Hollis Gauss visited her dentist in the middle of February to get a broken filling replaced. While Gauss and the dentist waited for the Novocain to kick in, they chatted about recent events in their hometown of Durham, North Carolina. It was the dentist who brought up the local Jewish elementary school, of which Gauss is president.
“She was like, ‘Do you send your kids to that school? I heard they took down all the Jewish flags there,’” Gauss recalled recently, sitting around a table at an office at the Lerner School, a longtime fixture in this small, easy-going southern city.
Since late 2014, Lerner, a small independent Jewish preschool and elementary school near the campus of Duke University, has been embroiled in a fight with the parents of two former students that has spiraled into a polymorphous struggle. What began as a mere contract dispute has grown to encompass a bewildering array of issues, among them the movement to boycott Israel, Students for Justice in Palestine, trashcans, flags, and the place of non-Jewish students in a Jewish preschool.
The fight at the school comes at a time when even non-political Jewish institutions find it increasingly difficult to avoid blow-ups over Israel. Clashes over Israel politics are standard fare, for instance, at universities, and even crop up in high schools from time to time. But they don’t frequently make their way down to the elementary school level. At Lerner, which serves 128 students aged 2 to 11, the tender ages of the students has failed to temper a pitched political battle.
Beginning this fall, Lerner has drawn the attention of prominent right-wing activists in New York, and has been covered in national and international Jewish media outlets. The ensuing attention has turned the schoolyard spat into a national story — a story so big that Gauss’s non-Jewish dentist brought it up in the middle of a visit to replace a broken filling.
“It’s impacting, potentially, our enrollment,” said Allison Oakes, the school’s principal. Prospective families have raised the dispute in conversation with the school, she explained, adding, “It has been unsettling.”
At the center of the fight is Sloan Rachmuth, the Charlotte-born owner of a Durham Pilates studio, and her husband Guy, an Israeli-born neuroscientist.
“I am a Southern Jew,” Sloan Rachmuth told the Forward. “They call me the Zionist of Dixie.”
The Rachmuths enrolled two children at Lerner for the 2014 school year, one in the preschool and one in the elementary. When they didn’t arrive on the first day of school, the school informed the family that since they had missed the deadline for refunds, they would still need to pay the $20,000 tuition. When the Rachmuths didn’t pay, the school sued.
The school claims the lawsuit is just about enforcing a contract. The Rachmuths claim that they were acting to defend their children.
Sloan Rachmuth says that, in the summer of 2014, she learned of three individuals with ties to Lerner who she characterizes as being “connected” with the pro-Palestinian group Students for Justice in Palestine.
“I objected to teachers and administrators discriminating against Israelis outside of the classroom,” Rachmuth said. “These folks had discriminated against Israelis in academia, in the arts, in commerce. To me, I can’t allow my children the chance of them being treated harshly, or anything like that.”
Rachmuth believes that the three people — a teacher, the group’s development director, and the wife of a board member, all of whom she accuses of ties to specific pro-Palestinian groups — constituted a danger to her child.
“If we’re to believe that Jews are being harassed on campus by SJP, then my question is, why in the ‘f’ would anyone want to leave their child alone [with them],” Rachmuth said.
Sloan Rachmuth says that she’s a rare conservative in the university-focused Jewish Durham milieu. “I live in a very liberal town,” she said. “I’m talking about Michael Moore leftists. They love me. It’s fine.”
Yet she says that Lerner’s alleged negligence in allowing people she characterizes as “coming down on the side of Hamas” to work at, or be affiliated with, the school, was going too far. “I survived two terrorist attacks on U.S. soil,” Rachmuth said. (Rachmuth volunteered near Ground Zero after 9/11, and was near the site of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.) “My perspective is not one of paranoia. It’s one of experience.”
The primary focus of Rachmuth’s worry was a young woman named Tal Matalon, an Israeli-born language teacher who moved to Durham from Israel three and a half years ago. Matalon taught Hebrew and worked with ESL students from Israel at Lerner from 2013 through the end of the 2015 school year. “It’s a great school,” Matalon said of Lerner, in a phone interview with the Forward. “I loved working there. I loved the students. I loved the rest of the faculty and the staff.”
Matalon doesn’t work at Lerner any longer, for reasons neither she nor Lerner would discuss. Matalon said that her departure from the school at the end of the 2015 school year had nothing to do with the dispute with the Rachmuths.
Matalon declined to discuss her own political activities with the Forward, though it’s clear from online postings that she has been active on the Israeli left. Her partner, Rann Bar-On, a lecturer in the mathematics department at Duke, is the faculty advisor to the school’s SJP chapter.
Asked about Rachmuth’s contention that Matalon presented a security threat to her students because of her outside political activities and the politics of her husband, Matalon was left speechless. “I have no way to respond to that,” Matalon said. “I don’t know how to respond to that. I don’t know.”
Matalon said that she had never mentioned her politics in the classroom. “I am very offended professionally that it would ever come up,” she said. The school backs her up: “Lerner is an apolitical place,” said Gauss, Lerner’s board chair. “Tal was an excellent Hebrew and English speaker and teacher, and did incredible work with many of our Israeli kids.”
Rachmuth wasn’t the only Lerner parent with concerns about Matalon’s politics. Perri Shalom-Liberty, an Israeli-born woman active in pro-Israel politics in Durham, has sent four of her children to Lerner over the past nine years. Shalom-Liberty said that she had seen Matalon’s partner Rann Bar-On on the opposing side at one rally she attended, and had grown concerned, as her daughter was in Matalon’s class, and raised the issue with the head of school.
Yet despite her worry, Shalom-Liberty said that she was eventually satisfied that Matalon’s husband’s political activities were having no impact in the classroom. “I saw no evidence that those views were making their way into the class,” she told the Forward. “And believe me, I was checking.”
Founded in 1994, Lerner is a small school in a small Jewish community. Jews in the Durham area are often transients, affiliated with UNC or Duke, and many are Israeli. Enrollment grew fast in its early years, but plateaued around 2009. According to a 2012 article written by school leaders and published in the journal of the Jewish independent school organization Ravsak, projections of a student body of 185 set in 2010 have turned out to be unreachable. The school has run small deficits in the fiscal years ending in June 2014, 2013, and 2012.
In May of 2014, Lerner announced that it would break with previous policy and allow non-Jewish students to enroll in the preschool. The elementary school would continue to be restricted to Jewish students. According to Gauss, who was on the board but not the board chair at the time, the school hoped that the new rules would help fill empty slots in the preschool.
“We were going to try this and see what happened, but we were not going to change the curriculum,” Gauss said. It would still be a Jewish school with Jewish programming.
Oakes, who was new to the position of head of school in July of 2014, said that Sloan Rachmuth first contacted her in early July with concerns about the new enrollment policy, and about security at the building. Oakes said that one of Rachmuth’s security worries was legitimate: Unlocked trashcans outside the building presented a risk. The trashcans were removed. Oakes said that Rachmuth continued to air complaints about the school’s response to that summer’s Gaza conflict, and about the new enrollment policy, and security.
“I didn’t really quite understand what their concern was with non-Jewish children in the preschool, because it wasn’t going to change anything we taught,” Oakes said.
Rachmuth told the Forward that she had no problem with having her children educated alongside non-Jews, but rather objected to what she characterized as a lack of transparency. “Parents were absolutely outraged,” she said of the decision to allow non-Jewish children in the preschool. Rachmuth said that the enrollment policy was changed after the withdrawal deadline for the 2014 school year. Gauss said that was not true, and that the withdrawal deadline was in July, months after the board’s decision was made public.
The school filed its lawsuit against the Rachmuths for nonpayment of their tuition fees in the fall of 2014. The Rachmuths counter-sued. The matter was contained to the courthouse and the school community until October 2015, when an article appeared in the right-wing FrontPage Magazine, titled “BDS Infests a Jewish Day School.” The story began by implicitly analogizing Matalon to a notional member of the Ku Klux Klan hired as a linguistics professor at the historically black Howard University.
Matalon, the article asserts, “is Israeli and speaks Hebrew, but that’s her sole nexus to her Jewish identity.”
Matalon told the Forward that the article’s author, Ari Lieberman, did not contact her. An attempt to contact Lieberman through the David Horowitz Freedom Center, which publishes FrontPage magazine, was unsuccessful.
“It’s very clear to me that I was a very easy target to scapegoat,” Matalon said. “I just want this to be over. I would like to not have to see my name in the public sphere without choosing it anymore.”
Aside from Matalon, the FrontPage article also named the other two people whose connection to the school had concerned Rachmuth: Andrew Janiak, a board member and the chair of the philosophy department at Duke, and Rachel Bearman, Lerner’s development director.
The FrontPage story notes that Janiak’s wife, Rebecca Stein, a professor of cultural anthropology and women’s studies at Duke, has written critically about Israel. Janiak told the Forward that his wife’s politics were irrelevant to his role on the board. “She’s just a parent,” he said. “Whether she and I agree politically, no one ever asked me. We don’t agree on everything politically.”
Bearman, who the FrontPage story accused of being active in leftist Jewish groups, did not respond to a request for comment. Oakes, the school’s principal, said that Bearman is “a woman who loves Israel… And she’s a damn good development director.”
It’s not clear how FrontPage got wind of the Lerner story. Rachmuth told the Forward that she had never reached out to the media. “What I will say is that I have a lot of friends, and a lot of people are ‘eff-ing’ mad at what has gone on, and the way we have been treated,” she said.
Rachmuth said that she suspected that Richard Allen, a New York City right-wing activist on issues related to Israel, had “probably pushed it along.” Allen is a leader of the group JCC Watch, which has targeted UJA-Federation of New York and the Manhattan JCC over their co-sponsorship of events with groups considered dovish or liberal on Israel.
In a series of letters to the school and others, some of which were blind copied widely, Allen accused the board of “doing everything [it] can to decimate this innocent family.” In a February 16 email, Allen wrote that his group was “in the very early stages of disseminating worldwide the true facts of the Lerner School’s lawsuit against the Rachmuth family.”
Allen declined to an interview request from the Forward.
After the FrontPage story came more articles: One thorough piece in the Algemeiner in early February, a lengthy two-part essay at JNS.org a week later, and an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post by the hawkish Israeli-American columnist Caroline Glick a week after that.
The JNS.org story mentioned Matalon by name, hypothetically comparing her to a porn star. “Being an adult film star (say) is not illegal either,” the author of the JNS.org story, Andrew Pessin, wrote. “But that doesn’t mean an elementary school is well-advised to hire one…even if (one assumes) she does not practice her craft in the classroom.”
Matalon told the Forward that Pessin did not contact her before publishing the piece. Pessin, in an email to the Forward, said that he linked to sources corroborating all claims he made about her political activities.
“My point in the piece is merely that the [Rachmuths] had reasonable concerns about her,” Pessin told the Forward.
The school’s supporters say that they have been caught off guard by the attention. Jonathan Dayan, an Israeli who serves on Lerner’s board, told the Forward that the school is “not anti-Israel.”
“Usually the joke is, two Jews, six opinions,” Dayan said. “But with Lerner, I’ve never seen such a uniform stand. Everybody loves Lerner. Except two people.”
Rachmuth, for her part, feels besieged as well. “The school has used me as a punching bag,” she said. She claimed that her Pilates studio has been boycotted by school supporters. Of the media attention, she said, “It’s not been pleasant for us, either.”
The school’s lawsuit and the Rachmuth’s counter-claim, are still working their way through the state courts in Durham. In the meantime, life has gone on at Lerner. On a recent Friday afternoon, the entire school had gathered in a common area for a sing-along as parents arrived to pick up their children.
“Our community has rallied around us,” said Oakes. “We have educated and graduated hundreds of students in our community; their parents are in the thousands… Everyone that’s local knows the truth about our school.”
Additional reporting from North Carolina by David Hudnall
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.