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The Ultra-Orthodox Community's Sex Abuse Crisis Has Finally Reached a Tipping Point

Thanks to a new law, one of the most secretive and isolated subcultures in the United States is facing possible exposure.

by Hella Winston; illustrated by Hunter French
Sep 24 2019, 5:08pm

Fourteen years ago, an anonymous blogger calling himself Un-Orthodox Jew (UOJ) lit a fuse in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world when he began posting sexual abuse allegations concerning a Brooklyn yeshiva teacher named Yehuda Kolko. As the blog's hit counter climbed into the hundreds of thousands and the comments piled up, it became clear to anyone reading that Kolko's alleged behavior spanned several decades and was not exactly a secret in his community. It had even been the subject of an inquiry by a religious court in the 1980s, a proceeding that reportedly was derailed by threats made by the head of the yeshiva where Kolko taught to the dozen or so people who had come forward to give testimony. (Among ultra-orthodox Jews, going to the police to "inform" (mesira) on another Jew was and largely remains taboo and can result in ostracization or worse.)

But until that day in 2005, nobody had ever discussed the details of the saga in a public forum.



One of the early comments on the blog came from a reader named David, who wrote, "I too was molested by Rabbi Yidi Kolko, both while a student in 7th and 8th grades… and during those same summers whilst a camper in Camp Agudah." His full name, he would later reveal, was David Framowitz, and for some time he had been obsessively searching the internet for any mention of Kolko. Before closing his initial comment, he wrote, "It is about time that the wall of silence be torn down."

Thanks to a law that took effect last month, Framowitz's hope may finally be realized.

Early this year, in the wake of the explosion of the MeToo movement and a cascade of abuse allegations leveled against institutions from Hollywood to the Catholic Church, New York passed the Child Victims Act (CVA). In addition to extending the statute of limitations for civil suits and criminal charges, the law allows a survivor of child sex abuse to file a lawsuit within a one-year period that began on August 14, no matter their current age. The so-called "look-back window" is key when it comes to cases involving the ultra-Orthodox world because those most likely to sue are people who are no longer in the community and subject to pressure or intimidation by its members, which often means they are much older than the prior limit on child sex abuse cases: between the ages of 21 and 23.

According to Frum Follies blogger Yerachmiel Lopin, who writes about sex abuse in the Orthodox Jewish world and says he has been in contact with more than 100 abuse survivors over the past 10 years, fear of retaliation and becoming a social pariah deters many "inside the [Ultra-Orthodox] community who want to publicly expose abusers and have them face legal consequences."

"An Orthodox Jew needs to live within walking distance of a synagogue," he said. "There is no getting away from the ties, and the risks of having their children expelled from schools, losing their jobs, and being shunned by their neighbors and relatives. Even moving to another country doesn't get you away, because the networks are international."

Legal obstacles proved insurmountable during the initial push to expose Kolko. None of the victims appeared to be within New York's statute of limitations to press criminal charges (before the victim's 23rd birthday) or file civil suits (before 21 to sue an institution and before age 23 to sue a perpetrator). The activists did recruit a lawyer willing to take a gamble on a legal theory arguing that a climate rife with "concealment, intimidation, and misrepresentations" had prevented the victims from filing timely lawsuits. The attorney initially filed a lawsuit on behalf of two victims against Kolko and the yeshiva where he had taught for more than 30 years (other suits were subsequently filed).

The court rejected the argument and dismissed the lawsuits as time-barred. But the effort was not for naught. The media had taken notice, along with a dedicated and tireless Brooklyn sex crimes detective who went knocking on doors and discovered new allegations that fell within the statue of limitations. Kolko was arrested and prosecuted for allegedly molesting two young boys. But he ended up pleading guilty to lesser charges and scored a sweetheart deal from the Brooklyn DA that involved no jail time.

For the men whose suits had been thrown out, the arrest and guilty plea offered some small comfort. But as it turned out, their actions sparked bigger change. While there were several outspoken advocates on the issue before the Kolko case broke—perhaps most notably a woman named Vicki Polin who started a now-defunct organization called The Awareness Center—in its wake something of a grassroots movement emerged. It was disorganized and decentralized and, while relatively small in number, included abuse survivors and their advocates from across the Ultra-Orthodox world and beyond.

While their tactics often differed, their aims were aligned: to warn of and expose alleged molesters, to push for background checks in yeshivas, and to advocate for reporting directly to the secular authorities rather than first seeking permission from a rabbi. Some formed organizations to provide support, legal help, and/or access to the media, while others made noise by protesting communal institutions and local politicians, including the late Brooklyn DA, Charles J. Hynes, who had a reputation for going easy on child molesters hailing from this key voting bloc. One outspoken Hasidic advocate, Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, set up a phone line where people can call in to hear recordings of him sermonizing about the issue in colorful Yiddish, and leave their own messages. Blogs like Failed Messiah and Frum Follies became key sources of information and advocacy.

Over time, there were some prosecutions and convictions—a few high-profile—but also many tales of intimidation and retribution. Rabbi Rosenberg had threats made against him and bleach splashed in his face. One father reported his son's abuse only to have his family run out of their neighborhood and expelled from their synagogue. And then there was the case of Sam Kellner who, after reporting his son's abuse and serving as a confidential informant to the police, was prosecuted by the Brooklyn DA for extortion (his case was eventually dismissed). All of this seemed to have a chilling effect on reporting abuse and, after Hynes was defeated in 2013 and despite high hopes for his successor, prosecutions lagged.

Lawsuits tied to ultra-Orthodox abuse have also been exceedingly rare in years past, with some of the only successful cases having been brought on behalf of the boys Kolko was convicted of targeting.

So far, at least one lawsuit has been filed under the new look-back window, by one of the men who unsuccessfully sued Kolko back in 2006. And Lonnie Soury, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Survivors for Justice, told VICE that six victims they are working with will be filing lawsuits against yeshivas, a prominent Orthodox social service agency, and an individual alleged perpetrator from an upstate Hasidic community. Of these plaintiffs, only one still resides in the community where the abuse took place, he said.

VICE reached out to other advocates and survivors who have indicated that additional suits will likely be filed against other prominent institutions and individuals, but for now they were remaining tight-lipped about the specifics. Among other things, they expressed concern about tipping their hand, and a desire to minimize backlash.

"We are also working with victims who are still members of the community and are grappling with the knowledge that it may be very tough for them in the community when they file lawsuits," Soury said. "However, they are gradually coming to realize that 2019 is not 2006 and that there is a support system poised to protect them."

But advocates cautioned that not everyone offering support in the abstract would actually back victims filing lawsuits that could damage reputations and communal institutions. Recently, Zvi Gluck—the head of Amudim, a crisis services organization whose 2017 tax filing showed close to $8 million in public support—raised the ire of survivors when he wrote that the CVA would "unfortunately [not] apply to those victims who were abused prior to the new law going into effect," leaving the false impression that the look-back window did not exist. He subsequently told Jewish Week that his organization "chose not to speak out publicly [about the window] because he did not want to 'risk causing secondary trauma for survivors,'" a justification one plaintiffs’ attorney told the outlet was "outlandish, dangerous, unconstitutional and flies in the face of children protection in the modern age."

In a post last month, Asher Lovy, an abuse survivor and the director of community organizing for the sex abuse awareness organization Za'akah, wrote that it was "telling" that Amudim's explanation for not "informing survivors of their rights under the CVA was couched in concern for victims." Lovy, who was deeply involved in efforts to pass the new law, stressed that the role of an advocate "is not to lie to your constituents and pretend that their rights don’t exist for their benefit, it's to be honest with them, inform them of the risks, and then make sure that they understand that you will be there for them and support them through whatever happens."

"Survivors have been lied to for long enough," he wrote. "They've had their trust violated for long enough. They've been held hostage by oppressive community systems and silenced in the interest of institutional concerns for far too long."

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