Yeshiva Countersues Derech Etz Chaim

The Commentator News/December 28, 2003
By Michael Rosman

In response to a May 2003 lawsuit against Yeshiva brought by Derech Etz Chaim (DEC), a Jerusalem yeshiva that is part of Yeshiva's S. Daniel Abraham Israel Program, the University is countersuing DEC, claiming that DEC and its dean have misrepresented their connection to Rabbi Matis Weinberg, who allegedly has a history of sexually abusing students.

Last May, DEC filed a breach of contract lawsuit in a Manhattan federal court, alleging that Yeshiva financially crippled DEC by severing ties with it, which, DEC officials claimed, was based on false concerns about the school and the rabbi.

Following a meeting May 12 to discuss the discovery of evidence that a rabbi integrally associated with the yeshiva had a history of allegedly sexually abusing and engaging in cult-like behavior with his students, Yeshiva officials had decided to cut all ties with DEC, a popular school among students in the Israel Program.

Because Yeshiva stamps its approval on all the schools affiliated with the Israel Program, it decided that allowing DEC to remain in the program would be betraying the trust between Yeshiva University and its students.

"Yeshiva is protecting its interests as well as the interest of the Yeshiva community," said Jed Marcus, Yeshiva's lead attorney on the case.

Marcus explained that the decision was based on a close review of the yeshiva's educational standards and learning atmosphere. "We established that DEC did not live up to its contract with Yeshiva and did not accurately identify Rabbi Weinberg as a member of the school's faculty," he said.

Marcus further said Yeshiva was not eager to run to the legal system to handle the situation, but once DEC decided to sue, Yeshiva felt it had no choice but to respond in kind. "Now that DEC has filed a suit, Yeshiva who firmly disagrees with DEC's claims will aggressively defend itself until we win," he said.

DEC charged in its complaint on May 30 that Yeshiva had defamed DEC by advising callers who asked about Yeshiva's decision that Rabbi Weinberg was creating a harmful environment at DEC and that he had been accused of engaging in inappropriate sexual conduct with a student. DEC said that the charges against Rabbi Weinberg were false and were not appropriately examined by Yeshiva.

The university's countersuit, filed in November in the same Manhattan federal court, claims the Israeli school has "utterly refused to protect" Yeshiva students from Rabbi Weinberg.

The countersuit is based on the claim that the dean of DEC, Rabbi Aharon Katz, was aware of at least two accusations of sexual misconduct made against Rabbi Weinberg and chose to ignore them. Yeshiva claims that these allegations were brought to Rabbi Katz's attention by a student who attended a yeshiva run by Rabbi Weinberg in California over 20 years ago, and more recently by a student at DEC.

DEC's suit also accused Yeshiva of defaming Rabbi Katz and DEC by announcing that he had prior knowledge of Weinberg's alleged background. Kenneth Lapatine, who represents DEC, said Rabbi Katz as well as DEC "were not aware of any allegations of sexual misconduct against Rabbi Weinberg until Yeshiva University started making those allegations public." Mr. Lapatine went on to say that "Whether or not Rabbi Weinberg is indeed a 'sexual predator,' Yeshiva has no right to make disparaging comments about DEC, an institution of which Rabbi Weinberg is not even a faculty member." DEC is asking for $75,000 in damages and has asked the judge to issue an injunction preventing Yeshiva from further damaging their academy.

In its countersuit, Yeshiva denies making these claims to the public at the time. The university does admit that they warned callers of the accusations of misconduct and warned the families of DEC students. Rabbi Yosef Blau, director of religious guidance at Yeshiva, said, "Yeshiva notified the families of those students who were attending the school or had attended DEC in the recent past, to inform them that several students approached the administration at Yeshiva alleging that Rabbi Weinberg had sexually abused students while serving as a rabbi at the school."

Yeshiva's countersuit says that Rabbi Katz was defensive about Rabbi Weinberg and refused to investigate the possibilities of abuse or take any action to protect students. DEC has denied these allegations.

Rabbi Katz is a former student of Rabbi Weinberg at a yeshiva in Santa Clara, CA, called Kerem, founded in the late 1970's. "There were allegations that Weinberg's employment with Kerem was terminated in the 1980's because he allegedly sexually molested yeshiva students," according to the countersuit.

The countersuit also claims that Rabbi Katz was well aware of these accusations, and neglected to act out of conscientiousness for his relationship with Rabbi Weinberg. "Neither DEC nor Rabbi Katz disclosed that Rabbi Katz has been a devoted disciple of Weinberg since the 1970's. In fact, Rabbi Katz considers Weinberg his 'Rebbe,' which means his spiritual guide or mentor. In fact, Yeshiva University did not know that Rabbi Katz has shaped DEC into a community advocating Weinberg's 'Hashkafah,' which means his world outlook," the countersuit says.

The university says that Rabbi Weinberg had constant contact with his students and that DEC conducted class trips to Rabbi Weinberg's home in Jerusalem.

Yeshiva claims that many students, upon returning from DEC, refused to take part in Yeshiva's Judaic studies programs. Instead they engaged in independent study and consulted only DEC regarding their religious pursuits. The countersuit states that students were taught that only Rabbi Weinberg and DEC's philosophy were correct. Mr. Lapatine denied accusations against Rabbi Weinberg, and added that no one at DEC discouraged students from attending Yeshiva University classes.

When asked to comment on the situation, a DEC alumnus and current YC student said, "I only wish that Yeshiva could put this all behind them. Every time this resurfaces we are the ones that have to deal with it. Maybe Yeshiva could think about their students for once."

"Yeshiva wasn't the one who filed the first lawsuit; students who are upset should go to DEC and complain," said Rabbi Blau.

Many guidance counselors have been hindered from helping students from DEC, fearing any violation of the suit filed by DEC, asking the judge to issue an injunction preventing Yeshiva from further damaging DEC, said Rabbi Blau.

Another DEC alumnus said, "When people ask you what Yeshiva you went to, you can say Shaalvim, Yeshivat Har Etzion, or KBY and be proud. I, on the other hand, have to sheepishly answer, 'Derech Etz Chaim.'"

A third DEC alumnus declined to comment on the specifics of the case. "It's very difficult when you are stuck in between the college you attend and a rabbi with whom you are still very close with," he said.

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