Sexual abuse allegations against rabbi divide Baltimore's Orthodox Jewish community

Many in Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish community thought the case against Rabbi Steven Krawatsky was closed.

A 7-year-old boy at a summer camp in Adamstown had accused the popular teacher of sexual abuse, and he was suspended from his job at the private Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Pikesville. Two other boys later came forward with similar allegations. Frederick County prosecutors said they did not have enough evidence to charge Krawatsky, and by early 2016, “Rabbi K” was back in the classroom, teaching Judaic studies to middle school students.

So it came as a shock in January when Beth Tfiloh fired Krawatsky and banned the 40-year-old father of four from the campus where he worked for nearly 15 years.

There had been no new allegations. Instead, school officials cited explosive details from the three cases published in January by a Jewish newspaper in New York.

Now the case, the latest in a series involving allegations of sexual misconduct by Jewish leaders in Baltimore, has divided the local Orthodox community and ignited a debate over how their institutions handle the issue of abuse.

Some ask why Krawatsky was allowed to work with children long after Child Protective Services said it had found credible evidence he abused two of the boys. (The rabbi appealed the findings, and the agency changed its position, saying it did not have sufficient evidence to indicate abuse.)

“This case shows a complete failure,” said David Ohsie, a friend of the father of one of the boys who alleged abuse. “It is clear that the system is broken.”

Others say Krawatsky has been falsely accused.

“One of the best rabbis I ever met!” one person wrote on the Facebook page “The Truth About Rabbi Shmuel Krawatsky,” set up to support the rabbi, using his Hebrew name. “Rabbi K is an innocent man!” wrote another.

Krawatsky denies the allegations. He has filed a federal defamation lawsuit against the parents of his accusers and a New York activist who has spoken publicly about the case and is working with the families’ lawyer.

Krawatsky declined, through his attorney, to speak with The Baltimore Sun.

Krawatsky has not been charged with any crime. Police in Baltimore County, where Beth Tfiloh is located, said this week that they have not received any complaints about him.

Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish community has been confronted over the years by several cases in which leaders were found guilty of sexual misconduct.

Rabbi Bernard “Barry” Freundel, who taught at Towson University, pleaded guilty in 2015 to 52 counts of voyeurism. He admitted that he videotaped dozens of women at the National Capital Mikvah in Washington. The same year, Frederick Karp, an Ohio rabbi accused of abusing a Baltimore County girl while visiting her family, pleaded guilty to sexual abuse of a minor and third-degree sex offense.

In 2009, Rabbi Jacob Aaron Max, who had led the Liberty Jewish Center, was convicted of molesting a woman. In 2008, former bar mitzvah lesson teacher Israel Shapiro was found guilty of child sexual abuse and a third-degree sex offense.

And in 2007, years after his death, Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro, the former principal of the Talmudical Academy, was accused of abuse by former students in an expose published by the Baltimore Jewish Times.

Advocates for victims say leaders haven’t done enough to confront abuse.

“The knee-jerk reaction is to protect their reputation,” said Ben Hirsch, co-founder of Survivors for Justice, a New York-based advocacy group for Jewish victims of abuse. “Victims are intimidated. They’re discouraged from coming forward.”

The father of one of the boys who accused Krawatsky said that was his family’s experience.

“I had multiple leaders say, ‘Let’s just keep this quiet,’” the man said. “Even among people who believe our child and believe it happened — they still believe you’re not allowed to talk about it.”

He cited the concept of lashon hara — literally, “evil tongue” — speaking negatively about another person. In Judaism, it’s considered a sin.

The Baltimore Sun does not typically publish the names of alleged victims of sexual abuse. The Sun is not naming the father because it could identify his son.

The Baltimore Child Abuse Center is launching what it says is an unprecedented effort to help local Jewish organizations adopt new policies and procedures for preventing and responding to abuse.

Funded by a $300,000 grant from The Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Charitable Foundation, the center plans to help at least 30 synagogues, schools, camps and other institutions establish model child protection policies.

Adam Rosenberg, executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, said the “Blueprint for Child Protection” model will be adaptable to all types of organizations.

“The Baltimore Jewish community certainly has had its own share of high-profile incidents, but they’re not unique in that,” Rosenberg said. “There’s not a Baltimore Jewish problem. There’s a national problem.”

In the “Me Too” era, Rosenberg says, organizations are facing more pressure to respond properly to reports of abuse.

“Synagogues and their boards just haven’t really been prepared to grapple with a lot of these modern issues,” he said.

Beth Tfiloh is the largest Modern Orthodox Jewish congregation in the nation. The synagogue and school sit on 20 acres off Old Court Road. The school enrolls 950 students from prekindergarten through grade 12.

Krawatsky began teaching there in 2003. From 2010 through 2015, he also worked summers as a counselor at Camp Shoresh, the Jewish day camp in Adamstown.

In August 2015, the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office says in a police report, a 7-year-old boy told a forensic interviewer that Krawatsky had offered him and another boy money to touch his penis. The 7-year-old said that one of the boys had done so. Because names in the report are blacked out, it’s unclear whether the 7-year-old was talking about himself or the second boy.

The second boy, interviewed later, said Krawatsky did not offer him money to touch his penis. This second boy did not allege sexual abuse by anyone.

In December of that year, the sheriff’s office says in a police report, the second boy told the forensic interviewer that the rabbi did offer him money to touch his penis, but that he had not done it.

In February 2016, an 8-year-old boy who is a cousin of the 7-year-old who alleged abuse in August 2015, told a forensic interviewer that Krawatsky had forced him to touch his penis.

In January 2017, the same boy elaborated on his report, alleging additional incidents in which he said he was orally and anally raped, the sheriff’s office wrote in a police report.

In each case, county prosecutors said there wasn’t enough evidence to charge the rabbi. Child Protective Services, meanwhile, concluded that abuse was “indicated” in two of the reports, according to the police reports. That means there was “credible evidence” that it had occurred.

In September 2015, Krawatsky submitted to a polygraph examination administered by the sheriff’s office regarding the first boy’s allegation, Krawatsky’s attorney wrote in Krawatsky’s defamation lawsuit.

“The result of said test was that Rabbi K showed no deception and he passed the test without question,” his attorney wrote.

Krawatsky appealed the Child Protective Services’ findings, according to his attorney, and they were changed to “unsubstantiated.” That means the agency found insufficient evidence of abuse. A third option, “ruled out,” would have meant that the agency believed the abuse did not occur.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Services said state law prevented her from confirming a Child Protective Services investigation.

Spokeswoman Katherine Morris said that changing a ruling from indicated to unsubstantiated does not mean a subject has been exonerated.

Beth Tfiloh suspended Krawatsky in September 2015. The school allowed him to return in February 2016.

Beth Tfiloh has defended its handling of the case, saying it didn’t know the “scope of the allegations” against Krawatsky until the New York Jewish Week published its article. The school says it underwent an audit by the Baltimore Child Abuse Center beginning in 2016, and put into place recommendations by the center, including updating its protocol for reporting abuse, training staff, and modifying facilities to limit access to certain areas and putting windows on all classroom doors.

Chris Rolle, Krawatsky’s attorney, said the rabbi has received “an incredible outpouring of support” from the community.

Shua Bier, an attorney who has known Krawatsky for two decades, said many in the Orthodox Jewish community knew about the allegations by early 2016. Bier said he examined police reports in all the cases and found “inconsistencies.” He said he believes the allegations are untrue.

Dr. Derek Fine, the father of children at the school, also supports the rabbi. He said the school took the allegations “very seriously.”

Among those who knew about the accusations, he said, “I think most of us thought this has been thoroughly investigated and, fortunately for Rabbi K., he could move on with his life.”

Ari Lichtman, who attends synagogue with Krawatsky, said he believes the rabbi is innocent. He said he has faith in the police.

“They’re trained and they know what they’re doing,” Lichtman said. “It bothered me how Jewish Week of New York questioned everything that [the authorities] did here in Maryland.”

Defenders point to statements by Lindell Angel, the sex crimes prosecutor for Frederick County.

Angel told the Jewish newspaper Kol HaBirah in Silver Spring that the initial allegations lacked credible evidence, and the allegations that followed “were more consistent with parental interference and coaching than with the natural and unaffected piecemeal disclosures of abused children.”

Jonathan Little, an attorney who is representing the families of the boys who have accused Krawatsky, called the notion that the parents influenced the children’s statements “entirely untrue.”

Little said the families have been “harassed terribly.”

One of the fathers told The Sun that his family has received strong support from friends in the community, but people they don’t know have lashed out against them on social media.

The family has left the state. The father said they moved because they frequently ran into Krawatsky at Seven Mile Market, the Jewish Community Center and other gathering places in the local Jewish community.

A group of Beth Tfiloh alumni posted an open letter expressing disappointment in the school’s handling of the case and calling for an independent investigation.

Organizer Saryn Levy, a 2007 graduate who now lives in Denver, said the letter isn’t meant to be a judgment on Krawatsky’s guilt or innocence. Levy said she’s concerned that the school didn’t respond urgently enough to the allegations when they emerged, given the initial findings of Child Protective Services. She said statements by school leaders have been inconsistent.

“We don’t need to rush to any judgment of guilt based on that information,” Levy said. “But I also think that [there’s] not enough information for us to comfortably presume innocence. This really is just a call for transparency.”

After the alumni letter, a group of current students posted a letter with similar language. They said they were “deeply concerned with the disparaging remarks made by certain alumni and other members of the Beth Tfiloh community towards the administration of our school.”

Much of the conflict has played out online.

Little says the Orthodox community has flooded his law firm’s Facebook page with 1-star reviews. And Chaim Levin, a New York-based activist who is working for Little, says he has been threatened online.

Levin, who posted an online “warning” to the Orthodox community about the rabbi in November, is among those being sued by Krawatsky.

Ohsie, the father’s friend, said people affiliated with Camp Shoresh have approached him in synagogue to say his public statements were damaging to the community. He worries the reaction to Krawatsky’s accusers will have a chilling effect.

“The only thing it can do is deter people from reporting abuse,” Ohsie said.

Rabbi Yosef Blau, a spiritual adviser at Yeshiva University in New York, is a longtime advocate for victims of sexual abuse. Often, he said, “the families of the victims are seen as troublemakers.”

People believe “they’re going to cause our community to get a bad reputation,” Blau said.

He adds that such reactions are not unique to the Jewish community.

“The pattern is consistent,” Blau said. “Organizations protect themselves.”

Rosenberg, of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, says the national call for action by Jewish leaders has spurred local conversation.

More than 300 Orthodox rabbis nationwide signed a proclamation in 2016 acknowledging that sexual abuse “exists in our communities” and decrying the use of Jewish law “to silence victims or witnesses from reporting abuse.” The rabbis declared that people do not need to seek a rabbi’s approval before reporting abuse to police — a step that critics said led to coverups.

This past fall, four major Jewish foundations signed on to the Child Safety Pledge, vowing to elevate the the issue of child sexual abuse “to a primary concern of the Jewish community,” and require youth programs they fund to adopt policies to prevent and respond to sexual abuse.

The pledge was created by Jumpstart Labs, a Los Angeles-based Jewish philanthropy think tank. In a report last year for Jumpstart Labs, the psychologist and attorney Shira Berkovits found “critical gaps” in anti-sexual abuse programs of Jewish schools and overnight camps around the country.

Berkovits founded Sacred Spaces in 2016. The organization helps Jewish institutions with training and policies to protect children.

In her report, she said nearly all camps and most schools have procedures for responding to abuse allegations, but camp procedures tend to emphasize reporting to someone within the organization rather than to a government authority trained to investigate abuse.

“Institutional heads are not equipped with this expertise, and those who try to handle suspected cases internally risk obfuscating evidence, missing important clues, interfering with witness testimony, and potentially covering up abuse,” Berkovits wrote.

She also found that most schools did not have rules to prohibit staff members from being alone with a children in spaces not visible to others, or from giving students rides in their own vehicles.

CHANA, a Baltimore organization that supports victims of abuse and trauma in the Jewish community, has helped train local parents, students and educators using the Safety Kid program, a national program developed specifically for the Orthodox Jewish community.

Nancy Aiken is executive director of CHANA.

Unlike hierarchical institutions such as the Catholic Church, she said, “every synagogue, every school is different,” in terms of policies. “It’s no one person at the top sort of dictating down.

Rosenberg, of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, said many Jewish organizations are lagging in how they respond to allegations of abuse — but they are not alone.

The Catholic Church began publicly grappling with sexual abuse by clergy more than 15 years ago, he noted.

“The rest of us are just playing catch-up now,” Rosenberg said.

NOTE: An earlier version of this article erred in describing the late Rabbi Jacob Max’s role in the Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation. Max had led the Liberty Jewish Center, which later merged with other congregations and became known as Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation. It has been corrected here.

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