North Carolina Jewish Day School Embroiled in Legal Battle With Former Parents Over Tuition, Israel
A legal battle between a Jewish elementary school and the parents of two children who no longer attend it is taking place in North Carolina, The Algemeiner has learned.
The Sandra E. Lerner Jewish Community Day School in Durham is suing Guy and Sloan Rachmuth for breaching the renewal contract they signed in 2014, committing to attendance and $20,000 tuition for their now 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son — $10,000 each — for the following academic year.
The Rachmuths are counter-suing the elementary school for fraud, claiming it had falsely portrayed itself as pro-Israel and exclusively Jewish.
Guy Rachmuth, an Israeli neuroscientist who has been living in the United States for the past 26 years, told The Algemeiner that he and his wife would never have gotten involved in a lawsuit if they had simply been allowed to change their mind after becoming dissatisfied and not send their kids back in the fall.
Lerner Head of School Allison Oakes, explained why it was standard business practice to hold the Rachmuths to their contract – particularly when they had three opportunities to withdraw without penalty, and did not opt to do so on those dates.
“Independent schools depend on these signed agreements to build their budget, a majority of which goes to paying teachers’ salaries,” Oakes said. “We have to be able to give teachers guarantees about their employment for a new school year prior to the end of a current one.”
Oakes said that “because the Rachmuths’ reasons for leaving the school were based on perception and not fact, we could not grant them a non-cost withdraw.”
The Rachmuths argued that their perception about the school was based on events they experienced and subsequent affirmation from other sources.
The dispute surrounds a single academic year, 2014-2015, the one following the only period during which the Rachmuth children were pupils at Lerner, described by Oakes as a “non-affiliated school for all families who consider themselves Jewish.” In other words, it is not attached to a particular stream of Judaism, nor demands that students be Jews as defined by halacha, or Jewish law.
According to Sloan Rachmuth, who owns a number of pilates studios, the choice to send her kids to Lerner in the first place had to do with its pro-Israel orientation.
“They claimed, ‘Every member of our outstanding faculty has been carefully chosen to teach our children Jewish values, ethics and history,’” Guy Rachmuth added. “The school designates its teaching staff, even in the pre-school, ‘faculty,’ stressing their seriousness of Jewish education. Not truly knowing anyone who attended the school prior to us, we were sold on the Jewish community aspect the school promised. We were assured that Jewish identity and a love of Israel are at the core of our program.”
The school her children had been attending — the only other Jewish school in a 100-mile radius – gave her cause for serious pause when its Reconstructionist rabbi responded neutrally to an anti-Israel ad on a bus in her Chapel Hill neighborhood.
Sloan recounted that representatives at Lerner, on the other hand, “said they wouldn’t tolerate such a thing, and tried to recruit us.”
This, however, all happened before Oakes entered the picture. Her tenure as Head of School officially began after the Rachmuths had spent months complaining. When they met Oakes at the tail end of their stay at Lerner, “She was sympathetic and clearly pro-Israel.”
The Rachmuths told The Algemeiner how they came into conflict with the institution, “about six months into the year, and after we had signed the renewal contract.”
“Our son [six years old at the time] came home from school one day and asked, ‘Why does the map of Israel hurt people’s feelings?’” Sloan recalled. “So I raised hell. But it took me two months of canceled appointments to get the [previous] principal to meet with me. When she did, she said, ‘You know, you need to be more tolerant, because the map of Israel makes people feel unsafe in here and hurts their feelings.’”
Sloan said that after that, she was basically ignored, and decided to keep a low profile.
“Then came the war in Gaza,” said Guy, referring to Operation Protective Edge in July-August 2014. “And we were told that the school would not support Israel publicly in this fight because supporting Israel is a political decision. It was during that period that we met with the new Head of School [Oakes] and expressed our concerns about the lack of support for Israel. Documents would later show that the head of development and one of the teachers were pro-BDS. But she urged us to be more accepting of other views.”
Oakes told The Algemeiner that she has “to be careful about inquiring about employees’ political persuasions. Though I believe the development director’s opinions lean Left, she does not express any political opinions at school. As for the other person the Rachmuths mentioned, a teacher – an Israeli who was hired by my predecessor, I did not renew her contract. But just for the record, her views were never expressed at school either.”
Another point of contention surrounded the issue of prayer, specifically that of adding a prayer for Israel to the regular Jewish tefillot. The Rachmuths said Oakes told them that “saying a prayer for Israel is not developmentally appropriate.”
Oakes said this only applied to pre-schoolers. “We have tefilla [prayer] for the kids; the second-graders and older kids also say a prayer for Israel, because they have more knowledge and a greater understanding of it by then. Our kids all sing Hatikva [Israel’s national anthem].”
Oakes asserted firmly, “At Lerner, we are clear about our support for Israel, love of Israel, the culture, the people, the geography, the food, etc. We want our students to leave here striving to go to Israel.”
The Rachmuths said that they decided that summer not to send their kids to Lerner any more, which is why they didn’t pay tuition for 2014-2015.
“Lerner served us with a threatening letter in the fall and subsequently a lawsuit for the amount of the tuition,” Sloan said, adding that before counter-suing, they went to arbitration – and lost. “The arbitrator’s decision, which wasn’t binding, was that we signed a contract, so we have to pay.”
The two court cases are ongoing.
As for how the couple explained to their kids why they were not sent back to Lerner, Guy said, “We told them that we are fighting for Israel and against people who want Israel to be damaged.”