Lakewood Orthodox Jewish Leaders Want Abuse Accusations Addressed

by Zach Patbreg (Asbury Park Press)
August 25, 2010

One man's criminal accusation that a teacher molested his young son has widened the rift in the Orthodox Jewish community over where religious rights stop and the justice system begins.

Some inside the tight-knit enclave praised the child's father for bypassing religious protocols last year and reporting the alleged attack first to Ocean County prosecutors. Others believe he committed a sin because he failed to get permission from a rabbinic court before pressing charges against a fellow Jew.

"The first step is to go to rabbis,'' said Rabbi Shmuel Meir Katz, a senior Dayan, or decider of Jewish law. He teaches at Beth Medrash Govoha, a yeshiva in Lakewood that is one of the foremost Jewish universities in the world. "We have our own system. We have our own laws, and as long as the Bais Din (rabbinical tribunal) feels competent on taking care of something themselves, that's our surest recourse in our circles.''

At the center of the controversy are the criminal charges against Yosef Kolko, 36, a former camp counselor and local yeshiva teacher. At his arraignment Tuesday, Kolko pleaded not guilty to charges of aggravated sexual assault and child endangerment. The child was between 11 and 12 years old when the more than yearlong alleged abuse began in Lakewood, according to the indictment. The Asbury Park Press is withholding the father's name to protect the child's identity.

The case is a stark example of what Ocean County Prosecutor Marlene Lynch Ford described as a "wall of silence'' in the community that has made investigating crimes difficult.

The decision of the child's father to go immediately to authorities last year has sparked reprisals, according to prosecutors and witnesses. Attempts were made to pressure the father to drop the charges. Fliers about him were circulated. In June, a Lakewood resident was arrested and charged with witness-tampering.

Eight months ago, religious leaders and county law enforcement authorities pledged to work together to better prosecute crimes within the Orthodox community. Since then, more sex crimes in Lakewood have been reported, but there is no information if those cases came from inside or outside the Orthodox community.

But the Kolko case has exposed a strong undercurrent of resistance to outside involvement. A recent flier criticizing the father included a decree signed by prominent rabbis that discouraged cooperation with secular courts.

The case also has wrenched open a debate that few Orthodox Jews like to discuss and even fewer non-Jews understand: When does a distrust of outsiders brought on by centuries of persecution turn into interference with secular law? Orthodox leaders are split on the answer.

Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, a member of Lakewood's Vaad, or council of Jewish leaders, said in an e-mail that "as a policy, the Vaad strongly encourages victims to seek all the physical, emotional and legal resources that may be helpful to them for both healing and justice.'' He said he could not comment on specific cases.

On June 30, at a charity fundraiser in Lakewood, a flier was circulated with a letter titled "How [the child's father's name] Makes a Mockery of the Torah.'' It described the father's choice to go to prosecutors as a "terrible deed,'' according to a translation from Hebrew. It also threatened to publicize the names of his supporters if they don't "repent.''

"We hope that after tonight further letters will not be necessary,'' it stated. "However, let the perpetrators of this (shameful thing) know that ... we will not stop (until this horrible shame is removed from us).''

The letter includes the name of a Bronx rabbi, Abba Hershkowitz, and his phone number. It is otherwise unsigned. It could not be verified that Hershkowitz approved the letter.

Attached to the same flier was a proclamation signed by nine Lakewood rabbis that instructs people to bring allegations to a Bais Din rabbinical tribunal before alerting government authorities.

At this point, there is no evidence that the signers of the proclamation meant to have their names distributed with the letter.

The proclamation reads in part: "And if, in fact, he has transgressed and has gone so far as to bring the matter to the secular (nonreligious) courts, he is, perforce, obligated to do everything possible in order to remove any scintilla of accusation against the other party from the secular courts,'' it states, according to a translation by Rina Ne'eman Hebrew Language Services in New Brunswick paid for by the Press. "And it need not be stated that it is forbidden (for him) to continue to cooperate with them (secular courts) and to assist them in their efforts to pursue a Jew.''

The proclamation, dated in the spring of 2010, is signed by some of Lakewood's leading authorities on Jewish law, including heads of yeshivas and synagogues, Bais Din judges and two rabbis from the Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva.

Three rabbis confirmed they signed the proclamation but declined to say more. They were Avrohom Spitzer, a Dayan; Yosef Zimbal, a rabbi at Westgate Congregation; and Simcha Bunim Cohen, a rabbi at Congregation Ateres Yeshaya. Another, Rabbi Shmuel Katz, said he did not remember the exact contents of the decree but nonetheless repeated its philosophy.

"From the time we open our eyes in the morning, our religion tells us how to take care of this,'' he said.

Katz compared the religious and legal courts to the two houses of Congress. Batei Din, he said, offers a platform for cooler heads to prevail when dealing with emotional issues that may otherwise spark rash accusations and damage reputations.

While he put both systems on equal footing, Katz did say accusers should go to rabbis before the police. He added that if a rabbi were unsure of the answer or direction to proceed, he would be obligated to consult professionals.

When asked if that included going to law enforcement, Katz didn't specify.

"If somebody's engaging in devious activities, he (the consulted rabbi) should speak to an expert in those things,'' he said. "And if he doesn't know, he says he doesn't know.''

Such an internal system has previously raised concerns among child advocates and some Orthodox families who fear it can act as a gatekeeper in sex-abuse cases. Its lack of investigative skills and real judicial authority, they say, leave wide cracks through which pedophiles can, and have, slipped.

It's unclear if the letter and the signed proclamation were meant to be paired together. Still, both have raised questions among law enforcement officials. By state law, anyone who suspects child abuse is required to report it to authorities.

Ford, the Ocean County prosecutor, said she does not condone going to a rabbi first about a crime, as third-party delays can contaminate evidence and hinder investigations.

But, she said, sex crimes, more so than most offenses, often are reported to a confidant before law enforcement because of their sensitive nature. Ford said she recognizes this "reality'' as her office tries to "penetrate a wall of silence that has admittedly existed in the Orthodox community for many years.''

However, when people are ordered to first seek rabbinic permission, she said, "that clearly conflicts with the law.''

"And someone would not be insulated from liability or even prosecution if they fail to report to authorities reasonable suspicions,'' she said.

In the Kolko case, another man, Shaul Luban of Lakewood, was charged with witness-tampering. Prosecutors say he sent text messages that urged people to pressure the child's father to drop the charges.

The letter with Hershkowitz's name is in that same vein and is being investigated, said Assistant Prosecutor Lara Pierro, who is handling the Kolko case.

"When we receive word that there's pressure on the family, we pursue it,'' she said.

Messages seeking comment and left with Hershkowitz at the number listed on the letter and at the college in Riverdale, N.Y., where he works, were not returned.

However, a relative, Brooklyn Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, supported the position stated in the letter, saying "such behavior (as that of the victim's father) wouldn't be tolerated'' elsewhere. "When your child tells you something, you don't go straight to a prosecutor, you go to a Bais Din and let them examine the (evidence).''

Belsky, a rabbi at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn and a member of the Orthodox Union, a national Jewish lobby, said he has not seen the flier but claims "there's no evidence at all'' against Kolko.

Not all rabbinic leaders agree. Rabbi Dovid Cohen, an authority on Jewish law in Brooklyn, said he received a call not long ago. It was from a representative of the Orthodox community who asked if the Kolko allegation should be taken to prosecutors.

"Not only do I permit it, it is an obligation,'' he said he replied.

"There are others who disagree,'' Cohen said recently. "Those people aren't for molesters; they simply feel that there's a chance a person will be slandered. ... They feel it's not ethical to go to authorities until it's first verified by a Bais Din. That's where we differ.''

Cohen said he heard about the fliers in Lakewood after a social worker called and told him the father was "getting a lot of pressure.'' The father could not be reached for comment.

Rabbi Weisberg of the Vaad said he believes those who signed the proclamation were expressing themselves "as individuals and not as some organized body.''

Beth Medrash's CEO, Rabbi Aaron Kotler, said in an e-mail he objects "most strongly to the use of BMG's name in connection with any such proclamations.''

Among the changes Orthodox leaders pursued months ago to improve dialogue with the prosecutor's office was for the county to hire a liaison from the community to work with prosecutors. That has not happened because of local and county budget shortfalls.

"We can't even fill our vacancies, much less hire new people,'' Ford said.

Yet prosecutors stressed that inroads have been made, albeit slowly. They say many rabbis have recognized that to internalize cases and simply counsel perpetrators is not the answer.

Sgt. Colleen Lynch, a sex crimes investigator with the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office who grew up in Lakewood, said reporting has increased in the last year. Ford said sexual abuse cases from the Orthodox community were nonexistent three years ago.

Overall, 29 of the county's 125 sex crime cases since January have come out of Lakewood, Lynch said, though case data aren't broken down by cultures or religion.

"We don't know whether we are seeing all the cases or whether we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg,'' Ford said.

Ford likened Lakewood's progress to the "very proactive'' approach of her own religious authority, the Catholic Church, to correct cover-ups of child sex abuse by priests, after years of denial.

"I anticipate that the evolution of the development of handling these cases coming out of this special (Lakewood) community ... is something that will also evolve over time,'' she said.

Prosecutors point to the Kolko and Luban indictments as a case in point. But the community remains torn on the issue.

Rifts are seen even within congregations. In one crowded neighborhood, there is a synagogue where two rabbis preside.

One signed the decree instructing Jews to take allegations first to a rabbinical court.

The other is the alleged victim's father, who dismissed that approach and went straight to prosecutors.