GREAT NECK, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — Controversy over where some high school students have been going to eat their lunch has hit one Long Island village.
Some are asking if a local synagogue is going too far by mixing pizza with prayer.
Some students at Great Neck North High School have been going to Congregation Torah Ohr up the block for a free lunch and learn program.
“At first I started…because of the free food,” senior Brian Naki told CBS 2′s Alice Gainer on Wednesday. “It’s really open to anyone. I’ve had friends who aren’t Jewish come, like Catholic friends, who would come.”
But some claim Torah Ohr is using free food as a way to entice students to give them Orthodox instruction. The students who had lunch at the academy got free pizza bagels for lunch and a lecture by Rabbi Abraham Kohan.
Citing deep concerns, Great Neck North Principal Bernard Kaplan wrote in a letter to parents: “They were quietly eating while a man was instructing them in religious beliefs. There is no sign on the building even identifying it as a temple.”
The controversy started when Kaplan, citing parents’ concern about proselytizing, called police about the situation.
“He’s not trying to convert anyone. He’s giving ideas to what you want to do in your future, like let’s say ‘Do you want to be more religious when you grow up,’” one student told 1010 WINS’ Carol D’Auria.
Kaplan even tried unsuccessfully to persuade the rabbi to get permission slips from the students’ parents.
The school, however, has an open campus policy for lunch — meaning students in all grades can leave and go wherever they want.
That is likely why the Anti-Defamation League fired off a letter in response to the principal requesting the permission slips, saying it would be “an infringement on a student’s right to association and free exercise of religion in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
The ADL then asked the principal to retract his letter, which he did. Kaplan stated in a second letter to parents “my letter was inappropriate and should be disregarded.”
Parents seem split.
“Parents assume during lunch that kids are going to get lunch not going to be preached to,” said Liz Silverman.
“There is no harm to anybody,” said another parent.
The rabbi did not want to appear on camera, but said the program has existed by word of mouth for the past three years. Principal Kaplan also did not want to appear on camera and said the issue has been resolved.
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