Derech Etz Chaim Severed from YU Israel Program

Commentator News/March 6, 2003
By Yehoshua Levine

Yeshiva officials recently terminated Yeshivat Derech Etz Chaim's affiliation with the S. Daniel Abraham Joint Israel Program after discovering "compelling evidence" that a rabbi integrally associated with the yeshiva has a history of allegedly sexually abusing and engaging in cult-like behavior with his students. The decision, which took effect on February 13 and was made public in a letter sent to parents of current Derech Etz Chaim (DEC) students, followed an intensive international investigation in which the University concluded that maintaining its association with DEC would be "betraying the trust between Yeshiva University and its students."

Yeshivat Derech Etz Chaim is a small yeshiva in the Har Nof section of Jerusalem that has been a favorite of Yeshiva's Joint Israel Committee since it opened its doors five years ago. It has been a favorite of Yeshiva students as well, boasting more and more students in Yeshiva's Israel Program each year.

Throughout the past four weeks, YU administrators on the Joint Israel Committee have ascertained that the rabbi, under whose influence and tutelage DEC operates, has a longtime record of allegedly exhibiting exceedingly inappropriate behavior with his students. "What he has allegedly done," one close source said, "is inconceivably shocking."

Those involved in the recent decision to terminate the affiliation pointed out that striking parallels to the rabbi's alleged domineering behavior are currently resurfacing in DEC. "We've been finding cases that sound eerily similar to those which allegedly occurred in the past with [the rabbi]," the source said. "And given this situation, we can't wait three months for something to happen."

The Clues

The charges extend back to 1983, when Yeshivat Kerem, a yeshiva in Santa Clara, California, mysteriously shut down. The yeshiva had been thriving until the fall of 1983 when students began to come out with allegations that they had been sexually abused by the said rabbi during their years in the yeshiva. Within a few months - after the rabbi, shunned by the student populace and confirmed as a sexual deviant, left the yeshiva amidst controversy - Yeshivat Kerem shut down. Because many of the allegations had been kept quiet, the yeshiva's closing was perceived as the result of financial difficulty.

The Yeshiva administrators who made the decision to terminate DEC's affiliation with YU point out that this rabbi is the driving force behind everything in DEC - from its teaching approach to its overall hashkafa. To begin with, one of his closest students is DEC Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Aharon Katz, whom he effectively raised since Katz's teenage years. Two of his sons are rabbeim in the yeshiva. And with rare exceptions, DEC students consider him their rebbe. Although they have since been removed in order to downplay his association with DEC, numerous pictures of DEC students with the rabbi had been on the DEC website, Even a regular online shiur he gives can be found on a site sponsored by DEC. In the words of a Yeshiva source, "He is not just involved with the yeshiva - he is the yeshiva."

Asked why, according to his understanding, Yeshivat Kerem closed, Katz responded, "I have no idea. I graduated as a student there some time before it closed. My understanding was that the school had financial problems, not uncommon at that time."

Katz also denies the extent of the said rabbi's influence and involvement. "On Thursday evenings we host a public shiur which enjoys the attendance of over 100 people including community members and most DEC students," he said, in reference to the rabbi's weekly class. Katz would not comment further on the rabbi's supposed association with DEC or on any of the specific cases of close interaction with students.

The Evidence

A few weeks ago, a member of the Judaic Studies administration received a call from a woman whose shabbos guest, a DEC alum, had repeated a d'var Torah in the name of the rabbi that had contained what she considered inappropriate and irrelevant sexual references. The woman, an expert on child abuse who had been on the Independent NCSY Special Commission investigating Rabbi Baruch Lanner, was mildly distressed and wished to bring this to the attention of YU, to which DEC was affiliated.

"Her phone call didn't worry me too much at the time," the administrator explained. "But it did prompt me to make a few phone calls, just to make sure. We spoke with the parents of the guy [who had given the d'var Torah], alumni, and others familiar with the yeshiva. We spoke with rabbeim who had heard Derech Etz Chaim alumni claim that they don't go to shiur because only their derech of learning is [the correct one]. And one thing led to another."

At that point, a number of other administrators joined the investigation. They spoke with Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, a Los Angeles resident who is currently the principal of Emek Hebrew Academy, an elementary school in the San Fernando Valley, and a former Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Kerem, who offered the names and phone numbers of victims and professionals who had allegedly been involved at many different levels in Kerem. Also explaining that many students had gone through significant therapy after coming out with their allegations, Eidlitz attributed the yeshiva's closure to what had been going on under the rabbi's leadership.

Before contacting anyone else, the investigation narrowed in on Eidlitz and the sources he had supplied to insure that they could be trusted. According to a Yeshiva administrator who had made "a number of calls" to get a sense of Eidlitz's honesty and reliability, "He [Eidlitz] checks people unbelievably well." And in reference to the victims and professionals who later recalled the specifics of what went on in Kerem, the administrator noted that "they were first ascertained to be well-respected members of their [respective] communities, and most importantly, impeccably honest people."

Concurrently, YU confirmed that Rav Elya Svei, Rosh HaYeshiva of the Philadelphia Yeshiva, had written a letter after the Yeshivat Kerem fiasco that was signed by the rabbi. In the letter, the rabbi agreed that he would not become involved with chinuch, Jewish education, neither in the United States nor in Israel, and that in exchange for this agreement, no charges against him would be pressed. Rabbi Pinchas Lipschutz, Editor of Yated Neeman and a close attendant of Rav Svei's, recalled that this letter had indeed been written and signed. Katz, on the other hand, said that he is "not aware of any such document."

The Decision

Roughly ten Yeshiva administrators - including Mashgiach Ruchani Rabbi Yosef Blau, Dean of Admissions Michael Kranzler, Assistant to the Dean of Undergraduate Jewish Studies Rabbi Danni Rapp, Senior University Dean of Students Dr. Efrem Nulman, Stern College for Women Dean Dr. Karen Bacon, Dean of Undergraduate Jewish Studies Rabbi Michael Shmidman, and Director of Enrollment Management Dr. John Fisher, among others - held a meeting on February 12 and decided to sever YU's affiliation with DEC on the grounds that the yeshiva's ideological and spiritual backbone is someone with a history of alleged sexual and psychological abuse of his students. Because YU stamps an implicit seal of approval upon the schools in its Israel Program, it was decided that keeping DEC in the Program would be betraying the trust between YU and its students and their parents.

On February 14, one day before the Israel Program contract deadline, the Office of Admissions sent out a letter to the parents of current DEC students informing them that "[a]fter a review of the educational standards and the learning environment at Derech Etz Chaim, Yeshiva University has decided to end the affiliation of Derech Etz Chaim with our S. Daniel Abraham Program in Israel." While promising to grant academic credit to students who choose to remain in DEC - or, presumably, to learn there on own their own in the future - the missive offered to "help [students] relocate to another school in Israel or to the New York campus" should the student decide to "leave the school now." It was mainly because of this line that curious parents and students have been contacting YU for information regarding the decision.

The Office of Admissions also sent a letter to traditional constituent high schools with a list of the yeshivos in the Israel Program, urging them to notice that DEC is no longer on the list.

A YU insider stressed that these letters contained no legal overtones. "We didn't want to get involved with legal issues," he explained. "The decision [to dissociate from DEC] was our own response to what we had been finding out. Did we want to continue having a conversation with them? No. We don't want to have anything to do with them. When it comes to the issues involved, there's no rehabilitation. There's enough evidence that people don't change. And his influence pervades the yeshiva. We've already found evidence of [that]. Yes, we were willing to dissociate ourselves from a place that [we had formerly] loved."

Kranzler further emphasized YU's confidence in the decision. "This was an extremely serious, painful decision," he said. "We were aware of the fact that from a recruitment perspective, we had everything to lose and nothing to gain. But we are so comfortable, so secure in [what we decided], as painful and as sad as it is."

Since the decision was made and the letters were mailed, Yeshiva sources note that they have found even further evidence bolstering the allegations against the rabbi. "I started speaking with guys that came out of the woodwork only later, and they gave me levels of detail that you wouldn't believe," one source said. An administrator pointed out that just a few days ago, he received a call from a woman whose son went to Tzefat with the rabbi for three days, and the DEC office would not tell her where they went.

DEC itself is attempting to come to terms with what many have called an effective death penalty for the yeshiva. Referring to YU's decision to end their affiliation with DEC, Katz remarked, "We were shocked and saddened. We have a enjoyed a wonderful relationship with Yeshiva University from the beginnings of our institution. We have viewed them as a partner and a destination we were proud to recommend to our alumni. We had been in regular contact with members of the faculty and administration and were given absolutely no indication that they were unhappy with anything at Derech Etz Chaim."

Katz also expressed frustration at the way YU dealt with the investigation and subsequent unilateral decision. "When we were abruptly informed of the decision, no reasons were given to us, and no avenue for appeal was offered," he said. "Frankly, we expected more."

Katz has been in contact with the said officials and hopes to figure out a way of winning back YU's favor. In a DEC yeshiva-wide shmooze on February 27, in fact, he stressed to his students that the said rabbi is in no way connected to DEC. YU is still quite hesitant, however. "There's no way they can look beyond their fundamental connection to [this rabbi]," an administrator noted. "It'll take [a lot] to get us to reverse our decision."?

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