When administrators at John L. Miller-Great Neck North High School found out that several dozen students were using their off-campus lunch break to attend religious instruction, with free food, at a nearby synagogue, an alarmed letter went home to parents.
Principal Bernard Kaplan told parents in his Jan. 31 letter that the Torah Ohr synagogue on Middle Neck Road offered the instruction without parental permission, and it "believes it is perfectly OK for them to entice our children with free lunch in order to give them orthodox religious instruction or what many would frankly call proselytizing children."
Friday, the issue was seemingly resolved when Kaplan sent out a second letter asking that his first be "disregarded." He'd decided, "upon reflection," that his initial letter was "an infringement on student rights. The principal of a public school cannot interfere with religious practice conducted outside of the school's purview."
In an interview Monday, Kaplan said he regretted that the tone of his initial letter may have contributed to ongoing divisions and tensions in the Great Neck community between a growing Orthodox Jewish presence there and others with differing religious views or practices.
"I feel I was trying to do the right thing," he said. "I wish I had done it better . . . the tensions are there but I didn't create greater understanding."
He said he received emails and expressions of opinion across the board, including from those who supported his initial position -- including some upset parents who hadn't been aware that their children were attending the lunches -- and from those who felt he was hostile, disparaging and discriminatory.
He said he was now satisfied that parents were properly informed, and that the issue remained one of parental notification and consent.
Some students said they felt the controversy was overblown, but the tensions it reflected upon may not be quickly resolved.
Students walking between the high school campus on Polo Road and the restaurants and pizzerias on Middle Neck Road near the synogogue downplayed the controversy, shrugging it off as overblown, or an overstep by the school.
One local parent of two high school students, who asked not to be identified to avoid being targeted over his opinions, said he felt "very unhappy with adult strangers approaching my minor children at their lunch hour and inviting them to go inside of a building for free food and religious teaching that may or may not be consistent with my family's values. This is a very concerning matter."
Robert Unger, a Great Neck attorney, said he put the synagogue in touch with Liberty Counsel, which describes itself as "an international nonprofit litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family since 1989, by providing pro bono assistance and representation on these and related topics."
Unger and Liberty Counsel attorney Richard Bass were guests last week on a conservative religious and political Internet show, "The Manning Report," discussing the case, but, Unger said, neither had contacted Kaplan or specifically threatened litigation. A Facebook page, Let My People EAT and LEARN, an open group with 1,241 members, posted an online petition.
The synagogue's Rabbi Avraham Kohan could not be reached for comment.