LOS ANGELES (JTA) — The Los Angeles charter school that stirred controversy at the synagogue where it is housed after first-grade teachers taught lessons about “the genocide of Palestine” announced steps on Friday to “repair this harm.”
Two teachers have been removed from the school and the principal has been placed on leave at Citizens of the World Charter School-East Valley, announced Melissa Kaplan, the school network’s executive director, at a press conference held outside Adat Ari El synagogue.
Hye-Won Gehring, the school’s principal, had relayed complaints from her staff to the synagogue’s rabbi about Israeli flags that were hung up on the campus after Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel, according to Kaplan and Brian Schuldenfrei, Adat Ari El’s senior rabbi. Kaplan said Gehring would be going on a two-week leave to “focus on learning how to combat antisemitism and engage in sensitivity training to learn from this experience.”
Gehring had sent an email to Schuldenfrei on October 16 asking how long the flags would be up, according to the rabbi. Kaplan called the question “insensitive and inappropriate,” and Schuldenfrei recounted that he had told Gehring her email was “offensive.”
“I told the principal that inquiring when our flags were coming down was like asking someone on September 11 to take down their American flags just a few days later. It is painfully insensitive,” Schuldenfrei said during the press conference. He added that the principal had apologized to him, but that “this was not the end of the issue.”
Gehring made a brief statement at the press conference.
“I am deeply apologetic for my insensitive questions to Rabbi Schuldenfrei and how I mishandled this important set of events,” Gehring 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.”
Kaplan, who was not made available to reporters after the press conference, acknowledged the “pain and distress” that many in the Jewish community are experiencing, and said she “deeply apologize[s] for these missteps” on behalf of her staff.
“CWC unequivocally condemns the social media posts by our staff members, including the use of the word ‘genocide’ to describe Israel’s actions,” Kaplan said. “CWC unequivocally condemns the disturbing suggestion that Jews should leave the region, and we unequivocally condemn any lesson that creates bias or fear among our students.”
Kaplan added that the findings of the investigation would be kept confidential, but that the community will receive updates as needed, and that the outcome of the process would inform any further consequences from this episode. She also said that CWC is coordinating with the Anti-Defamation League to train its leadership and staff.
During his remarks, Schuldenfrei shared the sequence of events that occurred at the school, saying that he hopes the incident can be “an educational moment.”
Schuldenfrei questioned why the content of the lessons was not reviewed, saying that the teachers “weaponized their role as educators to indoctrinate the youngest of children with a radical and hateful agenda.”
“We know what happens when a blind eye is turned to such hatred, and we will not cower in the corner while our campus and community is defiled,” Schuldenfrei said.
Schuldenfrei also referenced teshuvah, the Jewish idea of repentance, adding that he finds it “heartening to see Citizens of the World take these first steps,” and he reiterated his synagogue’s commitment to working with the school “to ensure that this is a learning moment for everyone.”
In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Schuldenfrei acknowledged that it is rare for synagogues to call press conferences — an indication, he said, that “we’re living in rare times where we feel, unlike any other time since the Holocaust, we feel the pressure of this pernicious antisemitism. And we also feel for something like that to occur in our own backyard, we felt that we couldn’t simply stand by.”
Schuldenfrei said he is comfortable with the first steps the school is taking and hopes his community is, too. He also said he hopes this debacle does not dissuade future collaborations between Jewish and non-Jewish groups. He noted that his synagogue offers its space to church groups, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and other non-Jewish events.
“We as Jews are proud Americans, and here at Adat Ari El, one of the holiest endeavors we engage is working with non-Jews,” he said. “We want this to specifically be a home to Jews, but we want this to be a campus that is of service to all of humanity.”
The final speaker at the press conference was Nick Melvoin, a school board member for the Los Angeles Unified School District and a Democratic candidate for Congress who is running for the district that Adam Schiff currently represents. (Schiff is running for a Senate seat that has a primary vote in March.) Melvoin commended the school for its efforts to respond to the incident and added that he will be bringing a policy package to the district’s board of education to address concerns of bias and antisemitism.
Melvoin said he would push for a comprehensive definition of antisemitism; a thorough review of curriculum to ensure that there is no bias; and the inclusion of Jewish experiences and antisemitism in diversity, equity and inclusion frameworks; and funding for students to visit Holocaust museums.