(Editor’s Note: This article won a first place Rockower Award for Excellence in Spot News Reporting from the American Jewish Press Association.)
Holocaust drama director leaving
Claims job eliminated after questioning religious program in Hamilton public school, will teach at Jacobs Camp this summer
The director of a Holocaust-era play about tolerance says he is now a pariah in his community for questioning a religious revival in public school, and is looking forward to moving to New Jersey later this summer.
J. Greg Thomas, the only Jew in Hamilton, claims his theater position was eliminated shortly after rumors began last fall that he and the American Civil Liberties Union were filing a lawsuit against the school system because of prayers at high school football games.
Though no such suit existed, last summer Thomas had contacted the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in Atlanta regarding a religious assembly held during school hours at Hamilton High School.
Thomas has been in Hamilton seven years. In addition to teaching at Bevill State, he was artistic director for the Bevill Community Theater, an independent arts group.
In the last three years, Thomas has directed his own productions of “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” and “Brundibar.” Both shows have their roots in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during World War II. “Butterfly” is an internationally-renowned collection of poems by children in the camp.
“Brundibar,” which was performed for perhaps the final time in Alabama on May 7, is a children’s opera by Hans Krasa. The play was performed by children at the camp starting in 1943, to an audience of Red Cross monitors, guards and prisoners. The show was performed 55 times, after which Krasa and most of the children were exterminated at Auschwitz.
Thomas used an entirely non-Jewish cast from rural northwest Alabama, even encouraging them to use their natural Southern accents in the show, to demonstrate the universal message.
Hamilton, a town of about 6,000, is the county seat of Marion County.
In April 1999, Thomas said, a “revival” was held at Hamilton High School during lunch. A local cable channel taped the event, and aired it repeatedly.
Thomas said the broadcast included the leader standing with school officials at the school entrance, saying “We’re going to win this school for Jesus.”
Thomas taped the broadcast and sent it to the Atlanta office of the ADL, which deals in church-state matters. Thomas said his main concern was that the school system not be caught up in a future lawsuit over unconstitutional practices. “I went to the ADL, not the American Civil Liberties Union” because the ADL works more from an education, not litigation, standpoint.
Knowing that the area is looking for economic expansion with the completion of Corridor X from Memphis to Birmingham, Thomas said there would be the possibility that those moving in to the area would be of different religious persuasions, and the county would get caught in a court battle over religion in the schools.
“I’m a taxpayer,” Thomas said, “and I don’t want to see the school board waste my tax dollars on a lawsuit they would lose.”
The ADL reviewed the tape and sent a letter to the school system, offering to assist in teaching what the constitutional guidelines are for religion in the public schools. The letter did not mention Thomas.
Bravell Jackson, superintendent of the Marion County schools, said he heard from the ADL that “someone” reported a religious assembly at the school, and that the Gideons were passing out tracts at the school, “which was not true.”
Hamilton Principal Don Knight said he spoke with the ADL about the tape, and noted that “just looking at the film you probably don’t understand what happened.”
Knight said a student organization came to him and asked to perform some religious skits they had worked on. He said the ADL thought “the leader of that group was a teacher, but it was an outside group.”
He scheduled it for lunch, because it “is not class time.” There are two lunch periods, and “we had taken one of those… to let the students who want to see it, see it.”
Having a religious program on school property is permissible, according to ADL Regional Director Jay Kaiman. “There are equal access laws. The law does allow for activities in the building as long as everyone is allowed” similar access.
Having a religious event during lunch, because it is still during school hours, is “problematic,” Kaiman said.
Knight said that after talking with ADL, the only issue they still had was that at the end, he applauded the program and thanked the performers before dismissing the students.
Knight said, “If someone does a program for my school, I thank them and tell them we appreciate it. It’s kind of routine.”
But Kaiman said that hits the fine line of endorsement. “It gave the impression that the principal and school were endorsing it,” he said. “Our job was to point that out, they did seem to respond, and we’ve had no more complaints.”
The ADL sent brochures describing what is permissible and what is unconstitutional, which were distributed through the superintendent’s office during a teacher in-service.
Knight put the conflict behind him, but life was about to become much more complicated for Thomas.
In September, Thomas received a call from one teacher who accused him “of trying to turn the high school in to the Jewish league” and of filing a lawsuit against the school.
Thomas said he “told her specifically that was never my intent, I was trying to prevent one.”
He began receiving emails from parents of some students in “Brundibar”, withdrawing their children from the show. One accused him of contacting the ACLU regarding prayers said over an injured player at a football game. “We, as a family, have discussed this and have come to the conclusion that in our children’s eyes you have become Hitler taking away their right to pray,” the email read.
Bobby Smith, a 1992 Hamilton High graduate and tech boss for “Brundibar,” said students told him that one teacher had announced to the class that Thomas had filed a lawsuit against the school system over prayers at football games.
Knight said the players do pray on the field on their own initiative, and he advises the coaches to respectfully keep their distance, so they do not appear to be encouraging the students to pray.
Smith said there is “blatantly open prayer at school, during football games, they have even held revivals on campus during school hours.”
Even though no such lawsuit existed, word spread about Thomas.
Thomas claims the teachers then began boycotting his productions at Bevill Community Theater. He had a Shakespeare anthology production in the theater at that time. Usually, about 600 students are brought for each performance. None showed up this time, he said.
Jackson disputed claims of a boycott. “In no way has this school system been involved in any boycott of any nature that I know of.” If there has been anything, he said, it is individual teachers expressing their opinions just as Thomas expressed his.
Smith said he began to notice something was wrong when “we didn’t have any schools come to see our Shakespeare production, and they’d been to every other production.”
Thomas produced a free performance of “Brundibar” for the Hamilton community. Smith said the show has traveled to six states and enjoyed “great turnout, both Jews and non-Jews. Everywhere but Hamilton. The teachers boycotted.”
In October, Bill Mayhall of Bevill Community Theater did a phone survey of teachers, asking if they would continue to boycott the theater if Thomas was involved. Most said they would, Thomas said.
In November, he was informed that the theater board was meeting to change its by-laws — which Thomas had originally written — and the rewrite would eliminate his position.
“I had no prior knowledge,” Thomas said, “no negotiations, anything.” He was told that his actions with ADL were “in part” why the decision was made. “They said if I continued, they’d never have an audience.”
Mayhall said the decision was financial. With declining numbers, “we could no longer pay him a salary based on attendance.” The theater was “going deeper in debt” and could not pay him in the range he requested. The board decided not to have a full-time artistic director, but to hire directors for individual shows, “like every other small community theater I know of,” Mayhall said.
Smith, who was voted onto the theater board at that meeting but was not told about Thomas’ status until afterward, said they got rid of Thomas because of the boycott.
Mayhall, who said the issue was “a painful experience” the board wants to “put behind us,” was reluctant to address reports of a teacher boycott.
“I could not talk people into coming back, although I tried,” he said.
Smith said everyone came back for the first show after Thomas’ dismissal. “We had every student in two counties come.”
Bevill State told Thomas that the college would no longer support the community theater, and informed him that two grants from the Alabama State Council for the Arts he had received, totaling $7,000, were sent back.
Then, he was told in December that his department at Bevill State was not “financially viable,” but he was not allowed to go to other campuses and recruit more students. In January, he received a letter terminating his services as of May.
Bevill State has been undergoing a major restructuring this spring.
Some in the community said things might have been different if Thomas had gone about it in a different manner. Jackson said he asked Thomas why he didn’t come to him about it first.
Mayhall said the response he got in the community was that “if it had been from someone with a child enrolled in the school and handled in a more diplomatic way, the feelings would have been less strong.”
Thomas said he did not go through the school board because he had seen “little or no effort on their part to tone down religious practices in the system,” and he was not an employee of the school board. He feels he would have lost his position at the theater even if he went through local channels.
Likewise, “If, G-d forbid, I had children in the school system, they would have taken it out on my kids. I have no doubt about that,” citing recent school prayer battles in DeKalb County and Pike County as examples.
Thomas noted that Smith has already faced some “guilt by association… which upsets me to no end.”
Smith said he’s had some anti-Semitism “thrown at me, and I’m not a Jew.” A self-described “straight-up Baptist,” Smith said “there is no reason to do to somebody because of their religion what this town did to him. It is uncalled for.”
Thomas had already faced some opposition to his Holocaust plays because some in the town felt a play from the Holocaust would be “promoting Judaism.”
When the school board suddenly objected to students participating for that reason, Thomas invited them to see a performance. “That was quickly quelled,” he said.
On a trip to Washington in April, the students performed at the Washington Jewish Community Center. Officials at first didn’t want the students to tour the JCC, because it was “a religious place.”
When he taught an ethics class at Bevill State, he had to walk a fine line so no one could accuse him of advocating Judaism. “I told them Jews don’t do that, we don’t evangelize the world for Moses.”
But it wasn’t just the play that became an issue. Last year, Thomas taught many students at Guin Elementary how to play cricket. This year, he was told he could not continue.
At orientation for Bevill State recently, the Gideons had a table to distribute Christian Bibles. Thomas claims one of them called him by name, and said, in front of his colleagues, “I know you need this.”
Smith was frustrated by the reactions to Thomas, especially because of the message promoted in “Brundibar.” “What we’re doing with that show is the right thing to do. This is how people should handle differences of religion.”
He noted that the show’s cast members were mostly Pentecostal, meeting for rehearsals at a Baptist church.
Thomas said, “In the midst of all this junk that’s happening to me, here’s “Brundibar,” and we’re pulling it off, mainly due to the parents who know who I am.”
Mike Causey, principal of Guin Elementary School, cited the intercultural aspect as one of the benefits of “Brundibar.” The fifth and sixth grade classes at Guin have taken part in the play, forming an entire touring troupe.
Learning about “anything different from their own culture is enriching” for the students, Causey said. “Our students have been able to get more of an idea of how savagely people have been treated because of what they believe or who they are.”
Now, Thomas will pursue a Master of Arts in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey. He already has primary backing to form a new “Brundibar” troupe in New Jersey, with possible tours to Prague and South Africa in the summer of 2001. “If the overseas tour happens, I will be sure to include the Alabama cast,” he said.
This summer, Thomas will be theater specialist at the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica.
Reflecting on the controversy, Thomas said “I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I’d been here seven years and thought I’d earned some respect.”
Knight said Thomas “will do well wherever he goes. There will be folks around here that miss him. He’s put on good shows.”
Causey, who said he was unaware of the difficulties Thomas has faced, said “whatever happened up there, the result is our kids are not going to have access to someone who is very talented in so many ways.
“I think they’re going to feel the loss when he’s not there.”