Following weeks of controversy over alleged anti-Semitic comments, a longtime member of the Evesham Township, N.J., school board has resigned her post.
On June 13, Rosemary Bernardi — a former president and eight-year veteran of the board — also stepped down, under intense pressure, as vice president of the statewide New Jersey School Boards Association.
The controversy stemmed from a May board meeting and a debate over whether or not to change the first day school for the district, which has a sizable but smaller Jewish community than nearby Cherry Hill.
The first day of school was scheduled to fall on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, which is Sept. 6. Typically, the school district is closed on the first day of the holiday, but not the second. But many Jewish families pushed for a change because this year, the holiday continues on the first day of school.
At its May meeting, the board voted to change the first day from Sept. 6 to Sept. 9. Bernardi was one of two members who voted against the change. One member abstained and one was absent. Bernardi reportedly said after the vote: “Anyone who would like to run for the board of education, forms need to be in by June 4. There are three seats up and there are five Jews on the board.”
A number of sources said that by publicly pointing out that several board members were Jewish and seemingly to suggest she wished there were fewer Jews on the board, she crossed the line into anti-Semitism. Bernardi also reportedly said, “We could start school on Thursday the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I don’t care. It is up to the parents to keep their kids home — all seven or eight Jews who live in our district.”
There is apparently no video or audio tape of the meeting. Prior to this week, Bernardi had apologized publicly but had disputed the exact wording and had vowed to stay on despite calls to step down. Among those seeking her resignation were the town’s mayor, other school board members, several state assembly members and numerous parents, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
Bernardi declined to be interviewed but referred to the statement she issued: “This local issue has become a distraction for the board to fulfill its mission,” the statement said. “There is an immediate need to shift the focus back onto the 4,700 public school children that we serve.”
The Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Southern New Jersey each got involved. The ADL spoke with the school board and spoke to Bernardi personally but neither group had called on Bernardi to step down.
Sue Wilder, a parent of three girls in the district, attended the meeting and had been pushing for Bernardi to resign ever since. “It was the proper consequence for the anti-Semitic remarks she made. I hope the board can repair the damage that she has caused,” said Wilder, who has known Bernardi for nearly a decade and said her behavior had become erratic in recent months. “It is time for our town to heal and move forward by educating our children. I hope this sends a message there will be zero tolerance for anti-Semitic, discriminating, and bullying.”