(New York Jewish Week via JTA) — A Jewish educator is suing a New York synagogue, claiming that she was fired from her job for espousing anti-Zionist beliefs online.
According to the lawsuit filed Tuesday morning in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Jessie Sander said she was fired from her position at the Westchester Reform Temple — a Reform congregation in Scarsdale — after less than three weeks. She believes her dismissal was a response to a blog post she wrote that expressed anti-Zionist beliefs during the Israeli-Gaza conflict in May 2021.
Sander, 26, had been hired as a full-time educator for the WRTeen Initiative, a program connected to the synagogue’s Jewish Learning Lab. Sander had written the blog post on May 20, 2021 — 10 days after she had been offered the position at Westchester Reform Temple, but before her start date on July 6, 2021. Nothing in the job description, the complaint says, required she should or should not have any particular viewpoint towards Israel and Zionism.
Among other things, she and a co-author asserted in her blog post that “[I]srael’s legalized apartheid regime has been brutalizing Palestinians for decades” and that she is part of an organization that “rejects the Zionist claim to the land of Palestine.”
“We reject the notion that Zionism is a value of Judaism,” she wrote.
Per the complaint, Sander is contending that she was unlawfully discharged for expressing views during a “legal recreational activity” (blogging) that was conducted outside of work hours, off the employer’s premises, and without use of the employer’s equipment.
She is asking to be reinstated and awarded her back pay and compensatory damages, claiming she has “suffered economic loss, mental and emotional distress, damage to her reputation and harm to her career, lost business and professional opportunities, and other damages.”
The Westchester Reform Temple did not immediately respond to The New York Jewish Week’s requests for comment.
While there are protections in place for employees of non-religious institutions to express opposing beliefs, synagogues and other religious educational institutions reserve the right to fire an educator when their personal beliefs conflict with the institution’s ideological mission, said Marc Stern, chief legal officer for the American Jewish Committee, which has no connection to the case. Deciding what the line is and when the educator has crossed it, Stern said, is up to the employer.
Additionally, educators at religious institutions cannot sue their employers for discrimination against their beliefs if those beliefs go against those of the institution, said Aliza Herzberg, managing member of Herzberg Law Group, an employment boutique in New York.
Sander was in the position for only 16 days before she was fired during a Zoom call on July 22, according to the suit. Rabbi David Levy and Executive Director Eli Kornreich, both of whom are named as defendants in the lawsuit, were present. According to the complaint, when Sander asked the reason for the termination, Kornreich answered, “It’s just not a good fit.”
A week earlier, Sander had met with Levy ostensibly to discuss 11th and 12th grade programming — though, according to the lawsuit, he steered the conversation towards her blog post, asking her if she was aware that WRT was a Zionist institution. Sander agreed she would not share her anti-Zionist beliefs on the job.
In the same Zoom call, Levy asked what “anti-Zionist” meant to Sander and asked if she understood that some people may regard anti-Zionism as a “calling for a second Holocaust.” Sander replied that she was “horrified” by the comparison, according to the suit, and that she “objected to the colonization of Palestinian land, with the accompanying displacement of the indigenous population”
Sander’s blog, titled “israel [sic] Won’t Save Us: Moving Towards Liberation,” was posted on Medium and on Making Mensches, a blog and organization that Sander founded in 2020 dedicated to “fostering radical Jewish communities that explore Jewish values within the context of our daily lives.”
In her post, Sander and her co-founder Elana Lipkin write, “We believe our role as white American Jews is to resist the American-israeli military-industrial complex and the ways in which American Jewish support for israel has enabled the genocide in Palestine to continue.”
An open letter in support of Sander, addressed to the rabbis and board of WRT, was signed by 43 people. The signatories include a number of prominent liberal Jewish academics, including Peter Beinart, a journalist and professor at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism; Hasia Diner, professor of American Jewish History at New York University, and Shaul Magid, professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue.
It is also signed by Rebecca Vilkomerson, who is the former executive director of anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace.
“Commitment to Palestinian justice is fully consistent with the Jewish values of, and commitment to, pursuing justice that they learned in Hebrew school and from their families,” the letter reads.
Sander’s suit presses an issue that Jewish institutions, and even non-Jewish organizations, increasingly face: What positions on Israel are acceptable at a time when young leftists no longer regard Zionism or support for Israel as a given? Last May, for example, a Jewish reporter for the Associated Press was fired after posting tweets advocating for the Palestinian people and opposing Israeli policy. That same month, rabbinical and cantorial students taking part in WhatsApp chat group drafted an open letter accusing Israel of “apartheid.” At least one signatory said the letter cost him a rabbinic internship.
Sander hopes that her case will lead to wider acceptance of diverse opinions on Israel. “I’m hoping to see Jewish institutions welcome pluralistic perspectives to make our spaces more equitable,”she told The New York Jewish Week. “I am excited for a Jewish future that confronts the oppression of Palestinians and embraces all Jewish people.”
Jewish groups and thinkers on the left have long criticized Israel’s settlement movement and its military control of the lives of the Palestinians who are not citizens of Israel. But most groups have drawn the line at discrediting Zionism itself or supporting the anti-Israel boycott.
In his sermon on Rosh Hashanah last year, Rabbi Jonathan Blake, the senior rabbi at WRT, confronted his own difficulties supporting some of Israel’s policies. He asserted in his sermon that “a quarter of American Jews agree with the statement, ‘Israel is an apartheid state,’” apparently quoting a July 2021 poll by the Jewish Electorate Institute, a group led by prominent Jewish Democrats.
“In the Israel of today, extremists, cynical political officials, and wealthy patrons have co-opted the 54-year long military occupation of the West Bank for their own ideological purposes: a grandiose vision of Jewish totalitarianism in the Biblical Holy Land,” Blake told his congregation. “What began as a necessity for Israel’s security has become a moral and political morass with no end in sight.”
In his sermon, Blake invited conversation within the community and challenged his congregants to “reject one-dimensional narratives about Israel — both reflexive demonization and reflexive defensiveness.”
Blake’s sermon is quoted in Sander’s complaint.
“I do think it is hypocritical and wrong for rabbis and officials of Jewish institutions and schools to excommunicate the most idealistic members of our community for criticizing Israeli oppression of Palestinians, in service of what these young people perceive to be the Jewish moral and religious values they learned in in their temples, synagogues, schools and families, as Jessie Sander did,” Robert Herbst, Sander’s lawyer, told the New York Jewish Week via email.
Based on her blog post, however, Sander’s beliefs go farther than just criticizing and questioning Israeli politics. She writes, with co-author Elana Lipkin, “We reject the notion that Zionism is a value of Judaism. Zionism is not equivalent to, or a necessary component of, Jewish identity.”
This statement is nearly opposite of what Blake expressed in his sermon: “I believe in more than just the necessity of Zionism,” he said. “I also believe in Zionism as a moral imperative that rectifies millennia of injustice and suffering.” The synagogue is affiliated with ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.
Responding to Sander’s claim that she was fired for a “recreational” activity conducted outside of work, the AJC’s Stern said that those protective employment laws are not applicable to organizations where speech and ideology are at the center of the organization’s mission — like a synagogue that views Zionism as a core tenet.
“You can’t force an ideological organization to associate with people who undermine its mission,” he said.
“[This suit] will generate endless discussion,” said Stern, about what beliefs should and should not be acceptable in mainstream Jewish congregations, especially regarding Israel. “But as a matter of law, it’s a non-starter.”