By Stephanie Saul - Staff Writer
Newsday - May 26, 2003
This is the first in a three-part series.
It was the sound of ripping cloth, they said, that woke them up.
On an August night in the Catskills, with summer camp almost over, the boys had fallen asleep in their bunkhouse, exhausted from play and religious study. Only minutes later, they would later testify in court, the noise awakened them. Then came mysterious movements in the dark cabin. The campers lay still. Why was a human figure hovering over the bed of a 10-year-old Woodmere boy?
The terrified boy blurted out his allegation to a camp counselor almost a day later: Someone, he said, had torn open the seat of his pajamas and sexually abused him.
The boy's parents were called to camp more than a day later, but police were not notified.
"We all concurred that considering the trauma that would possibly result from further action, it would be best not to take any additional action," according to the camp's notes, later filed in court in a civil suit. A state Department of Health sanitarian later found that the camp violated state regulations by not reporting the accusation.
Police learned of the allegations two months later, alerted by a psychologist who was treating the boy. The boy's mother later told a state official she felt pressured to remain silent, according to state health department records. After all, the alleged abuser and the camp officials were revered religious leaders.
The accused was eventually acquitted by a judge, who said "contradictory and sometimes retracting statements" left him unclear about what happened. The camp suggests that the alleged incident was fabricated.
After more than a year of charges and disclosures concerning sexual abuse of young people by Catholic priests, the story may sound familiar. But the camp, Mogen Avraham, is a popular summer retreat in Bethel for Orthodox Jewish children. And the accused was not a priest, but a teaching rabbi from Forest Hills.
The alleged 1998 incident at Camp Mogen Avraham is just one in a growing dossier of allegations that rabbis, cantors and other Jewish religious leaders have abused children and teenagers in their care, a Newsday investigation has found.
In sheer numbers, the problem is unlikely to rival the Catholic Church's, since priests outnumber rabbis by roughly nine to one. While there is no data on the number of clergy with sexual disorders, experts say that, anecdotally, the problem does not seem as severe in the rabbinate as in the priesthood, even in relative terms.
Even so, some rabbis call the sexual abuse allegations a "crisis," and religious organizations are grappling with ways to handle it.
"We have a huge problem on our hands, a problem that is just beginning to be addressed in religious circles," Vicki Polin, a psychotherapist, said in recent testimony to the Maryland legislature.
Polin, who is Jewish and calls herself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, runs The Awareness Center, a Baltimore-based clearinghouse that tracks sexual abuse allegations against Jewish religious leaders. The center's Web site lists about 40 alleged cases of abuse involving rabbis and cantors. As with the Catholic scandals, Jewish victims say they still struggle years, even decades, later with this betrayal of trust.
"I can honestly say that he ruined not only my Bas-Mitzvah, but my faith in Judaism," wrote one woman, now 30, referring to Rabbi Sidney Goldenberg. In a letter to California prosecutors, the woman said Goldenberg, then a cantor, made lewd comments and rubbed her thigh in her parents' home in Seaford in 1985. At the time, he was supposed to be helping her prepare for her bat mitzvah, the joyous and solemn religious celebration when a Jewish girl turns 13.
Goldenberg was convicted in 1997 of abusing a 12-year-old California bat mitzvah student, after investigators uncovered a 27-year trail of complaints by girls against him. He served three years and is now living on Coney Island, according to police.
Like the Goldenberg case, the abuse allegations tend to have common elements, including some familiar from the Catholic scandals:
Children and in some cases parents are reluctant to accuse respected clergymen. When they do, they are often disbelieved, dismissed, even derided.
"You have to understand the extent to which the guys in the school looked up to [the rabbi]," says one man, now 38, who says he was abused as a teenager by a rabbi now teaching in Israel. "He was beyond question."
And another rabbi recalls dismissing several girls' complaints against Goldenberg as "some giggly thing."
Religious authorities fail to report abuse charges to the police. Among strictly observant Orthodox Jews, this tendency is bolstered by the ancient doctrine of mesira, which prohibits Jews from informing on other Jews to secular authorities, a legacy of centuries of oppression of Jews in many countries.
When religious leaders try to investigate cases and prevent abusers from having contact with children, their efforts often fail. "Few rabbis have any training in recognizing abuse, and the rabbinical courts have no investigative arm," says Rabbi Yosef Blau, the spiritual counselor to students at Yeshiva University.
Alleged abusers continue to operate freely by moving among congregations, states, even countries. Avrohom Mondrowitz, a self-styled rabbi who once had a popular radio show in Brooklyn, is living openly and teaching in a Jerusalem college although he is wanted on charges of sexually abusing four Brooklyn boys, aged 10 to 16. If he ever returns to the United States, he will be arrested, according to the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes.
Many of the alleged abusers were popular, even charismatic leaders, who were thought to be particularly good in relating to young people. Rabbi Baruch Lanner, convicted last year of endangering the welfare of two girls at a New Jersey yeshiva, sidestepped abuse allegations for years, in part because of his reputation as a dynamic figure in an Orthodox youth program.
Unlike the Catholic Church, Jewish authority is not centralized, but various groups within the branches of Judaism have begun to strengthen anti-abuse policies for their members.
At its annual meeting, which starts today in Rye, the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization of 1,100 Orthodox rabbis, features programs on curbing abuse, including one entitled "Rabbinic Behavior: Confronting a Crisis of Accountability."
"We're trying to establish that inappropriate behavior is inexcusable," said Rabbi Hershel Billet, president of the organization and rabbi at Young Israel of Woodmere.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, a psychotherapist who is also the Orthodox Union's executive vice president, said he hopes the rabbinical council will make a firm commitment during the meeting "to develop a real, real tight program" combating sexual abuse.
The rabbinical council is expected to discuss ways to adjudicate abuse allegations against its members, with penalties that include ouster.
Sources within the organization say that the impetus for the panel's work includes old abuse allegations against Rabbi Ephraim Bryks of Kew Gardens Hills, which he has repeatedly denied, and the recent arrest of Rabbi Israel Kestenbaum of Highland Park, N.J.
Kestenbaum, a chaplaincy leader for the New York Board of Rabbis, was charged in February with endangering the welfare of a minor after allegedly discussing sex with an undercover police officer posing as a teenage girl in a chat room called "I Love Older Men." Kestenbaum has pleaded not guilty.
Rabbis concerned about sex abuse say accusations against a rabbi are often handled quietly, or not at all. Accused rabbis go on hiatus briefly, then revive their ministries in other congregations, even other countries in the far-flung Diaspora.
One of those was Rabbi Matis Weinberg. Accused of sexually abusing students at his California yeshiva two decades ago, he is said to have agreed to leave teaching. But Weinberg resurrected his teaching career in Israel. When Yeshiva University in Manhattan recently unearthed the allegations against Weinberg, the New York school severed its ties to the Jerusalem college where Weinberg had lectured until recently.
Weinberg has never been charged with a crime and has denied the former students' allegations. Through a friend, he declined to discuss the charges with Newsday.
The allegations against Weinberg have been widely reported in the Jewish press and have helped bring the issue to the fore in recent months.
Like the Orthodox rabbis' council, representatives of other branches of Judaism say they are taking steps to combat sexual abuse.
"I would rather this not become an epidemic and I think what we need to do is take affirmative steps to guide people before they make mistakes," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the lay arm of the Conservative movement. Epstein said the group's committee on congregational standards is currently working on a "best practices" document.
Rabbi Steven Rosenberg of McAllen, Texas, formerly the leader of the Jewish Center of Bay Shore, said his Conservative congregation already has adopted such rules.
"If I have a bat mitzvah in my office, the door is never closed," said Rosenberg, who also tells his 23 religion school teachers "they are not allowed to touch students, not a pat, not a hug."
"It is very important for me for my congregants to know: That kind of behavior -- we will not tolerate it," said Rosenberg.
Rosenberg was sensitized by the case against Sidney Goldenberg, the former cantor, who had worked at the Bay Shore synagogue before moving to California.
Many rabbis say their groups would always notify police about abuse although their rules usually do not spell this out. Such notification was one of the remedies embraced by Roman Catholic bishops in the priest abuse scandal. And Reform rabbis are in the process of revising their ethics code to include such a requirement, according to Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
The National Conference of Synagogue Youth, an Orthodox group, does have a policy requiring that police be notified, an outgrowth of its scandal involving Lanner, a longtime youth leader with the group.
In that case, a religious court called a bet din concluded in 1989 that the most serious charges against Lanner were unfounded, clearing the way for his continued youth work. Last year, more than a dozen years later, he was convicted in New Jersey on abuse-related charges.
Orthodox Jews frequently rely on the batei din, but Blau, a member of the Lanner bet din, has become an outspoken critic of the religious court system.
For one thing, he said, judges in the religious courts often know the accused, making fair decisions difficult. In addition, he said that perjury before a bet din is rarely punished.
Appearing in February before dozens of students in the main study hall at Yeshiva University, Blau and the two other members of the Lanner bet din issued an extraordinary public apology for their role in allowing Lanner to continue unchecked for so many years.
"We must do everything in our power to protect potential victims from abuse," the apology said. "This includes reporting accusations of abuse to Jewish and, at times, to secular authorities."
Such a secular-reporting requirement is controversial among some Orthodox groups, partly because it appears to run counter to the doctrine called mesira.
In ancient times, one who violated the doctrine and reported a fellow Jew to secular authorities could be killed on sight. Today, the punishment is generally ostracism in the community.
The vast majority of rabbis agree that mesira is overridden when there is imminent danger to possible future victims, but Blau says the taboo remains, particularly among the most traditional Orthodox.
Civil authorities who seek to act against rabbinic abuse often become frustrated by the reluctance of witnesses to testify.
Prosecutors in Sullivan County complained during the case that their witnesses faced pressure when they tried to prosecute Yaakov Weiner, the teaching rabbi acquitted in the Mogen Avraham case.
"It was a bitter pill for me," remembers Tom Cawley, the former Sullivan County assistant district attorney who prosecuted the Mogen Avraham case. "They sent their kid to camp up here in Bethel and thought he'd be taken care of. Someone was taken care of, all right, but it wasn't him."
Weiner, who has taught in several yeshivas throughout the metropolitan area, consistently denied the charges. Attempts to reach him through one of his lawyers were unsuccessful.
The boy's mother and father, a rabbi himself, would not discuss the case with Newsday. But camp and State Health Department records filed in court indicate that the parents were not told of the alleged abuse until nearly 48 hours after the boy spoke of it, while the 36-year-old Weiner's father, a rabbi well-known in the Queens Orthodox community, was notified sooner.
Contacted recently, the camp's current executive director, Moshe Wein, defended the camp's handling of the accusation, saying, "There's no evidence to indicate that an incident took place." He added, "This may be one of those cases in which a child lied."
Lawyers for Weiner at his bench trial made much of contradictions in the boy's statements. But the most confusing testimony came from the alleged victim's bunkmates.
One of the boys reversed his story between the time he spoke to police and the trial several months later, Cawley said in court.
"We believe that there was pressure placed on the victim and children's families to get them not to testify," said Sullivan County District Attorney Stephen Lungen in a recent telephone interview. "There was a child who could have substantiated what was said, and that family would not cooperate."
"It is clear in the evening hours of August 8 and the morning of August 9, two years ago, something happened at bunk 3 Gimel bunk... " he said in his January 2000 ruling. But Labuda concluded that trial testimony "does not create a clear picture for this court of exactly what happened in Gimel bunk nor who did it."
He found Weiner not guilty.