By Michael Orbach (Jewish Star)
Issue of Sept. 12, 2008
A Cedarhurst attorney, Elliot Pasik, who has made it his mission to combat child sexual abuse in the Jewish community, is representing a 23- year-old whose accusations have rocked the Satmar community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
As reported in The Jewish Week last week, Joel Engelman was 8 years old when, he said, the principal of the United Talmudic Academy in Williamsburg first summoned him to his office, seated him on his lap and began touching him.
This was the start of systematic abuse that allegedly continued several times a week for two months, ultimately destroying Engelman's faith.
Engelman's story, detailed in a lawsuit filed on Aug. 27, is one that is far too common in the Orthodox Jewish community, Pasik said.
Pasik and the Cedarhurst law firm of Gerald Ross filed suit on behalf of Engelman, listing the United Talmudic Academy (UTA), The Satmar Bungalow Colony and Avrohom Reichman, the former principal of UTA, as defendants. The suit alleges that between October and November of 1993, Reichman molested Engelman repeatedly.
Engelman confronted Reichman in April 2008, according to the suit, after hearing of similar abuse complaints made against him, and made one demand: that he leave his job in the UTA and never teach again. In exchange Engelman and his family would take no further action.
Satmar community officials became involved and after a negotiation, which included a polygraph test that Reichman failed, he left the school. But less than five months later, in August, Reichman was videotaped teaching in the Satmar Bungalow Colony, a children's camp.
The lawsuit seeks damages based on the abuse that Engelman allegedly suffered at Reichman's hands, the failure of the UTA to prevent said abuse, and finally, breach of oral contract by Reichman's return to a teaching position. The suit also alleges that the Satmar officials were aware that the statue of limitations on the criminal prosecution of Reichman's actions would expire when Engelman turned 23 in June and waited until then before returning Reichman to a teaching position. Engelman is suing the three defendants for $5 million.
Engelman's case is the most recent child abuse scandal that has rocked the Jewish community.
"It says lo sa'amod al dam ray'echa. Do not stand upon the blood of your brother. It's a chiyuv [obligation]; It's what G-d wants us to do. It's as much of a mitzvah as putting on tefillin, observing Shabbos, davening, or anything else," Pasik said.
His goal is "eradicating the horror of child sexual abuse in our yeshivas and all religious and non-public schools in the state."
And beyond the abuse itself is the outrage Pasik feels over the culture of silence around it that he has found in yeshivas:
"One would think that when it comes to protecting our children in the holiest places we would come together, but we've proven unable to do this... What would Rav Aron Kotler say to this? What would Rav Yoel Teitelbaum say?"
Engelman's case provides another example of schools that Pasik feels have failed to take appropriate steps to protect their students.
"We're seeing many laws limiting the places where convicted sex offenders can live. Here in the Jewish community, rabbis are still making the mistake of restoring sex offenders to classrooms," he said. "There's no cure for pedophilia. You don't put a recovering alcoholic in a bar and you don't put a sex offender in the vicinity of children."
The reason why so many cases are cropping up in the Jewish community, Pasik maintains, is because of ignorance and obstinacy, and a leadership that is unaware of the true nature of child abuse. He also blames lax regulations in non-public schools. Fingerprinting and background checks are required for all employees in public schools and each teacher is a mandated reporter for abuse and neglect. The same is not true for New York State's non-public schools, which together educate over half a million children.
The reason for the discrepancy, Pasik says, is that until recently private schools were thought to be capable of self-governing, a belief that in light of recent events, is no longer tenable.
"Unfortunately over the past four years we've seen proof that this attitude is badly misguided," he continued. "We've seen a terrible clergy abuse problem afflicting both Catholic and Jewish institutions."
Pasik says he approached both Agudath Israel and Torah U'Mesorah to take up self-governing laws like fingerprinting but was rejected. It was a disillusioning response and made Pasik consider a different road: government.
New York State Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) twice supported legislation Pasik proposed to require private schools to fingerprint and perform criminal background checks. It passed 60-1 in the senate but Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower Manhattan) twice refused to bring the bill to a vote, calling fingerprinting an unfunded mandates on private schools.
The problem of serial child abusers in the Jewish community, in Pasik's mind, stems from amisinterpretation of the idea of teshuva, the Jewish concept of repentance.
"Many rabbis rely on teshuva when dealing with child molesters. What they fail to understand is that the concept should not be applied with a child molester returning to a classroom. The teshuva for a child molester is removing him from any close proximity to children. You don't allow a child molester to do teshuva at the expense of young children. You don't restore a Lanner; you don't restore a Reichman; you don't restore a Kolko to a classroom."
Rabbi Benzion Twerski is a Borough Park-based psychologist and the head of a task force on child abuse recently formed by Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind. While not commenting on the Engelman case, citing unfamiliarity, Rabbi Twerski supported Pasik's position on fingerprinting and background checks.
"The resistance to that actually bothers me because it's an indication that there is what to hide," Twerski said.
The Hikind taskforce is developing a protocol to deal with future abuse cases in the Jewish community.
"Developing policy is complicated," Twerski explained. "It has to be sensitive to secular law, to Shulchan Aruch, and we're not going to be doing anything irresponsible on either end. I'm not willing to do anything that the community won't follow because then we'll be where we are now."
Pasik seemed to differ. "War has to be declared on child sex abuse," he asserted. "You don't win wars by treading water. You win wars by strong tough laws."
However, both Twerski and Pasik agree on one thing.
"We have a system here that has not serviced us," Twerski said. "Our mistakes were very costly ones."
Pasik has been combating child abuse in the frum community for the last six years; he has encountered ignorance, naiveté, and in some cases, outright evil, he said, of which Joel's case may be the latest installment. Asked if he was frustrated by the response of a community that is only now coming around, he almost laughed, before responding gruffly:
"Tzedek tzedek tirdof. Pursue justice and live." He then added: "It will make you live."