Students at Great Neck North High School may hang out at fast-food restaurants, go to unsupervised homes or do just about whatever they please during lunch.
But listening to a Torah lecture at an Orthodox shul should require parental consent.
That was the initial posture of the school principal, Bernard Kaplan, when he sent a letter to some 800 homes last month explaining his “deep concerns” about the activities of nearby Torah Ohr Hebrew Academy.
Kaplan went so far as to call the police in response to parents’ concerns about “proselytizing” of Great Neck students by the shul’s Rabbi Abraham Kohan. He also tried to convince the rabbi to solicit permission slips from students who noshed on pizza bagels there and listened to lectures during their lunch break. (The rabbi nixed the permission slip idea, and the cops said it was none of their concern.)
But when Kaplan’s letter spurred parents and Jewish organizations to criticize him for attempting to obstruct religious practice off-campus, he backed down, apologized and sent out a second letter retracting the first.
“Our single issue is that we think parents have a right to know if their kids are getting religious instruction during the school day,” Kaplan said in an interview Monday.
“But the temple did not have a legal obligation [to inform parents], and as far as that is concerned the issue is resolved.”
After reviewing Kaplan’s Jan. 31 message, The Anti-Defamation League sent Kaplan its own letter.
“Placing restrictions on or creating special requirements for the temples’ lunch and learn program is an infringement on a student’s right to association and free exercise of religion in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution,” wrote Ron Meier, New York regional director and Seth Marnin, regional counsel of the ADL. “The law is clear: as the principal of a public school you cannot endorse or interfere with religious practice.”
Marc Stern, general counsel and director of legal advocacy for the American Jewish Committee, told The Jewish Week that Kaplan’s letter was “over the constitutional top. It’s pretty clear under general principles of law that you can’t impose a special restriction [on religion] which you otherwise don’t.”
In the second letter to parents written Feb. 8, Kaplan apologized to those who “were affronted by my letter” and urged parents to discuss lunchtime activities with their kids.
“Upon reflection, my letter of Jan. 31 … was an unintended infringement on students’ rights. The principal of a public school cannot interfere with religious practice conducted outside of the school’s purview,” he wrote.
Kaplan told The Jewish Week he was moved to act by parents who complained that their kids were drawn to the lunch-and-learn program. In his first letter, Kaplan noted that the programs are gender segregated and objected that the temple “believes it is perfectly OK for them to entice our students with free lunch in order to give them orthodox [sic] religious instruction, or what many would frankly call proselytizing children.”
Kaplan wrote that he checked with other local clergy who said they do not engage in such practices and oppose them.
“We make no judgment about going to a temple or church or a mosque service; they have every right to do that,” Kaplan told The Jewish Week Monday. “We fight for that right, we teach that right. But parents should know that they are getting [religious] instruction.”
He says he is now focusing on getting past bad feelings created by the letter. “We are trying to work on healing. All our efforts are that way. I’ve gotten all kinds of e-mail, mostly supportive. Many people are glad they were informed. Our work now is to try to bring people together.”
Rabbi Kohan did not respond to several requests for comment. The rabbi turned to Agudath Israel of America for advice and was told that Kaplan’s letter required no action on the rabbi’s part.
On a Facebook page created in opposition to Kaplan’s letter, titled “Let my people EAT and LEARN,” Joshua Rismany wrote: “The Lunch and Learn program provides Great Neck North students with a nutritious kosher lunch and great educational classes on character, Jewish heritage, integrity and leadership. All these characteristics are vital for a Jewish child’s success in life during and after their time at Great Neck North. Great Neck North should be endorsing the program at Torah Ohr. This harassment must stop immediately!”
Another commenter, Bob Unger said Kaplan’s letter was “vile and laced with slanderous innuendo.”
An online petition linked on the Facebook page, reads in part “We hope that no one from the administration would engage in any sort of intimidation against the students to stop them from attending this program, especially when it is having such a positive impact on so many kids and enabling them to become well rounded individuals.”
Bernie Davidovics, the father of a sixth-grade student in Great Neck’s public school system, was incensed by Kaplan’s letter and expressed his feelings in an e-mail to the principal. He then visited Torah Ohr’s program on several occasions, finding as few as 10 and as many as 40 kids there. “It seemed clear to me that the kids are coming in because they like the class — not just because of the food,” he said in an e-mail to The Jewish Week. “They participate enthusiastically in the class. There are lots of other options for them to get food in the immediate area.”
After attending a school board meeting Monday night, Davidovics said the issue still appears to be simmering, despite Kaplan’s apology.
“There is deep sentiment in the community,” he said. “It raises questions about what are you teaching in the public schools. It’s hard to accept that his only concern was for parents knowing.”
When asked if he would also support the right of Jews for Jesus to hold a similar program for students, Davidovics said, “It’s the responsibility of parents. If that happened, I would go after Jews for Jesus [to protest]. It’s not up to [Kaplan]. He can’t require you to get permission to go to a synagogue but not get permission for Dunkin’ Donuts or to play basketball.”