A mother of a Tennessee middle-schooler accused her daughter’s Bible teacher of teaching students “how to torture a Jew,” according to reports, raising questions about teaching religion in public schools.
Juniper Russo, who is Jewish, wrote in a Facebook Post that she withdrew her eighth-grade daughter from the class after the teacher wrote an English translation of the Hebrew name for God on the whiteboard, which is traditionally not spoken out loud by Jews.
“If you want to know how to torture a Jew, make them say this out loud,” the teacher then allegedly told the class, Russo said, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.
“My daughter felt extremely uncomfortable hearing a teacher instruct her peers on ‘how to torture a Jew’ and told me when she came home from school that she didn’t feel safe in the class,” Russo wrote in the post.
Russo and her family are Reformed Jewish and members of the Mizpah Congregation in Chattanooga. She told WTVC that she had enrolled her daughter in the elective class because her elective options were limited due to a physical disability from a recent surgery.
She said that her daughter was asked invasive questions about her faith that made her feel singled out as Jewish in a class that was heavy-handed with its Christian teachings, Russo wrote on Facebook.
She wrote that The Book of Genesis was taught as the factual story of how the universe was formed. Additionally, she said the correct answer to a test question ”It is important to read the Bible even if you are not Christian or Jewish,” was true.
“I thought if it really was a Bible history class it wouldn’t be an issue for her or a conflict with our religious beliefs,” Russo told WTVC. “It seemed very aggressive and very abrasive.”
In response, Russo told the Times Free Press that she had reported the incident to the Anti-Defamation League.
The class is funded by the century-old nonprofit organization Bible in the Schools, which teaches the class in 29 schools in Hamilton County. The group purports to offer bible classes from a “literary or historical perspective” that are “taught from a viewpoint-neutral, court-approved curriculum.”
The organization reimburses the school district each year for operating the program. In the 2020-21 academic year, the group gave the Hamilton County school system $1.8 million, the Times Free Press reported.
“The teacher told them a story about an atheist student who took the class to ‘prove it wrong’ and later ended up ‘realizing it was true,’ which is certainly not in line with teaching the text as literature,” Russo wrote in her post.
After a neighboring school district banned the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus,” Russo said she is concerned that anti-semitism is growing.
Russo said that the school was responsive to her concerns, but refused to allow her to meet with the Bible teacher, per school policy. In a statement, the school said it is investigating the incident.
“Hamilton County Schools is committed to ensuring that our students and staff experience a climate of belonging and support,” Steve Doremus, communications officer for the school district, said in a statement. “This week, HCS received a parent complaint concerning classroom activities involving the Bible History elective course at East Hamilton Middle School. In accordance with school board policy, the district is investigating the complaint. When completed, HCS will take appropriate steps based on the findings of that review.”
The local chapter of the Jewish Federation said it is aware of the incident.
“Moving forward, we look forward to a healthy dialog with the Bible in the Schools organization. Additionally, we hope they use this as an opportunity to reflect on and assess both their curriculum and how their teachers are presenting the material to ensure these classes are education, not indoctrination,” the organization said in a statement, obtained by WTVC.
Additionally, a group of Chattanooga Pastors wrote a letter calling for the teacher to be held accountable for breaching the separation of church and state in public schools.