Orthodox Jewish Community Struggles With Abuse Allegations

Joel Engelman and Tamir Weissberg

When Joel Engelman was 8 years old, he says, he was called from his Hebrew class to the principal's office at his Brooklyn yeshiva, a Jewish religious school. His parents had recently told Rabbi Avrohom Reichman that their son had been abused by an older boy at the school, he says.

But he says the rabbi was not offering to help that day.

When Engelman arrived at the principal's office, he says, Reichman told him to close the door. He told the boy to sit on his lap and began swiveling his chair back and forth, Engelman says. Reichman then touched him, moving from his shoulders down, Engelman claims.

The same kind of abuse went on twice a week for several months before he left the school, Engelman claims in a civil lawsuit filed against the yeshiva, the United Talmudical Academy.

For more than 10 years, Engelman, now 23, kept what he says happened to himself. He left the orthodox community and found new friends. It wasn't until about two years ago, when he says he heard that other boys allegedly had been abused by Reichman, that he tried to do something about it.

But Engelman says the response from religious leaders has been just as disturbing as the alleged abuse. He claims the school's religious leaders told him not to go to the police, and promised to remove Reichman from the school, which they did for a few months.

"They kept telling me, 'Don't go to the police, don't do anything. We've dealt with this before,'" with other teachers, he said. "It really shocked me."

A few days after the statute of limitations for Engelman to file a civil or criminal case against Reichman for abuse passed, the school reinstated the rabbi, the lawsuit claims.

Advocates: Abuse Problem Plagues Orthodox Community

Engelman's is among a handful of publicized cases of alleged abuse within the insular Orthodox Jewish community. But alleged victims and their advocates say it is far from an isolated instance.

The Brooklyn district attorney's office, which last month announced a hotline for alleged Orthodox sex abuse victims, says it has 19 active cases of alleged sex abuse in the borough's Orthodox Jewish community. And advocates say the problem extends beyond Brooklyn.

"If you're a pedophile, just go to one of the orthodox communities. You're probably safest there," said New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, himself an Orthodox Jew. "It's sad for me to say that, but it's true."

Assemblyman 'Inundated' With Calls from Alleged Sex Abuse Victims

When Hikind broached the subject of sexual abuse on his weekly radio show last year, he said he was "inundated" with calls from alleged victims from the United States, Israel and parts of Europe.

ABC News has spoken to Orthodox Jews who claim they were victims of abusers in New York, Baltimore and Illinois, who shared stories of alleged molestation followed by what they described as hostility from community leaders when they sought help.

Hikind says another of Reichman's students, who has not come forward publicly, claims he was abused by the rabbi as a child.

"A lot was attempted, a lot was tried" to remove Reichman from the school, he said. "He is unfortunately still in the classroom."

Lawyer: Abuse Claims Not True

A lawyer for Reichman, Jacob Laufer, said the rabbi "vehemently denies" that he abused any students. He said the school conducted an investigation into Engelman's claims and found that they were "without merit."

A lawyer for the yeshiva said the school would not comment on pending litigation.

Reichman "has been a teacher and principal at that school for decades," Laufer said. "The parent body highly values his services as an educator and they compete among themselves for the opportunity to have their children be in Rabbi Reichmans's class."

Rabbi David Niederman, the head of the United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg, said claims of widespread abuse in the Orthodox community are "nonsense."

"Are there cases where people dont abide by the law? Yes, no question. We are all human. As humans, we have temptations of various sorts. No community is immune to that," he said.

"But we would not and don't tolerate any type of criminality. If a person abuses your child today, he will abuse my child tomorrow or my grandchild. We take that very seriously," he said. "We put our children first. Nobody in his right mind will try to protect somebody who committed a crime. It will turn against you."

Though Hikind and some rabbis have recently been willing to take on the issue, alleged victims say there is still tremendous pressure to keep quiet. Several said community leaders were skeptical of their claims, and said they were told that they and their relatives would never be able to find someone to marry them and that they would become outcasts in their tight-knit communities.

One prominent rabbi, speaking on the condition of anomynity, questioned whether abuse allegations were true.

"If there's a family fight, a dispute in the family, it could start with verbal abuse. What happens next? You know and I know, it becomes 'he raped me,' or whatever," the rabbi said. "If you're telling me there are allegations of abuse, I don't know what 'allegations' really means."

Engelman, now a graphic designer, says he has lost jobs because he spoke publicly about Reichman.

Hikind says nearly all the alleged victims who have contacted him said they were afraid to speak publicly or to prosecutors. He will not publicly release names of alleged perpetrators, though he says he turns over information to prosecutors.

Alleged Victims Say Told Not to Report Abuse to Police

"They are willing to protect the community at the expense of the children," said a woman who claims she was abused by her father, a rabbi, and who asked to be identified only by her first name, Nanette. The woman's father did not return repeated messages seeking comment.

She said that when she began discussing the accusations against her father, her rabbi said if she continued to speak about it publicly, no other Orthodox Jews would be willing to marry any of her siblings. She says her family refused to speak with her.

"My sister told me until I stop the slander, she can't be my sister," she said.

"One of the things they say is when people speak out like this it causes desecration of God's name," she said. "But the real desecration to God is that they are willing to protect the community at the expense of the children."

Tamir Weissberg says he was abused by three Orthodox men over the course of several years.

The first time was at summer camp when he was in the fifth grade, when he said the adult son of the camp director invited him and several other boys into his tent one night and fondled them. He says he never told anyone until years later.

The person he accuses of molesting him was convicted in 2006 of unrelated charges of trying to contact a child over the Internet for sex. He was sentenced to 262 months in prison.

When he was a student in the Midwest, Weissberg says a school administrator allowed him to make phone calls from the administrator's room. One day, Weissberg says, the administrator showed him a pornographic magazine and asked Weissberg to masturbate in front of him.

Similar instances continued for several months, Weissberg says, until he tape recorded the man offering him money to masturbate in front of him.

When he took the tape to the head of the yeshiva, "He said 'If I hear a word of this from anyone I will make your life miserable.' And he took the tape away," Weissberg claims.

The administrator and the school's head rabbi did not return repeated calls for comment.

Weissberg, now 27, says he left school at 15 and returned to Baltimore feeling isolated and depressed. He says his parents were heartened when a family friend began spending time with him.

Weissberg says the friend, a lawyer, invited Weissberg to his apartment to watch a movie. After watching "Fargo," the lawyer suggested watching another movie, and put on a porn film, Weissberg says. "I started screaming, I freaked out," he said.

Weissberg says when he told his rabbi what had happened, the rabbi said he would look into it, but later responded that the lawyer had denied the allegations.

"He was someone I respect and a man of God. For me to have to sit there and tell him that, to no avail, it was a big slap in the face," he said. "I was ignored completely."

He says eventually the lawyer was asked to take a lie detector test and, when he admitted what had happened, he was asked to leave the Baltimore Orthodox community. No criminal charges were ever filed.

The rabbi, Moshe Heinemann, said he did not recall the lawyer admitting what had happened or asking him to leave the community. He declined to discuss the allegations further. Several other Baltimore rabbis declined to discuss the issue of sexual abuse.

"It was really shoved under the rug and ignored. I'm resentful for all that," Weissberg said. "It's something that people always think it's not going to happen to my kid. We don't want to hear about it.

"Unfortunately, we live in a society where there are a lot of sick people," Weissberg said. "Just because you're Jewish doesn't mean you're excluded from that. It's a fact of life of the world we're living in."

Engelman says that after Reichman was reinstated, the school's religious leaders then tried to minimize what had happened. He claims the school told his mother that since the touching was on the outside of Engelman's clothes, it was not a big deal.

Niederman said the school had investigated the allegations and was satisfied that they were not true.

"One would have to be sick in his mind to willingly keep somebody in the school that they know or believe that he committed a crime against children," the rabbi said.

For Engelman, that's not enough.

"Here's a guy who epitomized piety and respect," Engelman said. "It really shocked me. It turned my way of looking at people upside down."

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