Battle for the Truth

Rabbi Mattis Weinberg fights Yeshiva University over charges of "inappropriate influence."

The Jewish Journal/March 28, 2003
By Julie Gruenbaum Fax

A prominent rabbi in Jerusalem's Old City, who was rumored to have sexually abused students at a California yeshiva 20 years ago, is fighting new innuendoes that he wields inappropriate influence over students at a Jerusalem yeshiva with which he is loosely affiliated.

Rabbi Mattis Weinberg, who founded Yeshivat Kerem in Santa Clara in the mid-1970s, counts as some of his strongest supporters - and detractors - former Kerem students and faculty members who now live in Los Angeles.

The Kerem scandal reemerged from a two-decade dormancy last month when Yeshiva University (YU) in New York severed ties with Yeshiva Derech Etz Chaim (DEC) in Jerusalem, a post-high school yeshiva for about 35 American boys founded five years ago by Weinberg's students and where Weinberg taught a class once a week. YU alleged that Weinberg has significant influence among faculty and students and that both past and present inappropriate behavior warrant caution.

Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual adviser to students at YU, said that one current DEC student has come forward with allegations of sexual abuse.

He said another five victims from Kerem are willing to go on record. Weinberg and his supporters have embarked on an aggressive campaign to clear his name, calling all the allegations - past and present - ludicrous.

The decades-old scandal has resurfaced in a climate of hypersensitivity to sexual misconduct in an Orthodox community where incidents of abuse and cover-up have been exposed in the last few years. Some question whether Weinberg's case indicates that institutions wary of being accused of complacency have confused caution with overzealousness, while others laud the newfound imperative to clear up past wrongs and prevent future ones.

Weinberg is incensed by the accusations.

"Because of their desire to appear holier-than-thou, they decided to embark on some type of witch hunt or McCarthyism," Weinberg said in a phone interview from Jerusalem. Weinberg and his supporters believe YU's reaction can be traced to the fallout from the scandal involving Rabbi Baruch Lanner, who is free pending an appeal after being sentenced last June to seven years in prison for sexually abusing two girls when he was principal of a New Jersey yeshiva in the 1990s. The Orthodox Union, which employed Lanner as a regional director of the National Council for Synagogue Youth, admitted in an internal report to playing a part in covering up Lanner's offenses in the youth group for 20 years - a notion that Weinberg's supporters say has sent the Modern Orthodox Yeshiva University over the edge in caution.

"We checked the history to our satisfaction and we were concerned that there might be a problem and we are not ready to have a relationship with a school and put our name on an institution where there might be something not healthy for student," Blau said.

Blau said that reports from current students raised some flags of concern, especially when taken in context of the Kerem scandal of 20 years ago.

He is confident that more victims - those who have already spoken with professionals and those who have yet to do so - will come forward soon. But so far, specifics are lacking.

The Commentator, YU's student paper, reported on one case where Weinberg took a student (not from DEC) to Safed for a weekend, and other cases of Weinberg using inappropriate sexual references in Torah lectures.

Weinberg called the accusations ludicrous. He says the student who went to Safed was a 20-year-old man who joined Weinberg - who has 10 children and many grandchildren - on a family trip, splitting the cost of the rental car. As to sexual content in his lectures, Weinberg said that both Bible and Talmud are full of such references, and he includes them where appropriate and necessary when he delivers his many lectures at yeshivot throughout Israel.

The vagueness of the accusations have angered and frustrated the administration at DEC, especially since they say DEC's ties to Weinberg are tenuous, and he holds no special influence over students.

"There is outrage amongst the present student population as well as their parents, alumni and alumni parents about the way YU has conducted itself toward DEC," said Rabbi Aharon Katz, dean of DEC. "YU has stated to us in conversations [as well as to others] that they have no allegations from students who have attended DEC."

DEC learned of the allegations only after the letter went out to parents. As soon as the yeshiva heard the accusations it suspended the weekly lecture Weinberg was delivering, pending an investigation, said Rabbi Sholom Strajcher, Katz's father-in-law and DEC president.

"What we want is to put it out on the table," said Strajcher, educational director of Yeshiva University of Los Angeles Boys High School (YULA). "Let's create a mechanism of impartial professionals to look at it so that we can feel that there has been a fair process," he said.

YU has alleged that Weinberg holds cult-like sway over his students.

Weinberg's supporters, several of whom contacted The Journal, say that kind of accusation stems from jealousy.

"What bothers people most about Rabbi Weinberg is that their Torah is garden variety as compared to his.... He is a brilliant thinker. He will not accept the usual approaches to Torah," said Rabbi Ari Hier, director of the Jewish Studies Institute at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who attended Kerem for seven years.

"As soon as you are outside of the box, immediately the Orthodox mediocrity has a problem with you," said Hier, son of Wiesenthal dean Rabbi Marvin Hier.

Kerem, which existed for seven years, employed some well-known rabbis in Los Angeles, including Rabbi Shalom Tendler, now rosh yeshiva at YULA; Rabbi Aron Tendler of Shaarei Tzedek Congregation; Rabbi Daniel Lapin, formerly of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice; and Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, now director of development at Emek Hebrew Academy.

It is Eidlitz whom the Commentator quoted as supplying YU with the ammunition to attack Weinberg and DEC. Eidlitz refused to comment for The Jewish Journal.

In 1983, a year after Weinberg moved to Israel and soon before the school closed its doors, major backers of Kerem and faculty were vying for control of the institution, Weinberg said. Amid that atmosphere, rumors emerged that Weinberg had sexually abused some of the students. No charges were ever brought.

Rabbi Ari Guidry, a student at Kerem for seven years, who has taught at several day schools in Los Angeles and now produces Torah CDs, said he was the source of some of those rumors. But he says now he misrepresented appropriate hugs from Weinberg to impress wealthy and powerful backers who did not like Weinberg.

"There was never anything remotely sexually suggestive," Guidry said of his relationship with Weinberg.

But Blau of YU said there are more witnesses who are not speaking publicly about what happened at Kerem.

Also in question is how the original allegations were handled. Blau said that there is a letter signed by Weinberg and Rabbi Elya Svei, a leading rabbinic figure from Philadelphia, stating that Weinberg would not be involved in education.

"That is absolutely categorically insane," Weinberg said. "I would love for somebody to produce this document."

One local rabbi familiar with the situation said that the matter at Kerem was dealt with at a rabbinic assembly involving some of the most elite rabbis in the United States at the time, including the late Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, Weinberg's father and rosh yeshiva of Ner Israel in Baltimore. Because of Weinberg's lineage - he is the grandson of the highly respected late Rabbi Yaakov Ruderman - Weinberg was quietly confined to a life without direct influence over students so that scandal would not touch this respected Torah family, this rabbi alleged.

"That never happened. It is absolutely, categorically, simply totally untrue," Weinberg said of such an assembly.

Weinberg said that all he is guilty of is possessing the overconfidence of a 29-year-old in charge of a school and loving his students. Kerem took in many students from broken homes, he said.

"I believe that when kids are shown, for the first time in their lives, support and concern and actual love, it makes all the difference to them," he said. "When subsequently these accusations were made and the kids were told that nobody loved you and cared about you and any sign of comfort was because it was giving somebody a sexual charge - that such a devastating thing to them," Weinberg said.

Weinberg said his supporters are in negotiations with YU, but if the situation is not resolved he will take legal action.

"If I had spent the years I spent being productive getting involved in such nonsense, I would not have given thousands of classes or published books. I would have become a bitter, small-minded person who worries about what other people think and about their lashon hara [gossip]," Weinberg said. "But I have been put into a position that if they continue this, it has to be stopped."

Blau said that YU stands by its actions, and that more information will soon emerge. Meanwhile, Blau said, the students must be protected.

"There is some level of suspicion and some level of risk, and that is enough to react," he said.

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