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Jewish teacher fired from nursery for cohabiting wins discrimination claim

Watford Employment Tribunal dismissed the nursery's argument that it had been justified in dismissing the teacher and criticised its treatment of her

    Watford Employment Tribunal (Google)
    Watford Employment Tribunal (Google)

    A Jewish teacher has won her claim of discrimination against an Orthodox nursery in London which fired her after learning she was living with her boyfriend.

    Zelda de Groen, 24, lost her job at the Gan Menachem in Hendon in July 2016 after working there for four years.

    Watford Employment Tribunal dismissed the argument of the nursery that it had been justified in dismissing the teacher and criticised its treatment of her.

    There was “no dispute” that many Orthodox Jews regarded cohabitation before marriage as contrary to the faith, the tribunal headed by Employment Judge Andrew Clarke said in a decision published today following a four-day hearing in Watford in September.

    But the nursery, which follows Lubavitch teachings, had not shown there was any occupational requirement by teachers to observe such standards, it found. Moreover, Gan Menachem’s case was that it “was not concerned with her private life, all that it wanted was the appearance of compliance”.

    Ms de Groen grew up in an “ultra-Orthodox Jewish household” but moved from London to Israel when she was 16 after becoming “discontented in her community”, the tribunal said.

    When she returned to London, she got a job at Gan Menachem whose manager Miriam Lieberman knew her mother.

    While Ms de Groen “did not wish to return to a fully ultra-Orthodox way of life, she considered herself still to be a practising Jew, but one who did not rigorously observe all of the practices which might be expected of an ultra-Orthodox Jew.”

    However, she intended to be more observant than she had been in Israel.

    Mrs Lieberman and Dina Toron, Gan Menachem’s managing director, had understood that Ms de Groen wanted to return gradually to the ultra-Orthodox fold. But the situation was “rather more complex and confused,” the tribunal found.

    Ms de Groen was “struggling to establish her own set of life values” within the Jewish spectrum. It was clear she was “vulnerable and disturbed” and has regularly been seeing a psychiatrist.

    In January last year, she met Oz Waknin and began living with him a few months later in Pimlico – the couple married in July 2017.

    In May 2016, the couple went to a Lag Ba’Omer barbeque attended also by a number of trustees and parents of pupils.

    When one of the trustees Mendy Freundlich asked Mr Waknin where he lived, he replied, “We live in Pimlico”.

    A number of parents already knew Ms de Groen and Mr Waknin were living together but had raised no concern, the tribunal said.

    But after the barbecue, one or two parents spoke to someone at the nursery about it.

    When Ms de Groen was then asked to attend a meeting with Mrs Toron and Mrs Lieberman, she was told among other things that living with a man  she was not married to was wrong and that if she had children out of wedlock, she would be dismissed.

    The tribunal also said that one solution put to Ms de Groen was to say she was not living with Mr Waknin.

    While the nursery disputed that the teacher had been asked to lie about her living arrangement, the tribunal found that she had been so asked.

    After the meeting Ms de Groen was “tearful and distressed” but when she later sought an apology, the nursery began disciplinary proceedings against her and subsequently dismissed her.

    The tribunal noted she was regarded as “a very good teacher” by Gan Menachem.

    It upheld her claim of religious and sex discrimination, finding that a man would not have been treated in the same way.

    She had also been harassed as the nursery’s conduct after the meeting with Mrs Lieberman and Mrs Toron had been “equaully offensive and hurtful… and continued her humiliation and degradation”.

    A further hearing will decide “appropriate remedies” for Ms de Groen.

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