He Took My Innocence Away’
By Jennifer Friedlin-The Jewish Week
South Carolina man alleges Brooklyn rabbi sexually abused him 20 years ago; third accuser against Rabbi Kolko and Yeshiva Torah Temimah.
Jennifer Friedlin - Special To The Jewish Week
The alleged molestation did not begin immediately. In fact, it would take at least a year of priming Israel Tsatskis before Rabbi Yehuda Kolko allegedly started to sexually abuse the young boy.
The year was 1986 and Tsatskis, then a sixth grader at Yeshiva and Mesivta Torah Temimah in Flatbush, had suddenly become one of Rabbi Kolko’s favorite students in the school. Rabbi Kolko, then a teacher at the yeshiva, would call Tsatskis out of class to monitor his class or to do small errands, like make photocopies.
The attention felt good.
“I thought I was special because he was taking an interest in me,” Tsatskis recalled recently in a phone conversation.
Over time, however, Rabbi Kolko’s favoritism crossed the line and became abusive, Tsatskis alleges. Tsatskis says the molestation, which included fondling and groping of his genitals, continued until he completed the eighth grade and graduated middle school.
The scars, however, still remain.
“I hate that he took away my innocence. I blame so much on him,” said Tsatskis, a 31-year-old former U.S. Army soldier who lives in South Carolina.
Tsatskis is the third person to bring a lawsuit against Rabbi Kolko and the yeshiva for crimes he allegedly committed in the 1970s and ‘80s. His story took on a new resonance recently when Tsatskis went public in a court filing attaching his name to the claims against Rabbi Kolko; he had been referred to only as John Doe 3.
“The sexual abuse has caused Israel to suffer severe and permanent psychological, emotional and physical injuries and the inability to lead a normal life, as well as attendant economic losses,” according to the complaint. “Plaintiff’s injuries are persistent, permanent and debilitating in nature.”
Although the statute of limitations has expired for both a criminal and civil action, the plaintiffs hope that evidence of an alleged cover-up orchestrated by the head of the school, Rabbi Lipa Margulies, will enable them to proceed with the civil action.
Since the lawsuits were filed in Brooklyn Federal Court, Rabbi Kolko has been put on administrative leave. He has declined to comment on the allegations, while the yeshiva has denied any wrongdoing. Calls to Rabbi Kolko’s lawyer, Robert Mercurio, were not returned.
Recently, Rabbi Kolko was spotted chaperoning campers from Silver Lake Camp, Torah Temimah’s summer camp, at a Connecticut theme park, New York magazine reported this week. Avi Moskowitz, a lawyer for the yeshiva, told the magazine that Rabbi Kolko is not affiliated with the camp, but that “Obviously, the camp has no control over where he goes and what he does.”
Reached for comment Moscowitz told The Jewish Week that “[Rabbi Kolko] did not come on [the camp’s] behalf and wasn’t invited by us.”
Moscowitz maintained that the allegations against the yeshiva are “simply not true.” He added that he believes that the statute of limitations is such that the case should be dismissed.
Tsatskis said he decided to pursue his $10 million lawsuit against the rabbi and the school in order to try and regain a sense of control over the past and to encourage the fervently Orthodox community to which he once belonged to recognize that sexual abuse is a problem in need of attention.
“If the only thing that comes from this case is that the community wakes up and says, ‘this happens here,’ and that they stop it, I’ll be happy,” said Tsatskis.
The Tsatskis’ family ties to Rabbi Margulies go back generations to Hungary, where Israel’s grandfather knew him. So, years ago, when the Tsatskis family was looking for a school for their young son, the grandfather recommended his friend’s yeshiva. Rabbi Kolko was Tsatskis’ first-grade teacher. But the alleged trouble began several years later.
Throughout his early elementary school years, Tsatskis said he was a good student, but a bit of a loner. By sixth grade, he was having more trouble academically and his grades started to slip. His relationship with his parents was also growing strained. At that point Tsatskis says that Rabbi Kolko began taking a personal interest in his life. Tsatskis, meanwhile, started to see Rabbi Kolko as someone he could trust and confide in.
“I didn’t have a bad home or upbringing,” Tsatskis said. “But he was like my father away from home, like a big brother or an uncle. He would tell me I’m special and whenever there was a slight problem in my life he was the first one to take an interest.”
By the time Tsatskis entered the seventh grade, he said that Rabbi Kolko had his total trust. It was then that Rabbi Kolko allegedly began touching the boy inappropriately. Tsatskis said Rabbi Kolko would pull him from class and take him to his private office, where the rabbi would put his hands down the boy’s pants and fondle his genitals. On some occasions, Rabbi Kolko would follow Tsatskis to his private bathroom to “help” him buckle up his pants. Tsatskis said Rabbi Kolko would then grope him.
At the time, Tsatskis said that he had no sense that what Rabbi Kolko was doing was wrong. He blames this largely on the fact that neither the yeshiva nor his parents ever discussed the difference between appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior.
“My son and daughter know more about which areas are private than I knew when I was 15,” said Tsatskis, referring to his 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. “I felt if this is what he’s doing it must be OK.”
However, by the time he was a teenager, Tsatskis’ behavior was getting more out of control, so much so that a psychologist recommended that the teen undergo intensive therapy. While Tsatskis was in treatment, the truth of the abuse emerged, he said.
Although he felt a sense of relief, Tsatskis said he never fully recovered from the damage of having been abused by a figure of communal authority and personal importance.
“Once I realized that what he did was wrong, my whole life came tumbling down,” said Tsatskis, noting that his parents had a hard time knowing how to deal with their son’s situation.
Because of behavioral problems, Tsatskis bounced around five high schools in four years. Throughout his teen years, he began hanging out with the wrong crowd. His faith in Judaism was shattered.
“If this guy would do this to me and he represents Judaism, then something was really wrong,” said Tsatskis, who is no longer observant.
After high school, Tsatskis said he did a series of odd jobs and bummed around before joining the U.S. Army as a medic at 24 to “get some control back.” That same year he also married a woman he had known from Brooklyn. The couple is now separated.
“I have acquaintances but relationships are hard for me,” Tsatskis said.
In fact, Tsatskis said that he has never felt as good as he did when Rabbi Kolko was showering attention on him. “It was the ultimate high,” Tsatskis said. “I felt important, distinguished from the class.”
He said his pull to Rabbi Kolko has remained so great over the years that he has gone back to Brooklyn on several occasions to try and visit him in an effort to recapture that feeling of importance. However, Tsatskis said that Rabbi Kolko always seems distracted and uninterested in speaking with him.
“I would continuously go back to him and he would reject me,” Tsatskis said. “It’s sort of like a woman in an abusive relationship. Why does she go back? Because she feels special. I long for that special feeling.”
Over the years, Tsatskis said he tried to recapture the feeling through other relationships, but nothing came close to the feeling Rabbi Kolko gave him.
“Throughout my life I needed attention and he filled the gap,” Tsatskis said.
To this day, Tsatskis says he is still confused by what happened and why it made him feel the way he did. If he had the chance, he said he would like to ask Rabbi Kolko, “Why me? What was it about me? Why not any of the other 60 kids?”