamount to funding and supporting not only Lerner's fraudulent conduct but also our religious antagonists and political adversaries."

"When you have teachers and administration who have signed petitions saying you shouldn't do business with someone from Israel or attend an event because the artists are Israelis, that gives you second thoughts about sending your children to that school," Sloan Rachmuth says. "We're talking about discrimination against a group of innocent people."

Even very conservative Jewish parents at Lerner see little evidence supporting the Rachmuths' position, however.

Perri Shalom-Liberty has sent four children to Lerner since moving to the United States fifteen years ago from Israel. She's also the founder of Voice for Israel, a Triangle-wide group of pro-Israel advocates. "I would never send my kids to a school like the one [the Rachmuths] describe," Shalom-Liberty says. She notes that, during the Gaza conflict in 2009, the school gave her permission to use its email list to send out emails for a rally she organized.

Jonathan Lovins, a physician, moved to the Triangle six years ago from Connecticut. "I'm as pro-Israel as you get," Lovins says. "I was the AIPAC rep at my college. I'm one hundred percent comfortable with Israel's current approach. And I'm completely comfortable sending my kids here. There's nothing anti-Israel or ignoring Israel. It was a complete shock to me when I first heard about [the Rachmuths]. I thought they must be talking about some other school."

Asked for examples of other parents who share the Rachmuths' concerns, Sloan Rachmuth says, "There's a bevy of other people who are displeased," but they "fear retaliation." Citing ongoing litigation, she declined to comment further.  

Last month, Lerner dropped its tuition suit against the Rachmuths.

"For reasons we do not understand, individuals outside our community, who had no knowledge of or experience with Lerner, chose to lodge baseless and disrespectful charges against the school and members of our faculty and staff," the school's board of directors said in a statement. "We have decided that we will not continue to allow others to use the Lerner School to further their own political agendas."

But the Rachmuths don't view it as a ceasefire. They're still pursuing their case.

"It's a strategic maneuver by them," Sloan says. "They dropped the suit without prejudice, which means they can bring it back anytime they want if we drop our suit."

The Rachmuths' countersuit goes before a judge later this month.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Conflict Zones"

  • Parents in the midst of a tuition dispute accuse the Lerner School of being insufficiently pro-Israel

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