Court testimony offers rare public glimpse into religious tribunals’ handling of child sex abuse allegations; no reporting to police.
Last spring in a New Jersey courtroom, a prosecutor and defense attorney battled it out in a series of seemingly routine pre-trial hearings. At issue was a narrow point of law: whether or not a social worker who had evaluated an alleged child molester would be allowed to testify at his trial.
Amid the legal wrangling, however, facts emerged that were anything but ordinary — ones perhaps amplified by the recent revelations about alleged sexual abuse scandals at Penn State and Syracuse universities.
The social worker’s evaluation had not been conducted on behalf of the courts or police. Instead, it was commissioned by a Lakewood, N.J., beit din, a Jewish religious tribunal operating as a kind of shadow justice system, adjudicating sexual abuse cases without the involvement of law enforcement.
Witnesses spoke of a world in which abuse allegations are typically “investigated” not by the secular authorities, but by rabbis lacking supervision by the criminal justice system. It is a world where victims and perpetrators alike are subjected to threats of social ostracism and, in some cases, physical harm for non-compliance with the “system.”
To anyone following the unfolding story of child sexual abuse in the haredi world, that these communities have a history of handling abuse allegations internally is hardly news. The longstanding and harshly enforced communal taboo against “informing” on another Jew to the secular authorities plays a key role in blocking victims from reporting abuse allegations to police and pressing charges.
In the past few years, aided by the Internet and blogs, a number of advocacy organizations founded by members, or former members, of these communities has emerged. Much of their work, centered mostly in Brooklyn, has focused on combating this taboo and providing support to abuse victims.
In addition, advocates have worked to shine a spotlight on many of the major social and political institutions in those communities, including yeshivas, social service agencies and even Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes. (Hynes’ office launched a hotline to report haredi abuse cases in 2009, seemingly in response to criticism that his office has a history of “going easy” on haredi child molesters.)
The climate is different in Lakewood, acknowledged as the seat of non-chasidic haredi Judaism in the United States. Home to one of the largest and most prominent yeshivas in the world, Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG), and a community of close to 40,000 Orthodox Jews, Lakewood has not been spared the problem of child sexual abuse — an ill that plagues all communities, religious and secular alike.
However, there are no public advocacy groups in Lakewood helping victims and agitating for change. Further, unlike Brooklyn, which is home to myriad haredi groups with no centralized “governing” body, the Lakewood community, dominated by BMG — which boasts over 6,000 students and an annual operating budget approaching $25 million — is something of a company town, residents and observers say. Indeed, the brothers who run BMG, Rabbi Aryeh Malkiel Kotler and Rabbi Aaron Kotler, exert considerable control over daily life within the community, with the bylaws of the Lakewood Jewish Community Council stating that the “community is centered around [BMG] … and [the council] functions at the pleasure of [the yeshiva heads] as represented by R. Malkiel Kotler.”
This control — bolstered by the geographically bounded and insular nature of the community — means that it can be even harder for Lakewood residents to overcome the communal taboo and report abuse to the authorities than it is for their counterparts in Brooklyn.
“Most victims of abuse and parents in Lakewood are afraid to speak up because [they fear being threatened by rabbis],” Debbie Rudin, a victim of childhood sexual abuse who now lives in Lakewood, told The Jewish Week.
“There are many Jewish communities that are controlled by the rabbonim [rabbis] of their towns that set certain standards, whether in regards to businesses, giving kosher supervision or allowing schools to open,” said Harold (Hershel) Hershkowitz, a Lakewood businessman who ran (and lost) for the Lakewood Township Committee on an anti-cronyism platform against the BMG-backed candidate. “But all of these are controlled in an open manner well understood by all that live there,” he said. “Lakewood, on the other hand, has a cabal that controls most Jewish publications, websites and of course the political arena, in order to exert full influence whenever it is necessary in order to keep their position of influence.”
Rudin and Hershkowitz are two of numerous Lakewood residents, therapists, educators, social workers and community activists, as well as seven abuse victims interviewed by The Jewish Week in the course of a months-long investigation into the abuse situation there and how it is being handled. An interest in maintaining communal control, they say, is a major factor in the rabbinic and lay leadership’s desire to deal with abuse in ways that do not involve law enforcement.
Indeed, the court testimony described above affords a rare public glimpse into what New Jersey Superior Court Judge Francis R. Hodgson characterized as Lakewood’s “parallel justice system.”
The testimony itself comes from the only sexual abuse case in memory from the Lakewood haredi community to be prosecuted — something that came about because a family flouted, at great personal cost, communal norms and pressed charges against an alleged child molester, Yosef Kolko, in 2009.
The testimony raises many questions, especially in light of the Penn State and Syracuse situations, which have advocates across the country calling for tougher mandatory reporting laws. Prominent among them is whether the rabbis and others in the Lakewood community who participate in this parallel justice system are violating New Jersey’s mandated reporting law — not to mention alleged victims’ civil rights — and, if so, what is being done about it. The law requires “all persons” (including clergy) who have “reasonable cause to believe” that a child has been abused to make a report “immediately” to the Division of Youth and Family Services. (A knowing violation of this law could result in a fine and/or jail time.)
According to Marci Hamilton, Paul R. Verkuil chair in public law at Cardozo and a leading church-state scholar, “The prosecutors in [situations] like this are doing the religious community no favors. Without enforcing the mandatory reporting laws, the poisonous abuse stays within the community, the perpetrator gets more opportunities to abuse and the victims continue to suffer.”
According to court papers and interviews with people close to the family of the boy allegedly abused by Kolko, a 34-year-old former teacher at Yeshiva Orchos Chaim in Lakewood who also worked as a camp counselor, the family decided to go to the authorities only after they had exhausted the options within the community and found no relief. Before doing so, they sought assistance from a community activist, Doniel Bernstein, and several prominent Lakewood rabbis, including Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, the “mashgiach,” or spiritual adviser, at BMG, and the “go-to” rabbi for all manner of communal issues in Lakewood, sources say.
Rabbi Salomon, along with Rabbi Shmuel Blech, served for a time on a formal beit din, created by Salomon several years ago specifically to hear sexual abuse allegations.
After hearing the allegations about Kolko, Bernstein, on behalf of the rabbis, commissioned a paid psychological evaluation of Kolko by a social worker, Gavriel Fagin. Fagin, who at one time worked in the sex offender treatment program at OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services in Brooklyn, now maintains a private practice in which he specializes, among other areas, “in the evaluation and treatment of sexual deviance.”
Fagin testified in New Jersey Superior Court that he was contacted by “The [Beis] Din … in charge of following up on allegations of inappropriate sexual contact between individuals in the community” and asked to “evaluate an individual for their purposes to be able to determine how to proceed further.” Fagin stated in court that he saw Kolko five times to administer computer-based tests and that he did not “have much knowledge of the situation” that brought Kolko to the beit din in the first place. Fagin did not interview the alleged victim.
The mere act of commissioning an evaluation — which was apparently damning enough for the prosecution to argue (successfully) for Fagin’s ability to testify at trial — would seem to indicate at least a reasonable cause to suspect abuse. Even so, none of those made privy to these allegations reported them to the authorities.
After Kolko was arrested, the victim’s family was threatened and the alleged victim was denied admission to schools.
After the arrest, a widely distributed proclamation signed by nine Lakewood rabbis, including Chaim Ginsberg and Shmuel Katz, both employed by BMG, warned that “no one … may … bring any accusations to the secular authorities” and that “it is prohibited [for anyone] to assist and participate with the secular authorities in their efforts to persecute a Jewish person.”
Rabbis outside Lakewood sought to apply pressure as well. Yisroel Belsky, a prominent Brooklyn-based rabbi and yeshiva head who has also served in a senior position with the Orthodox Union for over 20 years, sent a letter to Lakewood residents. In it, he wrote of the “horrific news that one of your fellow residents in town informed upon a fellow Jew to the secular authorities.” He added that “all who have the ability to influence the informers to retract their terrible deeds should do so.”
Shortly after the Rabbi Belsky letter was sent, a 31-year-old Lakewood resident named Shaul Luban allegedly sent out text messages urging residents of Lakewood to try to pressure the victim’s father into not testifying.
The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office has charged Luban with witness tampering. The nine Lakewood rabbis and Rabbi Belsky have not been charged with any crime.
The victim’s family has since left Lakewood, but has not backed down and the prosecution is moving forward.
In addition to information directly relevant to the Kolko case, testimony from the hearings indicates that there have been other abuse allegations apparently deemed credible by rabbis, but that nonetheless went unreported to the police.
In testimony in New Jersey Superior Court given in May of this year, Lakewood rabbi and activist Micky Rottenberg alludes to such a case, which The Jewish Week has learned involved allegations against the husband of a woman who ran a local children’s playgroup. The beit din found the allegations to be credible and publicized them, effectively shutting down the playgroup. However, the authorities were never notified and the accused remains in the community today.
In his testimony, Rabbi Rottenberg also sheds light on the beit din’s inner workings.
According to him, “[The Secretary] of the beis din [would contact] the victims … [and the] alleged perpetrator, discuss with them … beg them to do certain things. And if they don’t do it, [the secretary would say] ‘I’m going to report [to the beit din] that you don’t listen to us, and then we are going to … Take away your job. Send away your kids from schools.’ Whatever measures they would feel they have power to be able for the person to submit and accept the verdict of the beis din.”
Rabbi Rottenberg also testified that he felt the beit din favored the accusers and was in fact involved in disbanding it at the behest of Rabbi Malkiel Kotler for this reason. Rabbi Kotler, through his brother, denied making any such request.
In arguments at a court hearing, Kolko’s attorney, Michael Wilbert, refers to a Rabbi Shmuel Vogel who, he claims, was “charged with a violation” by Bernstein and “required to go to a social worker in New York ... Mr. Sternstein.” Sternstein is Hillel Sternstein, coordinator of trauma services at OHEL, and a social worker with a private practice in Long Island.
Even those who do not attempt to report to police, but seek to publicize allegations within the Lakewood community, are often intimidated. A 2009 article in the Asbury Park Press described how the home of Rivka Finkelstein, the mother of a sexual abuse survivor who died of a drug overdose, was burned down after a letter written by her son excoriating the Orthodox community for its failure to deal with the problem of sexual abuse was made public online after his death. (According to the story, which cited several other examples of such intimidation, police believed arson was the likely cause of the fire.)
Of the 32 people on the New Jersey Sex Offender Registry living in Lakewood, there appears to be only one member of the Orthodox community, convicted of endangering the welfare of a child. According to a therapist in Lakewood with knowledge of the situation, “he was arrested in another township [for exposing himself to non-Jewish children], which is why [he was prosecuted and] made it onto the list.”
Calls Doniel Bernstein were not returned. Attempts to reach Rabbi Blech and Rabbi Salomon were unsuccessful.
A source close to Rabbi Salomon’s beit din who consulted with its members on behalf of this reporter told The Jewish Week that they would not speak to the paper out of concern that “the ‘forces’ that led to the disbanding [of the beit din] are still ever present. They expressed fear that speaking about these forces will lead to personal reprisal.” The source acknowledged Rottenberg as one of these so-called “forces.” A call to Rottenberg was not returned.
An e-mail to Rabbi Aaron Kotler seeking comment on Rabbi Salomon’s beit din resulted in a reply from Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, president of the Lakewood Community Service Corp.
While Rabbi Salomon is employed by BMG, Rabbi Weisberg said he was responding because “[these questions relate] to Orthodox community issues and not [BMG].” He told The Jewish Week that “The Lakewood community leadership has zero tolerance for any sexual abuse and is actively committed to following the law. Our community policy, which is in full compliance with applicable law and our [halachic] guidelines, is to report any reasonable suspicion of abuse to the proper law enforcement authorities.”
When asked whether the community has a process for determining what constitutes “reasonable suspicion,” Rabbi Weisberg replied, “I guess a common sense evaluation of the evidence determines reasonableness.” To the question of whether or not those who have a reasonable suspicion of abuse must first take their concerns to a rabbi, Rabbi Weisberg told The Jewish Week that “individuals are encouraged to follow the law.”
To be sure, the idea of using rabbis or a formal beit din to vet sexual abuse allegations has its defenders, among them Agudath Israel, which takes the position that all allegations of sexual abuse must first be reported to a rabbi. The president of the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Moshe Kletenick, has noted that religious courts can be used to investigate allegations, screening out false ones and referring those with “substance” to the secular authorities.
[Rabbi Kletenick made these statements in 2009 when he was president of the RCA (the current president is Rabbi Shmuel Goldin). Earlier this year, the RCA issued a statement reaffirming the “Halachic requirement to report knowledge or suspicion of abuse or endangerment to secular authorities without delay.”]
All of this puts prosecutors — especially ones in New Jersey, where the mandatory reporting laws are much tougher than they are in New York — in a delicate spot. They are essentially caught between enforcing the law when it comes to the issue of rabbis and others failing to report suspicions of child abuse to the authorities and challenging entrenched and powerful interests.
In the Kolko hearings, Judge Hodgson mused about the bet din system and the wider societal interests at play.
“I think that it is not a small factor to be considered, that really this is a parallel judicial system that exists within the specific closed … community,” he said. “I think that the state has an interest and that society has an interest in identifying, prosecuting and punishing criminals.”
Asked whether she planned to take any action on this matter, Ocean County Prosecutor Marlene Lynch Ford told The Jewish Week, “It is not our policy to speculate about potential criminal charges.”
However, on Nov. 10, apparently prompted by “the revelations of unreported child sexual abuse at Penn State,” Ford released a statement reminding “all members of the public that we are obligated under New Jersey law to report suspected acts of child abuse to the authorities, whether that is the local police, the Division of Youth and Family Services or to the county prosecutor’s office. All that is needed is a ‘reasonable suspicion’ of child abuse to trigger the mandatory reporting obligation.”
Ford, who has referred to the “wall of silence” that hampers criminal investigations in the Lakewood Orthodox community, also told The Jewish Week that her office had considered hiring a liaison from that community. Concerns over whether such a person would be “beholden to our office or … to the community” convinced her not to, and Ford says her office is now trying to “build upon relationships … [and] open up those channels of communication [with the community]” it already has.
According to Ford, at this point, “the most important thing is to have someone … cooperate [with us] as a victim or a parent of a victim.”
There are some who believe that Ford’s efforts do not go far enough.
“These [mandatory reporting] laws are put on the books for a reason and they need to be enforced,” Mark Crawford, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) told The Jewish Week.
Debbie Rudin, the Lakewood resident, said, “I feel I can speak for the majority that they would like to see the prosecutor convene a grand jury investigation and subpoena all of the rabbis of the beit din, the Yeshiva and the Va’ad [community council] to hand over all allegations of child sexual abuse that have come to them over the years. … If the prosecutor … can’t handle it, she should appeal for help to the FBI, which has expertise in these matters.”
When it comes to the issue of intimidation, New Jersey attorney and author Michael Lesher believes that those who have been pressured into not reporting could be crime victims under federal civil rights law.
Lesher, a contributor to “Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities & Child Sex Scandals,” a recent collection of essays edited by Dr. Amy Neustein, believes that “the use of federal investigative power … would be a powerful tool against rabbinic cover-ups, particularly because, at the state level, local prosecutors who work in counties with very large Orthodox populations are understandably hampered for political reasons if they take on the leaders of these communities. Federal prosecutors are less subject to such pressure because they’re answerable to the Justice Department, which is nationally organized.”
While it may ultimately fall to law enforcement to remedy the situation, some Lakewood residents and observers place the blame for this problem squarely at the feet of the community’s rabbinic and lay leadership.
Rabbi Yosef Blau, the mashigiach ruchani (dean) at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, told The Jewish Week that he has learned from people with personal knowledge of the situation that there are “hundreds of children who reported having been abused [to rabbis and others in the Lakewood community].”
“There is no doubt that an outstanding center for Torah learning exists in Lakewood,” Rabbi Blau continued. “But in trying to maintain the illusion that no societal problems exist, the religious leadership has refused to respond meaningfully to the suffering of victims of abuse in families, schools and the community.”
This story was supported by a grant from the Washington-based Fund for Investigative Journalism.
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