The yeshiva at the heart of a sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Orthodox community of Flatbush has pledged to take a series of steps to protect children from sexual molestation, including forbidding teachers from being alone with students and hiring a counselor and ombudsman to hear any future complaints.
While not admitting to any wrongdoing in the wake of two lawsuits that allege that Yeshiva and Mesivta Torah Temimah knowingly harbored a molester, the school announced the latest moves on Monday night at a forum attended by 150 parents of school-age children.
A number of parents applauded the school’s efforts, and there were no critical questions from the audience. But some observers said the event shed light on the inner workings of the insular Brooklyn community in terms of the deference it pays to its leadership.
The head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Lipa Margulies, who allegedly perpetrated a cover-up of the abuse and threatened students who made complaints, called the meeting, he said, to stress the importance of children’s safety. However, he declined to address parents’ concerns about the allegations, saying the matter was in litigation.
“I’m sure you’ll understand, I am precluded because of pending litigation from discussing any of that,” Rabbi Margulies said in reference to the claims.
In his only allusion to the past, he noted: “We always have had and always will have zero tolerance for any type of abuse, whether physical or emotional. … If, however, any member of our yeshiva family was ever subject to abuse by anyone at any time, our hearts go out for them and their families.”
The event was the first open forum for parents following the filing of the lawsuits in May. In two complaints, three former students of Torah Temimah alleged that Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, a longtime rebbe at the school, had sexually molested them in attacks that occurred more than 20 years ago. The lawsuits, which seek $30 million in damages, claim that Rabbi Margulies conducted a rigorous coverup, including the foiling of two beit dins convened in the 1980s to air alleged victims’ complaints.
One of the alleged victims, David Framowitz, 48, said that Rabbi Kolko fondled him on multiple occasions in a car as well as in the school and at a summer camp for boys.
After the lawsuit was filed in Brooklyn Federal Court, Rabbi Kolko, who has worked for the yeshiva for four decades, was put on administrative leave. Rabbi Margulies, who appears to have the community’s full support, has remained in his position.
None of the named defendants in the two lawsuits — Rabbi Kolko, Torah Temimah and Camp Agudah — have yet responded to the lawsuit. A lawyer for Torah Temimah previously denied the allegations.
In the wake of the charges, Torah Temimah invited Rabbi Aaron Twerski, dean of the Hofstra University Law School, and David Mandel, the executive director of Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, a Jewish social service agency, to speak at the event on Monday night.
Rabbi Twerski, a legal scholar who said he has been working on the issue of abuse for “a long time,” dismissed the allegations against Rabbi Margulies.
“I know Rabbi Margulies for many years and know him to be a man of great honor,” said Rabbi Twerski. He did not make any comments about Rabbi Kolko.
Rabbi Twerski then outlined a host of steps he said the yeshiva was taking to improve school safety, including agreeing to train employees to recognize signs of abuse. In addition, he said the school would be hiring a counselor and an ombudsman to handle claims of abuse.
One member of the audience was overheard saying under her breath, “It’s about time.”
In addition, Rabbi Twerski said the school had implemented a number of guidelines, including forbidding teachers to be alone with students and requiring that there be no enclosure without windows “so that a passerby cannot see what is going on.”
Rabbi Twerski also said that Torah Temimah was in the process of implementing additional, but undefined, steps recommended by Torah U’Mesorah, the Jewish education arm of Agudath Israel of America.
A call placed to Torah U’Mesorah in search of the guidelines was not returned.
Following Rabbi Twerski, Mandel spoke about ways to engage children in conversations about sex abuse. Mandel noted that it was up to the parents to engage their children because most victims do not come forward due to shame, fear of their abusers, a sense of loyalty to their abusers and/or concern about being stigmatized.
However, when an audience member asked whether sex education could help to strengthen children’s knowledge of inappropriate behaviors and empower them to come forward if someone violated them, Mandel responded that sex education was “not something realistic” in a community that stresses modesty.
He told parents that the overwhelming majority of children who have experienced “unwanted touch” would go on to live happy, healthy lives, while only a “small percentage” of individuals would be permanently harmed by the abuse
Mandel also said that abusers could be treated for their perversions.
“An individual who abuses children and who participates in treatment can lead a successful life and be believed that they would no longer hurt children,” Mandel said.
When asked, in an interview the following day, whether such people could work with children again, Mandel evaded the question.
Several parents who were in attendance said they were pleased with the information they received and with the school for holding the session.
“A little too late, but better late than never,” said one parent following the event.
Another parent, requesting anonymity, said he felt the school was “taking every step humanly possible” to prevent abuse. He added that Rabbi Margulies had his full confidence.
But some Orthodox observers said the event amounted to a whitewash of the allegations.
Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual adviser at Yeshiva University who has been working to focus communal attention on the problem of rabbinic abuse, said that the community was so “authority oriented” that it prevented members from demanding more accountability from its leadership.
“No one who protected him [Rabbi Kolko] all these years is paying any price,” Blau said, adding that Rabbi Margulies “should remove himself for awhile until things can be reviewed objectively.”
Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive director of JSafe, an organization that fights abuse in the Jewish community, said the Brooklyn Orthodox community had a somewhat spotty record of taking care of its own.
“Part of the problem with Brooklyn is that it’s a very insular community,” Rabbi Dratch said. “They look to solve the problems themselves even if it’s not in the best interest of the community.”