June 21, 2024
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Fort Lee Board of Ed Under Fire

Hundreds demand answers for high school teachers sugarcoating Hamas terrorism.

Rabbi Meir Konikov of Fort Lee addresses the Fort Lee Board of Education. (Credit: Chabad of Fort Lee)

A standing-room-only crowd gathered at the Lewis F. Cole Middle School in Fort Lee on Monday evening to debate a lesson plan presented to students by two teachers that was characterized as sympathetic to Hamas, a terror organization designated by the United States and dozens of other countries.

Fort Lee High School students told parents that the teachers, one tenured and one non-tenured, required the students to relinquish their cell phones for the duration of their lesson. Parents of students in the class who have seen copies of the presentation, which made its way to the class’ Google Classroom, contended it was skewed against Israel and stated it “sugarcoated” Hamas rather than characterizing it as a terrorist organization as designated by the U.S. government.

Hamas, according to public records, is an Islamist militant movement that has controlled the Gaza Strip between Israel and Egypt for nearly two decades. Hamas violently rejects Israel’s existence and frequently targets Israeli civilians. On October 7, 2023, Hamas infiltrated southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking several hundred more hostage. Many of those hostages are now feared dead, and include senior citizens, babies and the disabled.

Several pro-Palestinian advocates appeared to speak at the meeting.

The upset crowd gathered at a planned Board of Education meeting in response and to advocate for the firing of Fort Lee public school teachers Stephen Wolowitz and Fathia Balgahoo. According to statements made by those with children in the district, it was an off-curriculum 29-page presentation to a social studies class characterizing Hamas as a “Palestinian political party and armed resistance movement.” The presentation was titled “1948-2024: World History with Ms. Balgahoon and Mr. Wolowitz.”

Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich wrote letters to synagogue leaders in Fort Lee dated the day following the lesson’s presentation. According to a letter obtained by The Jewish Link, Sokolich characterized the event as a teacher presenting his or her “own personal version and opinion concerning the ongoing war between Israel and her sworn enemies.”

“I am of the understanding that this teacher[s] acted without any authority, permission or support from the district. Presently, the district is undergoing a complete and thorough investigation as to all attending circumstances and I am hopeful that the investigation will be concluded in the near future so that appropriate action may be taken by the district. These teachers will remain under suspension until the investigation is concluded and a final determination is reached.”

The crowd snaked around the block of people trying to get into the Board of Ed meeting (Credit: Ellie Wolf)

While Sokolich declined to say more due to the investigation in process, he stated the following: “I want to reconfirm that we find to be intolerable any behavior which is a direct affront to our commitment to the safety, harmony and security of our community. I have long enjoyed, in fact cherished, my relationship with the entire Jewish community of Fort Lee and I pledge my commitment to ensuring that this relationship remains completely intact and unaffected by this recent event.”

As the meeting concluded, the Board of Education voted on the advice of the superintendent to accept the resignation of the non-tenured teacher, Fathia Balgahoo, with the effective date June 30. No further action was announced or taken at the meeting, except that both teachers and the incident were under investigation.

The open session was filled to fire code capacity, and a wait line of about one hundred people stood outside for hours in the hopes of gaining entrance. Police sentries at the entrance allowed one person to enter at a time, but only if someone else left. The Jewish Link learned from Chabad Fort Lee’s Rabbi Meir Konikov that he and others helped to facilitate this situation by sending out participants one at a time after they spoke so that others could enter.

Rabbi Konikov noted that the high number of community members who came out was a strong showing of support on the part of concerned individuals, as there was no officially organized effort or plan to create a presence. He added that those on “the right side of the issue,” far out- numbered those on the wrong side. The rabbi added that this show of support was essential for the board, the city council and the mayor to see.

Marvin Scott of PIX11 News was also in attendance. Scott had reported that parents felt uncomfortable reporting the incident, and to complete his interview he shielded the identity of the parent he interviewed. The parent reviewed the Powerpoint slides from the presentation, stating, “It referred to October 7, 2024, as a ‘clash between Palestinians and Israel,’ rather than the unprovoked massacre against Israel that it was.”

Rabbi Ilan Acoca of the Sephardic Congregation Beth Yosef of Fort Lee, who is also a staff member of Shalshelet and The Moriah School, spoke at the meeting and provided comments to The Jewish Link afterwards. “I am pleased with the turnout and the support we got from the local Jewish and non-Jewish community. We have to understand that this is about what is taught in the public school system and we may not allow anything false or hateful towards any group to be taught.”

He added, however, that further action was needed. “First of all, the Fort Lee BOE did not condemn the actions of these two teachers. They had an opportunity to do so, but did not.” He is concerned that it sends the message of “no grave consequences” for teachers who violate the curriculum by taking it into their own hands.

The crowd snaked around the block of people trying to get into the Board of Ed meeting (Credit: Ellie Wolf)

“Secondly, the fact that the teacher resigned is troubling. That means that she could start teaching again in the future and indoctrinate students with hatred.”

Rabbi Sammy Bergman, rabbi of Young Israel of Fort Lee, spoke at the meeting and also shared his thoughts with The Jewish Link the following day. “I am proud of our community’s response to the blatantly antisemitic presentation that took place in a Fort Lee classroom. The community’s strong turnout sent a clear message to the Board of Education that we will not tolerate antisemitism in our classrooms. At the meeting, we expressed ourselves clearly and confidently. We ought to feel proud of our community’s efforts to make our voices heard at this crucial time.

Bergman added: “I am thankful for the Board’s understanding of the urgency of the matter and for their willingness to allow our community to express our outrage and disappointment about the miseducation that took place. I am determined to maintain a line of communication with the members of the Board of Education. I hope to learn more about the results of their investigation and how this deeply problematic lesson seeped into a Fort Lee classroom so we can ensure this does not happen again.”

Pro-Palestinian speakers presented as well, primarily those who do not live in Fort Lee. Most stated their addresses incorrectly or noted they do not live in Fort Lee but have “many cousins” who go to the schools there. A woman named “Lisa Hassan” spoke once in person and at least three more times on Zoom. The full video presentation is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPp7l2Ykd0c.

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