An Evesham school board member accused of making anti-Semitic statements at Thursday's meeting says she was misunderstood.
But there were calls for Rosemary Bernardi's resignation after she allegedly called for non-Jewish residents to seek election to the board to offset the Jewish presence on it.
"I have apologized," Bernardi said Friday. "But they were two separate statements."
A seven-year member of Evesham's school board and a former president, Bernardi is also a vice president of the New Jersey Association of School Boards.
"It's a reprehensible situation," the Evesham board's president, Sandy Student, said Friday while acknowledging that he had not heard Bernardi's remarks first-hand.
The disputed comments were made during a board discussion about whether to reschedule the start of the school year in September to avoid a conflict with the Jewish high holiday of Rosh Hashanah.
Speaking before the board, residents Marc and Lisa Cohen, who are Jewish, had noted that the start of classes was scheduled for Sept. 6, the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
The Cohens said that would force their fourth-grade son to miss the first day of school, and they asked that classes be rescheduled to begin Sept. 9.
"My point was not that this conflict would make us miss the religious holiday," said Marc Cohen, an eighth-grade science teacher in Philadelphia. "It was that there are just 13 first days of school in a child's life, and they're special."
According to Cohen, who said he wrote down Bernardi's remarks that evening, she objected to rescheduling the start of school because some families had already planned for the Sept. 6 start, and said a change could upset child-care plans for working parents.
In an account Cohen submitted by e-mail, Bernardi then said, "We could start school on Thursday, the first day of Rosh Hashanah. I don't care. It's up to the parents to keep their kids home, all seven or eight Jews who live in our district."
According to Cohen, she then said, "There are 4,000 kids in the district, and we have to change the start date for those few children?"
Despite her objections, five members of the school board voted to reschedule the start of school to Sept. 9. Bernardi and Lisa Mansfield were opposed. One member abstained, and another was absent.
Bernardi's most controversial - and disputed - remarks came at the end of the meeting.
According to Cohen, she turned on her microphone and noted that June 4 was the filing date for anyone seeking to run for a seat on the school board.
He alleges she then said: "Anyone who would like to run for the Board of Education, there are three seats up, and there are five Jews on the board."
"I was shocked," Cohen said.
But Bernardi said in an interview that her noting the filing the date was intended only as a "public-service announcement," and that her remark about the Jewish presence on the board was not linked to it.
Instead, she said, she was responding to someone who had raised concerns that the board was setting a precedent and that other religious groups would demand that their religious holidays be accommodated as well.
"What I said is: 'That won't happen on this board because there's five members of the Jewish faith on this board. They have a majority. That wouldn't happen.' "
Asked whether she meant Jewish members of the school board would not be sensitive to the religious holidays of other faiths, she replied, "Oh, I can't win."
She later said: "My best friend is Jewish."
Cohen disputed Bernardi's recollection and said she had said "Jews" rather than "members of the Jewish faith."
He said Bernardi should "make a public apology or resign from the board. She needs tolerance training."
On her Facebook page, apparently written Friday, Bernardi offered no clarification of her remarks. Commenting on her vote against rescheduling the start of school, she wrote: "There are 5 men on the board of Jewish faith who must not observe this 2d day at Synagogue since they didn't mention this issue in the 2 prior calendar approval meetings."
Student said Friday that Bernardi had rankled some board members earlier in the year when she single-handedly invited a Catholic priest to give an invocation at its reorganization meeting, and at the April meeting when she said she thought there should be more women on the board.
He said that "bad acoustics" in the room had prevented him from hearing Bernardi's precise words, but that he had received complaints from several in attendance as well as from rabbis and a Jewish community relations committee.
"There's no place for ethnic remarks of any kind in this kind of setting," Student said.
Mayor Randy Brown said that he had not attended the meeting, but that there was "no place in the schools, township, or any public meeting for anti-Semitic remarks. If she made them, she should apologize or step down."