Jessie Sander filed a lawsuit, Wednesday, January 25th in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Westchester County, against Westchester Reform Temple (“WRT”), two of its rabbis and it’s executive director, for wrongful discharge pursuant to Section 201-d of the New York State Labor Law.
As set forth in the complaint, Ms. Sander started work in early July 2021 as a secular Jewish educator in WRT’s school, the Jewish Learning Lab (“JLL”). She was hired to teach and tutor the Hebrew language and to assist and support the development of social, cultural and community service programs for WRT teens. Nothing in the job or job description required any adherence to any particular point of view about Israel or its policies toward the Palestinians.
Nevertheless, WRT fired Ms. Sander after less than three weeks on the job, not for any teaching deficiencies or criticisms she received, but solely because of a blog post she and a friend had written months before her WRT employment began that severely criticized the State of Israel for its May 2021 bombardment of Gaza. In that post, Ms. Sander affirmed her passion for Judaism, her investment in building Jewish community, and her 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 at odds with Judaism or any other religion.
After reading the blog post, the Rabbi who had hired her and who directs the JLL met with Ms. Sander, engaged in a frank discussion of their respective views, and told her that he and WRT’s school embraced a “wrestling with Israel” position and welcomed diverse thinkers and that she should never work at a place that would fire her for her beliefs, 90% of which he agreed with. Immediately after that meeting, the Rabbi wrote an email to the Senior Rabbi and to 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’s students.
One week later, however, that same Rabbi called Ms. Sander to another meeting, this time with the WRT executive director, where the Rabbi fired her. When she asked why, the executive director told her that “it’s just not a good fit.”
The facts set forth in the complaint make clear that Ms. Sander was fired solely because of the blog post she co-authored. The Labor Law makes it unlawful for “any employer” to ‘discharge from employment” any “individual” because of her “legal recreational activities,” “outside work hours, off of the employer’s premises and without use of the employer’s equipment or other property.” Such recreational activities include “any lawful, leisure-time 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 compensation, and this particular blog post was authored and published months before she began work at WRT.
More than 45 prominent Jewish Americans, including rabbis, scholars, and educators, have signed the attached Open Letter to WRT, urging the Temple to reinstate Ms. Sander, and pointing out that “many educators within the Reform movement” have “views similar to those expressed by Ms. Sander,” which “are shared by a growing segment of the Jewish community,” who “are grappling with the role of Zionism in the dispossession of the Palestinian people from their homes and land,” and whose “commitment to Palestinian justice is fully consistent with the Jewish values of, and commitment to, pursuing justice that they learned in Hebrew school and from their families.” The Open Letter can also be found below.
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