Exclusive: Officials substantiate child sex abuse allegations at prominent DC synagogue's preschool

By Daniel Burke
July 02, 2019

Officials have substantiated multiple accusations of child sexual abuse by a preschool teacher at a prominent synagogue in Washington, DC, according to a cease-and-desist letter sent by the DC superintendent of education to the synagogue in June.

The letter says the district's Child and Family Services Agency found that "more than one child was a victim of sexual abuse by the alleged maltreator" at Washington Hebrew Congregation's preschool.

CNN obtained a copy of the letter through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Founded in 1852, Washington Hebrew Congregation, is one of DC's oldest and most prominent Jewish institutions, attended by the city's Jewish elites for generations.

But the congregation and its early childhood education center have been thrown into turmoil since allegations of child sexual abuse arose last August. The cease-and-desist letter is believed to be the first public finding of an investigation into the alleged abuse at the school by DC authorities.

The school allegedly allowed the accused abuser to lead groups of children to a wooded area outside the center and the bathroom, and dismissed other staff members' verbal complaints about the alleged maltreator "disappearing with children for periods of time," according to the letter.

The center did not enforce its policy prohibiting staff members from using cellphones at the school, which the alleged abuser used to take videos and pictures of children, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

The center's former director also threatened to reprimand staff members who complained about the alleged abuser, the agency says.

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education's letter instructs Washington Hebrew Congregation to cease and desist from the alleged violations and to comply with an action plan to correct them.

In a statement, Washington Hebrew Congregation said that it has engaged two outside audits to evaluate its preschool policies, practices and procedures, and has implemented "most" of the recommendations listed in the state superintendent's cease-and-desist letter. It also noted that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education reissued the preschool's license to operate in May 2019.

"We are gratified to know that the steps already implemented were correct, and that we are fully licensed to operate our child care programs year-round," the congregation said in a statement to CNN on Monday. "We will continue to work cooperatively with OSSE in achieving best practices in child safety."

Parents filed suit in April

In April, the families of eight young children filed suit against the congregation and its former director, D.J. Jensen, alleging that they ignored warnings about the teacher for more than two years. DC's Metropolitan Police Department and the district's attorney general are also investigating the alleged abuse at the congregation's Edlavitch-Tyser Early Childhood Center.

In May 2019, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education was notified that another child told a psychologist the alleged abuser touched the child inappropriately, according to the agency's letter.

The parents' lawsuit alleges that the abuser is Jordan Silverman, a former teacher at Washington Hebrew Congregation's preschool. Silverman, who was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, has not been charged with any crimes in relation to the alleged abuse and has denied the allegations in the suit.

"Mr. Silverman categorically denies engaging in any inappropriate or illegal contact with children at Washington Hebrew Congregation," said his former attorney, Shawn Sukumar.

Jensen, the center's former director, has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

The cease-and desist letter was sent by the District of Columbia's Office of the State Superintendent of Education on June 3, with an amended copy following on June 5. It was addressed to Steven Jacober, executive director of Washington Hebrew Congregation.

According to the letter, the synagogue's early childhood center failed to ensure the safety of children in its care, to properly supervise children and staff and did not report the alleged abuse to education officials, as required by law.

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education's investigation included interviews with Washington Hebrew Congregation (WHC) leaders, multiple site visits and a review of the preschool's documents and records, according to the letter. The letter does not name Silverman, instead referring repeatedly to an "alleged maltreator."

"OSSE's investigation revealed that WHC had not safeguarded the health, safety and well-being of the children entrusted to their care," the letter says.

OSSE says staffers knew complaints would be ignored

The school's leaders were in violation of the District of Columbia's requirement for child development centers that at least two teachers should supervise students at all times, according to the letter.

OSSE said the leaders "knowingly maintained a practice" of allowing teachers and assistant teachers to be alone with students, and that "an individual teacher or assistant teacher were permitted to supervise groups of children on their own," including taking children to the bathroom, to a room without windows in a back hallway, and changing children out of their water-play clothes.

"The investigation also revealed that the alleged maltreator would regularly take groups of children outside or to the bathroom by himself for extended periods of time with a handheld radio, but not respond to the radio when called."

As an assistant teacher, the alleged abuser should have been supervised at all times by a teacher or the center director, the agency said in the letter.

Instead, "OSSE found that the alleged maltreator was often not directly supervised, taking groups of children on his own to the bathroom, playground or the surrounding wooded area of WHC and that the center director was aware that the alleged maltreator would take children out of the classroom on his own."

The letter also charges the congregation with other violations, including one that prohibits staff from using cell phones to take or distribute digital images of children.

The agency says "staff noted the lack of enforcement regarding use of personal mobile devices across WHC staff, and "notably by the alleged maltreator who had used his cell phone to take pictures and videos of children."

During an interview with the superintendent's office, the preschool's director confirmed that she had received complaints that the alleged abuser left the classroom with and without children and "would be gone for long periods of time."

But, the letter said, the director "created an environment where complaints involving alleged or actual child abuse, or neglect or alleged or actual risk to an enrolled child's health, safety or welfare were not made because they knew the complaint was going to be ignored or down-played, or believed that they would be reprimanded."

The agency's letter also faults the school's leaders for failing to adequately document the alleged abuser's performance during his three years there. The only written evaluation, from the 2017-18 school year, notes that the accused abuser had shown a "noticeable difference in calling children by their names rather than honey or sweetie."

Moreover, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education said they found that the alleged abuser's personnel file did not include a resume, copies of letters of reference or a transcript.

"Additionally, the alleged maltreater [sic] began working for WHC during the 2015-16 school year and there was no record of an accompanying application or verification that the alleged maltreator met the credential requirements for an assistant teacher," said the agency's letter.

WHC President Nell Shapiro and General Counsel Lewis Wiener wrote to preschool parents about the Office of the State Superintendent of Education report on June 6, according to a letter obtained by CNN.

WHC evaluating OSSE accusations

The synagogue said it was "continuing to evaluate OSSE's letter," saying that the department had found the preschool in "full compliance" with its regulations in 2018 and 2019.

Shapiro and Wiener also said that, since the allegations against the teacher were made in August 2018, the school has "strengthened our staffing protocols" to ensure that children are supervised by at least two teachers at all times, a requirement in DC schools.

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education observed that Washington Hebrew Congregation has changed its policy and now requires two staff members to be present with children at all times, according to the letter.

The school has also given staff members walkie talkies and told them to announce when they are moving children around the facility. In addition, staff have been trained on how to recognize and report signs of abuse, enhanced the facilities sight lines and is "formalizing our hiring practices to ensure that credentials are fully documented for every hire."

"For purposes of evaluating our policies, practices and procedures, we assumed the allegations were true, even though no arrest had been made (and none has been made to date)," WHC said in a letter to parents.

Parent wants apology from WHC

But a parent who is part of the civil lawsuit against Washington Hebrew Congregation blasted the synagogue's response to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education's letter.

"I am hurt beyond words to learn that this temple received confirmation from CFSA (Child and Family Services Agency) that my child and other preschoolers were sexually abused and they continue to deny it and they refuse to apologize for it," the parent said in a statement provided by the families' attorney, Michael Dolce.

Like other plaintiffs in the civil suit, the parent asked for anonymity to protect the identity of the parent's child.

"My life and the lives of so many others have been turned upside down as we try to process what happened to our children and learn the new skills that we need to be supportive parents of our sexually abused children," the parent continued.

"And as we try to repair these wounds, this temple keeps ripping them back open by denying the abuse occurred, refusing to apologize for it, and abandoning Jewish principles of justice and repentance that they teach their congregants."

In their suit, the families are seeking unspecified damages in an amount to be determined at trial.


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