Silence of the Lam
Accused of sexually abusing young boys, a Brooklyn rabbi left for Israel 22 years ago. Now one alleged victim wants him brought back for trial.
by Kristen Lombardi
July 25th, 2006 11:19 AM
Out of the shadows: Abe asked the Brooklyn D.A. to reopen the case against Rabbi Mondrowitz.
Abe vividly remembers that wall. The "bragging wall," as he's come to call it, was crammed with certificates and diplomas. He remembers fixating on that wall as the Hasidic psychologist advised him on how to be a good boy. He fixated on it, too, when the psychologist sat beside him, the man's hand shoved down his pants, stroking Abe's genitals.
Abe was eight years old, the defiant son of a devout Orthodox Jewish family who was sent to the child psychologist in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Every Sunday for four months in 1984, he'd go for counseling in the modest house on 60th Street. Sessions started with talk of his behaviorâ€”his mischief at home, his disobedience at yeshiva. Goals were set, rewards promised. Then, Abe alleges, the psycho- logist's hand would be in his underwear.
"He would fondle and play with my genitals," says Abe, now a thirtyish businessman not willing to publish his last name. For this former Borough Park resident, whose Orthodox faith taught him to revere elders, the encounters were devastating. "I felt very odd, ashamed. I didn't know what to think."
Abe hid the abuse for two decades, not telling a soul, yearning to get on with life. Until, in May, he discovered what had happened to the man he claims molested him: He got away.
That child psychologist was Avrohom Mondrowitz, Abe says, the same one charged with sexually abusing four Brooklyn boys in February 1985. Once a popular radio host whose Orthodox audience had known him as "Rabbi," Mondrowitz skipped town before police could arrest him. He surfaced later in Israel, where he's lived for two decades. (Mondrowitz, now 58 and reportedly in Jerusalem, could not be reached for comment.)
Abe isn't one of those four boys. He stopped his sessions in the summer of 1984, never to see Mondrowitz again. All these years, he's had no idea his alleged abuser was indicted for molesting kids, on charges that included sodomy. Abe learned of the outstanding case from a mention in a May 22 New York article about an ultra-Orthodox rabbi accused of sexual abuse.
Seeing the name in print left Abe stunned. He went online, discovering postings about the self-styled rabbi on sites for Jewish survivors of sexual abuse. Reeling, he contacted an attorney. And last month, he identified himself as a victim to the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes.
Explains Abe, "I could tell this guy was guilty as heck and I had to do something. He needs to be brought to justice."
The D.A.'s office confirms that Abe appeared at its Jay Street headquarters in June. Prosecutors interviewed him and recorded his complaints. Hynes can do little about the allegations because they fall outside the five-year statute of limitations for sex offenses, according to Rhonnie Jaus, chief of the sex crimes bureau. All Hynes can do is try to use Abe's testimony as supporting evidence against Mondrowitz at trial.
Jaus maintains that Hynes is still pursuing the 1985 case. The indictment against Mondrowitz is pending; her bureau remains in touch with the original victims, now in their thirties.
"We stand ready, willing, and able to prosecute him for his heinous crimes," Jaus states. "If he returns to this country, we would arrest him. We would prosecute him. We would do everything we could to achieve justice in this case."
But there's a lot more Hynes could be doing to achieve justice, it seems. The one person who can reopen the push for extradition is the Brooklyn D.A.; he calls the Justice Department, Justice calls State, State calls Israel. That's how it works. Michael Lesher, the New Jersey attorney who represents Abe, believes Hynes could force Mondrowitz to stand trial, if only Hynes would take a more aggressive stance. Past efforts to extradite Mondrowitz failed only because of a technicality. Under a 1962 treaty, the United States and Israel have agreed "reciprocally to deliver up persons found in its territory who have been charged with . . . offenses mentioned [and] committed within the territorial jurisdiction of the other." This U.S.-Israel extradition treaty lists 31 crimes, including rape. You might think the sodomy charges against Mondrowitz would fit that category. In 1985, though, Israeli law defined rape narrowly as "having sexual intercourse with a woman without her free consent." Oral and anal raping of boysâ€”among the acts of which Mondrowitz is accusedâ€”weren't crimes by Israeli standards.
Today, that loophole has been all but closed. Israel has amended its rape law to recognize males as potential victims, making the act of forcible sodomy a crime punishable by 20 years in prison. Lesher argues the change opens the door to revisit the case. "In theory," he says, "there's no reason for Hynes not to request extradition."
Extradition lawyers second his opinion. Richard Bierschbach, who teaches criminal law at Cardozo Law School and who has worked on such cases, tells the Voice, "I think he would be extraditable now." Changing the law, he says, effectively changed the treaty. Courts have ruled that modifications to treaties can be applied retroactively, without violating a fugitive's due-process rights. "You can say with a fair degree of confidence that sodomy is now an extraditable offense."
Even Mondrowitz's attorney suggests that extradition isn't out of the question. Reached in his Tel Aviv office, David Ofek says he didn't believe the charges against his client when defending him in the 1980s, and he doesn't now, calling them "all lies." Mondrowitz has not been charged with a crime in Israel. Nor has anyone accused him of child molestation there. In a heavy accent, Ofek adds, "I found him to be a marvelous and gentle person, and I don't think he's touched a child."
Still, Ofek acknowledges that sodomy is a crime equal to rape in Israelâ€”one that, in general, is extraditable. "It's a very serious crime," he says, "and we don't like people like that."
So does that mean his client could be extradited? "After 20 years," he tells the Voice, "try to do it."
Mondrowitz was a celebrity to start, a Hasidic Frasier of sorts, hosting the call-in program Life Is for Living at the now defunct WNYN radio station, doling out advice over the airwaves. But in a five-page criminal indictment, prosecutors painted Mondro-witz as an insatiable abuser who allegedly preyed on four boys, ages nine to 15, over four years. The 13 counts against him include eight of sexual abuse in the first degree, five of sodomy in the first degree.
The indictment may tell only a fraction of the story, says Sal Catalfumo. Now retired, he was the main sex crimes detective who investigated Mondrowitz for four months beginning in November 1984, when the Brooklyn South precinct got an anonymous tip about a rabbi. "There were a lot of kids and a lot of allegations," he says.
Catalfumo identified about a dozen victims to then Brooklyn D.A. Elizabeth Holtzman, whose office pressed charges on the four strongest cases. He had interviewed dozens more, he says. Initially, investigators had suspected Mondrowitz singled out Orthodox Jewish children who attended his special-education class at a Foster Avenue yeshiva or his child-counseling practice on 60th Street. Catalfumo says he ended up discovering victims from Italian Catholic families living on the same street as Mondrowitz did. Some served as altar boys at a nearby church. Others played with his seven kids. Two were prepubescent sons of Catalfumo's former high school classmate.
"Children told me and my partner that he would be molesting them in one room while their parents would be waiting in the next," Catalfumo recalls. When police searched the office, he says, they uncovered child pornography in the desk drawers.
By the time police had drawn up an arrest warrant, in December 1984, Catalfumo says, "The guy was gone. He escaped, and he's never had to face the music." All these years later, the former investigator cannot quite put this unresolved case behind him. He cannot quite forget about those, like Abe, who claim to be victims.
Confides Catalfumo, "Personally, I'd like to catch this guy. He shouldn't be able to evade prosecution for the rest of his life."
The Mondrowitz case has also haunted Abe's attorney. Lesher's made a lonely campaign out of researching it, filing freedom-of-information requests to obtain classified records. Beginning in 1999, he spent two years collecting documents from the U.S. State and Justice departments chronicling the feds' battle to extradite the fugitiveâ€”a battle that stops in 1993, courtesy of Hynes. Lesher shared his files with the Voice for this article. (The Justice Department declined to comment on the case, referring questions to State; its spokesperson refused even to speak generally about the U.S.-Israel extradition treaty.)
The paper trail starts just as the indictment was about to come down. In January 1985, according to the records, D.A. Holtzman's office began pushing the feds to bring Mondrowitz back to Brooklyn for trial, calling the Justice Department. Two months later, her office made a formal request for "the provisional arrest in Israel of Avrohom Mondrowitz." Prosecutors sent along materials for extradition in September, and kept in contact with their federal counterparts for the next two years. Internal records suggest that Washington officials felt substantial pressure from Holtzman.
"Natives of Brooklyn are becoming restless," reads one February 1986 memorandum, "and we are receiving calls from Kings County District Attorney's Office."
Another cable, dated November 1986, reports that the Israeli official on the case "has from time to time been in telephonic communication directly with the prosecutor's office in New York City to discuss the matter."
Yet another, from March 1987: "Relay the gist of this development to prosecuting attorney handling this case [who] had phoned on February 17."
Now a Manhattan attorney specializing in government relations, Holtzman declined to discuss her office's efforts to seek extradition. "I can tell you that we didn't sit on cases like that in my office," she says.
Still, these early requests were stymied. As early as 1985, Israeli officials had informed the U.S. that rape, under Israeli law, didn't cover sodomy. "The Mondrowitz case as presented cannot be acted upon under the terms of the existing U.S.-Israel extradition agreement," states an April 1985 cable.
Federal officials got creative and asked Israel to consider expelling Mondrowitz, then an American citizen on a tourist visa. For years, the case sat in a kind of legal limbo.
And then, in February 1987, after a change in leadership, the Israeli Interior Ministry ordered Mondrowitz deported to Brooklyn. Ofek appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, asking for a stay and seeking access to the U.S. extradition package. It included four affidavits from John Doe victims. It also included a letter, purportedly written by a Borough Park social worker, charging that Mondrowitz had infected 28 boys with HIV/AIDS. The claim would be stunning now; back then, it was made more so by the fact that so many people didn't understand the virus.
"When you say, 20 years ago, that the man had infected children with AIDS, it means that the man would kill children," Ofek says. There were no drug cocktails in 1987. Not many hospitals in Israel could administer an HIV test. Eventually, Ofek says, his client found one. The results came back negative. The court threw out the deportation order. "The United States wanted extradition and the Israeli government wanted to deport himâ€”and I stopped it."
To hear Hynes's office tell it now, extradition represents the one barrier to prosecuting this case. Just last May, Jaus says, her bureau reviewed its files and consulted with Israeli legal authorities, as well as federal officials. The verdict? "Under the current treaty," she reports, "he is charged with a non- extraditable offense."
Or not. In 1988, Israel amended its rape law to cover the act of homosexual rape. Internal federal letters make note of the change, urging a second look at extradition.
"An amendment to the Israeli penal code . . . presents us, we believe, with an opportunity to reopen the extradition case of Avrohom Mondrowitz," reads one March 1988 telegram from the American embassy in Tel Aviv to the State Department in Washington, D.C.
Interestingly, no records show that federal officials called Holtzman to relay the news. And there is nothing to suggest that her office was keeping abreast of the developments, or even knew about the change. Just when the U.S. may have gained proper grounds to extradite Mondrowitz, the paper trail fades.
But if Holtzman missed a key opportunity, Hynes has apparently plain sat on the case. He became the D.A. in 1990. In the federal file, there is no record of any activity from Hynes on the matter until 1993, when Justice officials called his office. That's when he all but dropped the caseâ€”approving a decision to end extradition attempts for good.
As one September 1993 Justice Department letter details, prosecutors "contacted our office and advised that they would not be pursuing the case any further at this time."
"Hynes has never been hot to extradite Mondrowitz," charges Lesher. Why would Hynes allow a fugitive to evade prosecution through an old loophole, especially when a new victim has come forward to testify? "It's a compelling argument," observes Mary- ellen Fullerton, who teaches international criminal law at Brooklyn Law School. "If I were the Brooklyn D.A., I'd consider it."
Bruce Zagaris, an extradition lawyer in Washington, D.C., notes that the U.S.-Israel treaty is being updated, and that the new protocol would make it even easier to deliver up someone, like Mondrowitz, whose alleged acts haven't fallen neatly into the list of specified offenses. The protocol would replace the list with a provision defining any offense extraditable "as long as the crime is punishable by one year or more and as long as it's a crime in both countries."
So, Zagaris offers, "Yes, I'd say this guy is extraditable. And under this new protocol, there is even more of a chance that he could be."
At the very least, argues Bierschbach, the Cardozo professor, "you cannot flat-out say that he's not extraditable. You can make the argument, but it's weak."
Even so, Hynes spokesperson Jerry Schmetterer maintains, flatly: "After reviewing the files and consulting with authorities, our position remains that under the current treaty, Mondrowitz cannot be extradited. . . . He was charged with sodomy and the treaty has changed. It's our position this change is not retroactive."
Told that experts say otherwise, he snaps, "That's fine. You write your story. This is the position of the district attorney."
Maybe Hynes has his own reasons for not pushing extradition. In Brooklyn politics, the Orthodox community can wield considerable influence. Political consultant Hank Sheinkopf explains, "They vote, and they vote in large numbers often." He estimates that the Orthodox population accounts for some 30 percent of the borough's electorate, from Williamsburg to Crown Heights, Borough Park, Flatbush, and Midwood. Especially in ultra-Orthodox areas, rabbis tend to pick candidates and congregants cast votes accordingly.
"The rabbis are very important because they tell their followers who to get behind," says Sheinkopf. For a politician, he says, that means "you have to play to them."
Hynes has worked hard to court the community over the years. In 1990, he became the first D.A. in the city to convene a Jewish advisory council, which kept leaders abreast of cases involving Jewish defen-dants or complainants. The council is now defunct, says Schmetterer, replaced by the office's full-time liaison to the Hasidic community, Henna White, herself a Lubavitcher. (He refused to let the Voice interview White for this article, saying, "It wouldn't be her place to talk about this case.") Hynes has been commended for launching such initiatives as Project Eden, a Hasidic-sanctioned program that reaches out to ultra-Orthodox victims of domestic violence.
Aaron Twerski, the dean of Hofstra Law School and a former council member, describes Hynes's relationship to the Orthodox community as "quite positive." He explains, "Hynes is a presence in the community. He's been responsive."
But Hynes has bumped up against the community before. The most dramatic example came in 1999, when the D.A.'s office charged a prominent Hasidic rabbi named Bernard Freilich with witness tampering and intimidation for allegedly making death threats against an Orthodox woman who was to testify in a sex-abuse case. The community reacted with fury, organizing demonstrations, accusing Hynes of anti-Semitism. Freilich wound up acquitted at a 2000 trial.
Lesher says the D.A. has a habit of backing down from prosecutions that Orthodox rabbinical leaders would rather handle themselves. He has researched two instances where the D.A. initiated criminal proceedings against accused Hasidic abusers, only to let them fizzle. In each, he notes, "it was community opposition that spelled the difference."
With Mondrowitz, the Orthodox community hasn't exactly clamored for justice. No one dared talk publicly about the scandal when it broke. Catalfumo says rabbis refused to answer questions, parents refused to file complaints. Even those who wanted to see Mondrowitz punishedâ€”or deadâ€”wouldn't cooperate with authorities, the detective says, for fear their kids would become tainted by a trial.
Catalfumo doubts the D.A. would do anything to upset the Orthodox community today, and he doubts the community would want to revisit the case. "Let's face it, I don't think they're interested in seeing this surface again," he says. Indeed, Orthodox rabbis and politicians who remember the Mondrowitz case declined to talk about it with the Voice. One Borough Park resident with ties to the same Hasidic sect as Mondrowitz offered this opinion: "Once a case has been put to sleep, it's best to leave it alone."
Twerski, of Hofstra, advocates "zero tolerance" in the community for sexual abuse. But when told about the newly vocal Mondrowitz victim and his desire to reopen the case, Twerski replies, "I don't know what to say about that. That's an old, old case and I'm not going to comment on it."
Jaus, for her part, bristles at the suggestion of special treatment. In 2000, her bureau got word from State officials that Mondrowitz was returning to the States. It contacted the original four victims. It had D.C. police ready to arrest him. He never showed up.
"If we heard this information again, we'd do the same thing," she states.
Those words offer little consolation to Abe. Sitting in the dining room at his attorney's suburban home, Abe hunches over the table, his arms across his chest, his eyes on his Blackberry, as he relays what he told prosecutors on June 7. How Mondrowitz had begun molesting him during a counseling session one day, and wound up making it routine. How the psychologist had even invited him upstairs, and fondled him there.
Abe had hoped his testimony would inspire Hynes to push for extradition, he says. "I came away with the realization that my experience is a footnote in a case the D.A. won't do anything about."
At least, Abe believes, not without incentive. So on June 24, he contacted an anonymous blogger known as Un-Orthodox Jew, who has posted controversial diatribes about sexual abuse and cover-up in the Hasidic world. Abe posted his own entry, writing:
"MONDROWITZ ALERT! ALERT! ALERT! ALERT! ALERT! Has anyone contacted you as being a victim of Avrohom Mondrowitz? . . . There is renewed interest in this case & . . . I am trying to find out if other victims have also recently come forward so that we can pool our resources & pressure the DA's office."
So far, he's received little response, though two Orthodox Jewish men who claim to be victims of Mondrowitz have contacted the Voice, expressing a desire to bring him back.
To Abe, it all seems so upside downâ€”the way Hynes didn't push for extradition in 1993, the way he won't now. That his alleged abuser can live in Israel, his whereabouts known, yet run around scot-free, seems almost as bad as the abuse.
As Abe confides, "That makes it seem like a big slap in the face by the D.A."