Bloggers, MeToo, the CVA and the Ultra-Orthodox Community’s Sex Abuse Crisis that is too Widespread to Ignore

The Ultra-Orthodox Community’s Sex Abuse Crisis Has Finally Reached a Tipping Point

By Hella Winston; illustrated by Hunter French

Thanks to a new law, one of the most secretive and isolated subcultures in the United States is facing possible exposure.

Fourteen years ago, an anonymous blogger calling himself Un-Orthodox Jew (UOJ) lit a fuse in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world when he began posting sexual abuse allegations concerning a Brooklyn yeshiva teacher named Yehuda Kolko. As the blog’s hit counter climbed into the hundreds of thousands and the comments piled up, it became clear to anyone reading that Kolko’s alleged behavior spanned several decades and was not exactly a secret in his community. It had even been the subject of an inquiry by a religious court in the 1980s, a proceeding that reportedly was derailed by threats made by the head of the yeshiva where Kolko taught to the dozen or so people who had come forward to give testimony. (Among ultra-orthodox Jews, going to the police to “inform” (mesira) on another Jew was and largely remains taboo and can result in ostracization or worse.)

But until that day in 2005, nobody had ever discussed the details of the saga in a public forum.

One of the early comments on the blog came from a reader named David, who wrote, “I too was molested by Rabbi Yidi Kolko, both while a student in 7th and 8th grades… and during those same summers whilst a camper in Camp Agudah.” His full name, he would later reveal, was David Framowitz, and for some time he had been obsessively searching the internet for any mention of Kolko. Before closing his initial comment, he wrote, “It is about time that the wall of silence be torn down.”

Thanks to a law that took effect last month, Framowitz’s hope may finally be realized.

Early this year, in the wake of the explosion of the MeToo movement and a cascade of abuse allegations leveled against institutions from Hollywood to the Catholic Church, New York passed the Child Victims Act (CVA). In addition to extending the statute of limitations for civil suits and criminal charges, the law allows a survivor of child sex abuse to file a lawsuit within a one-year period that began on August 14, no matter their current age. The so-called “look-back window” is key when it comes to cases involving the ultra-Orthodox world because those most likely to sue are people who are no longer in the community and subject to pressure or intimidation by its members, which often means they are much older than the prior limit on child sex abuse cases: between the ages of 21 and 23.

According to Frum Follies blogger Yerachmiel Lopin, who writes about sex abuse in the Orthodox Jewish world and says he has been in contact with more than 100 abuse survivors over the past 10 years, fear of retaliation and becoming a social pariah deters many “inside the [Ultra-Orthodox] community who want to publicly expose abusers and have them face legal consequences.”

“An Orthodox Jew needs to live within walking distance of a synagogue,” he said. “There is no getting away from the ties, and the risks of having their children expelled from schools, losing their jobs, and being shunned by their neighbors and relatives. Even moving to another country doesn’t get you away, because the networks are international.”

Legal obstacles proved insurmountable during the initial push to expose Kolko. None of the victims appeared to be within New York’s statute of limitations to press criminal charges (before the victim’s 23rd birthday) or file civil suits (before 21 to sue an institution and before age 23 to sue a perpetrator). The activists did recruit a lawyer willing to take a gamble on a legal theory arguing that a climate rife with “concealment, intimidation, and misrepresentations” had prevented the victims from filing timely lawsuits. The attorney initially filed a lawsuit on behalf of two victims against Kolko and the yeshiva where he had taught for more than 30 years (other suits were subsequently filed).

 

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The Child Predators Who “Hide in Plain Sight” Grooming Children and the Days of Reckoning for Yeshivas

A view outside the Yeshivah of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Google Street View)

‘We feel like we failed’: How one Jewish school is processing the arrest of a teacher who preyed on children

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.

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The Protection of Accused Child Molesters – An Accused Rabbi Working With Kids, the Complacence of Toras Zev

Yeshiva Torah Temimah

Rabbi accused of molesting student in Brooklyn now heads NJ yeshiva

A rabbi once accused of sexually molesting a student in Brooklyn  is now a principal at a New Jersey yeshiva — which touts his “wisdom and experience” on its website, The Post has learned.

Rabbi Joel Falk is named by a former Yeshiva Torah Temimah student in a new lawsuit, one of the first against a rabbi under New York’s Child Victims Act.

Baruch Sandhaus, now 52, claims Falk “would inappropriately touch” his penis in 1980, shortly after he started ninth grade at age 13, according to the lawsuit.

Falk, 74, who still lives in Brooklyn, now serves as the principal of Hebrew studies at Toras Zev, a Lakewood, N.J. yeshiva.

Sandhaus, a Florida businessman, said he is horrified that Falk is working with boys.

“It is devastating for me to hear that Falk is still working at a yeshiva. This man should not be around kids. I don’t want any children to suffer the way I did,” Sandhaus told The Post.

While in the ninth grade, Sandhaus confided in Falk that he had been abused by fellow Rabbi Joel Kolko in elementary school. Falk spent time counseling the troubled teen — and then abused him as well, he alleges.

Sandhaus complained at the time to the Midwood yeshiva, but a dean warned the family to keep quiet about the allegations or he “could not guarantee the safety” of the boy and his siblings, he contends.

The yeshiva kept Falk as a rabbi and principal until 1989. He was never criminally charged.’

But it settled with two other former students who alleged abuse by Kolko, paying them a total $2.1 million in 2016, The Post reported. Sandhaus also names Kolko in his suit.

Reached at the Lakewood yeshiva, Falk refused to discuss the allegations, telling The Post, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to take this call.”

Sandhaus filed suit in Brooklyn Supreme Court under the Child Victims Act, which opened a one-year window for people of any age to seek damages against their alleged abusers, no matter how long ago the abuse happened.

Survivors for Justice, an NYC-based advocacy group, sent a copy of the lawsuit to the Lakewood yeshiva — and urged it to take precautions.

“It would be unfortunate if Toras Zev joined a long line of ultra-Orthodox yeshivas covering up allegations of child sex abuse and protecting the reputations of child molesters in their employ,” said spokesman Ben Hirsch.

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Penalties for Failure to Report Child Abuse -Maryland (and Wyoming)

LM is reposting the following article written by Joel Avrunin. The Avrunin family has been sued for defamation in conjunction with a report of abuse made by their son. They are currently litigating the matter in Federal Court. 

LM has been, for obvious reasons, following the Avrunin defamation case for some time; but has not posted anything about the lawsuit. There is most certainly a chilling effect on litigation.

We are reposting without permission of the author and, as always, will take down anything deemed to be a violation of copyright or inaccurate. Alternatively, we will correct any information if we become aware of inaccuracies or have some reason to believe that information we have been provided is faulty.  

Maryland Finally Enacts Penalties for Failure to Report Child Abuse

On April 18, 2019, Maryland took a big step towards protecting children when Governor Hogan signed a law creating criminal penalties for a mandated reporter who fails to report child sexual abuse. Mandatory reporting laws date back to the Child Abuse and Treatment Act (CAPTA) of 1974, and require certain people with knowledge of child abuse to report it to authorities. Until this 2019 legislation, Maryland was one of only two US states (the other being Wyoming) to have mandated reporting on the books, but have no criminal penalty failing to report child abuse. Imagine lowering the speed limit to save lives, but then having no tickets for speeding. A law with no penalty is no law at all. While past failure to report could result in civil liability for the person not reporting abuse immediately, Maryland House Bill 787 establishes criminal penalties. Versions of this bill have been proposed in Maryland for over 15 years, so the passage is a cause for celebration.

After my family was victimized in the state of Maryland by a member of the clergy, I learned that Maryland has some of the worst protections for sexual abuse survivors in the United States. Maryland police regularly ignore reports of rape, closing them as “unfounded” at nearly twice the rate in other states. When a victim pushes their case, police in Maryland force victims to sign waivers or recant entirely. And when a victim has the nerve to question the police, Maryland state attorneys are alleged to get aggressive not with sex abusers, but with abuse victims. Maryland also lacks strong anti-SLAPP laws to protect those who report abuse from being sued for defamation by their abusers. Even teachers indicated by CPS for abuse (but not prosecuted) get transferred from school to school, and only in 2018 did Maryland’s largest school system complete CPS background checks of teachers. If you like the beach, you move to Florida. If you like to ski, you move to Colorado.  Maryland’s legal environment makes it a sandy beach (or a powdery ski slope) for those who like to sexually abuse children. 

In fact, Maryland Delegate C.T. Wilson noted that Catholic priests seeking to escape punishment for abuse in Pennsylvania have been relocating to Maryland. Wilson plainly stated, “Maryland was a repository for bad actors because we had soft laws.”

The first big recent change to Maryland’s hostile environment to victims came in 2017 when Wilson sponsored a bill to expand the civil statute of limitations window from 25 to 38, understanding that it can take decades for abuse survivors to come forward. With a criminal justice system easy on sexual abuse, expanding the civil window is the next best step for victims to obtain justice.

The next big change came in 2018 when I had the honor and privilege to provide testimony to Annapolis in support of the Repeat Sexual Predator Prevention Act, being championed by Baltimore City States Attorney Marilyn Mosby. Prior to this act, in the rare circumstance police investigated sex crimes, and in the rarer circumstance charges were filed, the rules of evidence in Maryland prevented prosecutors from introducing evidence of other sexual crimes. Maryland’s rules prevented the introduction of patterns of sexually abusive behavior as evidence (including multiple victims). The 2018 law had languished in committee for years, being opposed by Jewish leadership, Catholic leadership, and criminal defense attorneys. Once it got out of committee, it passed, and Maryland took another big step towards protecting children and other victims of sexual abuse. However, the accompanying bill to establish criminal penalties for not reporting child abuse did not make it to a vote in 2018.

In 2019 Maryland took the next big step in victim protection, when the criminal penalties not only got a vote, but were signed into law.  I cannot find another article celebrating Governor Hogan signing this bill, and it is quite important in the battle to improve the law and make sure no other family goes through what my family has endured.

Maryland’s failure to report law previously did not address penalties for violations, only penalties for interfering in a report.  Maryland Family Law § 5-705.2 stated:

An individual may not intentionally prevent or interfere with the making of a report of suspected abuse or neglect as required by law. A person who violates this section is guilty of a misdemeanor and, on conviction, is subject to imprisonment not exceeding 5 years or a fine not exceeding $10,000 or both.

No penalty was established for those who delayed reporting or failed to report altogether. Even Maryland legislators had no idea the gaping hole in their own law. Maryland Senator Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore) said,

I was shocked. I didn’t realize that we were only one of two [states without penalties for failure to report]

The new law faced opposition from those who thought the punishment was draconian, and that taking away professional licensing was punishment enough for failure to report. In fact, Del Kathleen Dumais (D-Montgomery) reportedly said that since the 2015 license revocation law hadn’t been used, they shouldn’t pass more laws. Arguments like these, combined with opposition from the Jewish and Catholic lobbies kept this bill languishing in committee.

The new law modifies Section 5-704 of the Maryland Code of Family law where mandated reporters are defined by adding the following language:

(B) A PERSON WHO VIOLATES THIS SECTION IS GUILTY OF A MISDEMEANOR AND ON CONVICTION IS SUBJECT TO A FINE NOT EXCEEDING $10,000 OR IMPRISONMENT NOT EXCEEDING 3 YEARS OR BOTH.

While this law alone does not solve the sexual assault investigation and prosecution gap in Maryland, it does provide a tool for more progressive prosecutors to begin unraveling this crime.

Unfortunately loopholes still exist. Maryland Code of Family Law Section 5-704 defines mandatory reporters as:

…health practitioner, police officer, educator, or human service worker, acting in a professional capacity

But Maryland Code of Family Law Section 5-705 provides an exemption from these laws from clergy if they are:

bound to maintain the confidentiality of that communication under canon law, church doctrine, or practice

Unfortunately, the clergy exemption is still too prevalent in many states. Maryland law does not clearly differentiate between a Rabbi operating within confidential canon law/rabbinic doctrine, and a Rabbi who is working as a teacher, a school principal, a camp director, or a medical doctor. The largest Jewish community in Maryland mostly follows the rulings of the Agudath Israel of America, who requires rabbinic approval prior to reporting abuse. One of the largest religious schools specifically brings questions to Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky who also requires Rabbinic screening of child abuse prior to reporting. Rabbis in Maryland trained at the local Ner Israel rabbinic college advise that when there is an indication of abuse, people should

Call CHANA [our religiously directed private community organization], and together with their guidance and support, they will help you navigate if and when to involve the police, CPS, or whatever may be most appropriate.

Should a school principal, teacher, or healthcare worker be charged under the new mandatory reporting law, the vague wording will put prosecutors and judges in the uncomfortable situation of litigating the intricacies of Jewish law (halacha). Will the rabbis who delay reporting abuse while they run internal investigations be able to claim their behavior is in keeping with canon Orthodox Jewish law? What makes a person a Rabbi? In the ultra-Orthodox world, often a formal ordination (smicha) process is not required, merely a letter from a school principal (Rosh Yeshiva) calling a student a Rabbi. Could a school teacher charged under the new law get a last minute smicha exempting him from the law?

Catholic opposition to clergy reporting is actually starting to abate, led by new initiatives. It certainly helps that prosecutors in Maryland have started to look through files of the archdiocese of Baltimore. As of today, the most vocal opponents of mandatory clergy reporting are not Catholic but Jewish. In response to mandatory clergy reporting laws being debated in neighboring Washington DC and Virginia, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld provided what I would term a strawman argument as he commented:

Turning clergy into policemen is very dangerous…….If we try to hurt how religious societies function, it will hurt children

Ron Halber of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington offered tepid support to clergy reporting, but then walked it back with the caveat:

In some traditions there are privileged communications that take place between religious authorities and parishioners. We want to make sure there’s nothing blocking free exercise

It is ironic that prosecutors in Maryland are investigating the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, but have made no public inquiries into the Jewish Archdiocese (known as the Vaad of Baltimore and Vaad of Greater Washington). A push for mandatory clergy reporting in Maryland as is currently under debate in DC and Virginia would be a great first step.

The problem is that Maryland Code Sections 5-704 and Sections 5-705 are in conflict due to the vague language. The legislature could fix this in at least two ways. First, narrow the legal definition of clergy-communicant privilege by defining who can claim the religious exemption and when. A Priest must have a church, and a Rabbi must have a synagogue. The disclosure must be in a recognized protected conversation. Right now the law fails to clearly differentiate abuse learned through spiritual privilege, and abuse heard through other means, such as while playing a game of basketball. The aforementioned Jewish community group that reportedly chooses which cases to report to police will sometimes refer abuse victims to a Rabbi for therapy. Is that Rabbi required to report child abuse he learns about because he is a therapist, or is he exempt from reporting because he is a Rabbi? The law does not make it clear.

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The Child Victims Act Means Suits Against MTA (Yeshiva) Can Move Forward – It’s Time for Victims to Get Justice…

New Law in NY Allows Abuse Case Against MTA to Move Forward

In 2013, 34 former students of Yeshiva University’s high school for boys, Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy (MTA), sued the yeshiva alleging they were sexually abused over three decades by two rabbis and other school staff. In 2014, the case was dismissed by a New York District Court judge who cited an expired statute of limitations.

In February, 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law the Child Victims Act (CVA), which changed the statute of limitations on criminal charges and civil lawsuits involving children. It opened a one-year window, which began on August 14, for new lawsuits to be filed on old cases, allowing adult survivors of child sex abuse to seek restitution. The CVA gave these alumni the opportunity to have their case heard, and they filed suit once again, joined by several other men, totalling 38 current plaintiffs.

The lawsuit alleges the plaintiffs were victims of child sex abuse perpetrated by Rabbis George Finkelstein and Macy Gordon, and three unnamed individuals at MTA, over a 30-year period from the 1950s to the ’80s. Rabbi Gordon is now deceased and Rabbi Finkelstein lives in Israel.

Jay Goldberg, a 53-year-old software developer who lives in West Orange, has joined the lawsuit alleging that he was a victim of abuse at the hands of Rabbi Finkelstein while a student at MTA in the early 1980s. Goldberg’s goal, he said in an interview with The Jewish Link, is “to help the people who aren’t ready to get help, who have been abused and are stuck in a situation where they feel they can’t do anything.”

“If anything comes out of this, I would like it to be if only one, 10, 100 victims who wouldn’t have felt comfortable getting help, will get help. It is not about rehashing the facts, it’s about helping others in similar situations get the help they need.”

He stated emphatically that he does not want to be suing Yeshiva University. “I am not out to destroy YU,” he added.

According to Goldberg, it is not the facts of the case that are in question. “The only issue in question is ‘Are they responsible for what happened 30 years ago?’” he noted. The current law in New York seems to answer that question in the affirmative.

Goldberg’s hope is that this lawsuit will help to end the stigma of child sex abuse for survivors. He feels that most people do not know how to deal with abuse victims.

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Political Ambitions, Mesira, Lack of Education – a Culture of Sexual Abuse in Orthodox Judaism- How Many Victims?

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Secrets and Lies

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.

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Jewish Organizations and the Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse, Victims Should be ENCOURAGED to Come Forward

Team USA volleyball player Sarah Powers-Barnhard speaks in support of the Child Victims Act on March 14, 2018 at the New York State Capitol in Albany, New York.  Getty Images

Through ‘Lookback Window,’ Jewish Orgs Face Retribution for Child Sex Abuse

As child abuse cases against yeshivas mount following a one-year lookback provision, questions turn to legal strategy. Are their fears of bankruptcy warranted?

When a one-year lookback provision created by New York’s new Child Victims Act opened last month — temporarily lifting the statute of limitations on civil child sex abuse cases and allowing survivors of any age to pursue justice through the courts — youth-serving institutions across the state braced for legal fire.

Now, just weeks after the lookback clause went into effect, Jewish institutions across the denominational spectrum are facing legal retribution for allegedly mishandling allegations of child sexual abuse, with claims reaching as far back as the 1950s. In the handful of cases filed thus far, prominent defendants include the National Ramah Commission, the Conservative movement’s camping arm; the Conservative movement’s flagship rabbinical school, Jewish Theological Seminary; Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution, Yeshiva University; prominent Modern Orthodox day school Salanter Akiba Riverdale High School (SAR); prominent Modern Orthodox day school Westchester Day School; Yeshiva Torah Temimah, a Brooklyn-based ultra-Orthodox school with a branch in Lakewood N.J.; Oholei Torah, a prominent Chabad yeshiva in Brooklyn; and Temple Beth Zion, a legacy Reform congregation in Buffalo.

Claims leveled against these institutions include negligence in stopping or preventing sexual abuse; breach of fiduciary duties; and the intentional infliction of emotional distress against survivors of childhood sex abuse. Though details among the cases vary, leadership across institutions are alleged to have known about predatory behaviors and failed to act; helped alleged abusers gain entry to other youth-serving institutions; and engaged in intimidation tactics to prevent victims from coming forward.

Yeshiva Torah Temimah, an all-boys charedi school based in Brooklyn, faces a new lawsuit for covering up the alleged sexual abuse perpetrated by Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, who taught at the school from the 1960s throughout the ’80s. Four ex-students previously sued the school, charging Kolko molested them from ages 11 to 13; at the time, the state court tossed the cases after determining claims fell outside the statute of limitations then in place.

(L-R) Barry Singer, Jay Goldberg, David Bressler three of the plaintiffs in the suit against Yeshiva University at a recent press conference announcing their suit against YU. Hannah Dreyfus/JW

(Previously, the school agreed to pay an unprecedented $2.1 million to two former students who accused Kolko of sexually assaulting them. Details of the secret settlements emerged in 2016 when the school failed to make payments. The case marked the first time a New York yeshiva paid off alleged victims of sex abuse, experts said. Kolko, now 72, received a controversial plea deal from then-Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes in May 2012 after pleading guilty to two misdemeanor counts of child endangerment; he did not have to serve jail time or register as a sex-offender.)

Now, the case is being revived under the Child Victims Act. Alleged victim Baruch Sandhaus filed a complaint in Brooklyn Supreme Court last month, alleging that Kolko and another rabbi on staff “would inappropriately touch” his private parts on various occasions between 1978 and 1980, when he was a student at Torah Temimah.

Hank Sheinkopf, a spokesperson for the yeshiva, said the alleged events occurred “40 years ago” and so have no connection to the current administration.

“Why would a new administration know anything about what took place decades ago?” he told The Jewish Week in a phone conversation. “It’s not going on today.” The school, he said, is “financially capable of dealing with a lawsuit” and will “continue to function and turn out Torah-trained young people.”

Sheinkopf referred to the new roster of lawsuits — including the revived case against Torah Temimah — as “a trial lawyer game to make a lot of money.”

As cases begin to play out — a process that could take years — precedents set in other states that have adopted similar lookback provisions might provide a blueprint for what institutions, and survivors, might expect, lawyers say.

“So far, every religious institution I’ve sued has told its constituents that lawsuits would lead to bankruptcies,” said Patrick Noaker, the attorney representing plaintiffs in a new lawsuit filed last week in Kings County Supreme Court against the Chabad boys yeshiva, Oholei Torah.

Yeshiva Torah Temima in Brooklyn, NY. Wikimedia Commons/Jim.henderson

Noaker said the passage of the Child Victims Act won’t make it any easier for alleged victims to win cases. “Sometimes the time that has passed can make it hard to find witnesses and evidence that the school knew or should have known that children were in danger. We also have to prove damages,” he said. “The only thing the Child Victims Act does is open the court room doors. We still have to prove our case like any other,” he said.

“The only thing the Child Victims Act does is open the court room doors. We still have to prove our case like any other.

In February, shortly after the Child Victims Act bill passed, Agudath Israel of America — a large charedi umbrella group that long advocated against the bill alongside the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America — issued a statement warning its constituents that the look-back provision “could literally destroy schools, houses of worship that sponsor youth programs, summer camps and other institutions that are the very lifeblood of our community.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel, told The Jewish Week this week that “the fears certainly continue,” though he was not aware of how many suits had been filed against yeshivas.

For Noaker, a Minneapolis-based lawyer who represented plaintiffs in a host of lawsuits against Catholic dioceses in Minnesota after the state passed a three-year lookback window in 2018, the line is familiar.

The argument is straight-up manipulation.

“The Catholics said lawsuits would shut down hospitals and homeless shelters — it never happened,” said Noaker. “The argument is straight-up manipulation.”

Though several of the cases he litigated did contribute to dioceses in Minnesota filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in order to settle hundreds of claims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests, not one diocese ceased to function because of the financial decision.

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More on the Child Victims Act here.