Jewish residents of Evesham Township, N.J., are trying to get past a controversy that led to the resignation of a school board member over alleged anti-Semitic comments.
They worry that the furor, stemming from the board member’s apparent reaction to a board decision to change the first day of school to accommodate Rosh Hashanah, drew negative media attention to their town of 50,000 residents.
Meanwhile, neighboring Mount Laurel Township is sticking to its decision not to make that same change to the first day of school, despite pleas from some Jewish families.
With Rosh Hashanah starting the evening of Sept. 4, the earliest the High Holidays have fallen on the secular calendar in years, school districts across the region have confronted scheduling headaches.
Sandy Student, president of the Evesham school board who is a member of M’Kor Shalom, a Reform synagogue in nearby Cherry Hill, said the worst part of the recent brouhaha is that the public may, at least for the short term, associate what he called a welcoming, safe suburban community with anti-Semitism.
“This did not put us in a favorable light,” said Student, a longtime Evesham resident, who grew up in Cheltenham. The fact that Jews felt singled out “is why there was such a great public outcry.”
The controversy originated at a May meeting at which the Evesham school board voted to change the first day of school from Sept. 6, which is the second day of Rosh Hashanah, to Sept. 9. Typically, the school district is closed on the first day of the holiday, but not the second.
Rosemary Bernardi, a former president and eight-year veteran of the school board, was one of two members who voted against the change. One member abstained and one was absent. Bernardi reportedly said after the vote: “Anyone who would like to run for the board of education, forms need to be in by June 4. There are three seats up and there are five Jews on the board.”
A number of sources said that by publicly pointing out that several board members were Jewish and seeming to suggest she wished there were fewer Jews on the board, she crossed the line into anti-Semitism. Bernardi also reportedly said, “We could start school on Thursday, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I don’t care. It is up to the parents to keep their kids home — all seven or eight Jews who live in our district.”
There is apparently no video or audio tape of the meeting. Initially, Bernardi apologized publicly but disputed the exact wording of what was said. She also vowed to stay on despite calls to relinquish her position. Among those seeking her resignation were the town’s mayor, other school board members, several state assembly members and numerous parents, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
On June 13, she resigned from the school board and also stepped down as vice president of the statewide New Jersey School Boards Association.
Bernardi declined to be interviewed but referred to the statement she issued last week: “This local issue has become a distraction for the board to fulfill its mission,” it read. “There is an immediate need to shift the focus back onto the 4,700 public school children that we serve.”
Joshua Cohen, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s local office, spoke with Bernardi several times during the controversy. He didn’t call for her to step down but he said her public apology fell short since it didn’t address her specific comments.
Cohen commended the rest of the school board members and other officials for distancing themselves from Bernardi’s comments.
“When there is alleged anti-Semitism, it needs to be addressed and it needs to be dealt with,” he said.
Sue Wilder, a parent of three girls in the district, attended the May meeting and had been pushing for Bernardi to resign. “It was the proper consequence for the anti-Semitic remarks she made. I hope the board can repair the damage that she has caused,” said Wilder, who has known Bernardi for nearly a decade and said her behavior had become erratic in recent months. “It is time for our town to heal and move forward by educating our children. I hope this sends a message there will be zero tolerance for anti-Semitism, discrimination and bullying.”
Wilder and Student said that the controversy could only have ended one way, with Bernardi’s resignation. They said non-Jews spoke out just as forcefully against Bernardi’s alleged comment.
But the rabbi of the township’s only synagogue, Congregation Beth Tikveh, wished there was a way for a dedicated public servant to make amends and remain in her post.
“I felt nothing would be gained by forcing the resignation,” said Rabbi Gary Gans, who has led the Conservative shul for 32 years.
Gans said he expects angry feelings on all sides to linger for some time.
“I don’t know that we have changed anyone’s beliefs,” he said, regarding the controversy and its conclusion. “We have wielded some Jewish power. We certainly wielded some power on the school board.”
Though the conflict took on religious overtones, it started over an issue with the calendar and the challenge posed by Rosh Hashanah falling so early.
Teachers in Evesham are contractually prohibited from returning to work before the start of September — meaning students couldn’t start school during the two days following Labor Day because the time was needed for teacher training.
An informal survey of some Pennsylvania districts in the Philadelphia area didn’t show any that are starting school on Sept. 6; most are beginning on the 4th or 5th. Some districts with large Jewish populations typically close for both days of Rosh Hashanah while others, like Central Bucks, just close for the first day.
The district abutting Evesham, Mount Laurel, has decided to stick with its plan to open school on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. While the discussion hasn’t generated anything like the controversy that stemmed from the Evesham debate, at least one parent thinks the district is being unresponsive.
Glenn Hann asked the Mount Laurel school board to reconsider the date during its May meeting, and was angered that the matter wasn’t even brought to a formal vote.
Hann said the “first day of school is critical” to a student starting the year on the right foot and no one should be forced to miss it for religious reasons.
Marie Reynolds, a school district spokeswoman, said the district — which has about 4,000 students — has never had a high absentee rate on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, and that has shaped the decision to remain open.
Administrators have made arrangements for children who will miss that day to come in several days earlier to meet with their teachers and see their new classrooms, she said.
Superintendent Antoinette Rath said in a statement that school is only closed for religious holidays when attendance “is so sparse that remaining open is not reasonable or feasible.”