Jewish educator fired by Westchester Temple for blogging critical of Israel files lawsuit
On January 25, Jessie Sander filed a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court, Westchester County, against Westchester Reform Temple (“WRT”), two of its rabbis and its executive director, alleging wrongful dismissal. pursuant to Section 201.-d of the New York State Labor Law.
As stated in the complaint, Ms. Sander began working in early July 2021 as a secular Jewish educator at WRT’s school, the Jewish Learning Lab (“JLL”). She was hired to teach and teach the Hebrew language and to help and support the development of social, cultural and community service programs for WRT teens. Nothing in the position or job description required adherence to any particular view of Israel or its policy toward the Palestinians.
Nevertheless, WRT fired Ms. Sander after less than three weeks on the job, not for teaching shortcomings or criticism she received, but allegedly solely because of a blog post she and a friend had. wrote months before the start of her WRT job which harshly criticized the State of Israel for its bombing of Gaza in May 2021. In this post, Ms. Sander affirmed her passion for Judaism, her investment in building the Jewish community and his commitment to fight for justice for all Jews; and identified herself as an anti-Zionist opposed to what she believed to be a legalized apartheid regime in Israel in contradiction to Judaism or any other religion.
After reading the blog post, the rabbi who had hired her and who heads the JLL met with Ms. Sander, engaged in a candid discussion of their respective views, and told her that he and the school of WRT had taken a position of “fighting with Israel” and welcomed various thinkers and that she should never work in a place that would fire her for her beliefs, which he agreed with 90%. Immediately after that meeting, the Rabbi wrote an email to the Chief Rabbi and the WRT President – which he shared with Ms. Sander – summarizing the meeting, expressing complete confidence in Jessie as an educator, and stating that she would be a good role model for WRT students.
A week later, however, that same rabbi summoned Ms. Sander to another meeting, this time with the executive director of WRT, where the rabbi dismissed her. When she asked why, the general manager told her that “it’s just not a good choice.”
The facts set out in the complaint make it clear that Ms. Sander was fired solely because of the blog post she co-wrote. The Labor Act prohibits “any employer” from “terminating” any “individual” because of their “lawful recreational activities”, “outside working hours, outside the premises of the employer and without using the equipment or other property of the employer.” These recreational activities include “any lawful leisure activity, for which the employee receives no compensation and which is generally engaged in for recreational purposes, including, but not limited to” “hobbies”. Ms. Sander, like many Americans and Jewish Americans, blogged as a hobby, without pay, and this particular blog post was written and published months before she started working at WRT.
More than 45 prominent Jewish Americans, including rabbis, scholars and educators, have signed an open letter to
WRT, urging the Temple to reinstate Ms. Sander. The letter states, in part, “If, as appears to be the case, Ms. Sander was fired because someone took issue with her blog post, we urge you to reconsider. Surely you know that Ms. Sander’s views are shared by a growing segment of the Jewish community, which understands or grapples with Zionism’s role in dispossession of the Palestinian people from their homes and lands. Their commitment to Palestinian justice is fully in line with Jewish values and the commitment to pursue justice that they learned in Hebrew school and from their families. We are sure that many educators within the reform movement hold views similar to those expressed by Ms Sander. Reform Jewry – and all Jewish communities – need educators with the passion and moral compass of people like Jessie Sander. Surely you understood that when you hired her. We urge you to reinstate her.
Sander co-founded a website called makingmensches.com, whose mission is to educate and learn with other white Jews to build more welcoming communities. On the website there is a blog, and the blog post in question, which can be found at the following link, https://makingmensches.medium.com/israel-wont-save-us-moving-towards-liberation-d0590cf41561is a harsh criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people and the bombing of Gaza in 2021.
Sander writes with co-founder Elana Lipkin, “As co-founders of an American Jewish organization seeking to confront the racist practices and beliefs of the Jewish community, we must speak out against the latest Israeli attack on Gaza… We believe that our role as white American Jews is to resist the US-Israeli military-industrial complex and the way American Jewish support for Israel has allowed the genocide in Palestine to continue. Making Mensches believes in the right of Palestinian self-determination and rejects the Zionist claim to the land of Palestine.
But at the end of the article, they write: “Our anti-Zionist journeys, although difficult, were simply essential in strengthening our passion for Judaism. Being anti-Zionist has made us even more invested in building Jewish community and fighting for justice for all The Jews.”
A simple search of Sander’s works and writings by WRT could and should have been done before he was hired. And his comments on Israel and Palestine have the support of many American Jews, including the 45 (and counting) prominent members of the American Jewish community.