By Christopher Alessi and Nathania Zevi
December 21, 2009
In Brooklyn's ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, the rabbinical leadership's muted response to a wave of sexual abuse allegations has come under increasing scrutiny.
The problem of sexual abuse by rabbis and yeshiva teachers against children has garnered much media attention in the last year. Twenty-six alleged molesters were arrested–8 of them convicted–throughout orthodox Brooklyn in the last year. Hundreds more children have been molested, mainly in Borough Park, according to reports in The New York Times, The Jewish Star, and The Jewish Week.
But many of the parents of those children–fearful of offending the powers that be and the possibility of being ostracized from a notoriously insular community–are not reporting these crimes to the police. They are keeping quiet because a Jewish law, Mesirah, states that a Jew cannot report a fellow Jew to the secular authorities. This law has been cited repeatedly by ultra-orthodox rabbis who do not want victims to report instances of sexual abuse to the police, but rather only to the rabbinical courts, called the Beth Din.
"It is the mentality of a community that is at stake," said Rabbi Yosef Blau, the Mashglach Ruchani, or spiritual supervisor, at Yeshiva University. Blau has spoken out against what he sees as an improper interpretation of Jewish law, but noted, "The community is not going to shift on a dime."
The ultra-orthodox world is facing a powerful and authoritative silence, and it remains unclear when–and exactly how–the pendulum will swing.
The 26 arrests in the past year stand in dramatic contrast to earlier years when the average was a mere two per year. The recent culmination of several decades-old child molestation cases helped to pave the way for this shift. In November 2007, Rabbi Avrohom Mondrowitz of Chicago was arrested in Israel pending extradition orders to the U.S., 24 years after having fled the U.S. in order to evade charges of child molestation in Borough Park. Mondrowitz, who was indicted on four counts of sodomy and eight counts of sexual abuse in the first-degree, still awaits extradition and has not been tried.
Mondrowitz moved to Borough Park in the late 1970s, where he worked as a rabbi and child psychologist, in addition to working as a consultant for the influential Jewish non-profit, Ohel Children's Home & Family Services. Up until 1984, when he fled to Israel, Mondrowitz allegedly molested dozens of young boys in the neighborhood, according to the indictment handed down by a Brooklyn grand jury. As a footnote, Blau notes that Mondrowitz "pretended to have many degrees" in psychology but was not formally trained. In all the time he was living in Brooklyn "nobody checked to see if his degrees were real," Blau said.
Another landmark case that came to a head recently was that of Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, a teacher at the prestigious Yeshiva-Mesivta Torah Temimah in Brooklyn, who was arrested in December 2006 on charges of child sexual abuse. David Framowitz attended the school in the early 1970s, when it was called Torah Vodaath. He came forward in 2003, claiming to have been one of Kolko's first victims. Framowitz filed a civil suit against the school, ultimately forcing Kolko to resign his post at the yeshiva. A wave of additional accusations followed, leading to Kolko's arrest.
In 2008, The Jewish Week reported that prosecutors at the Brooklyn District Attorney's office allegedly "talked the families of the victims into not pursuing further action after a plea bargain was negotiated." Kolko, who made no admission of sexual abuse, pleaded guilty to two lesser counts of child endangerment. He was sentenced to three years' probation, with no jail time. The DA's office declined to comment for this article.
Some victims, meanwhile, say they are thwarted in their quest for justice. Mark Weiss, 43, currently lives in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood in New Jersey. He grew up in Chicago where he first met Rabbi Mondrowitz, who was a family friend. In 1980, his father, a respected yeshiva teacher, sent Weiss, then 13, to Borough Park to spend a week with Mondrowitz in order to refocus the boy on Judaism. Weiss found Mondrowitz to be "very charming," though he explains that it became "complicated at night when it was time to go to bed." While Weiss says it is now clear to him that Mondrowitz sexually molested him, he had not fully understood what was happening at the time. Then, when he was 18, he had an encounter with Mondrowitz in a Chicago synagogue. "It hit me like a ton of bricks, what had happened," Weiss said of the sighting. After this revelation, he told his parents about the abuse.
But, despite his parents' disappointment, he says, they were reluctant to accuse such a respected member of the community. This was the case with many of Mondrowtiz's victims in the Jewish community who were loath to challenge the rabbinical establishment, Blau explained. But, as a self-declared psychologist in Borough Park, Mondrowitz had also interacted with other children in the neighborhood, including the sizable population of Italian-Americans that used to reside there. "The Italian kids would go to the police [if molested]," Blau said, "the Jewish kids would not."
Guided by a fundamental interpretation of the law of Mesirah, orthodox Jews fear the consequences of speaking out. "Many feel that if anyone knows their kids were abused, then they won't be accepted to good yeshivas and won't obtain a good marriage partner," said Vicki Polin, executive director of The Awareness Center, Inc., an advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse in Baltimore. "People have, in the past, been chased out of the community," she said.
Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg is one example of a person who was ostracized for speaking out, in orthodox Williamsburg. In 2007, he set up a phone hot-line for abuse victims so that they could call in for counseling and support. When he tried to educate other rabbis in the neighborhood about sexual abuse, he says, he was essentially ex-communicated. That same year, many prominent rabbis throughout Brooklyn signed a rabbinical decree urging the members of the orthodox community not to associate with Rosenberg, according to Der Blatt, a Yiddish-language weekly newspaper based in Williamsburg. Rosenberg has said that he received death threats, and was allegedly wounded in the forehead by what may have been either a rock or a bullet.
"I am paying a high price for speaking out," Rosenberg said. "But, I was able to do it because I was working in a different industry and I had no political pressure" from the rabbinical establishment. He also works as an accountant in Manhattan.
Sympathy for Rosenberg within Brooklyn's orthodox community has been limited. Rabbi Aharon Fried, a professor at Stern College and resident of Borough Park, said of Rosenberg, "a person who calls himself a victim becomes a hero," adding that in his view, the child molestation issue "has been over-reported." In attempting to explain this mentality, Blau notes that, "Rosenberg is a traitor to the community in their eyes, while the guy who abused people was just a bad guy."
As a result, it takes years–even decades–for some people to be able to come forward and share their stories of abuse. Pinny Taub says he was molested in 1990. He only shared his story over a year ago, to advocates for abuse prevention, as increasing numbers of victims began going public. He grew up in Williamsburg and attended a yeshiva in Borough Park. When Taub was 15, he says, a teacher at his yeshiva befriended him and took the teenager under his wing. "He was a dream rebbe teacher, he was my buddy," Taub said. The teacher would take Taub to his house during school hours and let him smoke cigarettes, play on the computer, and talk about sex. It was during one of these midday outings that Taub says he first heard the phrase, "Just give me two minutes," as his teacher attempted to grab Taub's crotch.
He would hear this phrase repeatedly over the next year, he said. During these incidents, the teacher would become physically violent as he tried to pin Taub down. The first time this occurred the teenage boy's pants were ripped apart and he was left with choke marks around his neck. He was furious. Yet, despite his anger he continued to return, again and again, to his mentor and friend. "After a day, I would go back to him because I was lost," Taub recalled.
Today Taub, who has a wife and three children, is an outspoken advocate for sexually abused children. His former teacher, he says, still lives in Borough Park. While Taub and the teacher have not spoken in almost two decades, the sight of his old mentor continues to invoke a deep and unresolved anger. In August, Taub ran into him at a wedding. Before the teacher could even enter the wedding venue, Taub dragged him outside and began to beat him. Taub knocked him to the ground, kicking and cursing at the elderly man, he says, while other bystanders looked on. "People said that he deserved it, that he should be kicked out" of the community, Taub said. But he remains frustrated because, he says, the community has done nothing to remove the former teacher and many others like him.
Nonetheless, advocates like Taub and Weiss continue to push back, encouraging victims of sexual abuse to go to the police. Bloggers, including the "Unorthodox Jew" (UOJ) and "Failed Messiah," have been instrumental on this front. Paul Mendolwitz, the UOJ blogger who has tried to protect himself by keeping his identity secret on his blog, was the first to break the Kolko case. Since then, he has remained a constant critic of those in the community unwilling to speak out against abuse. "The blogs were very, very helpful," said Rabbi Mark Dratch, the founder of an advocacy group called J-Safe, who believes that the community is being forced to "open up."
In 2006, Mendolwitz also broke Rabbi Asher Lipner's story on his blog. Lipner, a Flatbush-based mental health professional and advocate for sexually abused children, says he was molested as a teenager by a rabbi at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore. Lipner had kept his story a secret for two decades. "I was afraid of being shamed, shaming my family, being disbelieved and having no support," he said. Even at the time that Lipner's story was revealed, he says, he was still nervous about backlash from within the orthodox world. Today, he says, he fights to erase the stigma of speaking out about issues of sexual abuse in the orthodox community, noting, "the potential damage is not nearly as bad as people think because of the taboo."
Lipner is also among those who are critical of Ohel, the Borough Park-based Jewish children's welfare organization, where he worked as a psychologist in the adolescent department and then in the outpatient clinic until last year. Advocates have accused Ohel of failing to encourage victims of abuse to report their cases to the secular authorities. For some, Ohel has remained too loyal to the rabbinical establishment. The blogger, Mendolwitz, says that Mondrowtiz – the rabbi being held in an Israeli prison–worked intimately with Ohel. Blau corroborates this claim, noting that Mondrowitz "served as a consultant" for Ohel for many years.
"Ohel knew he was a sex offender," Mendolwitz argued further. "They can't claim they didn't know." Additionally, Weiss, the victim from Chicago, claimed that the ultra-orthodox rabbinical leadership refers a lot of child patients to Ohel and as a result, "Ohel looks at the larger institutional structures before the victim."
Ohel is also a partner in the Brooklyn District Attorney's office's new sexual awareness program, Kol Tzedek, an arrangement that concerns some advocates despite the number of recent prosecutions. Jonah Bruno, a spokesman for the DA's office, could not be reached for comment.
Ohel's communications director, Derek Saker, who declined to speak in person, requested an e-mailed list of detailed questions from the Ink. This list included questions that asked Ohel to respond to accusations that the organization does not actively encourage victims of abuse to report these crimes to the police; how the organization teaches children to interpret the law of Mesirah; to address the organization's relationship with the rabbinical leadership of Brooklyn's ultra-orthodox community; and to respond to accusations that claim the organization was aware Mondrowitz was a sexual offender while he was working in conjunction with Ohel. Saker– who sent back what he termed an "advertorial" citing Ohel's commitment to fighting sexual abuse in the orthodox community–responded directly to only one question. "To the best of our knowledge, Avrohom Mondrowitz was never employed by Ohel," he wrote.
Dratch, meanwhile, is critical of Borough Park's assemblyman, Dov Hikind. Hikind has been an outspoken critic of sexual abuse in the neighborhood, and has been instrumental in providing support for victims in the community that want to share their stories. Yet, critics, like Dratch, believe he has not been forceful enough in encouraging these victims to report the crimes to the police. "By making it a public issue he has done a good job," Dratch said. Yet, he continued, "Hikind has also perpetrated the cover-up, which is very harmful."
Hikind counters that he tells victims they have "an option" to go to the police, but he emphasizes that it is a "personal choice" to do so, rather than an obligation. He also has deep reservations about providing the names of victims to the DA's office because he is afraid of alienating others who might come forward, who would not want their stories to be made public. (In a later interview, Hikind retracted these comments, insisting, "We encourage people to go the police, but most have already made up their minds.") Others assert that he does not provide the names to the DA's office so as not to undermine the rabbinical establishment, about which he is notably uncritical.
"I want to believe the rabbinical authorities just didn't know and understand this problem," Hikind said.