Following the attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, a devastating day for Israelis and Jews all over the world, the superintendent of Teaneck public schools released a statement responding to the events on behalf of the Board of Education. In the statement, Dr. Andre Spencer described the attacks as “part of a cycle of violence in the Middle East” and urged all families in the district to seek support for the “unfortunate situation.” Following the distribution of this letter, Jewish residents of Teaneck were quick to call out the superintendent’s vague language and lack of condemnation for the atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists.
After a tense Teaneck Town Council meeting on Oct. 17 during which the council passed a resolution 7-0 condemning Hamas and in support of the U.S.-Israel relationship, the Teaneck Board of Education met the next day, offering an opportunity for residents to voice their opinions regarding the superintendent’s statement, among other things. On the evening of Oct. 18, the Board of Education met in a crowded room, with many eager to share comments about the ongoing war in Israel and the subsequent contention in the Teaneck community. According to some of the attendees, Jewish residents were outnumbered significantly by the Muslim crowd, and emotions in the room ran high for the entire three-hour duration of the meeting.
The Board of Education allowed for one hour of public comment in the beginning of the meeting, followed by two smaller increments later, totaling over two hours of speaking time from Teaneck residents who joined in person and via Zoom. Comments ranged from full support of Spencer’s statement, which some noted as “acknowledgement of a marginalized community,” to vehement condemnation for its lack of support for the Jewish community, to everything in between—including the question as to why the Board of Education felt the need to speak out about this conflict at all.
Several attendees of last Wednesday’s meeting shared their dismay with The Jewish Link for the biased acts by BOE Vice President Victoria Fisher, who moderated the discussion that evening. From the very beginning of public comment, Fisher continuously interrupted speakers from the Jewish community who were “too specific” about the atrocities committed by Hamas. In contrast, those who spoke in support of the superintendent’s statement and provided equally graphic descriptions of violence were not told that they were “breaking the rules”—that is, the rules seemingly set for the Jewish community only.
It became clear over the course of the evening that the Jewish speakers were there to urge Spencer to revise his original statement, at the very least adding a condemnation of the terror committed by Hamas. As Teaneck High School graduate, Orly Kessler-Godin (class of ‘22), noted during her comment, “Terrorism is not neutral. Beheading babies, tying them together, shooting them between their eyes—that is not neutral.”
And the neutrality of the Board of Education is, unfortunately, unsurprising to many Jewish parents of Teaneck students. As Maxine Angel reported in her comment during the meeting, her nine-year-old son has faced antisemitism, which was “gaslit” by the school administration, and to which Spencer “ascribed the same moral relativism as we see in this letter.” Other Jewish parents also pointed out the existence of antisemitism within Teaneck schools, including that it “roams freely on the social media accounts of Teaneck High students,” as Hilary Kessler-Godin shared.
Valerie Levin, who spoke at the Board of Education meeting, told The Jewish Link, “The Jewish community really needed validation for the crimes that were committed against us, and Dr. Spencer’s letter lacked that validation. We had a trauma happen to the community, and we are asking Dr. Spencer to just acknowledge that.” Levin continued that despite writing a letter urging revision of the statement to the Board of Education, the superintendent has continued to refuse to condemn these atrocities—an act which demonstrates a lack of care for the Jewish community in Teaneck.
“At the Teaneck Town Council meeting [on Oct. 17], Alan (Avrumi) Rubinstein drew a great analogy between Teaneck’s condemnation of violence against Blacks elsewhere in the United States and its condemnation of violence against Jews in Israel. We could easily say, ‘it’s not happening in Teaneck, right?’ and ignore it, but we are asking Dr. Spencer and the Board of Education to name our trauma specifically,” Levin explained. “It’s as if we as a community are not allowed to ask for validation.”
“What has transpired has really highlighted the importance of being involved with the Board of Education and voting in local elections,” another attendee shared with The Jewish Link. “People really need to be more engaged civically, because it matters whether we have a voice.” Multiple Teaneck parents echoed this sentiment with The Jewish Link, adding that the upcoming Board of Education elections are as important as ever.
“If the educators cannot come forward and condemn these atrocities, how can we make sure they are teaching our children correctly?” asked one parent.
Some of the candidates in the upcoming election were present at the Board of Education meeting last Wednesday, including James Wolff and Gerald Kirshenbaum, who are running together along with David Gruber, who attended virtually. They shared with The Jewish Link that they felt the superintendent’s letter was “non-committal” and “did not fully address the evil that Israel and the Western world experienced that day.”
“The meeting demonstrated significant divisions within the Teaneck community,” said Wolff, Kirshenbaum and Gruber.
“Our slate is committed to addressing superintendent communications as well as the growing divisiveness in our township. Our slogan remains ‘educational excellence, value and accountability,’ the latter highlighting the need for responsibility for one’s actions.”
Teaneck resident Aviva Zakarin-Angel shared with The Jewish Link that last Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting was eye-opening for many voters in the district. “[The meeting] underscored just how crucial it is to step up and make our voices heard. I have now set my sights on candidates who not only stand for unbiased principles but also truly grasp the concerns of our Jewish community in Teaneck,” she stated, referring to Kirshenbaum, Wolff and Gruber.
“What this meeting really demonstrated is the need for us to come together and get our priorities straight,” another resident told The Jewish Link. “We just want to be heard.”
At the end of the three-hour meeting, Spencer thanked the public for providing feedback and thanked the Teaneck students who presented that evening as well. He then, tearfully, read the following statement:
“As the superintendent of our schools, it is imperative that my message is always aligned with humanity and humanistic behavior. I am 100% aware of the pain, the fear and the grief that it is in our community and that is impacting our community today. I understand what is happening in our community … I want the community to recognize and know that the purpose of my letter was to make sure that our children are okay, and that our young people are assured that when they step foot in any school in this district, that they will be taken care of first and foremost. That is why I am here: to make sure our young people get the best education that they can possibly receive in the safest environment that we can possibly provide to them.
“I care about every single person that attends our schools. I will, in no way, do anything that will
jeopardize the life of any one of our young people. That’s what I want our community to know. That is why I am emotional. We care in Teaneck public schools. I care about what young people are getting and I want to say to all of our young people that my role is to serve you as best as I possibly can and make sure you get a quality education. I pray and hope that I never ever let you down. I am here to serve you. I am going to make sure you get what you need, and I will hold everyone accountable to provide you with exactly what we promised when we talk about ‘Teaneck advantage,’ and ‘educational excellence for all.’ That is ‘all,’ meaning every single one of our young people.”
Channa Fischer is the digital editor of The Jewish Link and the resident 20-something in the office. She resides in Washington Heights.