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).