Sexual Abuse Questions Swirl Around Yeshiva Leader in Kiryas Joel

By Joseph Berger (New York Times)
May 17, 2016

KIRYAS JOEL, N.Y. — In a place where young boys spend their days hunched over volumes of Torah and Talmud, delving into timeless stories and precepts in an ancient singsong, the scene was incongruous.

Dozens of agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and county law enforcement officers — more than 50 by the count of officials in this Hasidic village about 50 miles northwest of Manhattan — converged on a four-story brick yeshiva here on Thursday, some armed with guns, others carrying crowbars, as helicopters whirred overhead. According to parents of children at the school, the authorities took away boxes filled with computers, office files and security-camera videos.

“They scared all the kids,” said Yoel Weiss, whose three sons, Moishe, 12, Shloime, 8, and Pinchas, 7, attend the yeshiva that was targeted, United Talmudical Academy of Kiryas Joel. “They made a big commotion.”

The motivation for the operation, according to parents who learned of the questions being asked of yeshiva officials by the law enforcement authorities, was a suspicion that a longtime principal had sexually abused students. At least one episode of possible abuse was captured on video, portions of which have been shared on social media.

The parents did not want to be identified because they were wary of being drawn into the investigation. The video was filmed from overhead in the office of the principal, Rabbi Moshe Hersh Klein. One snippet shows Rabbi Klein, the gray-bearded principal of the yeshiva’s third, fourth and fifth grades, his legs around a pupil who appears to be about 8, patting the boy and kissing his cheeks, and rocking him for several seconds.

Kelly Langmesser, a spokeswoman for the F.B.I.’s New York office, declined to comment except to say “it wasn’t a raid, it was a law enforcement operation.”

In a statement issued in response to news reports about the video two days before the authorities visited the yeshiva, the yeshiva board said the footage was more than seven months old and had been investigated by the Orange County district attorney. No charges have been filed.

Christopher Borek, Orange County’s chief assistant district attorney, said his office’s policy was not to comment until a court filing took place. H e noted that his agency was part of the task force that conducted the operation. Dawn Dearden, a spokeswoman for the United States attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, declined to comment.

The yeshiva board said in its statement that the videos “have been mischaracterized” as evidence of child abuse. “While this type of restraint may be unacceptable to some viewers,” the statement said, referring to the way Rabbi Klein can be seen holding the boy, “it in no way rises to the level of a criminal assault.” An attempt to contact Rabbi Klein at the yeshiva was rebuffed.

Over the past decade, there have been a spate of sexual-abuse cases within Hasidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn and in Hasidic communities like this one — a square mile collection of large boxy houses with a population of more than 23,000, half of whom are under age 13.

While there is no evidence that abuse is any more prevalent among Hasidim than other religious or ethnic groups, the episodes have attracted attention for at least two reasons.

By their very name, Hasidim declare themselves “pious ones,” so such episodes smack of individual hypocrisy. And the insular Hasidim have long chosen to handle accusations of child sexual abuse themselves. Families that make such allegations have traditionally been pressured to consult a rabbi before contacting law enforcement authorities. Those who have gone to the authorities on their own have often been stigmatized as informers.

That unwritten code has begun to break down, with many Hasidim complaining to the authorities about sexual crimes. As of 2012, more than 100 men — rabbis, teachers and camp counselors, among them — had been arrested by the authorities in Brooklyn. Perhaps the best-known case centered on Nehemya Weberman, an unlicensed 54-year-old therapist, who was convicted in state court in December 2012 of repeatedly abusing a young girl who sought his counseling starting when she was 12, groping her and forcing her to perform oral sex.

In Kiryas Joel — which was founded in the late 1970s by Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the grand rabbi who revived the Satmar Hasidic dynasty after World War II, settling first in Brooklyn — a half-dozen parents interviewed on Monday all defended Rabbi Klein, who has been a principal at the yeshiva for over 30 years.

“Never has there been a complaint,” said Joel Gluck, an office worker. “He has a loving way of dealing with the kids, a fatherly love. I was a student of his and my kids are learning by him, too. If he was a danger to kids, every one would pull their kids out.”

Mr. Gluck and others said the video could be interpreted as an effort to calm an unruly, upset young boy with hugs and kisses in a way that might be seen as invading the child’s personal space but did not qualify as sexual abuse.

“He’s a very warm, warm person,” said Melech Gluck, a marriage counselor. “He’s an emotional person. When he prays he cries. When he goes to a grave, he cries. That’s his nature. He would make sure every kid felt welcome, felt good in class, should have friends or get friends.”

While the video’s origins are a mystery, several of those interviewed blamed crusaders for abuse victims for drawing attention to it. Specifically, they mentioned Nuchem Rosenberg, a Brooklyn Hasid who runs an abuse hotline.

Mr. Rosenberg, who did not respond to a message left on his hotline, has posted a video on YouTube in which he calls the episode at the yeshiva a “heinous crime” that is being abetted by those who play down the rabbi’s actions as merely being overly affectionate. “When you look at it you see the student was shivering and shaking and didn’t want that kind of love,” he says on his video. “Every normal person considers this sex. It’s a way he gives out his ugly sexual desire on a child.”