Family sues synagogue over alleged discrimination

Ever since their daughter was born with autism, Shelley and Barry Mednick have been planning her bat mitzvah.

"It's something we always wanted," Barry Mednick said. "We know she's capable of it."

Leslie Mednick, now 12, is practicing to read Torah and haftorah for her January ceremony — in spite of her family's lawsuit against their former congregation for alleged disability discrimination.

The San Mateo family filed suit late last month against Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, also alleges breach of contract, invasion of privacy and defamation.

"We just feel we have to do what's right," Barry Mednick said. "There's too much discrimination. We've encountered it far too often."

Beth El board president David Finkelstein, who is acting as the Reform congregation's spokesman on the matter, denies all of the allegations.

"I've been told the [religious] school made every effort to accommodate Leslie in every possible way," Finkelstein said. "In our view, we were trying to provide a loving, caring, secure place for her. We think we did."

The Mednicks tell a different story. They said the problems began in November 1994 when they joined Beth El and enrolled their daughter in religious school.

Leslie had long been mainstreamed into regular classes in both public and religious schools, her parents said, although her disability required that someone assist her in class.

She has a mild form of autism, a neurological disorder that impedes her ability to move around and process information. As a result, she is still learning how to do things that most children can do at a much younger age, such as dressing herself and jumping rope, her parents said. And while she cannot write well and has trouble staying focused on a topic, she can read on a par with children her age and usually grasps the meaning of what she reads.

For 15 years, the Mednicks had been members of the Conservative Peninsula Sinai Congregation in nearby Foster City. But they decided to switch congregations last year so Leslie could take classes with more children and make more friends. While Leslie would have had only three classmates at Sinai, she would have 10 to 20 other students in her sixth-grade classes at Beth El.

However, Beth El officials treated the family with hostility from the start, according to the lawsuit.

At a first meeting with Rabbi Evan Goodman and temple administrator Stephen Weiner, the lawsuit asserts, Shelley Mednick was forced to sign a "punitive" set of stipulations on the spot or Leslie couldn't enroll.

The stipulations required that the Mednicks provide a full-time aide for Leslie and restricted the girl's time with the temple's "special needs" teacher. The rules also allowed her to stay in class only if she wasn't disruptive.

Although Shelley Mednick signed the document, the lawsuit alleges that this contract discriminated against the family because of Leslie's disability.

"It assumes Leslie is a behavior problem," Barry Mednick said. "Clearly they were setting completely different rules for us. She knows how to behave in class."

But Finkelstein said that the Mednicks had signed contracts in the past regarding Leslie's schooling and that a Sinai official had warned Beth El officials to get a written contract. Finkelstein denied that any staff member ever acted with hostility toward Leslie or her parents.

He added that as far as the synagogue was concerned, Leslie's addition to the sixth grade was working out. The staff and students did all they could to make Leslie feel comfortable in class, he said, even possibly to the detriment of the rest of the children — though he would not be more specific.

"We pride ourselves on being open to handicapped children," Finkelstein said. "She's a lovely, wonderful, intelligent girl….We'd take her back tomorrow if they wanted."

The Mednicks dispute this view.

"There were times when the rabbi couldn't wait to call us and yell at us," Barry Mednick said. "Jewish tradition in Leviticus says: You won't put a stumbling block before the blind. Their behavior was the antithesis of this."

This past April 19, both sides agree that a problem occurred. But they disagree on who is to blame.

Shelley Mednick, who had been Leslie's assistant during Hebrew classes, said that her daughter was inhibited socially by having her mother in the classroom. In the past the Mednicks had turned to peers to help Leslie in class, so the family hired a 12-year-old boy in the class who had known Leslie for years.

The boy was expected only to help Leslie stay on the right page in class and to keep her focused on the subject, the Mednicks said. During recess, however, he went out to play and the teacher left the room. A couple of classmates who stayed behind started playing with a can of Lysol and chalkboard erasers. Leslie got caught in the middle of the horseplay. She was dusted with chalk and sprayed with Lysol.

Temple officials called Shelley Mednick and told her to pick up her daughter. According to Shelley Mednick, the staff yelled at her and the teacher told Leslie in front of the class that no one liked her.

Leslie didn't return to religious school, and the family quit the synagogue.

But Finkelstein denied that anyone treated the family rudely. Instead, he said the real problem was the Mednicks' decision to hire a boy the same age as Leslie to be her aide.

Although the contract didn't specify that the assistant had to be an adult or a female, Finkelstein said that a 12-year-old boy, for instance, couldn't be expected to help Leslie use the bathroom.

But Shelley Mednick said that Leslie always used the bathroom at home before going to synagogue so the boy wouldn't be expected to help her there.

Recently, the Mednicks joined the Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in nearby Burlingame. Although Temple Sholom officials knew of the family's problems at Beth El, Shelley Mednick said they didn't require any written contract. Leslie takes class with the other seventh-graders and requires no supervision except the regular teacher, her mother said.

"They've been wonderful to us," Shelley Mednick said.