by Joe Berkofsky (JTA)
An Israeli religious school has slapped Yeshiva University with a lawsuit in a contract dispute sparked by charges that a rabbi at the Israeli school sexually molested students.
On Monday, the Derech Etz Chaim yeshiva of Jerusalem filed a breach of contract lawsuit in Manhattan federal court alleging that YU financially "crippled" the school by severing ties following allegations that a lecturer made unwanted sexual advances toward students.
The Jerusalem school is seeking a minimum of $75,000 in damages and is asking Judge William Pauley to issue an injunction preventing Yeshiva from making further "disparaging" comments about it, including allegations that the school tried to cover up the controversy.
YU officials did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
The charges come a few weeks into the tenure of Richard Joel as president of Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy.
They also mark the latest sexual misconduct scandal to rock the Orthodox community in several years.
In December 2000, a special commission that Joel chaired found that Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a leading Orthodox youth group figure, had sexually and physically abused teens.
The lawsuit against Yeshiva arises from a conflict that surfaced in February, when the university said 10 sophomores who studied at Etz Chaim during their freshman year failed to attend some classes upon their return, instead studying with the Etz Chaim rabbi via e-mail.
Yeshiva then halted its year-abroad program, charging the students maintained an untoward "allegiance" to an unnamed rabbi associated with Etz Chaim.
According to press reports, the controversial figure is Rabbi Matis Weinberg, a charismatic, Baltimore-born Torah scholar who allegedly sexually harassed students amid what the university's newspaper called a "cult-like" environment at Etz Chaim.
Neither Yeshiva University nor Etz Chaim have confirmed or denied the sexual misconduct charges, and no one has brought legal action against Weinberg.
However, a New York religious court, or bet din, heard complaints from current and former students and referred them to an Israeli religious court last month.
Etz Chaim officials said they learned of the sexual harassment charges from Yeshiva.
The school "was not aware of any allegations of sexual misconduct against Rabbi Weinberg until Yeshiva University started making those allegations public," said Sarah Wadelton, an attorney with the New York firm Greenberg Traurig, which represents Derech Etz Chaim.
Once the charges surfaced, the school canceled Rabbi Weinberg's weekly lecture series to ensure that its commitment to "student safety was beyond question," Wadelton said.
"Without accepting those allegations as true, they wanted to be as proactive as possible," she said.
Rabbi Aharon Katz, the school's principal, added that Rabbi Weinberg was not a member of Etz Chaim's faculty but was an unpaid guest lecturer who delivered popular weekly talks open to the general public.
Rabbi Weinberg could not be reached for comment but has denied the charges. He voluntarily resigned once the charges surfaced, Rabbi Katz said.
Rabbi Katz would not comment on the veracity of the sexual impropriety charges, but said the notion that YU students were skipping classes to study with Rabbi Weinberg after their return to New York was "patently untrue."
Rabbi Katz said about two dozen of the school's 45 students hailed from Yeshiva University. YU officials would not provide him with a list of those said to be skipping class, Rabbi Katz said.
Rabbi Katz also portrayed Etz Chaim, located in the heavily Orthodox Har Nof neighborhood, as a highly accessible place where students' parents often visited classes or spent Shabbat, and where open lectures such as Rabbi Weinberg's drew people from around the country.
"When people say it's a 'cult-like environment,' it sounds like a closed environment. This is anything but," he said.
In the wake of YU's move to sever ties, Etz Chaim officials say enrollment has dropped and the school is in danger of closing.
This spring, several students decided not to return after the Passover break and some parents took their sons out of school, while registrations for the coming year have thinned, Wadelton and Rabbi Katz said.
They could not say exactly how much money the school has lost or how far enrollment has fallen.
"There have been very serious damages to the school in response to Yeshiva University's public campaign of disparagement," Wadelton said.
Besides damages, the school wants the court to prevent Yeshiva from saying the school is "cult-like," that it failed to act in response to the charges and that officials "concealed" the growing sex scandal, Wadelton said.
Etz Chaim officials said they tried to resolve the dispute "amicably" through phone calls and intermediaries, but that Yeshiva was unresponsive.
Rabbi Katz said he always had been pleased with the "top-notch" high school graduates who took part in YU's program at Etz Chaim.
"We valued our relationship with YU. We found it to be a good partner, and it's a partner we would like to continue to work with in the future," he said.