Letter-writing, accusations stir tempest at Tehiyah

The tired cliché of two Jews possessing three opinions has been given new life in El Cerrito, where a disgruntled parent's aggressive letter-writing campaign has provoked varied reactions from Tehiyah Day School's parents, teachers, students and faculty.

Joe Stein's belief that his eighth-grade son was being taught a one-sided account of the Mideast crisis, his efforts to get a speaker from the peace movement to address the students and his subsequent angry letter to the school's parents sparked a furor — both against him and the school.

"It's really not the prerogative of parents to say, 'We want this speaker,' and stamp our feet if we don't get the speaker," said Carla Kassler, a school board member and the head of Tehiyah's parent-teacher association. "I'm not saying [Stein's] personal feelings are wrong for him. But I don't agree with his perceptions of the way things are at school."

Stein said he grew disturbed with things his son reported hearing in class in late April.

"When he'd tell me what happened at school, he'd talk about references to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which seemed to me to stereotype Palestinians and not give the students any sense of the context of the conflict," said Stein, a federal government attorney in San Francisco.

"It seemed there was a portrayal of Arabs as being unified in their hatred of Israel and Jews, and that they were aggressively out to destroy Jews and Israel. There was the sense they were wholly responsible for what's going on."

Stein sought to find a speaker he felt could present a "broader" perspective to the students. At the suggestion of Michael Robinson, rabbi emeritus at Santa Rosa's Congregation Shomrei Torah, he found one in Allan Solomonow, a lecturer in U.C. Berkeley's peace and conflict studies department and member of Berkeley's Kehilla Community Synagogue.

In early May, Stein contacted Tehiyah's Judaic studies head Tsiporah Gabai and Steve Tabak, the head of school. He also wrote to the school's board, hoping to land a speaking date for Solomonow. He was denied by all three.

While Stein claims Gabai, Tabak and the board were afraid of a speaker who would rock the boat, Tabak said he would have given the same answer to any parent lobbying for a speaker to address the students with just weeks remaining in the school year.

"Certainly his method is inappropriate," he said. Tabak also took issue with Stein's "characterization of what has been happening in class" as one-sided.

"I'm disappointed that Mr. Stein never took the time to get to know us prior to beginning the work he did to push his point, but my response would have been the same to any parent on an issue presented in that manner."

Stein's mid-May letter to the school's parents characterized Tehiyah's staff as unwilling to consider his proposal, saying they were rude to him in the process.

While he did not mention it in the letter, Stein also accused Gabai of referring to him disparagingly as a "left-wing extremist" in front of his son. Gabai declined to speak with the Bulletin, but denied this interchange occurred. Stein added that after parents received the letter, his son was verbally and physically harassed at school. Tabak was unsure if that occurred, but he did not deny it could have.

"Some older children might have said something to Mr. Stein's son. It's very likely that it happened. That would not surprise me," he said. "I don't doubt that his son was vulnerable. I have no way of knowing what was said to his son. I do know our teachers care deeply for his son and have done everything they can to support him, as they would any child."

Stein claims to have received dozens of letters and phone calls as a result of his letter, with responses ranging from extreme anger to hearty congratulations.

"When I got his letter, it was absolutely wonderful, because it pointed out something I've been struggling with. [Tehiyah] claims to have fair play, but in my sense, their walk and talk aren't the same," said Christopher Catlett, the non-Jewish father of a Tehiyah first-grader.

"These kids ought to be able to hear both sides and make up their own minds, instead of having their parents' opinions shoved down their throats. Those people at the school board, Tsipi Gabai and Steve Tabak, they owe Joe Stein one hell of an apology. You don't treat people that way."

Catlett's opinion, however, is not universal.

Kassler, Tabak and other Tehiyah officials stressed that the school — and Gabai — present a balanced view of Arab-Israeli relations. A late May letter to parents noted that seventh-graders take a course on the history of Islam while

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.