By Elli Wohlgelernter (Jewish Daily Forward)
August 22, 2003
JERUSALEM — A charismatic, American-born rabbi and educator accused of sexually molesting his yeshiva students over a 25-year period failed to appear at a rabbinical court hearing convened to consider the accusations last week.
The no-show by the educator, Rabbi Matis Weinberg, prompted expressions of outrage from several of his alleged victims, who called it the latest in a long series of steps by Weinberg to avoid an inquiry into his conduct. One accuser said he was close to a decision to bring the case to the secular authorities.
But the head of the rabbinical tribunal, Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch, said he was unperturbed by Weinberg’s failure to appear, and voiced confidence that Weinberg would cooperate after he returned from a visit to the United States. “A person can go to America when he wants,” Shternbuch said. “Why should we be surprised? I hear he goes every year.”
The case against Weinberg comes at a time of acute sensitivity within the Orthodox community over accusations of rabbis abusing minors — and in some cases enjoying the protection of a wall of silence put up by other Orthodox rabbis and Orthodox institutions.
One rabbi, Baruch Lanner, formerly a regional director of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, was sentenced last year in New Jersey to seven years in prison for abusing two teenage girls while serving as a yeshiva principal. He is currently free on appeal. A special commission appointed by the Orthodox Union, which sponsors the youth group, had concluded in a December 2000 report that Lanner had been abusing both girls and boys over two decades and that other union officials had known of the suspicions and covered them up.
Another rabbi, Israel Kestenbaum, pleaded guilty last week in a New York state court to attempting to disseminate indecent material to a minor and attempting to endanger the welfare of a child. Kestenbaum admitted that he sought sex with an e-mail pal named “Katie” in an Internet chat room called “I Love Older Men,” who he believed was a 13-year-old girl but turned out to be an NYPD detective. In a plea bargain, he was sentenced to five years’ probation and treatment in a sex offenders’ program.
Some Orthodox Jews say the cases are part of a pattern of abuse and cover-up. One Web site — www.theawarenesscenter.org — lists 42 cases of rabbis and cantors accused of abuse, and another 40 involving other trusted officials, including parents, teachers, camp counselors and others.
Responding to public anger, the main rabbinical body associated with the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America, adopted a resolution at its convention this past spring saying the organization is “committed to reporting acts or suspicions of child abuse as required by civil law.” The conference ordered a review of its own procedures for dealing with accusations of abuse, with a June 2004 deadline for developing new rules.
Weinberg, 56, a charismatic, Baltimore-born teacher, author and lecturer, is a member of a rabbinical family of near-legendary renown in Israel and the United States, descended from the Slonimer chasidic dynasty. Weinberg’s father Yaakov Weinberg was a dean of the respected Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore, and his uncle, Noach Weinberg, founded Aish HaTorah, a Jerusalem yeshiva and outreach organization with affiliates around the world.
The case against Weinberg dates back to the 1970s, when he was in his 20s and teaching at a school he founded in Santa Clara, Calif., the Kerem Yeshiva. Several former students have told similar stories of Weinberg engaging in elaborate demonstrations of physical affection, at times crossing over into seeming sexual overtures.
The California accusers began to come forward earlier this year, after similar accusations against Weinberg surfaced in Jerusalem, prompting the New York-based Yeshiva University to sever ties with a Jerusalem school where Weinberg was teaching. The Jerusalem school, Derech Etz Chaim, a post-high school boys’ academy, was founded five years ago by Weinberg’s former students.
Yeshiva University said it was terminating its association with the Jerusalem school because of “compelling evidence” of a history of alleged sexual abuse by Weinberg and cultlike behavior toward his students. The university made its findings known in a letter sent to parents of current Derech Etz Chaim students, following an international investigation in which the university concluded that maintaining its association with the Jerusalem academy would be “betraying the trust between Yeshiva University and its students.”
Weinberg immediately stopped teaching his once-weekly class at Derech Etz Chaim. The school has since filed a breach of contract lawsuit against Yeshiva University in U.S. District Court in New York, alleging that the university financially crippled the school by severing its ties.
But the university’s action opened the floodgates. Former students, knowing an Orthodox institution knew what they had experienced, were emboldened to come forward. Speaking to journalists, students described Weinberg over the years kissing their cheeks and necks “making these noises that one would make if eating something delicious or making love to a woman,” nibbling on their ears, and “embrac[ing] guys for longer than what would be considered a friendship hug,” according to alleged victims who spoke on condition of anonymity.
One told how Weinberg had called him into his room and started unbuttoning his shirt, kissing his chest, unbuttoning his pants and fondling him. Another told how Weinberg had come into his dorm room and hugged him, and then put his hand inside his robe and fondled him.
Weinberg has denied any kind of abuse, but has admitted that he once slapped a boy wearing braces in the mouth so hard that it drew blood, while the whole student body looked on. He also acknowledged that he had once extinguished a burnt cigarette in the palm of a student’s hand.
As for his alleged sexual contact with students, Weinberg maintains that while he was physically demonstrative to his students, often hugging them, it was never in a sexual way. “I don’t get a hard-on” from such encounters, Weinberg told an interviewer this year.
Some of the alleged victims said they had tried to report what had happened to other rabbis at the school, but were ignored, or told it wasn’t true. Others said they stayed silent, either because they were overwhelmed by Weinberg’s personality and position, or because they were ashamed.
The flood of accusations led to the convening in New York in May of a rabbinical tribunal, comprising Rabbis Shmuel Kaminetsky of Philadelphia, Feivel Cohen of Brooklyn and Moshe Hauer of Baltimore, who heard testimony from several students. The rabbis referred the case and provided transcripts to the rabbinical court of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community.
The Jerusalem court ordered a hearing on August 14, summoning Weinberg and two of his accusers to appear. However, the court learned on the day of the hearing that Weinberg had left for America without informing them, said the court’s head, Shternbuch.
Shternbuch said he would reconvene the panel “immediately, right away” after Weinberg returned to Israel, which he had been told would be the end of August.
But one alleged victim who appeared for the court hearing expressed outrage at the latest delay in the case against Weinberg. “They are assuming that he’s cooperating with them. I feel he’s taking advantage of them,” said the alleged victim, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He’s playing with them. My feeling is that with all the time that’s gone by, if there is no immediate progress, that we will turn to the secular courts. Our objective is to protect the innocent boys who have anything to do with Matis, and we are willing to do everything we have to, take any legal means possible, to achieve that end.”
Weinberg’s case appears similar in some respects to Lanner, an admired educator whose success with disaffected youth gave him a charismatic aura that discouraged accusers. Lanner was said to have abused both boys and girls over a period of 20 years, but to have escaped punishment because of the refusal of colleagues and superiors to believe his accusers. His case was brought to light in a press exposé in June 2000, leading to a furor among Orthodox Jews.
The resolution by the RCA is the first of its kind in North America’s Modern Orthodox community, and signifies a growing attentiveness and hypersensitivity to sexual misconduct in the Orthodox community that until a few years ago would have been unmentionable.
“Events of the past have proven, to our great dismay, that organizations and individuals have not always dealt with these incidents in the best possible way,” the resolution said. “The Rabbinical Council of America recommits itself to fulfilling its responsibility for the welfare of the members of the Jewish community at large and the general community as well, especially to those who have been victims or who claim to be victims of an act of sexual, physical or emotional violence, abuse or impropriety.”