Durham News

Jewish school in Durham affirms love for Israel amid controversy

Odeya Liberty, a student in Raina Elsner's third grade class works on a mural the with help from the group Artists 4 Israel at the Lerner School in Durham, N.C. Friday, June 3, 2016. A team of non-Jewish graffiti artists actively and proudly support the state of Israel and visited the Lerner School to partner with the school’s students in creating pro-Israel murals expressing their Zionism and hope for peace.
Odeya Liberty, a student in Raina Elsner's third grade class works on a mural the with help from the group Artists 4 Israel at the Lerner School in Durham, N.C. Friday, June 3, 2016. A team of non-Jewish graffiti artists actively and proudly support the state of Israel and visited the Lerner School to partner with the school’s students in creating pro-Israel murals expressing their Zionism and hope for peace. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Chance Biehn painted a red smiley face and “don’t worry” on a school mural Friday, expressing hope for peace in Israel.

“Because I didn’t want anyone in Israel to worry,” the second-grader said.

The day marked the end of both the school year and a legal battle between the Sandra E. Lerner Jewish Community Day School and two parents that spawned international news coverage questioning the school’s support for Israel.

“Of course it’s a relief,” school head Allison Oakes said of Sloan and Guy Rachmuth’s decision to drop their lawsuit. “Both of us can move on past this.”

The school on Cornwallis Road in Durham has about 125-students, from 2-year-old pre-schoolers to fifth-graders.

The coverage started last fall with a story in the online conservative Jewish publication Frontpage Mag. Among other things, it compared Lerner having a teacher associated with Jewish Voice for Peace and Duke Students for Justice in Palestine to historically black Howard University hiring a professor affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan.

Pieces in The Algemeiner, an American Jewish newspaper, the Jewish News Service, The Jerusalem Post and most recently the Forward followed.

The articles either mentioned the dispute between the Lerner Jewish Community Day School and the Rachmuths or referenced the couple’s complaints.

Tuition dispute

The legal battle began in December 2014 when the school filed a civil claim, contending the couple owed $18,923 in tuition.

Contracts with the school state that families must pay full tuition if they withdraw children after July 2. The Rachmuths gave notice on July 16, 2014, that they would be withdrawing their children, but didn’t pay the tuition, court documents state.

On March 3, 2015, the Rachmuths filed a counterclaim contending contract fraud and deceptive practices.

Their filing states the Rachmuths enrolled their children in the 2013-14 school year because it was a school “for Jewish children.” In May 2014, Lerner changed its pre-school admission policy, opening the pre-school to the entire community in hopes of increasing enrollment, Oakes said.

“Lerner concealed from the Rachmuths before they signed the re-enrollment contracts the material fact that Lerner was actively considering, pursuing and/or intending to implement the open enrollment policy,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also states that a Hebrew teacher accused Israel of war crimes and is an open supporter of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement. Efforts to reach the teacher, who has since left the school, on Thursday and Friday for comment were unsuccessful.

Guy Rachmuth also took issue with the school’s director of development who wrote an article endorsing a conference featuring the Palestine Solidarity Movement and with a board member whose wife, a Duke professor, signed a petition calling for the end of Israel’s “assault” on Gaza.

“Sloan and I both believe that paying Lerner’s tuition or paying its withdrawal ‘penalty’ in the amount of 100 percent of the tuition was tantamount to funding and supporting not only Lerner’s fraudulent conduct but also our religious antagonists and political adversaries,” Guy Rachmuth’s affidavit said. “We had no alternative on such short notice other than to undertake to educate our children at home through educators qualified to do so.”

Oakes said the development director and the board member support Israel.

In general, she said, the school is apolitical.

“Our oldest children are 11,” she said. The school teaches its students about Israel through culture, the geography, the food and music.

“We don’t get into politics,” she said, adding that she has not had complaints from other parents.

The school dropped its lawsuit in April because it was bringing unwanted attention and detracting from the school’s mission, Oakes said. The Rachmuths dismissed their counterclaim Friday morning.

Reached Friday, Sloan Rachmuth would not say why the couple dropped their suit but said the story received widespread attention because there are “some highly objectionable things” going on at the school.

Jewish identity

Rabbi Daniel Greyber of Beth El Synagogue in Durham was surprised when he learned of the coverage by the Jewish publications. He said he never doubted the school, where he has one child in fourth grade and another who graduated two years ago.

The school is a place where children connect with their Jewish identity, Greyber said.

“Many of the people who were disparaged in some of the articles are congregants of mine,” he said. “People who I know are wonderful, thoughtful and supportive members of the Jewish community.”

Oakes said the graffiti mural grew out a meeting she had with a school supporter who asked how the school could rebut the anti-Israel claims and suggested reaching out to Artists 4 Israel executive director Craig Dershowitz.

The mural might have happened even without the controversy, she said.

In the morning Artists 4 Israel, which included Dershowitz and three others, spoke with students about Israel and what they wanted the world to know about it.

Throughout the morning, elementary students painted on the large, landscape mural. By noon it was covered with “Shalom,” Jewish stars, peace symbols, hearts and happy faces.

“They all just kind of built on top of each other,” Dershowitz said. “And it just became a big, beautiful mess.”

Artists 4 Israel planned to polish the mural in the afternoon and show it to the community.

The mural will be displayed inside the school.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

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