The head of a Los Angeles charter school network announced in a Friday press conference that a teacher who taught students about the “genocide of Palestine” is not returning to the school.
The controversy, as Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reported, involves a couple of first-grade teachers at the Citizens of the World-East Valley charter school, which is housed at the conservative Adat Ari-El synagogue in Valley Village. One teacher reportedly posted on social media, “I did a lesson on the genocide in Palestine today w my first graders who give me hell 90% of every day but were really into this convo and series of activities. I started by telling them that we weren’t gonna do math at the usual time [because] sometimes there are big things in the world that need our attention and we need to interrupt our usual routines to make space to learn and talk about what’s happening.” The teacher added that the students began brainstorming solutions and said their favorite was a student who suggested, “What if they just give the land back to Palestine and find somewhere else to live?” The teacher put a heart emoji next to it. Additionally, the teacher reportedly posted a photo of the Israeli flags adorning Adat Ari El’s campus with a vomit emoji.
Speaking at a press conference in front of Adat Ari El on Friday, Citizens of the World Charter Schools (CWC), Los Angeles Executive Director Melissa Kaplan said, “This week, I was made aware of concerns about two teachers who recently taught a lesson with first graders related to the war in Israel and Gaza. We were also made aware that there were social media posts on those teachers’ personal accounts that raised significant concerns, fear, anger and harm for many in the Adat and CWC community.” She was also informed that CWC East Valley Principal Hye-Won Gehring asked an “inappropriate and insensitive” query to Senior Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei about the Israeli flags on Adat Ari El’s campus.
“On behalf of Citizens of the World and our entire staff, I deeply apologize for these missteps that have created fear, anger and harm,” Kaplan said, denouncing the teachers’ social media posts that used “false and harmful language to describe a heartbreaking conflict” as well as the “disturbing suggestion that Jews should leave the region.”
Kaplan explained that the CWC immediately placed the two teachers on leave and had third-party investigator look into the matter. While she couldn’t reveal the results of the investigation, the CWC Los Angeles “decided that the teachers who posted the social media content will not be returning to CWC East Valley.” Gehring will also be on leave for two weeks to receive sensitivity training and learn “how to combat antisemitism,” Kaplan said. “I am relying on the findings of the investigation to determine additional consequences for the full conduct described above.”
Rabbi Schuldenfrei said in the press conference that he had received an email from the principal of the charter school saying that some of their teachers were concerned about the Israeli flags. The principal closed the email by asking, “I know that this is a time to hold your community close, and perhaps the flags are intended for that- but do you know how long they will be up?” Schuldenfrei met with Gehring the following day and called her email “offensive.”
“First, it is our courtyard that we generously allow the school to utilize; it is not their space,” Schuldenfrei said in the press conference. “But more importantly, I told the principal that inquiring when our flags were coming down was like asking someone on September 11 to take their American flag down just a few days later. It is painfully insensitive. The principal apologized.”
Schuldenfrei then explained that “the same teachers that complained about the flags professed a desire to teach about human rights in their classroom to first graders. This was shockingly approved by the school’s administration. Even worse, the content of the lesson was not supervised. Then, when teaching these lessons, the teachers weaponized their role as educators to indoctrinate the youngest of children with a radical and hateful agenda.”
The rabbi proceeded to read the teacher’s social media post about teaching their students about the “genocide of Palestine.” “The world needs to know that anyone who calls for the eradication of Israel is expressing a pernicious form of antisemitism, a denial of the right of Jews to live in our ancestral homeland,” Schuldenfrei said. “The heart emoji in the teacher’s post is perverse punctuation, dressing up hate in the guise of love. Too many of us here at Adat Ari El have directly felt the devastation of the Holocaust.”
He later argued that accusing Israel of genocide “is a tragic distortion of a complicated reality.” “Israel is in the unenviable situation of needing to fight against an enemy that uses civilians as shields, who hide their terrorist centers underneath hospitals and schools. An enemy willing to sacrifice their own people to kill ours, leaves Israel in a horrible predicament. But let us be clear, as Israel goes forth to defend herself, we stand with Israel.” Schuldenfrei called the steps taken by CWC Los Angeles to address the situation “heartening.” “We remain committed to working with them to ensure that this is a learning moment for everyone,” he added.
Gehring briefly spoke during the press conference as well. “I’m deeply apologetic for my insensitive questions to Rabbi Schuldenfrei and how I mishandled this important set of events,” she said. “I did not understand the impact of my actions and I am committed to creating a safe environment for all of my students, including my Jewish students, staff and families. I fell short of CWC’s values. I am committed to growing and learning from this experience in order to be a stronger partner to Rabbi Schuldenfrei and the entire Adat community.”
Schuldenfrei told the Journal in an interview after the press conference that the community feels “violated” and “betrayed” by what happened at CWC East Valley. “It feels like there was a defilement on our campus,” he said. “That a place that is dedicated to holiness and spreading love … that our campus was used as a launchpad for antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments and agendas was sickening.”
The rabbi called the CWC Los Angeles’ actions “an important first step” and hopes “they continue down that path towards restoration, towards tikkun, and we certainly stand here hopeful to be partners with them in that journey.”
Los Angeles Unified School District Board Member Nick Melvoin also spoke at the press conference. “The social media posts by a couple teachers were this new breed of antisemitism, masked in the context not of criticism of a government, but of the delegitimization and destruction of Israel, the indigenous homeland of the Jewish people,” he said. “The myths in those posts of the origins of the conflict and of the actions of the Israeli people are age-old antisemitic tropes and must never be tolerated, particularly not with our teachers.”
Melvoin added that he planned to bring forth a “a policy package” to the school board “to ensure that we lead the nation on our pursuit of compassion in our classrooms and communities.” “I will be asking for a comprehensive definition of antisemitism, a thorough review of curriculum to make sure it is devoid of bias, the inclusion of the Jewish experience, including antisemitism, in our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion framework, a commitment—and the requisite funding—to ensure all students visit the Museum of Tolerance, the Holocaust Museum, or similar such institutions during their time in our schools, partnerships with the Anti-Defamation League and others to ensure counseling at every school, and updated incident tracking categories to make sure every incident of antisemitism is documented,” he said. “This will build off of the work we’ve already begun at LA Unified, including yesterday’s virtual Holocaust survivor speaker series that coincided with the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht. I hope that these actions will be a model for other school districts across the nation as part of a comprehensive strategy to combat antisemitism and other forms of hate on school campuses.”