Sexual abuse in the world of Orthodox Judaism
In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”
“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.
Jay Goldberg, who attended Yeshiva from 1980 to 1984, says that he endured years of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse from Finkelstein. The rabbi, he said, forced him and others to wrestle with him while he became sexually aroused, and demanded that they hit him repeatedly. Neither Goldberg nor Singer ever reported Finkelstein’s behavior to the school; when one student, identified in a future lawsuit as John Doe 14, finally did, in 1986, Finkelstein allegedly pulled him out of class in a rage, shoved him against a wall, punched him, and threatened him with expulsion. The school took no action during those years other than removing Finkelstein’s office door. In 1991, he was promoted to principal.
During those same decades, another Yeshiva rabbi, Macy Gordon, was also reportedly sexually abusing students. One accuser, identified in the lawsuit as John Doe 2, claims that Gordon sodomized him in his dorm room in 1980. The rabbi “said he was going to punish me for missing class,” the accuser told me. “He laid me across his lap and took my toothbrush and plowed it in and out of my rectum, and it burned. I remember it burned for a very long time after. I can’t go back in time and tell you what I was thinking, but I can only tell you that it lasts forever.” He told me that Gordon also sprayed Chloraseptic on his genitals, remarking that he showed “signs,” by which Gordon meant signs of puberty. Later that year, John Doe 2 tried to kill himself.
In total, Finkelstein and Gordon are suspected of hundreds of acts of sexual abuse at Yeshiva, though they never faced any legal repercussions. Finkelstein was discreetly forced out of Yeshiva in 1995 but quickly found work as the dean of a Jewish day school in Florida and later as the director general of the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, although allegations of abuse followed him to each of these new positions.
Gordon, for his part, enjoyed a thirty-plus-year career at Yeshiva. He also eventually moved to Jerusalem, where, according to the New York Times, he served alongside Finkelstein on the advisory board of the National Council of Young Israel, an organization promoting Orthodox Judaism to liberal American Jews. (The current president of the organization claims that neither rabbi had been involved with the group “to my knowledge.”) In 2002, Dr. Jonathan Zizmor—a celebrity dermatologist whose advertisements were a staple of New York City subway cars for decades—set up a $250,000 scholarship fund in Gordon’s name for future generations of Yeshiva students. (Zizmor claims he knew nothing of the abuse at the time, and when allegations surfaced, he maintained that Gordon was “a great teacher, a great man.”)
In 2013, thirty-four of Finkelstein’s and Gordon’s victims—including Singer, Goldberg, John Doe 14, and John Doe 2—filed a $680 million lawsuit against Yeshiva, alleging that sexual misconduct occurred for decades with the knowledge of the administration and without recourse for victims or punishment for the perpetrators. But by the time the suit was filed, the statute of limitations had expired, and the case was dismissed.
This past February, however, the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, signed the Child Victims Act (C.V.A.), which modifies the state’s statute of limitations such that many cases previously dismissed because of the length of time since the alleged crime can now be relitigated. As of this writing, attorneys for the former Yeshiva students—now numbering forty-one—planned to refile the lawsuit with new evidence on August 14, the day the law was scheduled to go into effect. Their hope, one of the attorneys, Michael Dowd, told me, is for Yeshiva to “finally be held accountable for their craven, repugnant, and unconscionable behavior in letting known sexual predators have unfettered access to scores of innocent and unsuspecting boys.” But even if they succeed, it’s far from certain whether the C.V.A. will be able to fundamentally change the culture of secrets and lies that has given rise to scandals such as the one at Yeshiva in the first place.
Stories of abusive Catholic priests are commonplace, but a similar, less publicly familiar crisis has also been unfolding in certain Orthodox Jewish communities—particularly in New York—over the past several decades. Like their Catholic counterparts, rabbis accused of sexually assaulting minors or shielding other predators have been protected and transferred in order to save the reputations and financial well-being of the religious institutions they serve. Some of these institutions, such as Yeshiva, are aligned with the mainstream of Orthodox Judaism, while others are affiliated with ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, traditions. Given the insularity and secrecy that characterize Haredi life, there are few reliable statistics about just how prevalent the problem is. Ben Hirsch, the cofounder of Survivors for Justice, an organization that advocates for victims of sexual abuse in Orthodox communities, suggested that the rate of abuse could exceed 50 percent for boys within Hasidic enclaves. (Hasidism is a movement within Haredi Judaism particularly common in New York.) Across Orthodox Judaism as a whole, a 2018 study by Harvard psychologist David H. Rosmarin found that among formerly Orthodox individuals, rates of abuse were nearly twice the national estimate for both boys and girls.
Getting the full scope of the problem, particularly among the ultra-Orthodox, is close to impossible. Part of the reason for the lack of dependable data is the concept of mesirah—a violation of rabbinical law in which one Jew reports another for a crime to nonreligious, civil authorities. The roots of mesirah go back to the days of ancient Roman rule, but the prohibition was especially prominent during the Middle Ages, when Jews were being hunted and persecuted by anti-Semitic gentile authorities in Europe and parts of the Middle East.
Today, the notion of mesirah persists within ultra-Orthodox sects and has been used to frighten victims of sexual assault, as well as their families, into remaining silent. One victim, who chose to remain anonymous, described to me being sexually assaulted at the age of nine by a seventeen-year-old named Stefan Colmer in the New Jersey home of Rabbi Yosef Carlebach, the chaplain of several medical centers and the New Jersey State Police, and the executive director of Rutgers Chabad House. The rabbi’s son walked in on the incident and reported it to his father, but Carlebach refused to contact the police and instead pressured the victim’s family into keeping quiet about it. “I would have been his last victim,” he told me of Colmer, who has since been convicted of sexually abusing two thirteen-year-old boys. (A spokesperson for Rabbi Carlebach told me that “in hindsight, Rabbi Carlebach believes he might have handled the situation differently. But this was twenty-six years ago. Everyone did what they thought was right at the time.”)
When abuse is actually reported to internal religious institutions, the allegations are frequently dismissed out of hand. According to one Hasidic rabbi I spoke with, “The attitude is, ‘minors before bar mitzvah are considered not trustworthy, so why should we believe them?’ ” Other times, making an accusation of sexual assault can result in ostracism by the community, even financial ruin. “The schools in the ultra-Orthodox world have connections to each other,” Hirsch explained. “Students can’t go from one school to another without clearances from previous schools. If the school bad-mouths a student, they will not be accepted—no high school, no higher education.”
Not only can accusers be denied the opportunity to make a living, they can be prevented from establishing their own family. “The first threat is always marriage,” said Hirsch. “The schools have tremendous power, so in a community where arranged marriages are the norm, the threat that ‘you are not going to ever get married if you open your mouth’ is very intimidating.”
Compounding these problems is the fact that many young people are unaware that they’re being sexually abused in the first place. Particularly among the ultra-Orthodox, children and teenagers are kept isolated from the opposite sex and are denied access to popular culture—TV, internet, radio—through which other American kids often begin to learn about sex. “It’s designed to keep them apart,” one advocate told me. “They are worried about all outside information filtering in. I tell you, it’s North Korea!” There is no formal sex education in ultra-Orthodox schools, and even when one is old enough to meet a potential spouse—chosen by a matchmaker—physical contact is forbidden, and all encounters take place in a rigidly controlled environment, usually in the company of the woman’s family. When one’s sexual education begins at marriage, can one reasonably be expected to identify sexually abusive behavior as a child?
In the rare cases in which victims are both able to recognize abuse and willing to brave the ire of the community by committing mesirah, they often find themselves stonewalled by the legal system. In New York, politically ambitious prosecutors fear alienating the Orthodox voting bloc—some 493,000 people in the New York metro area. The result is that the vast majority of cases never go to trial because they are never reported, and when they are, charges are often not filed. As one former detective told Newsday, “In Brooklyn, it almost seemed like there were two penal codes, one for the Hasidic community and one for everyone else.”1 In most instances, the accusers end up deprived of justice, doomed to suffer the punishments meted out by their community.
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