Report of ’80s Sexual Abuse Rattles Yeshiva Campus

NOTE: This article contains graphic content that may be triggering for some readers.

By Vivian Yee

A tall, imposing rabbi with a black goatee who served as assistant principal and principal during his 27 years at Yeshiva University High School for Boys, George B. Finkelstein was the face of authority to Mordechai Twersky, who graduated in 1981.

So when Rabbi Finkelstein asked Mr. Twersky to “hit him hard” during a meeting in his office in 1980, Mr. Twersky said in an interview on Thursday, he was mortified. When Mr. Twersky refused, the rabbi knocked him to the ground and sat on him, goading him to wrestle. He could feel the rabbi’s erection, Mr. Twersky, now 48, said.

Mr. Twersky’s account was published Thursday on the Web site of The Jewish Daily Forward, which also reported that another former student said that in the same year, when he was 16, the Talmud teacher, Rabbi Macy Gordon, visited him in his dormitory room. Rabbi Gordon inspected his genitalia, the student told The Forward. Then he sodomized him with a toothbrush.

Both rabbis have denied engaging in any inappropriate sexual behavior.

Rabbi Gordon’s accuser said his parents had complained to administrators, who promised action but did nothing. Several years later, Mr. Twersky, who said he wrestled with Rabbi Finkelstein twice more, also raised concerns with administrators, and several other students also complained about the rabbi’s wrestling. Yet administrators of Yeshiva University, the prestigious Modern Orthodox institution in Washington Heights that runs the high school, allowed each man to simply leave.

The university president from 1976 to 2003, Norman Lamm, who is now its chancellor, told The Forward that he never notified the police.

Dr. Lamm told the paper that when the school received complaints of sexual activity involving the staff, “if it was an open-and-shut case,” he would just let the staff member “go quietly.”

“It was not our intention or position to destroy a person without further inquiry,” he said.

“This was before things of this sort had attained a certain notoriety,” he added. “There was a great deal of confusion.”

In 1995, after administrators confronted Rabbi Finkelstein about the wrestling, the rabbi “decided to leave because he knew we were going to ask him to leave,” Dr. Lamm told the newspaper. The rabbi became the dean of Samuel Scheck Hillel Community Day School in North Miami Beach, Fla. Yeshiva did not notify the school about the accusations, Dr. Lamm told The Forward, and the school never asked.

Officials of the Florida school did not respond on Thursday to questions about Rabbi Finkelstein.

Rabbi Finkelstein eventually moved to Israel, where he served as the director general of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, and is now its ritual director. To The Forward, he acknowledged wrestling with students “as a way of trying to remove the distance between students and faculty,” but said the physical contact was not sexual.

Around the time the Jerusalem synagogue hired him, rumors reached synagogue leaders about the rabbi’s inappropriate conduct, said Zalli Jaffe, the synagogue’s vice president, in an e-mail on Thursday. Mr. Jaffe said the synagogue’s president contacted a “very high authority” at Yeshiva, “who denied the charges outright.”

The same allegations of sexual abuse resurfaced about four years ago, but the synagogue accepted Rabbi Finkelstein’s declarations of innocence because no charges had been filed. (Even if the police were to investigate the men today, criminal charges would be unlikely because the accusations described in The Forward happened too long ago under New York’s statutes of limitations.)

“Naturally the synagogue will carefully study the article and we will take advise in this matter, so we can conduct ourselves as befitting the Great Synagogue,” Mr. Jaffe wrote.

Rabbi Gordon retired from Yeshiva in 1984 and moved to Israel, and both he and Rabbi Finkelstein serve on an advisory board for the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Jerusalem.

In an interview from his home on Thursday, Rabbi Gordon denied the allegations and asked to know the identity of his accuser.

“I heard the rumors years ago, but they’re simply rumors,” he said. “If I give it any credence at all, it is as an attempt by a disgruntled student to cast aspersions on a former teacher.”

Dr. Lamm would not comment on Thursday. In a statement, Richard Joel, Yeshiva’s president, apologized and promised to remain vigilant in the future.

“The inappropriate behavior and abuse alleged by The Forward to have taken place in the past, and described in statements attributed by The Forward to Dr. Lamm, are reprehensible,” Mr. Joel’s statement said.

A Yeshiva spokesman added, “We are conducting an investigation into the allegations, and until that investigation is completed, it would not be appropriate to comment beyond what we have already said.”

On Thursday, as the news spread across the campus shared by the university and the high school, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, 71, said he knew of another staff member who was dismissed for inappropriate behavior with students around the same time. He also said he once knew a university student who said Rabbi Finkelstein had touched him inappropriately, but was afraid to speak out.

Mr. Twersky, now a journalist in Jerusalem, says he threatened to sue in 2000 unless Dr. Lamm publicly apologized or offered compensation, but was rebuffed. A Yeshiva official had said Rabbi Finkelstein’s “condition” would be treated, but nobody at Yeshiva reached out to victims, Mr. Twersky said.

“It dawned upon me that I had not merely been wrestled with and violated, but knowingly abandoned by the high school leadership,” he said Thursday.

That approach was not unusual for the time; an article in The New York Times Magazine in June described how teachers of the prestigious Horace Mann School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx had behaved inappropriately with students around the same era. By the late 1980s, several high-profile cases involving schools and youth organizations had begun to raise awareness of sexual abuse, said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Before then, however, “the so-called passing the trash style of handling these events was very, very widespread,” he said.

Rabbi Schachter said he thought both administrators and students now were less likely to sweep such issues aside: “The students are different students now; they would open their mouths. Years ago, students were quieter.”

 

(To read original article, visit this New York Times link)

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