Chattanooga Times Free Press

'How to torture a Jew': Chattanooga mother raises concerns with Bible class taught in public school

Wyatt Massey

The mother of a Hamilton County middle-schooler is raising concerns about the century-old Bible in the Schools program, which teaches the Bible in Chattanooga-area public schools as literature, as being antisemitic after a local teacher allegedly taught her daughter "how to torture a Jew."

Juniper Russo, the mother of an eighth-grade student at East Hamilton Middle School, posted to Facebook this week, saying the school's Bible teacher guided the class in a way that was "blatant Christian proselytizing."

"I drew a hard line and withdrew my daughter from Bible class when it actually turned hostile on February 2," Russo wrote on Facebook. "[The teacher] wrote an English transliteration of the Hebrew name of G-d on the whiteboard. This name is traditionally not spoken out loud, and is traditionally only written in the Torah. She then told her students, 'If you want to know how to torture a Jew, make them say this out loud.' My daughter felt extremely uncomfortable hearing a teacher instruct her peers on 'how to torture a Jew' and told me when she came home from school that she didn't feel safe in the class."

In a brief telephone conversation Saturday, Russo said she had reported the incident described on Facebook to the Anti-Defamation League, since it was antisemitic. She declined further comment, saying she agreed to a local TV station's request that she not speak with other members of the media.

(READ MORE: World remembers Holocaust as antisemitism rises in pandemic)

The school system said in a statement the matter is under investigation.

"Hamilton County Schools is committed to ensuring that our students and staff experience a climate of belonging and support," Steve Doremus, communications officer for the school district, said in a statement. "This week, HCS received a parent complaint concerning classroom activities involving the Bible History elective course at East Hamilton Middle School. In accordance with school board policy, the district is investigating the complaint. When completed, HCS will take appropriate steps based on the findings of that review."

Cathy Scott, president of Bible in the Schools, declined a Times Free Press request for an interview and directed all questions to Hamilton County Schools.

The program is being taught in 29 Hamilton County public schools, according to Bible in the Schools's website. The classes are "non-sectarian," and those guiding the class are "required to teach from a viewpoint-neutral perspective and adhere to a court-approved curriculum."

"The Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga is aware of the issues concerning an elective Bible class at East Hamilton Middle School and appreciate both East Hamilton and HCS investigating the claims and taking them seriously. The Jewish Federation has a long history of working with our multi-faith partners as well as HCS to help create an appreciation for diversity and understanding of all faiths and cultures. Moving forward, we look forward to a healthy dialog with the Bible in the Schools organization. Additionally, we hope they use this as an opportunity to reflect on and assess both their curriculum and how their teachers are presenting the material to ensure these classes are education, not indoctrination."

The nonprofit reimburses the school district each year for operating the program. For the 2020-21 academic year, the program gifted the school system $1.8 million.

Russo wrote on Facebook her daughter enrolled in the Bible class because other electives offered at East Hamilton at the time were not accessible to her because of a disability. Her daughter was uncomfortable answering questions such as "Do you read the Bible at home?" on assignments because she did not want to be singled out as Jewish, Russo wrote.

The Book of Genesis was taught as the factual story of how the universe was formed, Russo wrote, and the correct answer to a test question, "It is important to read the Bible even if you are not Christian or Jewish" was true.

(READ MORE: McMinn County school board bans Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Holocaust)

"The teacher told them a story about an atheist student who took the class to 'prove it wrong' and later ended up 'realizing it was true,' which is certainly not in line with teaching the text as literature," Russo wrote.

The mother said the class was shown videos from the BibleProject, a nonprofit that creates animated resources about the Bible and believes "the Bible is a unified story that leads to Jesus."

Russo said the school took her concerns seriously, but the Bible teacher refused to meet with her or the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga to discuss how the curriculum was problematic.

In a statement, Michael Dzik, executive director of the Jewish Federation, said the organization appreciates the school system investigating the issue.

"Moving forward, we look forward to a healthy dialog with the Bible in the Schools organization," Dzik said in the statement. "Additionally, we hope they use this as an opportunity to reflect on and assess both their curriculum and how their teachers are presenting the material to ensure these classes are education, not indoctrination."

Russo reposted her message on her wife's Facebook page Friday morning after the original post was removed for violating community guidelines around hate speech.

The allegations about the local program come as Tennessee is receiving national attention after the McMinn County Board of Education voted unanimously in January to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel on the Holocaust, "Maus: A Survivor's Tale" by Art Spiegelman, from its curriculum.

"I am sick to my stomach, especially in the wake of the 'Maus' controversy in nearby McMinn County, to know that school hours and school resources would ever be used to teach children 'how to torture a Jew," Russo wrote. "How can we say that our schools have zero tolerance for bullying if a teacher is actually instructing students on how to do it?"

The Jewish Federation is hosting Art Spiegelman, the author of "Maus," for a free webinar Monday night to discuss the book.

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.