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School districts, Jewish writer disagree on why talks discontinued

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South suburban schools say they did not invite a Jewish author back to speak to students because of changes to the curriculum and the author’s presentation.

For multiple years, schools in North Palos Elementary District 117 and Orland Park Elementary District 135 invited Fern Schumer Chapman of Lake Bluff to speak to elementary and junior high school students about her young adult memoir about her mother’s escape from Nazi Germany.

Chapman’s husband, Bruce Wasser, schedules her speaking engagements and said he had a great relationship with these districts as well as a verbal arrangement at the end of each year that she would return the following year.

But when he reached out to the south suburban schools to schedule her appearance this April, they declined to bring Chapman back. Wasser said he thinks the schools made this decision because of anti-Jewish hatred he said is on the rise since the Israel-Hamas War began Oct. 7.

“It was either passive voice, pressure was put on them or they perceived some pressure but never received any that caused them to rather abruptly change their mind,” said Wasser. “And since then, there has been no communication.”

But school officials say this is not true, and said there are a variety of reasons she was not invited back this year.

In February, when Wasser reached out to Century Junior High School in District 135, he said he received this reply from Principal Brian P. Horn.

“The District will be using a wide variety of resources from our newly adopted social studies curriculum to augment our lessons on the Holocaust,” the email message read, “therefore this year we are focusing on these resources in our curriculum rather than using an outside presenter.”

Wasser dismissed this explanation, saying the curriculum hasn’t changed since Chapman spoke in 2023.

District 135 Superintendent John Bryk said it has been multiple years since the district adopted the curriculum adjustment Horn referenced, but said it takes years to fully implement curriculum changes.

“There are no changes, we just decided to use the extra resources in our curriculum in lieu of using (Chapman) this year,” Horn said. “If a curriculum has been adopted within a handful of years, that’s a newly adopted curriculum.”

Bryk declined to provide more information about changes made to the Holocaust lessons, but said Horn’s message to Wasser could have better explained the decision.

“I am not going to disagree that it potentially could have been handled better,” said Bryk.

Bryk noted the school recently hosted another Jewish author, popular children’s book author Adam Gidwitz, as evidence there wasn’t an anti-Jewish bias. But he said the district did receive emails protesting Gidwitz’s appearance.

“They were just concerned about what this person was going to talk (about),” said Bryk, alluding to discussions about “what’s going on in the Middle East.”

Gidwitz wrote in a column for Jewish Book Council that a Manhattan elementary school had recently decided to cancel his speaking appearance.

In his column, Gidwitz said he does not discuss current events in his books or publicly.

Bryk did not say how many emails objected to Gidwitz’s appearance, but said nobody emailed the district to object to Chapman’s appearance.

“I do not get into the politics at all,” said Chapman. “It is a history lesson for the young people and it is not about politics.”

Writer Fern Schumer Chapman claims her speaking engagements were not scheduled because of anti-Jewish sentiment. (Fern Schumer Chapman)
Writer Fern Schumer Chapman claims her speaking engagements were not scheduled because of anti-Jewish sentiment. (Fern Schumer Chapman)

Chapman’s social media accounts and books do not discuss current events such as the Israel-Hamas war outside of a repost on X of a CNN story about Hamas’s attack Oct. 7.

“Could this have been handled better? Obviously, because we’re in the situation that we’re in with these people,” said Bryk. “But to think that this had anything to do with anybody’s religious beliefs is not true. I can’t state it enough.”

Oak Ridge Elementary School and Glen Oaks Elementary School both are a part District 117 and have hosted Schumer in the past. Superintendent Jeannie Stachowiak said the district did not receive any emails calling for Chapman to not return.

Instead, they say they went in a different direction because Chapman’s presentation changed.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Fern Schumer Chapman brought her mother, Edith, to presentations. Edith, who fled Nazi Germany as a child, is the subject of Chapman’s writing.

Due to health concerns, Edith, who passed away in January, recently stopped presenting with her daughter.

She was not at the 2023 presentation at the District 117 schools.

“The presentation definitely took on a completely different feel,” said Stachowiak. “The children did not get anything out of it and they were sort of bored and it did not have the same feel from the original presentation.”

District 117 now connects students directly with the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center for its education, said Assistant Superintendent Christine Droba. The Holocaust Museum did not respond to requests for confirmation.

Droba said the district did not tell Chapman the reason they were going in a different direction was because students were not as engaged.

“I know that I made a very major contribution to bringing this story to life — particularly when my mother was alive,” said Chapman before discussing the school’s decision to not have her back. “I also think it is a really dangerous precedent to set.”

On Tuesday, author and actor Brett Gelman spoke at a synagogue in Glencoe. He spoke about how many bookstores have canceled his scheduled appearances over security concerns. Gelman does discuss the Israel-Hamas war on his social media.

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