The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mom files complaint with Tenn. school claiming students got lesson on ‘how to torture a Jew’

Juniper Russo’s middle-schooler elected to take a Bible history class in Chattanooga, Tenn. Russo has now requested her daughter be removed from the course. (Sasiistock/iStockphoto)
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This article has been updated to more accurately describe a video a Tennessee parent said her daughter was shown in a Bible history class. The video includes imagery with antisemitic roots.

After school one day last week, Juniper Russo’s 13-year-old daughter came home and confided in her mother: “I don’t feel safe in Bible class anymore,” she said.

The Jewish teen from Chattanooga, Tenn., said her Bible history teacher wrote on the board the transliteration of the Hebrew name for God, a word not traditionally uttered by Jewish people.

“If you want to know how to torture a Jew, make them say this out loud,” the teacher allegedly said.

Russo, 34, filed a complaint with Hamilton County Schools and requested a meeting with the teacher, principal and the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga. But the teacher declined to meet, Russo said.

A spokesman for the school district said leadership is “investigating the complaint” and “will take appropriate steps based on the findings of that review.”

“Hamilton County Schools is committed to ensuring that our students and staff experience a climate of belonging and support,” the spokesman said in a statement to The Washington Post.

Holocaust graphic novel ‘Maus’ banned in Tennessee county schools over nudity and profanity

The incident comes as antisemitic symbols have been reported on school campuses nationwide. Chicago police opened an investigation last week into vandalism at several Jewish-affiliated locations, including a school and a synagogue. On Monday, officials at a middle school in Danvers, Mass., found swastikas in the girls’ bathroom.

Hamilton County is southwest of McMinn County, Tenn., where the school board last month unanimously banned “Maus,” the award-winning graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about the Holocaust, from the eighth-grade curriculum. Board members said the text included inappropriate language, illustrations and subject matter. The move led to national outcry, with Holocaust survivors, advocacy groups and graphic novelists accusing the district of trying to overlook the horrors of the Holocaust.

Comic book store owner to ship ‘Maus’ free to anyone who asks in Tenn. district where it’s banned

Public institutions in Tennessee have a track record of partnering with religiously affiliated groups, including Christian foster parent and adoption organizations that receive state funding. Last month, a Jewish couple sued the Department of Children’s Services and its commissioner after a taxpayer-funded organization refused them services because of their religion.

In Hamilton County, a local Christian organization called Bible in the Schools pays the district to teach the Bible as a historic and literary text. The nonprofit, which did not respond to The Post’s request for comment late Sunday, has been funding the elective course in Hamilton County Schools for 100 years, according to the Chattanoogan. In August, the organization reportedly donated nearly $1.8 million to the district.

Russo told The Post she was hesitant when her daughter selected the class as her elective earlier this year.

“I thought, ‘This is not ideal,’ ” Russo said. But the class was the only option for her daughter, whose disabilities prevented her from taking other electives, she said.

“I don’t love that this is even a program in public schools,” Russo added. “But I also thought, if it really is just being taught as literature, I don’t mind my kid learning [this].”

But from the first homework assignment, Russo said she and her daughter felt the assignments and lesson plans resembled Christian proselytizing. In an “About You” worksheet reviewed by The Post, students were asked whether they had read the Bible or were familiar with the text. Russo said her daughter didn’t turn in the assignment, earning her a zero, because she was worried about revealing she was Jewish.

The 13-year-old also showed her mother an animated video she had watched in class, also reviewed by The Post. The video included images of a forked road, where the path of embracing God and Jesus led to a colorful place, while the other route led to darkness. Other parts of the video appear to show animations of the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, who are among the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people, as dark, shadowy figures with pointy noses grabbing for bags of coins — imagery with antisemitic roots.

“When I saw that I was like, ‘Is this real? Did somebody actually put this in a public school class?’ ” Russo said.

A Tennessee couple tried to become foster parents. They were denied because they’re Jewish, lawsuit says.

On Feb. 3, the day after her daughter told her about the teacher’s alleged comments, Russo sent the 13-year-old to school with a note demanding that administrators pull her out of the class and make accommodations for her in a different elective. She warned that if they refused, she would “consider that to be a blatant violation of our right to religious freedom,” Russo said.

Russo also reached out to the Anti-Defamation League and wrote a lengthy post on Facebook about her daughter’s experience, which gained attention in the community and was picked up by local media.

Michael Dzik, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, said he hopes to work with Bible in the Schools and have “a healthy dialogue.”

“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,” Dzik said in a statement to The Post.

Russo said she hopes that speaking out shows her children they should take a stand when they feel something is wrong, “even if it’s going to be scary.”

“I’ve just been trying to teach my kids that we stand up for what’s right and we do what’s beneficial to society,” she said, “even when that might make us a little nervous.”