‘How to Torture a Jew’: Chattanooga mother worries about Bible lesson in public school

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Hamilton County middle schooler’s mother worries about century-old Bible in the Schools program, which teaches the Bible in Chattanooga-area public schools as literature, as anti-Semitic after local teacher allegedly taught to his daughter “how to torture a Jew.”

Juniper Russo, the mother of an eighth-grader at East Hamilton Middle School, posted on Facebook this week, saying the school’s Bible teacher guided the class in a way that amounted to “proselytizing blatant Christian”.

“I drew a hard line and pulled my daughter out of Bible class when it turned hostile on Feb. 2,” Russo wrote on Facebook. “[The teacher] wrote an English transliteration of Gd’s Hebrew name on the whiteboard. This name is traditionally not spoken aloud and is traditionally only written in the Torah. She then told her students, “If you want to know how to torture a Jew, say it out loud. My daughter felt extremely uncomfortable hearing a teacher teach her peers “how to torture a Jew” and told me on her way home from school that she did not feel safe in the classroom .”

In a brief phone conversation on Saturday, Russo said she had reported the incident described on Facebook to the Anti-Defamation League because it was anti-Semitic. She declined to comment further, saying she agreed to a local TV station’s request not to speak with other members of the media.

(READ MORE: World remembers Holocaust as anti-Semitism rises in pandemic)

The school system said in a statement that the matter is under investigation.

“Hamilton County Schools is committed to ensuring that our students and staff experience an atmosphere of belonging and support,” Steve Doremus, communications manager for the school district, said in a statement. “This week, HCS received a complaint from a parent regarding classroom activities involving the Bible History elective at East Hamilton Middle School. In accordance with school board policy, the district is investigating the complaint. A Once completed, HCS will take appropriate action based on the findings of this review.”

Cathy Scott, president of Bible in the Schools, declined a Times Free Press request for an interview and directed all questions to Hamilton County Schools.

The program is taught at 29 public schools in Hamilton County, according to the Bible in the Schools website. Classes are “non-sectarian” and those who run the class are “obligated to teach from a neutral point of view and adhere to a court-approved curriculum.”

Statement by Michael Dzik, Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga

“The Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga is aware of the issues regarding an elective Bible course at East Hamilton Middle School and appreciates both East Hamilton and HCS for investigating the allegations and taking them seriously. The Jewish Federation has a long history of working with our multi-religious partners as well as HCS to help create an appreciation for the diversity and understanding of all faiths and cultures. Going forward, we look forward to a healthy dialogue with the Bible in the organization of the schools. Additionally, we hope that they will use this as an opportunity to reflect on and evaluate both their curriculum and the way their teachers present the material to ensure that these lessons are education and not indoctrination.”

The nonprofit organization annually reimburses the school district for the operation of the program. For the 2020-2021 school year, the program provided the school system with $1.8 million.

Russo wrote on Facebook that his daughter enrolled in the Bible course because other electives offered in East Hamilton at the time were not accessible to her due to a disability. Her daughter was uncomfortable answering questions such as “Do you read the Bible at home?” on a mission because she didn’t want to be called Jewish, Russo wrote.

The book of Genesis was taught as the factual history of the formation of the universe, Russo wrote, and the correct answer to a test question, “It is important to read the Bible even if you are not Christian or Jew” was true.

(READ MORE: McMinn County School Board bans Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust book)

“The teacher told them the story of an atheist student who took the class to ‘prove it wrong’ and ended up ‘realizing it was true’, which is definitely not in line teaching text as literature,” Russo wrote.

The mother said the class watched videos from the BibleProject, a nonprofit that creates animated Bible resources and believes “the Bible is one unified story that leads to Jesus.”

Russo said the school took her concerns seriously, but the Bible teacher refused to meet with her or the Greater Chattanooga Jewish Federation to discuss the program issue.

In a statement, Michael Dzik, executive director of the Jewish Federation, said the organization appreciates the school system investigating the issue.

“Moving forward, we look forward to a healthy dialogue with the Bible in Schools organization,” Dzik said in the statement. “Furthermore, we hope they will use this as an opportunity to reflect on and evaluate both their curriculum and the way their teachers present the material to ensure that these classes are education and not ‘indoctrination.”

Russo reposted his post to his wife’s Facebook page on Friday morning after the original post was deleted for violating community guidelines on hate speech.

The allegations about the local program come as Tennessee garners national attention after the McMinn County school board voted unanimously in January to withdraw the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” by Art Spiegelman, from his curriculum.

“I have a stomach ache, especially following the ‘Maus’ controversy in neighboring McMinn County that school hours and school resources would be used to teach children ‘how to torture a Jew.'” , wrote Russo. “How can we say our schools have zero tolerance for bullying if a teacher actually teaches students how to do it?”

The Jewish Federation is hosting Art Spiegelman, the author of “Maus,” for a free webinar Monday evening to discuss the book.

Contact Wyatt Massey at [email protected] or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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