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.
Stories of abusive Catholic priests are commonplace, but a similar, less publicly familiar crisis has also been unfolding in certain Orthodox Jewish communities—particularly in New York—over the past several decades. Like their Catholic counterparts, rabbis accused of sexually assaulting minors or shielding other predators have been protected and transferred in order to save the reputations and financial well-being of the religious institutions they serve. Some of these institutions, such as Yeshiva, are aligned with the mainstream of Orthodox Judaism, while others are affiliated with ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, traditions. Given the insularity and secrecy that characterize Haredi life, there are few reliable statistics about just how prevalent the problem is. Ben Hirsch, the cofounder of Survivors for Justice, an organization that advocates for victims of sexual abuse in Orthodox communities, suggested that the rate of abuse could exceed 50 percent for boys within Hasidic enclaves. (Hasidism is a movement within Haredi Judaism particularly common in New York.) Across Orthodox Judaism as a whole, a 2018 study by Harvard psychologist David H. Rosmarin found that among formerly Orthodox individuals, rates of abuse were nearly twice the national estimate for both boys and girls.
Getting the full scope of the problem, particularly among the ultra-Orthodox, is close to impossible. Part of the reason for the lack of dependable data is the concept of mesirah—a violation of rabbinical law in which one Jew reports another for a crime to nonreligious, civil authorities. The roots of mesirah go back to the days of ancient Roman rule, but the prohibition was especially prominent during the Middle Ages, when Jews were being hunted and persecuted by anti-Semitic gentile authorities in Europe and parts of the Middle East.
Today, the notion of mesirah persists within ultra-Orthodox sects and has been used to frighten victims of sexual assault, as well as their families, into remaining silent. One victim, who chose to remain anonymous, described to me being sexually assaulted at the age of nine by a seventeen-year-old named Stefan Colmer in the New Jersey home of Rabbi Yosef Carlebach, the chaplain of several medical centers and the New Jersey State Police, and the executive director of Rutgers Chabad House. The rabbi’s son walked in on the incident and reported it to his father, but Carlebach refused to contact the police and instead pressured the victim’s family into keeping quiet about it. “I would have been his last victim,” he told me of Colmer, who has since been convicted of sexually abusing two thirteen-year-old boys. (A spokesperson for Rabbi Carlebach told me that “in hindsight, Rabbi Carlebach believes he might have handled the situation differently. But this was twenty-six years ago. Everyone did what they thought was right at the time.”)
When abuse is actually reported to internal religious institutions, the allegations are frequently dismissed out of hand. According to one Hasidic rabbi I spoke with, “The attitude is, ‘minors before bar mitzvah are considered not trustworthy, so why should we believe them?’ ” Other times, making an accusation of sexual assault can result in ostracism by the community, even financial ruin. “The schools in the ultra-Orthodox world have connections to each other,” Hirsch explained. “Students can’t go from one school to another without clearances from previous schools. If the school bad-mouths a student, they will not be accepted—no high school, no higher education.”
Not only can accusers be denied the opportunity to make a living, they can be prevented from establishing their own family. “The first threat is always marriage,” said Hirsch. “The schools have tremendous power, so in a community where arranged marriages are the norm, the threat that ‘you are not going to ever get married if you open your mouth’ is very intimidating.”
Compounding these problems is the fact that many young people are unaware that they’re being sexually abused in the first place. Particularly among the ultra-Orthodox, children and teenagers are kept isolated from the opposite sex and are denied access to popular culture—TV, internet, radio—through which other American kids often begin to learn about sex. “It’s designed to keep them apart,” one advocate told me. “They are worried about all outside information filtering in. I tell you, it’s North Korea!” There is no formal sex education in ultra-Orthodox schools, and even when one is old enough to meet a potential spouse—chosen by a matchmaker—physical contact is forbidden, and all encounters take place in a rigidly controlled environment, usually in the company of the woman’s family. When one’s sexual education begins at marriage, can one reasonably be expected to identify sexually abusive behavior as a child?
In the rare cases in which victims are both able to recognize abuse and willing to brave the ire of the community by committing mesirah, they often find themselves stonewalled by the legal system. In New York, politically ambitious prosecutors fear alienating the Orthodox voting bloc—some 493,000 people in the New York metro area. The result is that the vast majority of cases never go to trial because they are never reported, and when they are, charges are often not filed. As one former detective told Newsday, “In Brooklyn, it almost seemed like there were two penal codes, one for the Hasidic community and one for everyone else.”1 In most instances, the accusers end up deprived of justice, doomed to suffer the punishments meted out by their community.
1 One former Brooklyn D.A., Charles Hynes, was accused of refusing to prosecute ultra-Orthodox Jews alleged to have committed child abuse and of shielding the names of the few who were convicted. According to a 2012 New York Times article, Hynes was close to a prominent rabbi, Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, who has argued that adherent Jews should not report abuse until a rabbi has determined their accusations to be credible. With the staunch backing of the Orthodox community, Hynes won six elections for D.A.
With so little recourse, some members of New York’s Orthodox communities have taken it upon themselves to catalogue and warn others about rabbis suspected of abusive behavior, despite the potential repercussions. Thirty-year-old Meyer Seewald is the founder of Jewish Community Watch (J.C.W.), a global advocacy organization whose website features a “Wall of Shame” listing names of those in the Jewish community whom J.C.W. has, through independent investigations, determined to be abusers. Seewald told me he has personally confronted over one hundred child molesters, many of whom openly confessed to him. J.C.W. is now his full-time job, and, in addition to its New York office, the organization has staff in California, Florida, and Israel, along with a global team of volunteers. The J.C.W. website claims that it has never wrongfully exposed anyone. (The one individual who threatened to sue over the release of information about his conviction in Israel was added to the New York State sex-offender registry a few months ago.)
Seewald was motivated to create the organization after discovering that Rabbi Moshe Keller, the father of Seewald’s deceased best friend, was rumored to be a pedophile. “I got a call from a teenager who said he’d been molested by Keller,” said Seewald. “Even though he was like a father to me, I started investigating him.” After asking a number of his childhood friends about Keller, Seewald started hearing repeated stories about molestation. He eventually found out that Keller had been accused of sexually abusing children since his days in Israel, two decades earlier, though not a single Israeli rabbi had informed anyone in New York of the allegations when Keller relocated. In 2011, Keller was arrested in Brooklyn for sexually assaulting a teenage boy and was charged with “harassment,” “acting in a manner to injure a child under seventeen,” and “attempted sexual assault.” His ultimate sentence: three years of probation.
Another well-known outlet for reporting abusers is a hotline and blog run by the sixty-nine-year-old Brooklyn rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, which posts videos and photos with accusations against alleged ultra-Orthodox predators. The homepage warns, “This Blog is here for a purpose—to fight pedophilia and znus [lechery], not for snide remarks, filthy comments or threats.” Rosenberg launched the hotline in 1998 after children told him that they were being abused in the mikvahs (ritual baths). Members of the community began opening up to him, admitting that they too had been assaulted, and alleging that, in many cases, their rabbis had been paid off by their abusers.
Rosenberg—who was once quoted in a Vice article describing the sexual-abuse problem in the community as a “child-rape assembly line”—has faced harsh retribution for his efforts. He was beaten up and shunned by fellow members of his ultra-Orthodox Satmar sect. In 2014, a fishmonger named Meilech Schnitzler threw bleach into his face in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A shopkeeper was able to pour water into Rosenberg’s eyes, likely saving his vision, according to the doctor who treated him for burns at the hospital. The police concluded that Schnitzler’s attack had been motivated by the fact that his father had been named as a sexual predator on Rosenberg’s site.
“They have threatened me many times,” Rosenberg told me. “They told all the small children to run after me and spit at me, and had cars pretend they were running me over. They said, ‘If you don’t close your hotline, I’ll shoot if you walk on the Williamsburg Bridge!’ The U.S. government should know how much hate crime goes on in these communities. They picked me up and threw me out of the shul like a piece of dirt. Then they had posters about five-foot high—pictures of me—how they should chop off my head.” Schnitzler, who’d faced multiple charges for the attack on Rosenberg, was allowed to plead guilty to a single count of assault. He received no jail time and just five years of probation.2
2 Ben Hirsch told me that he complained about the Schnitzler sentencing to the then chief assistant district attorney, Eric Gonzalez, and was largely ignored. When I contacted Gonzalez, who is now the Brooklyn D.A., his press representative emailed me to say that my questions concerning Hirsch’s claims “bordered on anti-Semitism.”
Like Finkelstein and Gordon, many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox men—including rabbis—who have been outed as abusers by activists have evaded the U.S. legal system by fleeing to Israel. Under the 1950 Law of Return, Jews across the world are able to apply for Israeli residency and citizenship. Once in Israel, abusers enjoy significant protections—some Israeli cell phones, for instance, are programmed to block calls going to centers for sexual-abuse survivors. (A lawsuit under way in Israel claims that the telecom companies agreed to this at the behest of a committee of rabbis, in exchange for its business.)
Seewald’s Jewish Community Watch estimates that at least sixty-five Jews suspected or convicted of sexual abuse—the vast majority of them Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox—have relocated to Israel in the past decade. “As in many other close-knit religious communities,” said Shana Aaronson, chief operating officer of J.C.W., “abusers have often taken to moving from one community to the next when things start heating up for them.” Beyond Israel, J.C.W. has tracked some thirty other abusers moving between nations such as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia, to say nothing of those moving between different towns and cities within those countries. “As long as members of the community refuse to actively warn the community of the impending move and danger,” Aaronson told me, “the abuser will be accepted with few questions asked and sometimes even be given a position working with children.”
When the 2013 lawsuit against Yeshiva was filed, the law stipulated that, in most cases, criminal charges and civil complaints could be brought only before the victims turned twenty-three. (Complaints made against institutions rather than individuals could be filed only if the victims were under twenty-one.) Nevertheless, the Yeshiva plaintiffs went ahead with the suit under the argument that the statute of limitations period shouldn’t have begun until 2012, when an exposé in the Jewish-American Forward first detailed Yeshiva’s knowledge of, and indifference to, the sexual abuse allegedly committed by Finkelstein and Gordon. The court saw it differently, ruling that the victims’ own knowledge of Yeshiva’s conduct set the statutory clock ticking decades earlier. Under the new C.V.A., however, all victims are given a one-year “look-back window”—no matter when the abuse occurred—to file a civil suit. Moreover, most victims can now file a criminal complaint until they’re twenty-eight, anyone under the age of twenty-two when the bill went into effect can sue until age fifty-five, and anyone who was sexually abused at any time in his or her life can file a suit within a year of the law’s enactment.
Past efforts to pass such a bill, tirelessly led by the former Democratic Assemblywoman Margaret M. Markey of Queens, had been knocked down for years by the then Republican-led New York State Senate. Time and time again, the legislature caved to various interests for whom the C.V.A. would signal a significant financial burden—the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Orthodox community, among others. (One report by a group of lawyers estimated that the Catholic Church has spent over $10 million fighting such bills nationwide since 2011.) Both Hirsch and Seewald blame Agudath Israel of America, an organization that advocates for Jewish religious and civil rights, and which opposed the law out of a concern that it might “jeopardize the ongoing viability” of yeshivas, summer camps, and synagogue youth programs. With Democrats winning the State Senate in 2018, however, the bill secured enough votes for passage. “For many years, institutions ignored voices of child-abuse victims when they begged for justice,” Seewald noted. “Now they’re begging institutions to go easy on them.”
The attorneys for the Yeshiva victims—Michael Dowd, Kevin Mulhearn, and Paul Mones—look forward to a justified payday for their clients. “In our civil system,” Dowd told me, “the only redress is money.” Rabbi Rosenberg is keen to see the perpetrators finally face legal consequences. “It won’t be so easy to play around with kids anymore!” he said. “They should all just be locked up.” Many of the victims I’ve spoken to, though, are mainly eager for a long-awaited opportunity to shine a light on this dark corner of their community. Singer described to me his parents’ reaction when he and his co-plaintiffs brought the first lawsuit: “They were horrified. ‘You don’t really want to bankrupt Yeshiva, do you?’” In reality, his motives were far simpler. “I wasn’t looking for victory,” he said. “I just wanted a chance to speak.”