In the Basement, behind a Closed Door
By Aviva Lori
November 15, 2007
A few years ago, A. came to Israel with one mission: "To find him and kill him." He didn't think twice, he says; he really intended to do it. "My wife understood. She knew what I felt and she called friends in Israel, who never left me alone for a minute. They saved me from myself. If not for them, it would have ended in murder for sure."
A. is not the only one to have harbored thoughts of cold-blooded murder for more than 20 years. There are several hundred others, he says: men now in their thirties and forties who two or three decades earlier were students at yeshivas in Brooklyn. They say they were victims of Avrohom Mondrowitz, who lives in Jerusalem's colorful Nahlaot neighborhood.
Mondrowitz, a member of the Gur Hasidic sect who styles himself a rabbi and a psychologist, was a highly influential figure in the Gur community of Brooklyn in the early 1980s. He had a yeshiva and a private clinic in which he treated mostly children in distress. But the Brooklyn police suspect that instead of educating and helping, he sexually abused his pupils, his patients, children in the neighborhood and friends of his own children. The venues were varied: his office, his home, the yeshiva, his car, the family's summer cottage in the Catskills, amusement parks and public parks. In short, everywhere. Day and night. The respected rabbis of the community modestly averted their gaze. They knew, they saw, they were silent.
A., now about 40, was born and raised in an Orthodox family in Brooklyn. At the age of seven he was sexually assaulted in the street by an unknown assailant. "That already marked me," he relates, "and it was like a prelude to what came after." What came after was fomented by two respected figures. The first was a revered teacher in Brooklyn. The second respected figure was Mondrowitz. He kept the horror to himself and turned inward. "I became a troublemaker," he says. "I was thrown out of one yeshiva and then out of another. I became a nomad. I lost my self-esteem and didn't care about anything. The hardest part was when I told the rabbis in the yeshiva what the teacher did to me. They just ignored me and did nothing."
When A. was 15, the rabbis persuaded his parents, who did not know how to deal with their wayward son, to send him to the man who presented himself as a psychologist, a certain Avrohom Mondrowitz, who lived on 60th Street in Brooklyn's Borough Park section. "I was forced to see him three or four times a week, because I was a very special case," A. says. "From the very first, something about him bothered me. I didn't like the way he looked at me. After the first time, I came home and told my mother than I didn't want to go to him anymore, but he came to our place and spoke to my parents, and they persuaded me to go back."
A. went to Mondrowitz for two months. But the treatment immediately assumed a peculiar form. "It didn't take more than two visits, and he stopped taking an interest in my problems and started to mess with me."
A. recalls that at first he was very moved and opened up to Mondrowitz, telling him what the teacher had done to him, but instead of being supportive, Mondrowitz began to touch him. "I was in a state of shock. I didn't know what to do. The place you are meant to trust and where you go for help, attacks you. I froze and bottled up completely. I was drained of feelings. I called him 'Herr Doktor,' like Mengele, who also did experiments on Jewish children."
Did you understand what was going on?
"I understood immediately. It was like a game. It's hard to explain - only someone who has gone through an experience like that can understand. The assailant knows that you are easy prey, that he can play with your feelings because you are at your weakest point. He will not mess with the tough kids, only with the weak and the miserable. And that's how it went on, every time I went to him. He didn't even try to pretend that he was treating me. He got down to business right away. He took me to movies, for walks, and he kept touching me all the time."
Why didn't you run away?
"I have asked myself that question hundreds of times. I feel suffocated when I think about it. It drives me crazy. I didn't run because I thought there was something wrong with me. That I was a whore. I believed that that was my fate. That that is what I deserved - the fact is that it happened more than once. Deep inside I knew it was wrong, but I couldn't control it. I tried to fight with my parents, told them I didn't want to go to him, but they made me, so the yeshiva would agree to take me back - that was the rabbis' condition, for him to say I was cured. And in fact, two months later the yeshiva took me back and I stopped going to him. I told my parents I wasn't going there anymore and that was the end of it."
But two weeks later, he was expelled from the yeshiva again. That summer his parents sent him to a camp, but there he got into trouble again. Desperate, his parents called Mondrowitz and asked him to help. "I was an angry, rebellious adolescent," A. says. "I was angry at the religion, at the system, at the establishment and at everyone who represented the establishment. I hated the whole world and I fought everyone. Mondrowitz came to the camp, and when I saw him from a distance, I ran. My father didn't understand what was going on. 'He just wants to help you,' he said, and I remember telling him, 'He is a faggot, get him away from me.'"
In his senior year, A. fell apart completely. He did not attend school and lived in the streets. Most of the time, he saw the world through a haze of alcohol and drugs. His parents could not communicate with him. And then he was thrown a lifebelt: "Someone took me in, looked after me and saved my life. I told him everything, and he believed me. He asked what he could do to lessen my pain. I told him, 'That won't happen until I drive the last nail into the coffin of all the people who hurt me. I want justice to be done.'"
A. says he had clear, graphic, highly detailed dreams about killing them. The dreams recurred every night and turned into an obsession. "They absolutely took my life from me."
You wanted revenge?
"It's not a matter of revenge. Those people are sick, and there is only one way to deal with them - to eradicate them, like stray dogs. Otherwise they will go on doing what they did. They took from me something that will never be returned, and I can never forget, and maybe should not forget. People like me have to spread the word that these monsters are still walking the streets. I have been given the task of warning people about them."
With the help of the young man who befriended him, A. went to the police and filed a complaint against Mondrowitz. "I didn't know then that there were also other children he had hurt. I thought it was just me. Today I know at least 20 people who were his victims, but I know there were hundreds."
It was only then that A. told his parents about what Mondrowitz had done to him. "They felt terribly sorry and guilty for having sent me to him. But a few days later I learned that he had fled to Israel and was living the comfortable life of a respected Jew in Jerusalem." A. is now married and has children of his own. He leads a religious life, though when he was in the lower depths, wandering the streets, he removed his yarmulke and spurned religion. Even though his wife and children know about the sexual abuse he endured, he insists on remaining anonymous. He still has doubts, he says: he feels afraid and threatened by the religious society in which he grew up and was educated. He is not the only one who feels persecuted. Most of Mondrowitz's alleged victims live a secret life, fearing exposure.
Avrohom Mondrowitz, 60, was probably born in Poland and settled in Israel with his family after World War II. He grew up in Tel Aviv, but in the 1950s the family immigrated to Chicago. He attended the Telshe Yeshiva, in Wickliffe, Ohio, run by the Lithuanian branch of Orthodox Jewry. In the 1970s, he came to Brooklyn, saying he held a master's degree in the sciences, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Columbia, and another Ph.D. in educational administration from the University of Florida, in addition to being an ordained rabbi. The Jews of Brooklyn were impressed, and Mondrowitz began to acquire social status. He wrote articles on education for the Haredi press, had a radio program on which he gave listeners advice on how to treat children, established a yeshiva for children in distress and was active in Ohel, a large New York organization for orphans and children from broken homes. Finally, he hung a "psychologist" sign on his door and started to receive patients.
"He made a name for himself and was very respected in the community," says a Brooklyn Hasid. "Children were referred to him, hard cases from Ohel, and he treated them. Rabbis also referred children to him for treatment. His expertise was treating children who had been sexually molested."
Children who visited his office, which was located in the basement of his home, remember him boasting about the "bragging wall," on which hung his diplomas and certificates, all finely framed, which attested to his qualifications as a therapist. But according to Patricia Kehoe, a retired New York Police Department detective, "his diplomas turned out to be fakes, including his rabbinical ordination."
The police suspect that in that office, behind a closed door and drawn curtains, he sexually abused children, including with acts of sodomy. In many cases, the parents were waiting in the next room for the treatment to end, so they could take the children home. Those are the facts as collected by the Brooklyn police and told by the children.
Mark Weiss, 40, from Chicago, grew up in a strictly Orthodox family, but in adolescence began to feel constricted by the rigid religious lifestyle. When he was 12, the family spent a sabbatical in Israel, and at 13 he was sent to a less strict yeshiva in San Francisco. He did not do well in his studies and felt out of place. A year later, the yeshiva informed him that he would not be able to continue his studies there, and his worried parents sent him to New York for instant counseling by a renowned psychologist.
"I was 14, and my parents sent me by plane," he said in a telephone interview. "They knew Mondrowitz's parents from Chicago - sometimes I went with my father to his father's synagogue. Mondrowitz himself attended the yeshiva in which his father was a rabbi. He was well-known. I was sent to him for a week, a week and a half, to get my head straight."
Mondrowitz went out of his way to make Weiss' stay a pleasant one. He picked him up at the airport, took him out to eat, then to an amusement park and finally to his place on 60th Street. "His family was away in a cottage in the Catskills and I slept with him in the house. At first it was terrific fun. He took me to all kinds of places and I took in every new thing: it was a perfect trap. At night he asked me where I wanted to sleep, in his son's bed or with him. I remember that he created this queasy atmosphere about his son's bedroom, so I said I wanted to sleep with him. During the night he suddenly touched me. From start to finish, including sodomy. I was naive, I didn't understand what was happening, I thought it was part of his niceness, that this is how he wanted to make me feel good."
What happened in the counseling sessions?
"Almost nothing. It was all one big fraud. In the morning, he was downstairs in the basement, receiving patients, and when he didn't have patients he went with me to all kinds of places, and at night he would come on to me, and on the weekend we drove up to the family's cottage."
When he was 16, Weiss was sent to a boarding school in Kiryat Tivon, near Haifa, where he spent two years, before returning to Chicago. He repressed the Mondrowitz experience successfully. He told no one, and it was as though it had never happened. But one day, during the Sukkot festival, he saw Mondrowitz in the synagogue. He was about to go over to him, when he suddenly understood what had happened to him a few years earlier.
"I froze, turned around and ran home," he relates. "On the way I started to cry, and my mother asked me what was wrong. I told her, but she found it hard to accept. Then my father came home and my mother told him, and he couldn't believe it, either. He tried to find out if maybe I was mistaken. Afterward I went to a friend and told him, but he couldn't believe it, and then I started to ask myself if maybe I was wrong. But a week later I got a call from a rabbi who asked me to see him at his home. I entered his office and he asked me, 'Would you send your children to Mondrowitz?' It was like a bomb went off in my head. I was in a state of shock. It took me a few minutes to reply, 'No, I wouldn't.' He asked why, and I told him, but again, nothing happened."
Weiss, who is married and has three children, lives in New Jersey, where he installs home movie systems. In 2001 he saw an ad in a religious paper about a conference of rabbis in New York on the subject of sexual molestation. "I went there," he says, "but it was disgraceful. I realized within a few minutes that they had no idea about what really goes on. They think that with them it's not like with the goyim or secular people, and they think they know how to help children. The truth is that they don't have a clue, because they sweep everything under the rug. It's all because of the matchmaking, because if it ever gets out what these people went through, no one wants them."
Are you angry at the rabbis?
"They silenced a whole generation. When one of them destroys other people, they do nothing. These are far more important matters than the shmita year [the land lying fallow every seven years] or worms in lettuce."
A public beating
G., 44, from New York, married with children, a rabbi's son, knew Mondrowitz as the head of a yeshiva he attended for five years, from the age of 11. "He molested me for many years," G. says. "He collected vulnerable children from broken homes who didn't get along with their parents, and abused them. He took me to the mountains, where he had a cottage. He would bring rifles and play with us, we would have contests shooting air guns, and he would win so that he could later do what he wanted with us as his prize. There was a dirty film playing in Manhattan at the time, called 'Caligula,' and he took me to see it. I was 14, and during the movie he pawed me."
Did you know that was bad?
"I'm not sure I knew. He was an adult, the head of a yeshiva. He gave me a lot of money and bought me things. After I understood, I came to the school one day and went up to each kid and told them to keep their distance from him. Then he entered the classroom and in front of everyone he pounded me really hard with both hands, on my face and back. That was already the end of high school; I was 18 at the time. And the whole time he kept telling me that I was weird and would never marry."
Did you tell your parents?
"Never. I was afraid he would beat me."
How do you live with a story like this?
"It's very hard. I now have terrible guilt feelings that maybe I did something bad and deserved everything that happened to me. I get very aggressive toward people when they seem to be approaching my children. I overprotect them and I have become very suspicious. All these years I repressed everything, and only recently did I begin professional therapy."
245 years in prison
At the beginning of the 1980s, when Mondrowitz was at the height of his glory, married and the father of seven children, rumors started to spread in the Orthodox community about the type of treatment he was giving, and his yeshiva closed down. On November 21, 1984, Detective Patricia Kehoe received an anonymous phone call about Mondrowitz's many victims.
"I will never forget it, because it was my birthday," Kehoe says in a phone conversation. "I was working in the sex crimes unit. It was a horrific conversation, but even more horrific were the stories of the victims we found that night. My partner and I went there immediately, and on his block we met children, but not Jews. His street was mixed - Jews and Italians lived there. It turned out that he was the friend of all of them, and all the parents thought he was this great guy. They told us that he took the children for weekends and bought them bikes. That shook me, and I asked the parents to let me talk with the children alone.
"The first boy I talked to broke down and said straight off what happened, and so did all the other children on the block. That night we found five victims. From them we received the names of other children and went on investigating. Then we received another anonymous call from someone who said he was a rabbi, and he told me about Jewish children he had molested. I went to the yeshiva to question more children, but they wouldn't let me in."
Kehoe's investigation eventually yielded four complaints by children of Italian origin aged 11 to 16, which led to an indictment of 13 counts: five counts of sodomy in the first degree and eight of sexual abuse in the first degree. The maximum punishment for these offenses in New York State is 25 years for each count of sodomy and 15 years for each count of sexual abuse, a total of 245 years. Two weeks later, the District Attorney's office issued a warrant for his arrest. When Kehoe and her partner, Detective Sal Catalfulmo, arrived at Mondrowitz's home with the warrant, they found it empty.
"We got the warrant from the judge in the middle of the night, but when we got there he was already gone," Kehoe says. "In his study we found lists with the names of hundreds of children and a great deal of pedophilic material. It then turned out that his wife and children hid with relatives and he went to his parents in Chicago, from there apparently to Canada and then to Israel. If you ask me, the whole thing worked too slowly. The DA's office delayed and he was able to escape."
Was there nothing you could do to speed up the process?
"I was only a policewoman, not a politician like the DA. If it had been up to me, I would have issued an arrest warrant immediately after the children complained. I am very happy that these people have now decided to talk, because at the time, when we tried to reach them to question them, we did not get cooperation, but now, when they are parents themselves, they understand how important it is. That man should have been in prison for the past 23 years. It's very frustrating, especially after I heard all the stories about him from the children."
Kehoe learned that Mondrowitz continued to teach and was around children in Israel. "That is awful. Everyone has to be warned about him. I only hope that God will give me a point in my favor after all the efforts I made, even though, at the end of the day, I didn't succeed."
Avrohom Mondrowitz doesn't leave his home much these days. The last place that employed him, the Jerusalem College of Engineering, has dispensed with his services. "He taught here until the end of last year," says the college spokesman, Daniel Berman.
Why is he no longer working there?
"Because of what you know. What you heard, we also heard."
Searching for a job, Mondrowitz offered himself to the Herzliya Municipality as director of the education, welfare, culture, youth and sports department. When that didn't pan out, he tried for a less prestigious position, as director of a home for the aged, also in Herzliya. He claimed to have considerable experience in treating the elderly.
Mondrowitz's CV is flexible, changing with the circumstances. With every job application he attaches a CV to fit the requirements, or as he himself put it on one occasion, he possesses "a rare talent for flexibility and adaptation."
So rapid is his adaptability that it's hard to follow. According to one resume, he obtained a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Columbia University in 1977, but elsewhere he wrote that in that year he completed a master's degree in educational administration at Long Island University and proceeded immediately to an MBA at Harvard. According to this version, he did not obtain his Ph.D. in psychology until 1984, though still at Columbia. But in yet another place he states that the 1984 degree is in developmental, not clinical, psychology, and is from Columbia University in Florida. And that is not the end. According to another CV, his doctoral degree in clinical psychology is actually from Heed University in Florida.
As far as the Israel Police know, Mondrowitz is currently devoting most of his energy, in the many leisure hours at his disposal, to the Internet. There he gratifies his deviant inclinations by watching clips of sadistic activity and pedophilic material. In his remaining time he makes a living by issuing bogus academic degrees to all comers, particularly to students from the Third World. He has emblems and logos from various universities, as well as seals, examples of signatures and registration forms. He refers most of the students to Thornhill University, in London, which grants degrees by correspondence and has a branch in Brooklyn. The letters that are sent out are signed by a Dr. George Coleman, who probably does not exist. A student who sought a Ph.D. in nuclear physics received a reply from Dr. Coleman to the effect that he was overdoing it, and that on the basis of his academic achievements the most that could be done for him was a degree in a less prestigious field such as education or psychology. In return for issuing a doctoral degree in theology and evangelism, for example, Dr. Coleman gets $2,000.
The Israel Police are taking an interest in Mondrowitz's various Internet occupations, and a month ago, on October 18, he was called in for questioning and released under restrictive conditions, says attorney Adian Daniels, from the law firm of Yigal Arnon, who is in contact with the police. "I am doing this pro bono, because I believe it is in the public interest," he says.
Avi Aviv, head of the computer crimes unit in the Israel Police, confirmed that Mondrowitz had been questioned, but declined to provide further details.
The indictment against Mondrowitz was drawn up in February 1985, and a court order was sent to his empty home in Brooklyn. However, it was not until September of that year that the Brooklyn District Attorney, Elizabeth Holtzman, sought his extradition from Israel. But that was impossible at the time. To begin with, it was not until 1988 that sodomy was recognized in Israel as full-fledged rape, including the sodomizing of males. In addition, at that time the extradition treaty with the United States included rape of a woman, but not sodomy against the will of a male.
"We were ready then to stretch a point and construe sodomy as an extraditable offense, on condition the Americans would also change it in their treaty, but they declined, so we decided not to extradite Mondrowitz," says attorney Irit Kahan, who headed the Justice Ministry's international department. "Recently the extradition treaty with the United States was changed, and now extradition is possible for any offense for which the punishment is more than one year in prison."
Despite this development, the Americans still did not rush to request Mondrowitz's extradition. The victims accuse the present Brooklyn DA, Charles Hynes. In the opinion of attorney Michael Lesher, who represents six of Mondrowitz's alleged victims, "This is an elected position. The Haredi community in Brooklyn has a great deal of electoral clout. Hynes was elected in 1989 with the support of the Orthodox, and no one wants to commit suicide because of some criminal who is sitting quietly in Israel."
In the past year, the community in Brooklyn has begun to seethe. The children of that period, those who see themselves as Mondrowitz's victims, organized and, through Lesher, put pressure on the DA's office to issue a new request for Mondrowitz's extradition. They all declared that if it proves necessary, they will testify in court. As a result, in February of this year the Brooklyn DA's office transferred all the material to the U.S. Justice Department.
"On September 6, the Justice Department issued an official extradition request to the State of Israel," a spokeswoman for the Justice Department said in response. "The statute of limitations does not apply here," Lesher says. "In the case of sodomy, you only have to be charged within five years of the perpetration of the offense, and he was charged but was not brought to court because he fled. There is also a time limitation from the time you are indicted until you are tried, but if the accused leaves his area of jurisdiction, that regulation is suspended. So there is no problem in extraditing Mondrowitz and bringing him to trial."
What stage have the extradition proceedings reached? The Justice Ministry says that the State Prosecutor's Office does not comment on extradition requests, "whether they have been filed or not."
Dr. Amy Neustein, a sociologist from Brooklyn, has devoted the past 25 years to getting Mondrowitz arrested. She and other Orthodox Jews established a group with the goal of locating Mondrowitz and bringing him to justice. She also set up a research center in New York called Help Us Regain the Children (HURT), within the framework of which she is investigating the phenomenon of pedophilia within the closed Jewish society. The author of two books, she works with victims of sexual assault to help them cope.
"My aspiration to see justice done and get Mondrowitz tried became an obsession, because of all the molesters, he is the worst, according to the charges. He abused children in the light of day, perpetrated these crimes in front of his colleagues. I was told this by people who witnessed it in the yeshiva he worked in. Everyone knew, and they all covered up for him. As a sociologist I ask, if this is what happens when everything is in the open, what happens when things are less open? It is perfectly clear that Mondrowitz is not alone. He is a microcosm of the Orthodox society, in which pedophilia is rampant, in which the use of pornography is thriving and known to everyone - but it is all hidden under the rug. In the 1980s, everyone was afraid that if he started to talk he would take down others with him."
Neustein and others in Brooklyn tell about three cases of young people committing suicide and one case, last year, of suicide by an adult. "All three went to Mondrowitz for treatment and afterward became deeply depressed, and the families believe that this was the reason for the suicides."
A. says that he can fully understand a boy who would want to commit suicide after undergoing abuse by Mondrowitz. "It is very hard to live with so much pain and guilt. I also have no doubt that some of these victims will do the same things to others. I am certain that it works like poison that was injected into you as a child and then you pass it on."
Mark Weiss has never considered suicide, but he too can understand those who contemplate the act. "I am still alive, and that is not to be taken for granted. There are some who killed themselves, and others who are wandering around like crazy people."
Reached by telephone, Avrohom Mondrowitz refused to comment. He hung up even before he heard the allegations against him. W
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