by Gary Rosenblatt (The Jewish Week)
On the surface, the suit and counter suit filed by a small Jerusalem yeshiva, Derech Etz Chaim, and Modern Orthodoxy's flagship institution, Yeshiva University, are about an alleged breach of contract.
But underneath, at the simmering center of the case to be heard in federal court in Manhattan next week, are questions about the behavior of a charismatic, American-born rabbi, Matis Weinberg, 57, a prominent Torah scholar and author alleged to have a history of sexual abuse against yeshiva students.
Rabbi Weinberg's association with Derech Etz Chaim led Yeshiva University in February 2003 to cut its ties with the 6-year-old yeshiva, which had been a favorite "feeder" school for YU. Derech Etz Chaim, which takes about 30 students a year, mostly from the U.S., claimed that the move by YU dealt it a severe financial blow. It is suing for breach of contract for at least $75,000, arguing that the allegations are false, and that Rabbi Aaron Katz, the dean, was defamed.
In response, YU is counter suing, claiming that Derech Etz Chaim "utterly refused to protect" its students from Rabbi Weinberg. It also charges that Rabbi Katz chose to ignore allegations of sexual misconduct made against Rabbi Weinberg, which first came to light in The Jewish Week last May.
Though Rabbi Weinberg is not officially listed as a member of the Derech Etz Chaim faculty, he is considered to be its spiritual mentor, and offers weekly lectures at the yeshiva. Rabbi Katz is a former student of Rabbi Weinberg, having attended the Kerem Yeshiva in Santa Clara, Calif., that Rabbi Weinberg founded in the 1970s and left suddenly in 1982 amid rumors of sexual abuse against students. Rabbi Weinberg then settled in Israel. Two of Rabbi Weinberg's sons have been on the Derech Etz Chaim faculty, and favored students in the yeshiva often were invited to Rabbi Weinberg's home for Shabbat and other occasions.
Rabbi Weinberg is not a party to the lawsuit, and he has strenuously denied the allegations of sexual abuse. He has not been deposed in the case and is listed as a potential witness, but observers believe that YU will make his behavior the centerpiece of its case, calling as witnesses former students who allege that he made sexual advances to them.
If so, it would mark the first time that such charges against Rabbi Weinberg - some going back more than two decades - were made in a public setting.
Last May, a bet din (religious court) in New York heard testimony from at least six former students, some of whom attended Kerem in the 1970s, and at least one who attended Derech Etz Chaim several years ago, charging that Rabbi Weinberg had abused them, or sought to. The testimony was passed on to a bet din in Jerusalem, which chose not to pursue the case.
Rabbi Weinberg is expected to be in New York at some point in the next two weeks, scheduled to officiate at the May 9 wedding of the son of businessman Stephen Rosenberg of Monsey, a longtime supporter of the rabbi who is said to have provided major funding for the Derech Etz Chaim legal case.
Rosenberg did not respond to efforts to reach him.
YU is being represented in the case by Stephen Fuchs and Jed Marcus of Grotta, Glassman and Hoffman, a New York firm. Marcus said the counter suit was undertaken "reluctantly," based on the belief that Derech Etz Chaim "misrepresented itself when it came into the [Joint Israel] Program" five years ago.
Derech Etz Chaim had been represented by Greenberg, Traurig, a major firm based in New York, but it recently withdrew from the case, which will be handled at trial by Hayim Gross, a devotee of Rabbi Weinberg and original co-counsel from Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Gross denied that the case would center on the allegations against Rabbi Weinberg, but did not elaborate.
The series of events leading up the trial began in February 2003, when YU, after an internal investigation of Derech Etz Chaim prompted by allegations from students and former students associated with Rabbi Weinberg, terminated its affiliation with the school. The decision was based on a "review" of "the educational standards and learning environment" there, according to a letter YU sent to parents of Derech Etz Chaim students slated to attend YU explaining the situation.
(As part of YU's Joint Israel Program, Derech Etz Chaim was one of a number of Israeli yeshivot attended by American post-high school students for at least a year before entering YU with sophomore status.)
Derech Etz Chaim officials, claiming the review was false and "improper," filed suit in May 2003, asserting that YU had "disparaged" the school by telling those who made inquiries that Rabbi Weinberg "was creating a cult-like atmosphere" at the yeshiva, and "had been accused of engaging in appropriate sexual contact" with a student.
YU's counter suit said that Rabbi Katz, the Derech Etz Chaim dean, was told of "credible allegations" of abuse, "going back 20 years," against Rabbi Weinberg, and that Rabbi Katz "refused...to take any actions to safeguard students."
Negotiations were held between Derech Etz Chaim and YU officials in an effort to avoid the trial, but the talks were said to have broken down when Derech Etz Chaim insisted on being reinstated in the Joint Israel Program and YU refused.