Lunch And Burn Over Great Neck Torah Class

Anger as rabbi draws crowd from open campus at public high school, prompting controversial letter from principal.

02/12/13
Assistant Managing Editor
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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.” 

Last Update:

05/20/2014 - 14:20

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The last time a person sent a letter to all the Jews in the town it was a Persian decree to kill all the Jews in the Persian empire. Jews know how to ignore letters very well when they are written by ill-intended people.

Its ironic that a letter has been sent once again to many Persians in Great Neck. Let's see how this megilla plays out!!

To the Editor:

It is unfortunate, indeed, that your coverage missed the forest for the trees in "Lunch and Burn Over Great Neck Torah Class." The lunchtime practices of a local synagogue and rabbi may not be illegal, but that does not make them ethical.

Before people get caught up in first amendment arguments, they would do well to recall that the students at North High School are minors, albeit with an open campus and constitutionally protected rights to assemble, practice religion, etc. Are rights really the issue here, though?

To test the assumption, just ask yourselves whether free lunch and learns by a local church or mosque would receive the same sanctimonious defense of student and shul rights by the ADL and Agudath Israel.

To be sure, Judaism and American civil jurisprudence have great respect for rights. Neither places rights in a vacuum, however. Both underscore the responsible exercise of rights, in keeping with duty and obligation.

One wonders, is it not noteworthy that the synagogue and rabbi in question feel their rights trump those of parents and public school administrators who spoke on their behalf? While adamant about their rights, what is unclear is whether they acknowledge a concomitant sense of obligation: was the synagogue's non-response to civic leaders respectful of its duties to the broader community in which it exists?

To my mind, this is not a plain civil rights issue. As a Jewishly committed public school parent, I, for one, commend the administration of the Great Neck Public Schools for doing its utmost to keep parents and students apprised of a disturbing trend in our community. I fear that the costs to our community and the souls of the kids and families are yet unknown. Where will it end? Will more religious institutions crop up to lure minors during their public school day? What is to stop them?

Bottom line: there is no free lunch, people.

Sincerely,

Rebecca Yousefzadeh Sassouni

Great Neck, New York

This is in response to Rebecca Sassouni, specifically to her post on 2/19/2013 at 16:26.
Dear Mrs. Sassouni, I feel very strongly that you should be lobbying the local school district, to eliminate the open campus policy. Your children may legitimately entertain themselves however they wish during their lunch hour. If the public school policy is not to your liking, and you are unable to successfully change the policies, it would be incumbent upon you to transfer your children to a private school of whose policies you approve.
Furthermore, I believe, as another option, that you can specifically have on file a legal document with the school administration which would enforce your children to be in a study hall during lunch, under supervision. That being said, I am aghast at your comment "I fear that the costs to our community and the SOULS of the kids and families are yet unknown."
So, Ms. holier than thou Sassouni, you fear for your kids SOULS?? , were they to become more observant than you. Were you together with MosheRabbeinu on Har Sinai receiving the laws from Hakodeshbaruchhu? What kind of background produces such self-righteousness? If you have managed to bring up your progeny according to your precepts, you should have no worry whatsoever that a one dollar pizza could so easily lead them astray, down that awful soul-destroying path that so worries you.
I am totally speechless. Your job was to bring up your children to become moral ethical INDEPENDENT individuals. You should pray that you succeeded, you will not be able to clone yourself to them forever. In fact, the moment you bought them a cellphone, you lost all control of their whereabouts.
A Jewish mother worrying about the SOULS of her CHILDREN and of the FAMILY, if the children divert in the slightest from the beliefs and behavior of their obviously righteous mother? Were your children born with Conservative DNA? otherwise, you and they are , per your worry, doomed. My heart goes out to you and your children.

For 150 years we lived as Devout Jews in Iran after being converted to Islam by the edge of a sword. Our forefathers prayed and learned in secret basements. The letter that principal Kaplan wrote reminded me of the letter that was sent to Imam Jom’eh about the New Mashadi Muslims (Jadid al Islam) accusing them that they are secretly learning Judaism in their basements and dark rooms that you enter from a side door.... that letter caused the fanatics to attack the Jewish homes once again. This second pogrom caused the Mashadi Jews to move to Tehran the capital city. Finally after the Shah was over thrown our community moved to New York. We thought we are free now to practice our religion freely with out any interference from any one. Mr. Kaplan was a victim of some close minded parents that they think they understand what is good for our children. “The Letter”successfully rekindled our Mashadi history, only this time by the hand of our own beloved fellow Jews.

This is in response to Mrs. Sassouni’s comment.

I do not understand what exactly is unethical about a synagogue offering free Jewish education to Jewish students during their free lunch break when they are allowed to go virtually to any type of establishment during their lunch break. I believe that, besides being a place of prayer assembly, one of the purposes of a synagogue is to promote Judaism and to offer Jewish education to those who seek it. That is the duty a synagogue has to its members and community. The synagogue is not doing anything wrong or unethical.

I have read some posts by parents saying it is not correct for a synagogue to bribe the kids with food. No one is bribing/luring anyone. It’s lunch time and the students need to eat. Let's be truthful. If an 11th or 12th grader is being lured to any type of religious instruction by a slice of pizza, then the parents and public school have failed miserably in educating that child. That student will be in college very soon, miles away from home, and I’m not sure how he/she will be able to handle it. There are dozens of programs like this lunch and learn every day with free food and religious instruction in almost every college. Some events like this may also be hosted by social/political clubs, such as a club for homosexuals. Maybe it’s a pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel club. I know that over 95% of Jewish-Persian parents in Great Neck would oppose their kids attending such events; but would the college notify the parents and insult the club while doing so? Are parents required to be notified by the college which events their children are attending? And yes, sometimes students attending these club events are minors.

Did you know that in the State of New York your child who is a minor can get an abortion without parental permission. Talk about unethical!

Many students first come to pray in the synagogue during the week and on Shabbat. What difference does it make if they come to the synagogue before school, after school, or in the middle of the day when they are free to do so? Does a Rabbi need to notify every parent when he sees a minor praying at his synagogue? Does the Rabbi need to call the parents and say “Hi Mrs. Sassouni, I saw your child praying today at our synagogue but I didn’t see you there, is it okay that your child attends our services?” Does the Rabbi need to notify every parent if he sees their child listening to his sermon? Certainly not. What if there was no formal program for these children and they just decided to come talk to the Rabbi during their lunch break. Should the Rabbi say “please go get permission from your parents before you ask me any question?”

And what disturbing trend can you be talking about? Students learning about Judaism. Students being more connected with their religion and heritage. Is the fact that many kids are becoming religious and moving toward Orthodoxy (I personally have a problem with this word but, since you have identified yourself as a proud Conservative Jew, I will have to use labels as well) disturbing to you? The last time I checked, people have a right to choose how to practice their religion in America.

Let's say that for one moment that I agree with the fact that Kaplan should have notified the parents. Why did he blatantly lie in his letter? He described the synagogue as a store front temple – It’s not! He then says they use a side door – there isn’t any side door to the building. How is teaching Jews about Jewish heritage proselytizing. Kaplan clearly tried to put down the synagogue and the Rabbi with the descriptions he used when he could have notified the parents in a much more respectful way. So now I ask you: Was Principal Kaplan’s method of notification respectful of its duties to the community in which it exists?

Now let’s continue to be truthful. EVERYONE knows what goes on during the lunch period. The drugs, the sex etc. Why is Kaplan not notifying parents about that? Why are the parents not concerned about these issues? A resident told me that during lunch time she has students smoking marijuana in her backyard! What has Kaplan done to end this? Why is this not the real issue in the media and the issue raised at board meetings?
What is most upsetting is that the members of this synagogue escaped Iran because of religious persecution only to be insulted by a principal of a public school in the United States of America.

Bottom line: there is no free lunch, Mrs. Sassouni. But there is free religious instruction at this synagogue.

Rebecca,

Since you are Jewish, you should speak like a Jew and defend your fellow Jews. You are a conservative Jew and part of the Temple Israel Board. The lunch and learn program is in an Orthodox Shul and we understand how you may feel, but we all know that your understanding of Judaism is very different than theirs.

In the future, please don't get involved in the business of other Shuls.

Thanks

Having had two children graduate from North High in the last 10 years, I cannot believe that Bernie would prefer that his kids go to unsupervised nearby houses lunchtime and go back to class stoned (pot). This is common knowledge. Both of my children, quite a few years apart informed me of this. And even nicer, there are at least a dozen kids after school on the H.S. front lawn selling. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Furthermore, everyone knows that Bernie knows everything going on in the school. He knows who is doing drugs and who is selling. So now we know where his preferences lie. Shame on you Bernie Kaplan.

relevance???

It is VERY relevant. Parents are concerned about what their kids are doing during their lunch break. They are concerned if they are going to a safe temple. But is the school safe?
If Bernie is going to start notifying concerned parents then he should start from the school. Does he know where every kid is going? Maybe they should get parental permission to what restaurants they are allowed to go to. Maybe he should have stricter drug enforcement at lunch time.

The idea is that you do not always know where your kids are. So be a RESPONSIBLE parent and find out from your kids. When they come home from school ask them where they went, what did they learn, whom did they see. If you cant get a straight answer from your high school kid then sign up for a parenting workshop. It's about communicating with your kids.

The kids should be able to go wherever they want, if they're foolish enough to become brainwashed it's their problem.

Mr. Kaplan is a tolerant, nonjudgmental man and an amazing principal.
In my days at North, there were Megilla readings held on school campus for those who wanted to hear the Megilla on Purim without missing class.
It's become a strange fear amoung many the traditional Great Neck parents I know, that their kids become too religious - next thing you know they are off to Yeshiva in Israel and getting "brainwashed." I think it's a few outraged parents who pressured Mr. Kaplan to write that first letter.

Lets be honest here, the primary reason students attend is for the free food.
Besides that, there should be a separation of church and state during school hours. While school is in session, students should not be allowed to be preached to by rabbis, priests or whomever else. Children bring their ideas into the school, distracting others.

Agree with you (maybe outside the reason the kids go) if it were happening on school property or in a school facility, regardless of Christian, Jewish, Moslem, etc. However, If (and it was when I went to North) they're allowed offsite at lunch, then all bets are off. If I were the parish priest at St. Al's I'd be thinking "here's a 45 minute opportunity."

I read kaplan's letter. The innuendo therein is so ridiculous. That some poor starving child coming in only for a warm blanket and some soup will unwittingly be bombarded by religious doctrine. As if his school is in the South Bronx.

This is my understanding of the situation:
It's no surprise that people often Judge a Book by Its Cover, i.e., they see a rabbi with a black hat and without any first hand knowledge they label him as "Haredi", "Anti University Education", "Superficial " "Anti.....

However, it is real scary that, the head of a high school who is commissioned by a governmental body for heading an institution for teaching our children exhibits such an outrage of intolerance to the levels of breaking the law and violation of human rights, US constitution (separation of Church and State, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religious Believes, etc) and basic ethical issues (e.g., asking the rabbi to reject the students who don't get a slip from parents --- if he was asked to reject a student who don't have a slip from parents he certainly wouldn't agree).

FYI, I know Rabbi Kohan already for many years and I can attest to:

1. Despite wearing a black hat, he and his congregation are not Haredim, in fact, they are one of the most educated and sophisticated congregations in America. I know that there are at least 30 Physicians, several lawyers, Computer Scientists, Architects, Engineers, College Professors and numerous other professionals w/ college degrees who belong to his congregation. I don't believe if Rabbi Kohan was superficial (Gheshri) so many highly educated people would attend his synagogue. The place is jam packed on Shabbats.

2. Children of my friends who go to his "Lunch & Learn" told me that the focus of the progam is "respecting parents", "honesty", "family values" and many other Jewish values.

3. The "Lunch & Learn" helps the participants to have a better Jewish Identity and being proud of their Jewishness (helping to prevent intermarriage, assimilation, etc).

4. By keeping the Public School students busy during the lunch hour, inadvertently, the program is diverting their focus towards ethical issues they stay away from trouble, (lingering, fighting, drugs, sex, etc) something that the school + parents should really appreciate.

5. Regardless of what exactly had transpired previously between Rabbi Bitton and Mashhadi's Central Board, Rabbi Bitton has recently sent me an email describing that "Rabbi Kohan is doing a fantastic job".

6. On occasions, I have attended the services in Rabbi Koahn's synagogue, he absolutely is pro-Israel. Every Shabbat he prays for the soldiers of "Tsva Hagana Israel" (Israeli Defense Forces) and the stereotypes which is relevant to "Neturei Karta" group is totally inappropriate.

7. Rabbi Kohan is certainly Pro-University Education. He is a graduate of Yeshiva University. Since I am a professor of electrical engineering, he had asked me to help some high school graduates to find the appropriate college for the certain curriculums ( Electrical Engineering w/ focus on Power Engineering, etc.) I still should have some of the emails exchanged between me and the rabbi.

8. Above all, Rabbi Kohan is a truly sincere man without a price.

In light of what recently had transpired, i.e., harassment and apology letters from the public school principal, I suggest to every one (including myself) to try their best not to judge a book by its cover and support the rabbi in his endeavor to help the Jewish identity amongst our youth and other Jewish values that he stands for.

Just so you know, Jews for Jesus does not interact with children under 18 without parental consent.
Matt Sieger
Jews for Jesus

hey Matt---glad you had guts to give your name--are you from great Neck--call me 516 967 6009

If I was back in high school and some Rabbi offered me free lunch I would take it and listen to what he had to say. Then I would question and think for myself as to whether what he says is worth learning.
I do think parents should be made aware of what their children are being exposed to. Mr. Kaplan could have worded his letter differently but he did apologize. If I was a parent of a high school student I would not favor the Rabbi's practice and would discuss it with him.

Finally, someone gets it. It's about listening and then thinking for yourself and asking is it worth learning.
It's also about discussing the practice and not firing off letters to all the parents insulting the rabbi and his temple. Notifying the parents is his responsibility, and you're right - he could have worded the letter differently.

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