By Elijah Wolfson (Newsweek)
March 3, 2016
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Mint-colored city buses and sherbet mid-rise apartment complexes with undulating facades. Women in polka-dot bikinis and men in wide-lapelled shirts unbuttoned halfway down their chests. Postcard-perfect white sand beaches and cocaine-addled nights that throbbed to a mix of brassy disco and tropical Cuban beats. It was 1981, and the 19-square-mile barrier island known as Miami Beach was on the verge of bursting into one of the most hedonistic scenes committed to the history books.
Somehow, in the midst of this Caribbean decadence, a very different community also thrived. Just a few blocks from the scantily dressed beachgoers and the drug lords in Armani silk were men in ill-fitting black suits and heavy beards, and women in thick wigs and long woolen skirts all year long, even as the wet heat of the Atlantic swept across the peninsula. The ranks of Miami’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, Hasidim, were swelling. They were insular and defiantly anti-secular, clinging to traditions that may have protected their community in a medieval world but in modern America would lead to tragic consequences for many of their youngest, most vulnerable members.
Twelve-year-old Ozer Simon hadn’t grown up Hasidic, but after his parents divorced, his mom became a baal teshuva, a secular Jew who has “returned” to religious ways, and enrolled him at a yeshiva. He immediately fell behind because the other kids had been studying Hebrew since they were toddlers, so when Rabbi Joseph Reizes, a new teacher recently arrived from Brooklyn, offered to tutor the child, his mother jumped at the opportunity.
But when she asked Simon how his first lesson went, she could tell “something was really wrong.” Simon told her the rabbi hadn’t taught him anything; instead, he’d asked the boy to lie down and take a nap. When he did, the older man lay down on top of him. The next school day, Simon’s mother went to Rabbi Avrohom Korf, principal of the boy’s school, and told him what had happened. “I said to him, ‘If Reizes continues to teach here, I’m going to go to the newspaper. Or whatever it takes,’” she recalls. “The next thing I know, the guy is gone.”
Korf says he confronted Reizes with Simon’s mother’s complaint and that the teacher fled back to Brooklyn of his own volition. Soon after, Reizes was hired to teach elementary school at Oholei Torah, a yeshiva in Crown Heights. No official complaint against him was ever filed in Miami, and Simon’s school never alerted Oholei Torah about the incident that had prompted Reizes’s quick return to Brooklyn.
Fifteen years later, Reizes was fired from Oholei Torah after allegations of sexual abuse arose yet again. A parent “informed a principal that his son was inappropriately touched during a private tutoring session with Reices [sic], after school hours and off school premises,” Oholei Torah’s director, Rabbi Sholom Rosenfeld, tells Newsweek via email.
Reizes was allowed to finish the school year, but Rosenfeld insists he was kept under “constant monitoring” for those three weeks. (Oholei Torah denied Newsweek many requests to speak to someone about this issue and stopped responding to email questions after an initial exchange. Through its lawyer, the school sent a note stating that to answer more questions would “compromise its legal and religious obligations.” Reizes did not respond to requests for comment.)
When contacted by Newsweek, the child whose parents brought the complaint to the school in 1996 didn’t want to speak about it publicly, but other students from that class say Reizes long had a reputation for inappropriate behavior. Bibi Morozow, 31 years old and now living in Florida, says a relative was molested by Reizes while attending Oholei Torah in the 1990s. (When reached by Newsweek on the phone, the relative declined to be interviewed.) “Reizes was always touchy; he’d put kids in his lap,” says one student who asked to remain anonymous because he feared being shunned by his community.
But no complaints were ever registered about the rabbi, nor were any criminal charges filed—in fact, a Freedom of Information Act request to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office turned up no evidence of his name ever appearing in its records. By now, the statute of limitations for most, if not all, of Reizes’s alleged crimes has expired, and the survivors are grown men, some with young boys in the Hasidic school system. Most are afraid to go public because they fear ruining the lives of their children. Reizes, now retired and in his 60s, lives across the street from the school where he used to teach.
While there is no evidence that child abuse is any more likely to occur in ultra-Orthodox schools than in public or secular institutions, stories like Reizes’s—an alleged abuser sheltered and victims unwilling to talk for fear of losing the only way of life they know—are common in the Hasidic school system. The many former students, advocates, sociologists, social workers and survivors interviewed by Newsweek, along with recordings, documents, public filings and personal emails that Newsweek obtained, place the blame on a confluence of factors: widespread sexual repression, a strong resistance to the secular world, and, most important, a power structure designed to keep people from speaking up about abuse.
Introduced to Forbidden Knowledge
Set on a leafy stretch of Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Oholei Torah is one of the most important institutions in the Chabad movement’s global yeshiva network and one of the largest of the dozens of Chabad schools in Brooklyn, with nearly 2,000 students at any given time. But stop any middle-school-age kid in the school’s hallways, and he—there are no female students—will likely know nothing of world history, won’t be able to do long division and will speak only rudimentary English—even though he’s growing up in the biggest city in the United States.
Oholei Torah conducts its seven-plus daily hours of religious lessons mostly in Yiddish. According to more than a dozen former students across three decades, it provides almost no lessons in science, math, English grammar or history. (The school did not respond to queries about its curriculum.) Many of these students go home to an apartment with no television, no Internet, no newspapers and no books except religious texts. Many will not gain the basic knowledge of how to navigate the world until they are married off around age 18, like how to write a check, how to order General Tso’s chicken or even what sex is. When you’re a child in this environment, you don’t question the fact that you can’t identify your own state on a map. And when you are molested, you don’t ask questions about that either.
In the ultra-Orthodox world, sexuality is simultaneously denied and monitored to the point of obsession. Starting in childhood, boys and girls are separated; the opposite gender remains a mystery until it’s time to marry, usually in an arranged pairing. Boys are taught to avoid looking at girls, while girls are taught that they are a source of sex and transgression, say former members of the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jewish, community.
If children aren’t taught by their parents and teachers about appropriate sexual behavior, they have no way to sense when touching turns into something that is wrong. “You don’t even know what your body is,” says Lynn Davidman, a professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Kansas who grew up in a religious Jewish family. “And you are not supposed to touch or know, and then all of a sudden you are introduced to forbidden knowledge in a most abusive way.” The abused have no way to make sense of what’s going on, to stop it or to tell anybody about it.
When Manny Vogel was in seventh grade at Oholei Torah, a student a few years older, high school age, wouldn’t let him alone—he’d follow Vogel in the hallways, into study halls and in the lunchroom. Then, Vogel recalls, the boy asked for a favor. “He claimed he wanted to try karate moves on me.” But karate was simply a pretense to touch the younger boy in ways he would later come to recognize as inappropriate. One time, Vogel says, the classmate paid him $5 to let him touch Vogel’s genitals over his pants. Vogel never said anything to his teachers, principal or parents. “He took advantage of me. I didn’t know any better.”
According to Vogel and other students, this older student had a reputation for touching younger kids—and teachers and administrators knew it. There were rumors he offered a classmate $175 for a “karate practice session.” Students believed the kid used the money he raised from selling bagels—eaten at school, after morning prayers—to fund his perversion.
Eventually, Vogel says, school administrators prohibited the student from selling bagels. (The school denies any knowledge of this. The student could not be reached for comment.) But the boy wasn’t punished, much less formally charged with any crime, and fellow students say the abuse continued until he graduated. Recently, the alleged abuser, now grown, was invited back to Oholei Torah to be a shaliach —Hebrew for “messenger,” a sort of missionary in Chabad who mentors the young and newly arrived to the community—and he remains a fixture in the Haredi community. Not long ago, Vogel’s brother got married; the alleged abuser, Vogel says, showed up at the ceremony. “We were dancing, in a circle, and he was just staring and staring at me,” says Vogel. “I was traumatized.”
After graduating from Oholei Torah, Vogel went to study at Yeshiva Brunoy, a prominent Chabad school in the suburbs of Paris. There, he was befriended by a shaliach, a man in his early 20s who would take Vogel into a private room and get him drunk. That wasn’t unusual; it was a custom at the school for older mentors to farbreng with younger students—sit together and discuss Hasidism while drinking hard liquor deep into the night. But unlike the other farbrengen, these didn’t take place on the first-floor classrooms and were not open to others.
One hazy, liquored-up evening, the shaliach allegedly kissed and groped Vogel. When he sobered up the next day, Vogel was distraught. For days, the memory ate at him as he struggled with the decision to tell or not. Finally, he called his stepfather in Brooklyn, who in turn called several senior educators and administrators at the school. The rabbis batted around the problem—no one wanted this toxic ball in his court. A week later, Vogel says, Rabbi Zalman Segal, director of the school’s Higher Section for the oldest students, told him they would send the alleged abuser away to a yeshiva in another country.
Angry and confused, Vogel returned to New York. Not long after, he got a conciliatory email from the alleged abuser—and the numbers for two debit cards, with a dollar amount for each: $2,000 and $3,000. “He said, ‘This is all the money I have. Take it and do what you want with it. But do me a favor, do not say anything—not for my sake, but for my family’s sake.” Vogel didn't take the money but decided to say nothing.
Two years later, I spoke to Vogel on a rainy summer evening in a Crown Heights bar not far from where he grew up. Just a few days before, he says, he had seen something that had shaken him: Segal and the man Vogel says had sexually abused him strolling together, chatting amiably. “They gave me such terrible flashbacks,” Vogel says. Later, he found out that his alleged abuser had spent only a few weeks outside of France and was allowed back into Yeshiva Brunoy once Vogel was gone. And this past summer, he says, the man found work at a Chabad summer camp, where he was responsible for the welfare of 300 kids and teenagers.
The school insists it responded adequately to Vogel’s complaint: An email signed “Yeshiva Administration” says, “No sexual abuse was reported at the time of the incident, yet we took the concern of such or any abuse very seriously and sought professional guidance.” The email adds that the school has worked closely with mental health professionals since then but can’t share any details about what that entails.
Newsweek’s direct inquiries to Segal were ignored. Vogel asked that Newsweek not contact or name the older student because, he says, the fault really lies with Brunoy for “mishandling the situation”—for allowing his alleged abuser to return to a mentorship role at the yeshiva.
“I think there is little doubt that the extent and seriousness of abuse in society at large was underappreciated for decades until relatively recently,” says Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella organization that provides leadership to Haredi communities. “Unfortunately, the Orthodox community was likewise unaware of the degree and severity of the problem in its own midst. That, though, has changed.”
Oholei Torah’s Rosenfeld tells Newsweek much the same, via email, adding, “I am proud to say that our school’s guidelines have often been ahead of the law’s mandates.”
Medieval Laws in America
There are many institutional barriers to stopping child abuse in the Haredi world. For example, there’s widespread belief that reporting abuse to secular authorities constitutes heresy. Traditional religious law prohibits mesirah, or “handing over”—a Jew may not snitch on another Jew to a secular government. Mesirah arose in the Middle Ages, when a European Jew charged with a crime would not get a fair trial—it was a prohibition designed, essentially, to protect against institutionalized anti-Semitism.
Today, in North American Haredi communities, there is debate over how the mesirah prohibition should be applied. In 2011, the Crown Heights Beis Din (the rabbinical court that handles internal religious disputes) ruled that mesirah “do[es] not apply in cases where there is evidence of abuse” and that “one is forbidden to remain silent in such situations.” And earlier this year, 107 Hasidic rabbis signed a kol koreh, or “public pronouncement,” stating that there is a religious obligation to notify secular law enforcement when it knows of child abuse.
However, “knowing” is a murky term here. In 2012, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, said mesirah meant community members should turn to rabbinical authorities to “ascertain that the suspicion meets a certain threshold of credibility” before reporting child abuse to the authorities. Scroll through the comments section of any of the muckraking websites that track abuses in the Haredi world—Unorthodox-Jew, FailedMessiah.com—and it quickly becomes clear how deferential this community is to religious authority. At the bottom of news coverage of sexual abuse trials are seething comments claiming the reporters are acting above their pay grade. “Stop speaking loshon harah and chillul Hashem ”—evil speech and the desecration of God’s name—“and let the Rabbis sort it out,” they have written.
The problem, though, is that this puts the decision to report on individuals who are usually not qualified to recognize signs of abuse—and who, many say, have a vested interest in keeping secular eyes away. Furthermore, while New York state law says all school officials are required to disclose any child abuse, physical or sexual, they see or hear about to Child Protective Services—religious clergy are not. And when school officials are also religious officials—all yeshiva teachers are rabbis—there are dangerous legal loopholes.
Chaim Levin, who grew up in Crown Heights and went to Oholei Torah, says his older cousin, Sholom Eichler, sexually molested him throughout his childhood. “I was a 9-year-old boy, and he sodomized me with a pen,” says Levin. “That’s not two kids playing around.” He didn’t tell anyone for years, but in 2003, when Levin was 14, he finally confided in a former counselor at summer camp, who consulted with his father-in-law, Rabbi Hershel Lustig, and then told Levin he should talk to the rabbi.
Lustig has worked for Oholei Torah for over 40 years. He’s an impeccably dressed, well-spoken man deeply beloved by the community. In 2003, he was the dean of Oholei Torah’s elementary school, a position he still holds.
Levin met with Lustig and told him about the abuse. The rabbi tried to be comforting: He told Levin not to worry, that he would still be considered a virgin and that his chances of successful shidduch, matchmaking, hadn’t been harmed. He also offered to tell Levin’s parents, but added, “We shouldn’t tell your parents who did it. It’s not relevant.”
For years, the abuse stayed buried, and everyone acted like nothing had happened: There is no public record that Lustig reported the incident to the police or to Child Protective Services. Lustig did not respond to Newsweek’s queries about the episode.
In 2007, Eichler worked at Gan Israel Montreal, a religious summer camp where he was responsible for the well-being of children all day and all night. A few years later, when Eichler got married, Levin’s family went to the wedding, but he stayed home. Finally, in 2012, he decided to speak out—one of the first and still one of the few members of the Brooklyn Hasidic community to go public about sexual abuse. He knew it was too late to press criminal charges, but he could still take Eichler to civil court, so Levin sued his cousin for damages. When Levin tried to get Lustig to sign a declaration saying Levin had told the rabbi about the abuse a decade earlier, Lustig refused, saying it was against religious law.
Even without that evidence, the court ordered Eichler to pay Levin $3.5 million. Levin has yet to collect, however. He says his cousin left the country soon after the court’s decision and is in Israel, outside the reach of extradition. “It started with what the trusted religious adviser, who lives down the street, told my parents to do,” Levin says. “And my abuser got away with it.”
‘He Started Working Me’
After his distressing experience with Reizes in Miami Beach, Ozer Simon was sent to a boarding school in Brooklyn in 1983. Chanoch Lena’ar, he says, was a “dumping ground” for kids having problems in religious school—a place for all the misfits. Simon was flailing in school when the principal, Rabbi Jacob Bryski, offered to help with his studies. “Come by my office after lights out,” he told the 14-year-old.
At first, Simon sat across the table from the principal during tutoring sessions, but when Bryski asked him to come closer, to sit next to him, Simon did. Then “he got his hands in my pants. I didn’t say anything.” That was just the first step. “He would take me to his house, to his basement, for a ‘sleepover,’” says Simon. “He would feed me dinner, a good meal—I’m in a dorm with crappy food, and I had no money.” After dinner, Simon says, Bryski would sexually molest him. “Whatever your mind can think of,” he says of what was done to him. “It was a nightmare.”
But Simon never told anybody. Bryski came from a highly respected and influential Hasidic family; one of his brothers is a multimillionaire in New York, and another is an important rabbi in California. Their father, Mordechai Meir Bryski, was a rabbi and real estate mogul, and a key figure in the establishment of the Hasidic school system in Brooklyn in the 1950s and ’60s. Simon, meanwhile, was a troubled out-of-towner who wasn’t even born Hasidic. Who would believe his word against Bryski’s? After all, as Mordy Gluckowsky, an Oholei student in the 1990s, says, “when we tell the parents or the teachers [about abuse], they say, ‘Nobody did anything.’ They say, ‘What did you do to make him touch you?’”
About a decade later, in 1993, Simon filed a verified civil complaint against Bryski and Chanoch Lena’ar in Brooklyn, asking for $50 million in damages for the abuse he allegedly suffered. Simon claimed in his suit that Bryski, “at frequent times beginning in 1983 and ending in/or about 1985,” engaged in “forcible sexual contact” with Simon and “otherwise assaulted” him at Bryski’s residence and the yeshiva. Bryski denied these claims in his publicly filed response and submitted a counterclaim, arguing that Simon had falsely defamed his good name and asking for $10 million in damages. Five years later, the case was dismissed; the abuse Simon had alleged was no longer within the statute of limitations.
Bryski acknowledges, both in court documents obtained by Newsweek and today, that he let Simon stay at his house—because the child “had chicken pox for a few days, and it was catchy.” He also says he never molested the boy. “He got kicked out of the school, so because of that he spread this libel against me. This is totally slander. I’m a father of 10 children. I am a respected person in the community.”
By the 2010s, Simon was back in Miami, with a wife, young kids and a good job. He was in Chicago on business, driving through the city, when he got a call from a close friend. “Pull over,” the friend said, then told Simon to bring up a website on his phone. When Simon called up JewishCommunityWatch.org, he was shocked to see a photo of Bryski on the site’s “Wall of Shame” of alleged child abusers. JCW is a grass-roots organization dedicated to exposing child predators and educating the public on how to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse. The “Wall of Shame” is purportedly based on investigations, performed by the local nonprofit, of individuals who may not have been previously arrested, charged or convicted of any wrongdoing. Through JCW, Simon soon met another Bryski survivor, 12 years his junior.
Schneur Borenstein was 13 when he moved into Bryski’s home in 2000. He had run away from his home in upstate New York and was living more or less on the streets of Brooklyn until a friend introduced him to Bryski. “He started working me,” Borenstein tells Newsweek. “I was 13 and didn't have a place to stay. He took me into his home and provided me shelter and food. He gave me money to buy cigarettes.” Even though the boy was unnerved by the fact that the grown man would creep into his bedroom at night and touch his penis, he kept his mouth shut. But after six months of abuse, Borenstein finally left.
Bryski says he kicked Borenstein out: “He drove us crazy in this house. In the end, I had no choice but to throw him out of the house. He got angry with me, [and afterward] he spread lies about me.”
“Bryski picked his targets,” says Simon, explaining that each school year, the principal would choose one student from his gang of misfits and prey on him. “I was an outcast,” says Borenstein. “I was at a weak point in my life.”
It’s widely accepted by child abuse experts and advocates that some kids are particularly vulnerable. Usually, they are disadvantaged in some way—family problems, rejection by their peer group—that perpetrators can exploit, particularly if they are teachers who also happen to be religious authorities.
Many years after fleeing Bryski’s home, Borenstein moved to Florida, where, with the encouragement of people like former Miami prosecutor Sara Shulevitz and Mark Meyer Appel, founder of Voice of Justice, a child advocacy group, he began to speak out. Borenstein published his story on a personal blog and talked to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office about his legal options. But according to a district attorney’s memorandum (which also provided Borenstein’s account of Bryski’s alleged abuse), prosecutors decided the statute of limitations had run out and chose not to pursue the case.
So Borenstein and his father, along with an attorney, traveled to Brooklyn and arranged a meeting with Bryski. During that conversation, which they taped, Bryski confessed to the sexual abuse, and they cut a deal. The Borensteins said they’d keep quiet about it under three conditions: Bryski would pay for Schneur Borenstein’s therapy, get professional help and—most important—stay away from children.
At first, Bryski stuck to the agreement. Chanoch Lena’ar didn’t reopen the next school year. But in 2012, Crown Heights community blogs began reporting Bryski was opening up a new school, in the same location, under a different name. Despite Bryski’s prominence, Borenstein and Simon—now working together—were undaunted. They tracked down a list of the new school’s board of directors. Simon’s mother started making calls, alerting them to the allegations. The school never reopened.
Bryski says he shut down the school after the New York City Department of Buildings said “he had some problems because a lot of work was done in the building without permits. [The inspector] must have been an anti-Semitic guy; he wrote up violations like crazy.” (Bryski did send Newsweek a sample of violation notices from 2011 to 2013.)
Bryski still lives in Crown Heights, and though he has never been charged with or convicted of a crime, he is no longer a prominent community figure—after years of running widely respected schools, his career in education appears to be over. He says Simon and Borenstein ruined him: “Two people and that’s the end of my life. They took what I worked for for 35 years. My family suffered for no reason. I have seven married children and five I have to marry off.”
‘I’m Supposed to Call the Police’
Like many grade-school kids, Mendy Raymond acted up every now and then and occasionally got detention. When he was in fourth grade at Oholei Torah, for example, he was teasing a classmate. Normal kid stuff. His teacher told him to stop, but he didn’t. He says the teacher, infuriated, charged the desk and him so hard that he fell to the ground and “nearly fractured” his arm. He was then sent to the detention teacher, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Zalmanov, who locked away Raymond’s coat and bag and told him to sit down.
Now in his 20s, Raymond doesn’t remember what he did that set off Zalmanov—though he does remember being upset about his throbbing arm—but the next thing he knew, the teacher had hit him across the face so hard that he went flying into a closet, slamming his head into the hardwood. As the young child held his head in his hands, Zalmanov pulled him up by his shirt and threw him out of the class, closing the door behind him. Raymond ran out of the building, down the street and then home in the dead of winter, with no coat.
When his mother returned home that evening, the baby sitter was distraught. When Raymond had walked in the door, “he was shivering so uncontrollable it took a half-hour with blankets and hot drinks to warm him up,” the baby sitter told his mother. Raymond’s parents took their son to the family physician, a religious man respected in the community who, when he heard the story, called Lustig. He was blunt: “I have to stop seeing these kids with bruises coming from your school. You need to get a grip on what’s happening.” Lustig agreed to meet with Raymond, his father, mother and Zalmanov later that week. Meanwhile, Raymond would be suspended from the school, Lustig said.
“It was supposed to be a meeting where they would apologize to us,” says Raymond’s mother. “We got there expecting remorse and contrition, and it turned into a farce. They badmouthed Mendy and said he got what he deserved. I was in tears when they left.” When they asked Zalmanov about his behavior, he was blunt, according to Raymond’s mother: “For chutzpah [impudence], I patsh [smack].”
This wasn’t the first time Zalmanov had allegedly harmed a student. Raymond’s older brother Nachum says he’s seen Zalmanov slap kids and even beat them up. “He was a known abuser,” says Mendy Alexander, a former Oholei Torah student, now a 25-year-old studying pre-med at Brooklyn College. “I’ve seen him hit kids multiple times.”
At the close of that meeting, Raymond’s mother says, Lustig “seemed quite appalled.” But when she and her husband asked Lustig to transfer Raymond to another teacher’s class, the principal said there was no room for him. And neither Raymond’s teacher nor Zalmanov was ever disciplined.
There was little the family could do. “It was traumatic,” Raymond’s mother says. “You feel helpless. You open up your mouth, and you get ostracized.”
It was widely known that if you ratted out someone in the community for abuse, the community would turn its back on you. Gena Diacomanolis is the senior director of Safe Horizon’s Jane Barker Brooklyn Child Advocacy Center, where, over the past decade, she says, they have made tremendous strides in the Haredi communities. But the biggest barrier remains the pressure the community puts on individuals who want to come forward with stories of abuse.
“I can tell you tons of stories where they were so fearful of going forward,” she says. “I had one dad who said his son was sexually abused at school.” He decided not to press charges, Diacomanolis recalls. “He said, ‘I don't want you to think I don't love my child, but if I go forward, I won't find a marriage for my daughter.’”
Diacomanolis also says families are often harassed when they come forward. One client who charged her husband with abusing their child “left her house, and the whole block was papered with things saying terrible things about her.”
One mother who found out her son had been sexually abused by a teacher at United Lubavitcher Yeshiva Ocean Parkway (another Hasidic school in Brooklyn) says when she complained to the yeshiva’s principal, she was shunned. “I got thrown out of the community,” she says. “You can’t imagine what was said to me. The phone calls I got. I was an outcast. I was threatened.” Eventually, she left Crown Heights and then the state—yet she still insists on anonymity for fear of retribution from the community. (The current principal of ULYOP, Moshe Leiblich says he brought in a whole new staff when he started working there 11 years ago. “We definitely do not condone those kinds of behaviors,” he says. “We have video cameras up in the rooms and take all measures. We are very careful.”)
Raymond’s parents transferred him and his brothers out of Oholei Torah at the end of that school year. The authorities were never brought in, and Zalmanov, who was never charged with a crime, is still employed at Oholei Torah as a teacher’s assistant; he did not respond to Newsweek’s requests for comment. “This is the kind of thing where people pick up the phone and go to The New York Times or call the cops,” says Raymond’s mother. “But nothing happened to those teachers.”
While sex abuse grabs all the headlines, experts say physical abuse is far more pervasive and has a similarly insidious and long-lasting impact on victims. And condoning a light tap on the wrist (as most ultra-Orthodox yeshivas do) can sometimes provide teachers a margin of safety to dole out much more violent penalties—which is why corporal punishment is illegal in New York public schools.
However, there are no such restrictions in private schools (although, according to Rosenfeld, Oholei Torah has a “no corporal punishment rule”) and little motivation for them to change, unless there’s a very public scandal. “Catholic schools used to use a lot of corporal punishment too,” says David Finkelhor, head of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center. “They’ve stopped, and I don’t think it was because they got convinced it wasn’t something they wanted to do.”
Protecting the Predators
Chabad has a global network of synagogues, schools and other facilities that is often used to shelter abusers on the run. When rumors of abuse begin to bubble up, teachers are shuttled from school to school, city to city—like Reizes, shipped from Brooklyn to Miami and then back. In March 2008, eight students accused Malka Leifer, principal of the Adass Israel school for girls in Elsternwick, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, of sexual abuse. Just days later, she hopped on a plane and fled to Israel. In September 2015, Australia’s Supreme Court awarded over $1 million in compensation to a 28-year-old abused by Leifer from 2003 to 2006.
According to court documents, it was discovered during the course of the trial that there was a concerted effort by the community to protect Leifer: The school’s president at the time, Yitzhok Benedikt, and board member Mark Ernst played key roles in arranging her escape to Israel. The two men are facing criminal charges; Leifer was arrested in Israel last year and is now fighting extradition to Australia.
In recent years, Australia has emerged as the country most willing to confront child abuse in the Hasidic world. In 2013, the government formed the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and in early 2015 it began a large investigation into the Hasidic community. Weeks of hearings led to a report detailing alleged abuses—and how yeshivas and rabbinical leadership cover up that abuse and systematically ostracize survivors and their families.
Back in the U.S., in 2013, two days before Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days of the year on the Jewish calendar, a 7-year-old boy came home from school seriously injured. “He was traumatized—he couldn’t speak,” says “Shmuel,” an adult family member who asked that Newsweek not print his name or that of anyone in his family. Eventually, the child told his parents the injury was caused by his teacher, Rabbi Velvel Karp, an Oholei Torah veteran.
Karp’s name came up constantly during Newsweek ’s conversations with former students, with stories dating back to the 1990s. Five young men said they witnessed him routinely hit students hard across the face and, as a way to scare them into submission, hang children by their shirt out an open window of his fourth-floor classroom—until the school moved him to a basement room. “I know personally of one kid that he hung out the window,” says former student Mendy Alexander. “He’s a friend of mine. He’s still under community pressure and doesn’t want to speak. But there were 28 students in the class, and everyone saw what happened. It’s not a secret.”
“The guy was completely abusive,” says Mendy Pape, another former Oholei Torah student, now in his 20s. “When you walked into his classroom, children were afraid to move.”
As their neighbors were preparing for the holiday, the child’s family took him to the doctor, where they say he was diagnosed with a concussion. “Karp lifted him in the air and tossed him into a glass door or window—we’re not sure,” says Shmuel. The following week, the family told the school what had happened. Karp soon paid a visit to the family and begged for forgiveness, according to Shmuel, and a week later the school moved the child out of Karp’s class. Meanwhile, the child’s mother “begged the school to transfer Karp to an administration job,” Shmuel says. “The school said they’d call her back, and they never did. That was two years ago.”
Rumors reached the Brooklyn district attorney and were in turn passed along to a local detective who had been working the precinct. The detective investigated, despite the fact that there was no complainant. “No one wanted to cooperate,” says the detective, who is retired now and asked to remain anonymous to protect her post-retirement livelihood. Oholei Torah, on the other hand, wrote in an email that it cooperated fully with the investigation and that both the police and the district attorney’s office cleared Karp of any wrongdoing.
The detective confirms that nothing indicating criminality was uncovered during the course of the investigation: “After conducting a thorough investigation, I had no basis to proceed. An extensive investigation was conducted, but no one wanted to talk.” Karp, who was never charged with or convicted of a crime, did not respond to Newsweek’s requests for comment.
Shmuel says there’s a good reason the police investigation died: The child’s family “didn’t want to talk because they’re scared. [His mom] is afraid they’ll get kicked out of the school.” Others who know the family say they’ve been able to send their kids to Oholei Torah only with the help of scholarships and reduced tuition that they now fear losing.
Oholei Torah, after all, is one of the most prestigious Chabad schools in Brooklyn. It has been praised by national luminaries like Joe Lieberman, the former U.S. senator from Connecticut, and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. And it continues to have widespread support. On December 30, 2015, Oholei Torah launched a 24-hour crowdfunding campaign on Charidy.com, with the goal of raising $2 million, in honor of its 60th anniversary. The school blew by the target, reaching $2.7 million by day’s end.
Knowing You Are Sick
Despite all the physical, sexual and emotional abuse they have witnessed or endured, most of the former Hasidic yeshiva students Newsweek spoke to insist that what people outside their community really need to be alarmed about is the dismal education offered by these schools. They are angry that when they reached 18 and finally moved out of their parents’ home, they realized for the first time that they hadn’t been given the tools needed to navigate the real world. (The New York City Department of Education is investigating at least three dozen yeshivas to determine if they are providing adequate secular education.)
Perhaps this issue drives survivors because it is the one thing they can fix. After leaving the Orthodox world, many spend their early 20s regaining control of their lives and getting a real education. It’s preposterously difficult for them because they are so far behind, but some do it. They earn GEDs, go to community college and then become doctors, artists, businessmen and social justice advocates. They focus on the future—because their efforts to stop the predators have been futile.
In New York, survivors of most cases of child molestation have five years after they turn 18 to get the district attorney to prosecute. (In cases of sexual misconduct, legal proceedings must begin within two years after the offense was committed, regardless of the child’s age at the time of the alleged crime.) Many child abuse experts say that window is not nearly big enough for young men just starting to understand what happened to them. It’s no surprise that most of the abuse Newsweek uncovered happened long ago—no 10-year-old has the wherewithal to talk to the press about his abusive teacher. It takes a 25-year-old who has finally received a proper education to understand what was done to him 15 years ago.
For almost a decade, Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, from Queens, has been trying to pass a bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations on both criminal and civil cases of sex crimes against children. But she has faced fierce opposition from two political powerhouses: the New York State Catholic Conference and Agudath Israel of America.
The Hasidic world is starting to take allegations of abuse more seriously, and many of the individuals who talked on the record with Newsweek for this story say they finally feel comfortable speaking publicly about their personal histories with abuse because of the community support that has emerged in recent years. Schneur Borenstein’s parents, for example, are prominent members of the Hasidic community of Poughkeepsie, New York, where his father is the rabbi of the local Chabad synagogue, and they say the Hasidic public has been fully on their side.
There are also organizations like Jewish Community Watch punching holes in a formerly impenetrable wall. Though JCW has faced criticism for a lack of transparency on the process it uses to obtain confessions and the evidence used to determine who ends up on its “Wall of Shame,” the organization has never been sued for libel or defamation, and it has published a clear process on its website. Former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes has praised JCW and given it an award for “exposing child predators” and “creating change in the tight-knit Hasidic community in Brooklyn.”
JCW’s focus, it says, is to work with the community to improve transparency and protect children from abuse. “It is our sincere hope that the rebbe's institutions will follow [his] guidance by fostering openness and accountability,” a JCW spokesperson says. “If wrongdoing has occurred, it should not be covered up but rather exposed and dealt with immediately. The foundation of our mission is to protect children. This can only happen when leadership is open and honest. Transparency leads to the protection of our children.”
But others say that despite the lip service paid to cleaning up the Hasidic school system, nothing has changed. In 2015, Manny Waks, one of the key whistleblowers in the Australian royal commission inquiry, visited Crown Heights as part of an ABC television special. Chabad’s international leadership “rolled out the red carpet,” Waks says, even inviting him to meet with Rabbi Mendy Sharfstein, Chabad director of operations, to discuss ways to improve the community’s response to abuse allegations.
Waks left the meeting feeling they had listened and were genuinely considering his proposals. However, in the months following, they went radio silent, ignoring his emails and calls. The meeting, Waks says, “was all smoke and mirrors. It was a PR exercise.”
Consider the high-profile case of Sam Kellner, who took allegations of his son’s sexual abuse to the police in 2008 and worked with authorities to gather enough evidence to help convict Baruch Lebovits of child abuse in 2010. Lebovits was imprisoned and began to serve what was meant to be a sentence of 10 and a half to 32 years—until the conviction was overturned on appeal in 2012, on the basis of a prosecutorial error, and Lebovits was released.
Meanwhile, in 2011, Kellner was indicted on charges of bribing a man to falsely testify against Lebovits in order to extort hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Lebovits family. Those charges against Kellner were dropped in 2014 because the witnesses— members of the Lebovits family, as well as their friends and employees— “lacked credibility to such a degree that their testimony cannot be trusted,” according to Kevin O’Donnell, an assistant district attorney at the time. The key witness—the man supposedly bribed by Kellner—was found to have been paid off by Lebovits’s associate. At that point, in June 2014, Lebovits took a plea deal for two years. But because he had already served 13 months prior to his successful 2012 appeal, and thanks to a reduced sentence for good behavior, he was released in September 2014.
Meanwhile, Kellner nearly lost everything, and the community turned him into a pariah. Almost every other member of the Hasidic community who has come forward with allegations of abuse has suffered a similar fate; when Chaim Levin accused his cousin of molesting him, he was publicly called a liar over and over. “I was the villain for ‘misleading’ the public,” Levin says. “From the age of 14, I was bounced around from yeshiva to yeshiva and was treated like a criminal because I had the audacity to speak up.”
There were also dozens of additional stories of abuse Newsweek was unable to print because the victims could not give their names or corroborating evidence for fear of losing their homes, families and livelihoods. The reality is that before the community learns to trust victims and consider alleged abusers—even rabbis—with skepticism, there will be many more Chaim Levins, and many more Sam Kellners, Ozer Simons, Manny Vogels and Schneur Borensteins.
“I’m very proud of Schneur,” says his mother, Hindy. “I am very proud that these things were not swept under the rug and were dealt with openly.” She prays that her family’s story will set an example for not only its community but also others around the world. “In Judaism,” she says, “we have an expression: Yediat machala, chetzi refuah—Knowing that you are sick is half the cure.”