Agudah Acknowledges Conflict Over Summer Camp But Also Opposes Child Victim Act

By Michael Orbach (The Jewish Star)
Posted online April 26, 2009 / 2 Iyar 5769

The Jewish social service organization Ohel is denying that it will oppose legislation that would allow victims of childhood sexual abuse currently beyond the statute of limitations to bring their cases to court. Agudath Israel of America and Torah Umesorah, its affiliated educational arm have announced their opposition to the open-window provision under consideration in Albany.

Ohel's decision to oppose the legislation was described to The Jewish Star by two reliable and well-informed sources.

When contacted for comment, CEO David Mandel declined to confirm, telling a reporter, "It is simply not a matter of a yes or no issue of supporting the Markey bill or the Lopez bill as one can be supportive of major portions of legislation without supporting it in its entirety, and at the same time remain true to their convictions."

Mandel was referring to legislation sponsored by Assemblywoman Marge Markey (D-Queens) that would extend the civil statute of limitations by five years as well as open a year-long window to bring civil cases that currently are beyond the statute. A competing bill sponsored by Assemblyman Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) would extend the civil statute of limitations by two years but does not include the yearlong window.

After an article was published on The Jewish Star website Sunday evening Mandel denied the characterization of Ohel's position as opposing the legislation. Later, an Ohel spokesman released a statement that read, in part, "At no time in the conversation with the reporter was any statement made that Ohel was opposing any legislation - and nor by any other source of authority."

The statement from Ohel ended, "The Jewish Star got it wrong. Ohel will provide its own written statement on this issue."

The original story did not claim that Mandel had made the statement. The Star stands by its online report that two reliable sources characterized Ohel's position as opposed to the Markey bill.

In a statement released Tuesday, Agudath Israel of America and Torah Umesorah, the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, indicated that they would "have no objection to legislation designed to give victims of abuse greater recourse against perpetrators."

However, Agudah and Torah Umesorah "vigorously oppose" legislation that would do away with the statute of limitations, even temporarily for a year, since that "could subject schools and other vital institutions to ancient claims and capricious litigation, and place their very existence in severe jeopardy."

Agudah acknowledges a conflict of interest related to a lawsuit against Yeshiva Torah Temimah in Brooklyn, and Yehuda Kolko, a longtime rebbe there. The suit lists an Agudah-owned summer camp for boys, Camp Agudah, Inc., as a defendant. The suit was filed in Brooklyn Federal Court in 2006. It alleges that Kolko molested David Framowitz, identified in the suit as John Doe No. 1, while he attended Camp Agudah in the summer between his seventh and eighth grade years.

"It's not anything that was ever hidden," Rabbi Dovid Zwiebel, Agudath Israel's executive vice president, explained."

"The camp is the same name. Notwithstanding that this group of rabbonim who sat on this question for the last number of weeks is among the most senior and respected rabbonim and roshei yeshiva, when you get to that level, chances are you're going to be affiliated with institutions that operate programs that young people participate in. It's impossible to imagine [that] a question of this nature should not be considered by the leaders of the community simply because they are affiliated with institutions."

Rabbi Zwiebel added: "If we're sinister, we should surely do a much better job of covering our tracks."

Agudath Israel's position is a general one meant to apply across the nation, according to Rabbi Zwiebel. Practically speaking, however, Agudah's position puts it in opposition to the Child Victims Act bill, legislation sponsored by Assemblywoman Markey. Instead, Agudah will direct lobbying efforts to support the Lopez bill. It does not have the open-window provision leading some critics to refer to is as "The Hide the Predator Act."

Marci Hamilton, a Yeshiva University law professor and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children, blasted Agudah's position, which she described as "indifferent to the safety of children." Similar legislation passed in California and Delaware led to the identification of 360 previously unknown sexual predators, she said.

"Without the window, the predators remain in the shadows so that they can groom more children for abuse," Hamilton explained. "A stand against the window is a stand for the predators."

Michael Lesher, an attorney who represents a number of victims of childhood abuse, criticized Ohel.

"If Ohel really cares about children then it really ought to care about their freedom to seek justice when they need it," he said, noting, "If they [Ohel] have nothing to hide," then they shouldn't be in "direct opposition to the bill."

The legislation has garnered a complicated response from elsewhere in the Jewish community. The United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg - closely tied to the United Talmudical Academy, which faces a $5 million dollar lawsuit for allegedly harboring a sexual predator - has also publicly objected to the window. Joel Engelman, the plaintiff in that suit, is also beyond the statute of limitations.

The Orthodox Union has not taken a public position on either bill. At a rally in Albany earlier this week the representatives of a number of Jewish organizations joined Christian groups to push for the Markey legislation.

And Agudah's position has drawn criticism from prominent members of the Jewish community, as well.

Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani (spiritual guidance counselor) of Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and an outspoken activist against sexual abuse inside the Orthodox community, said that "the old system does not work" and the only way to fix it is "a communal responsibility to bite the bullet."

"This is the only way that institutions will take responsibility and abusers will not be given the opportunity to move from one place to another," Rabbi Blau asserted. "Institutions that have been completely negligent should be sued."

Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of the Orthodox social justice group Uri L'Tzedek, was equally adamant.

"Halacha does not have a statute of limitations," Yanklowitz maintained. "What is the fear of organizations of allowing the justice system to work? If they have been taking responsibility for their educators and religious leaders then there should be no threat to their organization's financial stability."

In a letter distributed on April 22nd, Assemblyman Dov Hikind, whose campaign to end sexual abuse inside the Orthodox community helped bring the issue of sexual abuse to the forefront, asked Agudah to reassess its position and work out a compromise.

"Achieving justice for the victims need not come about as a result of the financial demise of our greatest institutions," Hikind wrote, "but neither can we forsake those who have already sacrificed far too much."