'I don't want my preschooler hearing negativity about Jews'

LA charter school housed at synagogue tells 1st-graders about ‘genocide of Palestine’

After Jewish students return home distressed, teachers’ social media posts surface with anti-Israel rhetoric, praise for pupil who suggested Jews ‘find somewhere else to live’

A classroom at a Citizens of the World school in Los Angeles is seen in a promotional video produced by the charter network. (Screenshot via JTA)
A classroom at a Citizens of the World school in Los Angeles is seen in a promotional video produced by the charter network. (Screenshot via JTA)

JTA — A Los Angeles charter school and the synagogue that rents its space are in turmoil after two first-grade teachers at the school held lessons about “the genocide of Palestine.”

One of the teachers also complained on social media about Israeli flags on the campus of the synagogue, Adat Ari El in North Hollywood.

The incidents have raised concern among parents at both the charter school, named Citizens of the World-East Valley, and the Conservative synagogue, which operates a preschool on the same campus. The school says it has commissioned a third-party investigation and the synagogue says it has gotten assurances from the school about “swift measures to address the situation, including the removal of the involved teachers.“

The school did not respond to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s request for comment. The synagogue declined to comment in advance of an announcement planned for Friday.

“Many of you have rightfully expressed concern about the situation at the CWC,” Adat Ari El’s senior rabbi, Brian Schuldenfrei, told synagogue members by email on Thursday. “I will be issuing a public statement … during a press conference tomorrow making our position clear.”

The saga comes amid widespread tensions following the October 7 onslaught on Israel by the Hamas terror group and Israel’s ensuing military campaign to remove it from power in the Gaza Strip.

The ongoing war began with an attack on October 7 when 3,000 Hamas terrorists burst through Israel’s border and targeted towns, farming communities and a music festival near the Gaza border, killing some 1,400 people, most of them civilians, and abducting some 240 others.

In response, Israel vowed to eradicate Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, launching an air and ground operation. According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, more than 10,800 people have been killed since October 7, most of them civilians. However, this number cannot be independently verified and is thought to include Hamas members, as well as civilians killed by misfired rockets falling inside the Strip.

Critics of Israel, as well as its supporters, have marched in major cities around the world. Pro-Palestinian groups have held protests and sit-ins in a range of public spaces and issued statements calling for a ceasefire. In Los Angeles this week, a Jewish man died after a confrontation with a pro-Palestinian protester at a rally, and a brawl broke out surrounding a local screening of footage from Hamas’s massacre of Israeli civilians.

People carry banners and flags at a pro-Palestinian rally in Los Angeles on October 28, 2023 (DAVID SWANSON / AFP)

The situation at Citizens of the World-East Valley reveals that debate over the war is cropping up not only in college quads, corporate boardrooms and the halls of Congress, but even in classes of the country’s youngest students. The controversy at the charter school began when first-grade teachers taught about the conflict in their classrooms, then documented their lessons in social media posts and emails.

“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,” one teacher, who used the class’s math period for the lesson, wrote on Instagram in a private post that JTA reviewed.

The teacher added, “I started by telling them that we weren’t gonna do math at the usual time bc 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.”

A photo of a worksheet titled “What do humans need to live?” showed students writing their own response, with their first names clearly visible.

“I asked them what they already knew about what’s happening (they knew a lot and had questions) and I drew a little map of the occupied territories of Palestine,” another post from the same teacher says. “Then they organically started coming up w ideas for what could happen (my fav was a kid who was like “what if they just give the land back to Palestine and find somewhere else to live?”)” The teacher ended the post with a heart emoji.

These posts were amplified on the social network X Thursday by Dave Rubin, a conservative Jewish TV pundit with more than 1 million followers who called them “absolutely insane.”

On social media, the teacher also expressed disgust with several Israeli flags the synagogue had placed around the campus after the massacres. The teacher posted a photo of the campus and accompanied it with a vomit emoji.

Illustrative: Children watch through the window of a school bus as demonstrators attend a rally in solidarity with Israel on October 10, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ethan Swope / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Another first-grade teacher sent an email to parents explaining the thinking behind her class’s recent lesson on “what’s been happening in Gaza and Israel.” She said she had held the lesson “because I want kids to know the importance of using their voices to stand up for people and non-human beings anytime they are being mistreated,” according to an email reviewed by JTA.

“I teach as though anyone from any oppressed group could be in our community because everyone deserves to feel safe,” the teacher continued, adding, “I always frame it in an age-appropriate way and through a lens of equity and being a kind and loving human.”

Similar to the first teacher, the second described a lesson that began with “what all humans need to live joyful, safe lives,” which led the teacher to tell her students “that a lot of people aren’t safe and aren’t having those needs met right now.” The students also read a children’s book entitled “Sitti’s Bird: A Gaza Story,” published last year by the Palestinian author and artist Malak Mattar and set during the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. She also described asking her students what they already knew about the region, due to her desire to have the lessons be “child-led.”

“They knew quite a bit collectively,” the teacher said. “I made sure to only teach facts and to be honest about things I didn’t know.” She concluded, “The kids were very engaged in our lesson and we will be continuing these discussions in class. I am honored to have the opportunity to learn from and with your kids and their brilliant young minds.”

Attempts by JTA to contact the two teachers through a variety of pathways were unsuccessful.

The remains of Kibbutz Be’eri, destroyed by Hamas attack on October 7, seen on October 20, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

Citizens of the World Charter Schools opened its first school in 2010 and now runs five of the publicly funded, privately managed schools across Los Angeles. The schools are “diverse by design,” meaning that they enroll students of all backgrounds, and prioritize social and emotional learning and anti-bias education, according to a promotional video produced by the network last year.

According to the California Department of Education, the East Valley school enrolls around 300 students from prekindergarten to second grade. More than 50% of its student body is white, with another 23% Hispanic or Latino. The charter school enrolls some Jewish children whose families belong to the synagogue.

Some of those parents raised the issue with synagogue leaders after some of their children came home from school upset about Israel’s actions in Gaza, according to a parent from the synagogue preschool who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Parents were also concerned about the teacher posting a picture of the campus online, said the preschool parent, who expressed newfound security concerns about sharing space with the charter school.

“Even if it’s not a violent attack, even if it’s just verbal, I don’t want my preschooler to even hear anything negative about Jews,” the parent said.

In a November 7 email to congregants, Schuldenfrei and the synagogue’s executive director, Eric Nicastro, wrote that they had “taken action” with the charter school’s administration “and they have assured us that they are actively investigating and taking swift measures to address the situation, including the removal of the involved teachers.”

The synagogue leaders also said they had alerted their security team to the teacher who had posted an image of their campus on social media.

“We want to make it clear that we will not tolerate antisemitism in any form, anywhere, and certainly not within our own community,” Nicastro and Schuldenfrei wrote, adding, “Together, we can ensure that Adat Ari El remains a place of love, respect, and understanding.”

Illustrative: A woman holds an American flag and an Israeli flag during a ‘Vigil for Israel,’ at the Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles, October 8, 2023, to pray, sing and honor the memory of those killed in the recent massacre in Israel, and to pray for peace and the safe return of people kidnapped. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

The charter school principal, Hye-Won Gehring, sent her own email to parents on November 7 that was co-signed by Melissa Kaplan, the executive director of the charter network, which operates five schools around Los Angeles. This location serves students through second grade.

“Recently, we were made aware of concerns circulating among parent groups that teacher(s) have been discussing issues related to Israel and Gaza with students and have been posting content on social media that has raised concerns for many in our community,” the administrators wrote.

They said they had set aside many of their responsibilities to tackle the turmoil at the school and announced their intention to “partner with a third-party investigator” to scrutinize the situation, including potentially by interviewing students with parental consent.

Calling the situation “challenging” and noting that it has caused “pain and distress,” they concluded, “We are confident that we can move forward and come out stronger as a diverse community of CWC families and students.”

The unusual space-sharing arrangement between the synagogue and the charter school began in 2021, when the new outpost of an existing charter network began renting space the synagogue had previously used for its own elementary school, which closed that year. Adat Ari El’s early childhood center is separated from the charter school by a fence.

“Adat Ari El is a Jewish congregation but all CWC activities on campus will be secular, consistent with our philosophy and model,” the school announced on social media at the time, saying about its arrangement, “We could not imagine a better place to start CWC East Valley.”

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