Protesters Denounce Brooklyn Yeshiva For Employing Alleged Child Abusers
By Emma Whitford
March 21, 2016
Photo by Emma Whitford
Photo by Emma Whitford
A small group of protesters gathered on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights on Sunday to denounce the longtime employment of allegedly abusive teachers at Oholei Torah, one of the largest and most prestigious boys yeshivas in Brooklyn's Chabad network. The protesters—including members of the Lubavitch community, survivors, and alumni—held signs that read "What would the Rebbe say?" and "Abuse isn't chinuch [education]." A row of strategically-parked yellow school buses blocked them from the yeshiva's front entrance, where parents, teachers and rabbis ducked through the light snow into Oholei Torah's annual gala dinner.
"The culture of violence is being celebrated tonight," said Chaim Levin, an alumnus of the school and a survivor of sexual abuse. Earlier this month, Newsweek published a lengthy investigation into physical and sexual abuse across Brooklyn's Chabad yeshiva network. Victims, Levin among them, accused Oholei Torah's longtime principal, Rabbi Hershel Lustig, of deftly covering up child abuse and employing two known abusers.
In 2013, Rabbi Velvel Karp allegedly tossed a student so hard into a pane of glass that the child sustained a concussion. Multiple alumni told Newsweek that Karp often hit his students across the face, and even hung boys out of his fourth-floor classroom window by their shirts.
Another current teacher, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Zalmanov, allegedly hit a student so hard that the boy slammed into a closet, smacking his head on hardwood. According to the boy's mother, Zalmanov showed little remorse. "For chutzpah [impudence], I patsh [smack]," he allegedly said.
The Brooklyn DA's office launched an investigation into the glass pane incident, and the detective on the case later told Newsweek that "an extensive investigation was conducted, but no one wanted to talk." Oholei Torah countered that it cooperated fully.
Traditional Jewish law prohibits mesirah, or bringing allegations against other Jews to secular authorities. The Crown Heights rabbinical court officially exempted allegations of sexual assault in 2011 (according to the ruling, "one is forbidden to remain silent in such situations"), but some participants in Sunday's rally said that fear still plays a significant role in compelling parents and community members to keep quiet.
"It's not just this school," said 41-year-old Shula Haber, a Lubavitch single mother. "I know there are a lot of people who wish they could be here, but they're afraid." Haber recently pulled her 9-year-old son from another Lubovitch school in Brooklyn.
Only one current Oholei Torah parent attended Sunday's protest, and she asked to remain anonymous for fear that her sons, ages 11 and 12, could suffer retribution. "I'm not against the school. I'm against the teachers who shouldn't be here," she said. "At the very least I would hope that the principal would come out and apologize." She added that she believes it is the parents' responsibility to demand accountability. "I would hope more of them would want accountability, but I don't see other parents here."
"Many teachers are really wonderful, but it doesn't excuse everything else," she added.
In an e-mail forwarded to Gothamist, Rabbi Nochem Kaplan of the Merkos Chinuch Office, which trains teachers and sets guidelines for yeshivas within the Chabad-Lubavitch network, denied responsibility for Oholei Torah. "The Merkos Chinuch Office has published a child Safety Code which all mosdos [schools] are expected to adopt," he wrote. "We take no position regarding individual [schools] and how they implement the code."
Oholei Torah issued its own statement to the Jewish news outlet The Forward soon after the Newsweek piece was published. "We follow the guidelines of... the Chabad education arm," wrote Rabbi Lustig. "Those guidelines are in line with the law."
The school also sent a letter to parents, outlining safety precautions—every classroom door has a window, for example, and every teacher is required to sign a contract listing safety rules. "[We] categorically assure you that there is absolutely no abuse taking place at Oholei Torah that we know of," it reads.
As darkness fell, one couple crossed the barricade of school buses and joined the protesters. The man wore a blue suit, and his wife held a glass of wine. Speaking under the condition of anonymity because of their involvement in the school community, they defended Oholei Torah. "Any school has a few bad apples," the woman said. "We're talking about a few people in a school of 1,800 students." She added that the school could not fire teachers without solid evidence, but conceded that some parents might feel "scared to come forward."
The husband, 35, attended Oholei Torah as a child. "I was hit by my teachers in this school," he said. "I saw teachers pull down boys' pants and spank them until their bottoms were swollen." He said that he sends his sons, ages 5 and 8, to Oholei Torah for the elite religious education. "I would not put my child in a class with an abuser," he said. "Most of the school is good."
Oholei Torah did not immediately respond to a request for comment about last night's action.