NEW YORK (JTA) — Sitting at the front of a large room lined floor to ceiling with Jewish holy books, Rabbi Joseph Beyda’s voice broke as he processed, seemingly in real time, the idea that a trusted teacher had preyed on his students.
“I think the overarching feeling of the administrators and the faculty and the board of the school is, we know you trust us, we take that trust very deeply, we dedicate our lives to it, we failed on this,” said Beyda, the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush’s Joel Braverman High School. “You could say it’s not our fault, but we feel like we failed.”
Beyda was speaking Wednesday night at a forum for parents and alumni at the Brooklyn high school that was called in the wake of last week’s arrest of Rabbi Jonathan Skolnick, a former teacher charged with soliciting naked photos of students for years, going back to at least 2012. An FBI special agent sitting to Beyda’s left confirmed the rabbi’s assertion: There was no way for the school to have known what Skolnick was doing.
“This is a man who hid in plain sight,” said the agent, Aaron Spivack. “There is nothing this school could have done. There’s nothing that anybody could have done. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, if you want to use that analogy. Predators are predators for a reason. They find ways to be predators.”
Skolnick, who moved last year to an administrative position at SAR Academy, another Orthodox school in New York City, was arrested Friday night by the FBI and charged with the production, receipt and possession of child pornography and child enticement. He was immediately fired by SAR. He had taught at Flatbush from 2012 to 2018.
Days after the arrest, which came only weeks into a new school year, parents, faculty and administration are still in shock. They want to know if there is any way to prevent this in the future, what to tell their kids and how to encourage them to talk about any abuse by Skolnick. SAR also held an open meeting for parents to speak with an FBI representative and school administrators.
“It’s just very sad that it took a long time until this came out in the open,” said the grandmother of one of Skolnick’s students, who declined to give her name for fear of being publicly linked to the scandal. “But it’s understandable because people are reluctant to expose such incidents. It’s sad, and I know he was a good teacher, he had a good reputation. My granddaughter and her friends, they were shocked.”
At the Flatbush forum, Spivack reviewed the FBI investigation of Skolnick’s alleged crimes. The rabbi is accused of posing as a teenage girl online and soliciting underage boys to send him explicit photos. At least one boy complied, and Skolnick threatened to release them publicly after the boy said he wouldn’t send more. Spivack said there is no evidence at this time suggesting that Skolnick inappropriately touched students or distributed the photos.
According to the FBI’s criminal complaint, Skolnick admitted that he had requested explicit photos from 20 to 25 people, most of them children. Beyda said he believes that many Flatbush students were solicited.
“The number is really high,” the principal said. “And it’s not going to be surprising to be greater than 100, and maybe more than that.”
Both SAR and Flatbush have policies governing the reporting of sexual harassment, teacher communication with students and the boundaries of teacher behavior with students. SAR conducted a background check before Skolnick was hired that came up clean, as did an FBI check. Beyda said Flatbush has an extensive interview and reference-checking process, and now does criminal background checks as well.
Advocates for preventing sexual abuse in the Jewish community said that the key for schools is to recognize and prevent what are called “grooming” behaviors — actions such as inviting kids over for sleepovers or luring them to secluded spaces — that lay the groundwork for abuse.
“If you see a rebbe insisting that a child spend Shabbos at his house without any other supervision there, that’s a red flag,” said Asher Lovy, the director of community organizing for Zaakah, which combats child sex abuse in the Orthodox community.
Joel Avrunin, the parent of a child who allegedly was sexually abused by a rabbi at a Jewish camp in Maryland, said that schools should hire an external firm to investigate Skolnick’s behavior and the school’s response to it. That’s what SAR did following revelations that Stanley Rosenfeld, an assistant principal at SAR in the 1970s who later taught English there, had abused students.
“What are the schools doing to find out the extent of his involvement with children?” Avrunin asked. “I’d like to see any school first hire an outside investigator. Who did he have contact with and what anti-grooming policies did the schools have in place?”
SAR did not respond to a JTA request for comment.