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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SAR Academy in Riverdale, NY, Associate Principal Arrested and Fired

An associate principal in SAR Academy's middle school has been arrested for exploitation of a child and child pornography, and has been fired, according to published reports.

An associate principal in SAR Academy’s middle school has been arrested for exploitation of a child and child pornography, and has been fired, according to published reports.
JULIUS CONSTANTINE MOTAL / File

SAR Academy associate principal arrested, fired

Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy has fired an associate principal it says was arrested over the weekend for charges that involve pornography production and “inappropriate photos.”

The arrest involves Jonathan Skolnick, an associate principal at SAR’s middle school, who was focused on Judaic studies. The news was shared with parents of SAR Academy students late Monday, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency by principal Binyamin Krauss. Skolnick had been at the school for a little more than a year.

“It is shocking to know that someone who we have trusted with our children has been accused of harming them,” Rabbi Krauss wrote to parents, according to JTA. “Despite the practices in place to protect our children, we are not immune to breaches such as the one that seems to have taken place at SAR.”

Papers filed Saturday in federal court appear to charge Skolnick with coercion and enticement, receipt and distribution of child pornography, sexual exploitation of children, and conducting such practices across state lines.

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ADDITIONAL NEWS COVERAGE:

The Daily News

Bronx Jewish academy teacher charged with child porn, extortion for eliciting dirty pictures of 14-year-old boy

The Jerusalem Post

NY JEWISH DAY SCHOOL ADMIN ARRESTED FOR ‘PRODUCTION OF CHILD PORNOGRAPHY’

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Administrator at NY Jewish day school arrested for ‘production of child pornography’

SAR Officials Knew of Abuse by Administrator

NY Jewish school officials knew of abuse by administrator who molested 12 students

SAR

 

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include comments from SAR Academy’s principal, Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, in an email to JTA and the statement to JTA from the attorney for Rabbi Sheldon Schwartz.

NEW YORK (JTA) — Officials at a New York Jewish day school knew of allegations against an administrator who abused at least a dozen of the school’s students, according to an investigation. He was rehired a decade later.

The report, which was published Friday, found that Stanley Rosenfeld sexually abused at least a dozen students at SAR Academy, a Modern Orthodox school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Another teacher, Rabbi Sheldon Schwartz, was found to have acted inappropriately with at least four students.

Rosenfeld, a convicted sex offender, has admitted to molesting hundreds of boys throughout his life, including at SAR, according to the report.

JTA has reached out to Schwartz through his attorney seeking comment on the accusations against him.

T&M Protection Resources, an external firm with experience investigating sexual assault allegations, conducted the probe that examined allegations of child sex abuse by Rosenfeld, an assistant principal at SAR in the 1970s who also taught English there a decade later. The school commissioned the investigation in January, soon after learning of the allegations.

The firm interviewed nearly 40 witnesses, as well as both Schwartz and Rosenfeld. T&M was able to interview Schwartz, however, only before hearing allegations of his inappropriate behavior.

“We want to extend our most sincere gratitude to the individuals who came forward to report instances of inappropriate behavior and abuse,” SAR’s leadership wrote in an email sent Friday linking to the report. “We remain heartbroken that our alumni suffered abuse while in SAR’s care, but we also are deeply inspired by their bravery.”

The respective principals of SAR Academy and SAR High School, Rabbis Binyamin Krauss and Tully Harcsztark, wrote in the email that the school instituted a sexual harassment policy in 2014. The policy requires reporting credible allegations of sexual misconduct to law enforcement, as well as guidelines for reporting allegations within the school and investigating them.

In a separate email to JTA, Krauss wrote: “We strive to create a learning environment in which students feel comfortable coming forward with concerns or reports of misbehavior of any kind,” . “Nothing is more important than the safety of our students. If we were to learn of a report of abuse, we would work quickly to begin an investigation and ensure, throughout the process, that students are safe.”

SAR’s announcement of the inquiry in January prompted two other Jewish day schools that had employed Rosenfeld to launch their own investigations: the Ramaz School, an elite Modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Manhattan, and Westchester Day School, in New York City’s northern suburbs. Ramaz published its external investigation in August, which found that administrators learned of Rosenfeld’s abuse after he had left the school but failed to act on the information.

Rosenfeld, now 84, was convicted of child molestation in 2001 for abusing a boy while employed at a Rhode Island synagogue. The Forward, which has investigated Rosenfeld’s abuse in a series of articles, discovered that he is living in a nursing home and is a registered sex offender.

The T&M report found that Rosenfeld would abuse young boys by inviting them to his home for Shabbat, where they would sleep over for one or two nights. At night, he would hover over their beds and fondle their genitals or other parts of their bodies. Some former students said Rosenfeld would stop the abuse after boys made it clear that it made them uncomfortable. Others reported laying motionless until the ordeal ended. Former students said the abuse caused them emotional suffering.

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Sorry, We Ignored the Abuse: Rosenfeld, Andron, Goetz (and how many victims)?

Ramaz

Prestigious New York Jewish school apologizes for ignoring molestation reports

In 1974, Ramaz staff learned that Stanley Rosenfeld had engaged in sexual misconduct with children while working at another institute but did not alert anyone

Former staff at the Ramaz School in Manhattan failed to act appropriately on reports they had received in the 1970s of molestation by a former teacher, the Jewish day school said.

After Stanley Rosenfeld left Ramaz in 1974, administrators learned that he had engaged in sexual misconduct with children while working at another school in New York’s suburban Westchester County, according to a report published Thursday by a law firm hired by Ramaz to investigate the school’s conduct. But the school at the time did not alert third parties about what it had learned.

While the investigation found “no direct evidence that anyone at Ramaz knew of Rosenfeld’s misconduct when Rosenfeld was hired or while Rosenfeld was employed at Ramaz,” it concluded that administrators could have later taken action while Rosenfeld was still employed at a Jewish summer camp or when he interacted “with the larger Ramaz community.”

The investigators could not confirm second-hand accounts that Rosenfeld was terminated as a result of misconduct with Ramaz students.

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