Fired cantor has a troubled history

Philip Friedman, dismissed by Temple Israel, was accused of molesting a girl on Long Island

Albany Times-Union, New York/August 21, 2006

A former Temple Israel cantor now under investigation for inappropriate conduct with a member of his Albany congregation was accused of molesting a young girl at a Long Island Jewish Center where he used to work, according to court records and a law enforcement official.

The girl claimed in a lawsuit that Cantor Philip Friedman fondled her while they were alone in his office at the East Northport Jewish Center. She was a religion student between 8 and 10 years old during the alleged abuse. The Suffolk County synagogue forced Friedman to resign in 1990 after allegations were raised about his conduct with at least one child, court documents show.

Friedman, 65, never faced criminal charges and the lawsuit was settled in 2000 for 20 years of payouts to the girl totaling about $600,000. But legal documents obtained by the Times Union outline a disturbing picture of a religious leader once again accused of misconduct.

This time, the setting is Albany's largest Conservative synagogue.

And the story's elements -- a clergyman accused of predatory behavior, only to work with children again elsewhere -- evoke the abuse scandals that consumed the Roman Catholic Church.

"It was devastating for her, for the young girl that I represented," said Harvey Weitz, a Manhattan-based lawyer who handled the East Northport case. "... It had a really terrible effect on her relationship with her entire family. It was just an awful, awful affair."

The Albany County district attorney's office, which is looking into the allegations here, started investigating Friedman after the board of trustees at Temple Israel came forward with accusations that appear to resemble those he faced in Long Island. Friedman served as the temple's cantor from 1992 until synagogue leaders fired him in May.

Rachel McEneny, a spokeswoman for the district attorney, confirmed that the Philip Friedman named in the lawsuit is the same man now under investigation by her office.

Friedman, reached at home in Albany, refused to discuss the East Northport lawsuit, either himself or through his attorney.

"I will instruct my attorney not to talk to you," he said.

But at the time, Friedman denied wrongdoing, documents show. He admitted only that he gave the girl candy, kissed her on the cheek and sat her on his lap. He said the door was open and that his behavior was appropriate. The decision to terminate him, he said, was unfair.

Temple Israel hired him as cantor about two years later -- to do essentially the same job in Albany he did in Long Island. There is no indication synagogue leaders here knew of his past problems.

Friedman's duties, according to one Temple Israel member, involved chanting the liturgy of services, teaching Hebrew school and conducting one-on-one lessons to prepare students for bar and bat mitzvahs.

His job description is characteristic of how cantors' roles have evolved over the last generation. Historically "pulpit artists" who mesmerized congregations through their voice and prayer, cantors now do everything from fundraising to family counseling to life-cycle events like weddings and funerals.

"We're seen as full clergy, not just decorative addendums," said Steven Stoehr, president of the Cantors Assembly, an international group that is effectively the union for Conservative cantors. "... It's almost a mirror career to a rabbi."

In Long Island, meanwhile, word that Friedman had furthered his career with a new job at a large temple upstate filtered down to the East Northport Jewish Center.

Robert Jay Dinerstein, a lawyer who represented the Jewish Center when it was targeted for damages in the Friedman abuse case, said some congregants' children attended the University at Albany, which draws more than 25 percent of its undergraduates from Long Island.

"And I think they, either directly or through their parents, were the source for telling us that he was engaged up there," Dinerstein said.

He added, "I felt it should have raised some eyebrows (at Temple Israel) that he was fired and had something to do with inappropriate conduct with a child."

Temple President Gavin Setzen told the Times Union last week that he had been advised not to talk about the former cantor while the district attorney's office continues to investigate him.

But in June, Setzen co-signed a chilling letter to his fellow congregants at the New Scotland Avenue synagogue. It revealed that the board of trustees had fired Friedman for "inappropriate behavior" toward a member of the congregation.

The cryptic letter gave few details beyond saying that temple leaders had reported the incident to law enforcement officials. The synagogue urged any others with concerns about Friedman's behavior to come forward.

One congregant who did not want his name published said the letter prompted "a real candid discussion" with his child, who studied Hebrew under Friedman. The child said nothing inappropriate happened.

"It's what makes this situation disheartening, because I'm still not sure what happened," the temple member said.

One thing appears clear. The temple did not find Friedman through what -- at least over the last dozen years -- has become standard procedure for hiring from the relatively small pool of Conservative cantors.

Most cantors belong to Stoehr's roughly 500-member Cantors Assembly. The group, in turn, gets most of its members from two established cantorial programs, both based in New York.

"Almost all Conservative congregations will make their initial attempt at hiring a cantor through our placement services," Stoehr said. Philip Friedman has never been a member of the Cantors Assembly, Stoehr said.

Officials from the district attorney's office won't officially say what Friedman is suspected of doing at Temple Israel. But McEneny, the spokeswoman, noted that the case was referred to the special victims unit. That bureau specializes in sex crimes and crimes against children, she said.

"I think you can draw your own conclusions," she said.

She added, "It appears ... that this particular cantor has a predatory nature. The lawsuit confirms that. And I don't believe that Temple Israel knew about this."

Other questions remain. Did Friedman work between 1990 and 1992? Did he face any other allegations? Why were no criminal charges pursued in Long Island?

Dinerstein, the East Northport temple's attorney, got involved only when the synagogue faced the lawsuit in 1996. That came roughly six years after the abuse the girl allegedly suffered ended, according to court papers.

At that point, he said, "It wasn't timely to bring it to the attention of police, especially since Friedman was no longer affiliated with the East Northport Jewish Center."

When Dinerstein tried to find out what happened, he was advised that the only person who would know if the Jewish Center had consulted with police was Stan Rubenstein, a former temple president. Rubenstein had passed away.

And, as Dinerstein recalled, the infraction that got Friedman fired in 1990 was not molestation, but lesser misdeeds, like having the girl sit on his lap.

The lawyer was not surprised to hear his former cantor had run into trouble again, however.

"Where there's smoke, there's fire," Dinerstein said. "While I believe that my interrogation of the girl established that her story wouldn't withstand scrutiny, I believe that certain elements of it were certainly true, and that was enough to raise questions about Cantor Friedman's trustworthiness with children."

For all their demonization of Friedman, the legal documents also raise questions about the credibility of his accuser. When first questioned by her parents in 1990, the girl denied Friedman had molested her. The lawsuit was filed six years later.

Paul Shapiro, a former president of the East Northport Jewish Center, seized on that time lapse in a sworn affidavit. By the time the abuse allegations did surface, the girl was in psychological counseling for conditions such as oppositional defiant disorder and borderline personality disorder, he said.

Shapiro viewed the case as "analogous to the Tawana Brawley debacle," a reference to the allegations of a black teenager whose claims that a group of white men kidnapped and raped her were found to be made up.

The district attorney's office declined to say what the next step would be in its investigation of Friedman.

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