By Paul Berger (Jewish Daily Forward)
December 13, 2012
A Forward investigation into allegations that two staff members at Yeshiva University High School for Boys’ Manhattan campus sexually abused students during the late 1970s and early ’80s has led to a startling admission by the university’s chancellor: The school dealt with allegations of “improper sexual activity” against staff members by quietly allowing them to leave and find jobs elsewhere.
For years, former students have asked Y.U., the premier educational institution of Modern Orthodox Judaism, to investigate their claims that a former principal had repeatedly abused students in the all-male high school that is part of the university. Another former high school student said Y.U. covered up for a staff member who sodomized him.
Y.U. President Richard Joel said in a statement issued on December 3 that the school was “looking with concern into the questions” the Forward had raised.
But Norman Lamm, who was president of Y.U. from 1976 to 2003 and is now chancellor, indicated in an interview December 7 that he knew about some of the allegations and chose to deal with them privately. In one case, a suspected abuser of high school students was allowed to leave for a position as dean of a Florida school.
No law enforcement officials were ever notified, despite “charges of improper sexual activity” made against staff “not only at [Y.U.’s] high school and college, but also in [the] graduate school,” Lamm said. “If it was an open-and-shut case, I just let [the staff member] go quietly. It was not our intention or position to destroy a person without further inquiry.”
Asked whether in the case of staff assaulting minors the abuse should have been reported to police, Lamm said. “My question was not whether to report to police but to ask the person to leave the job.”
Lamm would not reveal names of the staff members involved. But he stressed that the incidents took place at a time before abuse scandals involving Catholic clergy or schools such as Penn State University, when institutions were ignorant of how to deal with such allegations. “This was before things of this sort had attained a certain notoriety,” Lamm said. “There was a great deal of confusion.”
Lamm was speaking following a Forward investigation into allegations of sexual assault committed at Y.U. high school’s Washington Heights campus by a former Talmud teacher, Rabbi Macy Gordon, and by former principal Rabbi George Finkelstein.
Both men, who currently live in Israel, deny the allegations against them.
Lamm said he had no recollection of accusations made against Gordon, who served at the school for 28 years. But he did remember that Finkelstein was forced out of Y.U.’s high school in 1995 following accusations that he had inappropriate contact with students by wrestling with them in a high school office. Finkelstein, who worked at Y.U. for 27 years, subsequently took a post as dean of the Samuel Scheck Hillel Community Day School, in North Miami Beach, Fla. In 2001, he immigrated to Israel where he became executive director of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, where he served until stepping aside in November to become the synagogue’s ritual director.
“When [the wrestling] came up, [Finkelstein] had decided to leave because he knew we were going to ask him to leave,” said Lamm, who at 85 is a revered scholar, rabbi and communal leader. Asked why the university did not inform the Florida school about Finkelstein’s behavior, Lamm said: “The responsibility of a school in hiring someone is to check with the previous job. No one checked with me about George.”
Y.U., a 116-year-old institution, is perhaps the pre-eminent institution of Modern Orthodoxy, blazing a trail for Joseph Soloveitchik’s vision of “Torah Umadda,” or “Torah and secular knowledge,” the university motto. It includes several undergraduate and graduate schools, such as the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, as well as affiliated institutions such as the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy Yeshiva University High School for Boys.
The very reverence with which the university and its staff is held by so many families made it all the more difficult for students to come forward with allegations of abuse.
One man interviewed by the Forward who asked not to be named said that in 1980, when he was a 16-year-old student at Y.U.’s high school, Gordon visited him in his dorm room after he skipped class.
“I don’t really remember exactly how it happened, but he [Gordon] wound up looking to see where I was developing physically,” the man, now 48, recalled.
Gordon went through the boy’s medicine cabinet and pulled out a bottle of Chloraseptic. He pulled back the boy’s bathrobe again and told him, “You have simanim [signs],” and sprayed Chloraseptic on the boy’s pubic hair. He then sodomized the boy with a toothbrush.
The man’s father, who also did not wish to be named, said he did not report the incident to police because he did not want to hurt his son or to damage Y.U.’s reputation. But the family did lodge an official complaint with the school.
The man’s father said he trusted that Israel Miller, a senior vice president of Y.U. in 1980 who died in 2002, would deal with his son’s complaint. “We had a lot of ties to Y.U., our family has a lot of ties to Y.U.,” the father said, “and at that point we also felt that this kind of exposé would not do [our son] any good, either.”
The man and his father said that Miller took detailed notes on the incident and promised that Y.U. would take care of the matter. Instead, Gordon was allowed to stay on staff and to retire a few years later without a blemish on his record.
The man said he does not blame his parents, who were only concerned with protecting him. But he said he does blame Y.U., which appeared only to be concerned with protecting itself.
“When the institution is more important than the people, then what’s the point of the institution anyway?” the man said. “It’s too late for justice, but it would be interesting to see some of this come to light.”
Since moving to Israel in 1985 after divorcing his wife, Gordon has spent much of his working life as a senior officer at the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Jerusalem. Both Gordon and Finkelstein serve as advisory board members to the council, an affiliate of the American-based, right-leaning Modern Orthodox organization.
The Forward spoke to Gordon on November 28 at the Orthodox Union’s Israel Center, in Jerusalem, where he had just completed a lecture on the laws of Sabbath observance.
Gordon said that he had heard “various forms of [the sodomy accusation] before” but had “no recollection of such a thing.”
Asked if he had ever behaved inappropriately with students, Gordon said: “It depends on how you define ‘inappropriate.’ I would occasionally embrace the students, specifically if he (sic) was depressed… I think any teacher would do that. No, there was no inappropriate conduct.”
Asked whether there was any contact that could be defined as sexual between him and students, Gordon replied, “I don’t think so.” Pressed on his response, he said, “To the best of my memory there was not.”
Gordon said that he stopped teaching at Y.U. High School in 1984 and was placed on a one-year leave of absence until 1985 so that his children, who were on scholarships, could maintain benefits as offspring of a faculty member. He said that he left Y.U. as well as his post as a pulpit rabbi in Teaneck, N.J., because of his divorce, not because of any allegations of abuse.
He added that his personal circumstances were known to Lamm, who “okayed everything.”
Lamm said that he had no recollection of the details concerning Gordon’s departure.
The Forward has spoken to three men who say Finkelstein invited them into an office at Y.U. High School or to his home, where he told them to hit him and wrestle with him. The men recalled the overpowering smell of Old Spice cologne as, pinned to the floor, they felt Finkelstein’s erect penis brush up against them. Finkelstein also tried to kiss some students and told them that he loved them.
“He was unfit to be an educator on any level,” said Simeon Weber, a former Y.U. High School student who lived in a dorm at the school’s Washington Heights campus during the late 1970s and who said he was forced to wrestle with Finkelstein.
“I would sleep over [at Finkelstein’s house], and he would say to his wife, ‘Fredda, Simmy and I, we’re going to knock heads.’ Then, he would lock the door and wrestle with me,” Weber said.
“You could tell what was going on in his pants,” Weber added. “It wasn’t just a wrestling match.”
After Weber left Y.U. High School, he heard that Finkelstein had been promoted to principal from assistant principal. So he took his allegations against Finkelstein to Lamm. But Weber said Lamm refused to act.
“Everybody knew [Finkelstein] wrestled with boys,” Weber added. “Nobody cared.”
High school staff members also knew of Finkelstein’s wrestling habit. Elan Adler, director of the school’s dormitory from 1981 to 1986, said at least a couple of boys told him that “Rabbi Finkelstein would wrestle them sometimes,” and that “he would sometimes be inappropriately aggressive.”
Asked to explain what “inappropriately aggressive” meant, Adler said, “They talked about his hands on private places, but they weren’t sure what to make of it; when you wrestle, hands go everywhere.”
Adler, who described Finkelstein as “a decent, caring and competent person,” said the boys’ comments about Finkelstein’s wrestling were made during routine discussions about what students had done that weekend, which were common in his role as director of the dormitory.
“I don’t recall… anyone complaining per se or asking for advice, or any parent calling and asking any questions or bring[ing] up the subject,” Adler said. “I didn’t report anything, as there was nothing compelling to report.”
Over the years, former Y.U. High School students have detailed what they say is Finkelstein’s inappropriate behavior on websites and blogs. Earlier this year, galvanized by the unraveling abuse and cover-up scandal at Penn State University, Mordechai Twersky, a journalist in Israel, published a call for Y.U. to come to terms with its past in Y.U.’s unofficial online student newspaper, The Beacon. Twersky recounted how an unnamed “associate principal” used to wrestle students “to the ground against their will and pin his stimulated body over theirs.”
Twersky, who ran Y.U.’s high school newspaper and went on to work in the university’s publicity department, is the son of Avram Twersky, a leading Modern Orthodox communal leader in the Bronx for four decades.
“That both perpetrator and victim were fully-clothed, that there was no sexual penetration, does not make this violation, this searing betrayal, any less blasphemous,” Twersky wrote in The Beacon. He told the Forward that he was assaulted twice at Y.U. High School and once at Finkelstein’s home.
Two weeks later, the man who says he was attacked by Gordon published an anonymous letter in The Beacon, lamenting that Gordon had been able to retire without any recriminations.
Yet Y.U. officials today appear to be treating the Forward’s inquiries about accusations against both men as though they have only just heard of them.
Twersky says that is impossible. He said that he first complained about Finkelstein’s inappropriate wrestling to Lamm in 1986.
Twersky said he contacted Lamm again in 2000 after the Orthodox world was rocked by a scandal involving Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a leader of the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth who was outed by the New York Jewish Week newspaper for emotionally and physically abusing boys and girls. A wide-ranging investigation commissioned by the O.U. found that its own officials knew of the allegations against Lanner for years yet did nothing to stop him.
Shocked by the parallels between the Lanner scandal and Y.U.’s failure to act against Finkelstein, Twersky said he sent Lamm a long email in August 2000, asking for compensation and threatening legal action. Lamm said he has no recollection of that email.
Twersky said that several weeks after he sent the email, Y.U.’s vice president, Miller, visited him in Israel. According to Twersky, Miller told him that Y.U. was aware of Finkelstein’s behavior. But, Miller said, experts had assured Y.U. that Finkelstein could be treated and remain in his position.
Miller told Twersky that Lamm was prepared to issue an off-the-record apology but Twersky would receive no financial compensation. If Twersky were to commence legal action, “it would not be good for you, and it would not be good for Yeshiva,” Miller said, according to Twersky.
Later that year, Twersky said he had a friendly 20-minute conversation with Richard Joel, then the president of Hillel, about Finkelstein.
Joel led the O.U. investigation into the Lanner scandal, which found that the O.U. leaders had made “profound errors in judgment.” When Joel was appointed president of Y.U. shortly afterward, Twersky said, he sent Joel an angry email about Finkelstein but he received no reply.
Joel declined to respond to these assertions.
Lamm appeared to struggle for words when discussing the allegations against Finkelstein. He said that his knowledge of Finkelstein’s behavior was not “quite as graphic” as details recounted to the Forward and that as far as he was aware, Finkelstein had done “nothing that crossed a red line.”
When asked to clarify what he knew about the allegations against Finkelstein, Lamm replied: “The fact that he… he was not just wrestling, but it was actually… you know, what you said. That was not told to me. And not every complaint has to be assumed to be 100% accurate.”
Lamm said that anytime he had to dismiss a member of staff — of which there were “quite a number of cases” — he gave the job of investigating allegations to his vice president, Miller. “I had to trust people doing a job, and [I] had a great deal of trust in Izzy Miller,” Lamm said.
Reached at his Jerusalem home, Finkelstein admitted that he did “play fight as a way of trying to remove the distance between students and faculty.” But, he said, “there was never any sexual anything that was involved.” He added: “In retrospect it was wrong, but that’s what the boys did with each other.”
“The thought that such behavior may have occurred at our boys high school, or anywhere at this institution, at any time in its past is more than sufficient reason to express on behalf of the university my deepest, most profound regret,” Joel said.
Although Joel told the Forward on December 3 that he was looking into the abuse allegations, Lamm said on December 7 that no one from Y.U. had yet contacted him to ask about them.
Besides, Lamm said, during the period many of the assaults are alleged to have taken place, about 30 years ago, he was preoccupied by the university’s dire financial state. “The question of homosexual relations by teachers or principals… was not that clear, and it was not that significant relative to other things that we were dealing with” at the time, Lamm said.
“We were a sinking ship,” he added. “We were very close to going into bankruptcy, and these were matters that occupied a great deal of my time.”
Asked whether Y.U. made a mistake by not reporting abuses to the authorities, Lamm replied: “We are all human. Show me anyone who is a human being who has not made a mistake.”
But decades later, some former Y.U. High School students remain deeply hurt. Twersky called the lengthy Y.U. statement “empty words.”
“It is clearly disingenuous,” Twersky said. “It’s understandable from an institution that cannot afford to be sued right now and does not want this to blow up… but I also find it offensive.”
The man who said Gordon abused him called Y.U.’s statement “a bland, calculated, defensive response that does not acknowledge past wrongs.”
He also noted that Y.U. later established a scholarship in Gordon’s name.
“As long as the Macy Gordon scholarship exists it will be … a stain on Y.U.,” the man said.
Nathan Jeffay contributed reporting from Jerusalem