by Elli Wohlgelernter and Gary Rosenblatt (The Jewish Week)
May 23, 2003
A panel of rabbinic authorities was scheduled to hear testimony in Brooklyn this week from several former yeshiva students of Rabbi Matis Weinberg, a prominent and charismatic American-born Torah scholar, author and teacher living in Jerusalem who is alleged to have made sexual advances toward them and others, The Jewish Week has learned.
Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky, a highly respected Torah scholar in Philadelphia, arranged the proceedings at the urging of alleged victims and their supporters, and a prominent Los Angeles rabbi who once worked with Rabbi Weinberg, a number of sources told The Jewish Week.
Some of the victims say they are seeking rabbinic endorsement to pursue their charges in criminal court or in an Israeli din Torah (religious tribunal), or both.
Rabbi Weinberg, whose books on the Bible and Jewish thought are widely read and praised, denies all the charges, which span a 25-year period. He told The Jewish Week he did not believe any rabbinic panel was taking place and he expressed frustration at the allegations made against him.
Rabbi Weinberg noted that while he was physically demonstrative to his students, often hugging them, it was never in a sexual way.
"I don't get a hard-on from such encounters," asserted the rabbi, who is married and has a large family.
Among those scheduled to testify May 1 is "Sammy," a 20-year-old former student at Derech Etz Chaim, a small Jerusalem yeshiva for post-high school American students with which Rabbi Weinberg, 56, is loosely affiliated. He has been a rebbe to several of the rabbis teaching at the school and is considered its spiritual mentor.
Sammy and several other men have spoken at length with The Jewish Week on the condition of anonymity.
Sammy said the rabbi kissed him on the lips at least once, and climbed into his bed when the two were alone and shared a room during an excursion in Israel this winter. He said he had been close to Rabbi Weinberg and his family and had been a frequent Shabbat guest at their home during his time as a student at the yeshiva, looking up to the rabbi as his religious guide and leader.
At various times when they were alone, the rabbi would "lift my eyeglasses and kiss me slowly and purposefully on my eyelids or my ears, or pinch me affectionately above the waist," Sammy said, noting that these gestures made him feel uncomfortable. "But he was my rebbe, and part of me felt almost flattered" at the attention, he added.
He said it was only later, after denying to himself that any misconduct had taken place, that "I realized I had been lying to myself."
Sammy later told a rabbi he trusted and his parents about the incidents.
On another front, Yeshiva University severed its affiliation with Derech Etz Chaim in February for its ties with Rabbi Weinberg and for allegedly seeking to downplay the complaints.
Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani (spiritual adviser) at Yeshiva University, explained that after officials at Yeshiva looked into the matter and "became aware of the possibility of something that would cause an unhealthy environment and produce a potential risk," they decided to end YU's relationship with Derech Etz Chaim.
The YU newspaper, The Commentator, ran a lengthy piece in March about the school severing ties because of "compelling evidence" of a rabbi associated with Derech Etz Chaim having "a history of allegedly sexually abusing and engaging in cult-like behavior with his students." The article did not name the rabbi.
Officials of the Israeli yeshiva and several students complained that YU acted hastily and unfairly.
Two of the eight rebbes at Derech Etz Chaim are said to have left their posts over the controversy. One, Rabbi Avraham Schorr, gathered his students at his home one morning last month to tell them he was leaving because of the scandal, according to someone who was present.
Rabbi Schorr did not return calls from The Jewish Week. He was one of many people related to the case who chose not to discuss the matter.
Reluctant To Speak Out
This story has come to light slowly, in fits and starts, over a period of months, hindered by a reluctance of the alleged victims and their supporters to speak out publicly. They express fear of condemnation for chilul Hashem (desecration of God's name), and personal embarrassment or recrimination in the Orthodox world for criticizing a major scholar who has reached countless Jews in positive ways through his lectures and writings.
"Why should I be victimized twice?" one former student said, noting that he would be shunned in the Orthodox community were he to come forward with his name.
At the same time, these critics say they want Rabbi Weinberg's alleged misdeeds to be widely known so that no student in the future will be harmed.
Dozens of supporters of Rabbi Weinberg have written or called The Jewish Week over the last several weeks to vouch for his reputation as a brilliant, charismatic scholar with a sterling character and to decry what they consider to be a campaign to besmirch him.
Ari Hier of Los Angeles, a student of Rabbi Weinberg in Santa Clara, Calif., in the 1970s, describes his rebbe as a warm, caring and innovative educator.
"He is unconventional in his teaching," Hier said, noting that it was easy to see why the deeply conservative establishment of the yeshiva world would look askance at a rebbe who quoted pop music lyrics or cited Hollywood movies in his lectures and writings.
Indeed, Hier compared Rabbi Weinberg to the Robin Williams character in the film "Dead Poets Society," a teacher who prodded his students into deeper understanding of literature, and themselves, by being outrageous at times.
Rabbi Weinberg, in an interview with The Jewish Week, used the "Dead Poets" analogy as well. One thing that he, his supporters and critics agree on is that he is a maverick. But while his defenders portray him as a brilliant, caring rabbi, his critics say he was authoritarian and manipulative, emotionally and psychologically, in addition to the sexual charges.
Controversy has clung to Rabbi Weinberg, the son and grandson of two successive rosh yeshivas of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, since he founded Kerem Yeshiva in Santa Clara. He started the school at the age of 29 in the 1970s and left in 1982 under a cloud of suspicion. The yeshiva closed about a year later.
"My approach is to be open, open to criticism, open to questions," Rabbi Weinberg said in the interview. He described the Kerem method as "experimental" but said he taught "with utmost transparency."
Rabbi Weinberg settled in Israel after he left Kerem. There were persistent rumors at the time that the rabbi was forced out suddenly. Some say it was because of financial problems at the yeshiva. Others insist that Rabbi Weinberg was found to have made sexual advances toward students and that an oral agreement was reached where the rabbi agreed to leave the country and stop working with young people and in return, no charges would be filed against him with civil authorities.
Rabbi Weinberg said the charges are baseless and that he made the move because he always intended to live in Israel.
While he initially denied all charges of any kind of abuse as "absurd," the rabbi did acknowledge, when questioned, that he had slapped a Kerem student hard, repeatedly, in the mouth, drawing blood in front of a large group of students. He said the student had asked to be "embarrassed publicly" because he had violated the school ban on smoking, and Rabbi Weinberg agreed, reluctantly, to punish him physically.
"I agree it's strange," he said. "I'm more mature now and I wouldn't do this now.
"I was a creative teacher," and "it worked," he added.
Rabbi Weinberg also admitted that he had once extinguished a burnt cigarette in the palm of a student's hand.
But he was adamant about there being "no sexual connotation" to the frequent hugs and kisses he gave students, noting that this was California in the '70s, and that "I am a physical person, that's just the way I am." He said "it makes me feel ugly and violated to take something warm and caring and turn it into something furtive and disgusting."
Asked if he ever kissed students on the lips, as some have charged, he responded: "How long?"
When questioned about specific incidents of alleged sexual contact, Rabbi Weinberg volunteered the names of the former students and portrayed them as psychologically troubled. He said that Sammy, the 20-year-old, and his family had a "troubled history" and that his own children worried that Sammy was "like Neil," a character in "Dead Poets Society" who commits suicide.
Rabbi Weinberg charged that Sammy has been "emotionally abused by rabbis and others who have an agenda" in seeking to make sexual charges out of innocent gestures, like rubbing the young man's back or shoulders.
A rabbi close to Sammy said the young man is part of "a normal, stable and loving family," and that while he knew Rabbi Weinberg and respected him, he has come to believe that Sammy is telling the truth.
Rabbi Weinberg said that another former student from his Kerem days who has made allegations against him was "a problematic young man" with a "violent" nature and was not credible.
That student, "Adam," now 40, told The Jewish Week that when he was 17, Rabbi Weinberg led him by the hand to his private study in the yeshiva, "pushed me on the bed or sofa and literally got on top of me, grappled me all over my body as a man would with a woman he was passionate about. I went into a catatonic shock. He fell asleep and slept on me for hours."
Adam said that afterward, "it was as if nothing ever happened," but he felt "an implicit sense" that he had lost favor with his rebbe.
"I wasn't there for him physically so he wasn't there for me emotionally, and there was a sense of abandonment," Adam said. Most damaging, he said, was that "he was playing with my head. That was most inviolate."
Act Of Closure
Contemporaries and former classmates of Adam tell similar stories of alleged abuse from Rabbi Weinberg, whom they revered as a rebbe.
"It's very vivid in my mind," said "Avraham," recalling the incident that took place in 1981, when he was 15, in a back room in the dormitory that was reserved for Rabbi Weinberg.
Avraham said the rabbi said he wanted to talk to him. "He started unbuttoning my shirt, kissing my chest and stuff, started unbuttoning my pants, and he started to fondle me. I basically freaked out and I left."
He said he later remembered feeling that the rabbi "was making this out to be... some type of spiritual or religious experience."
"Yitzchak," another former Kerem student, recalled three incidents of alleged touching that continues to haunt him more than 20 years later. The first took place in the dormitory in May 1982 when the rabbi came in and fondled the youngster's private parts, he said, while making "guttural, love-making noises."
Yitzchak said he was "totally in shock.... Obviously it wasn't normal, it was obviously something that was wrong, but I didn't understand it."
A very similar event occurred a year later at a yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem, he said, when he was getting dressed in the dorm. He said Rabbi Weinberg "came into the room, gave me a hug, hands inside the robe, fondling me again."
Yitzchak said he was confused because he felt that to break away from Rabbi Weinberg was "like breaking off from the path of enlightenment, your opportunity to really develop fully as a Jew."
But after another encounter two months later in the rabbi's home, "I was gone," he said, and soon left the school.
Six or seven years later, Yitzchak felt a need to confront Rabbi Weinberg, he said. When he next saw the rabbi, "he tried to tell me that I enjoyed it, that I wanted it."
Yitzchak said it was "a liberating experience" for him to see the rabbi "squirm."
"It was an act of closure," he said.
But several of the other alleged victims say they are pursuing the case now because they are still troubled emotionally by the long-ago encounters and feel a strong need to try to protect young men from being harmed in the future. They note that a number of the alleged incidents of sexual abuse took place at the Kerem yeshiva and that California has no statute of limitations on such crimes.
A key figure in moving the case forward is Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, a well-respected principal of a Los Angeles yeshiva and kashrut authority who is said to have played a role in having Rabbi Weinberg leave Kerem two decades ago.
Rabbi Eidlitz was planning to be at the May 1 panel in New York and said his purpose is "to protect people from being molested. I have to put my own feelings and emotions aside to be able to accomplish that goal."
He said he is dedicated to "doing what is needed to end this disgusting type of act in the frum community."
Rabbi Blau of Yeshiva University noted that while the community "has become sensitized to the problems of abuse since the [Rabbi Baruch] Lanner scandal [three years ago], we are still lacking a clear and effective mechanism to deal with allegations of abuse that protects the victims while filtering out frivolous accusations."
He said that only when there is success in dealing with these problems internally, without fear that the offender will simply move somewhere else and repeat his behavior, can "we discuss dealing with issues in privacy." Until that time, he said, "only public exposure is effective in protecting the community from abusers."
Rabbi Blau called it "a misapplication of chilul Hashem" to worry more about communal embarrassment than "protecting future potential victims at risk."
Rabbi Weinberg's past has taken its toll on his family and led to estrangement within it.
His sister, Dr. Aviva Weisbord, a psychologist, and his mother, Chana Weinberg, who founded a shelter for women victims of domestic abuse, issued a statement from their home in Baltimore this week in regard to this investigation, asserting that their family "strongly condemns any and all abuse by anybody against anybody at any time in any place in any form."
They said they plan to help form a panel of rabbis and professionals, including women, to act as a clearinghouse of abuse complaints and to appoint investigators to look into allegations. Weisbord said she would like to see a system of checks and balances, so that if parties are not satisfied with the results of the panel's probe, "they can go to the press."
"We would like to minimize chilul Hashem," she said, "but the first priority is that children have to be protected."
Elli Wohlgelernter is a former editor and reporter at The Jerusalem Post. Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The Jewish Week.