Escalating Tensions, Protesters Rile Agudath Israel Over Sex-Abuse Bill

Religious Dissent: Demonstrators at the yearly dinner of Agudath Israel, an Orthodox umbrella group, voice their anger over what they view as its weak stand against rabbinic child molesters.
Ariel Jankelowitz
Religious Dissent: Demonstrators at the yearly dinner of Agudath Israel, an Orthodox umbrella group, voice their anger over what they view as its weak stand against rabbinic child molesters.

By Rebecca Dube

Published May 20, 2009, issue of May 29, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Inside the grand ballroom of the Midtown Hilton in Manhattan, Agudath Israel of America’s annual dinner was unfolding according to plan. Men and women dressed in traditional yet elegant clothes dined on salmon and listened to Senator Charles Schumer and Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledge their fealty.

Outside, a storm was brewing.

Angry Exchange: Agudath Israel of America trustee Israel Lefkowitz, in his car, argues with Rabbi Nachem Rosenberg (left) and Levi Goldberg (right), with a reporter listening in front of a Manhattan hotel.
Ariel Jankelowitz
Angry Exchange: Agudath Israel of America trustee Israel Lefkowitz, in his car, argues with Rabbi Nachem Rosenberg (left) and Levi Goldberg (right), with a reporter listening in front of a Manhattan hotel.

A dozen protesters stood in front of the Hilton’s parking garage and waved signs that said “Agudah: Stop protecting pedophiles.”

Most attendees waved off the protesters or ignored them with a look of distaste.

But Agudath board of trustees member Israel Lefkowitz rolled down his car window to chastise the protesters.

“I am against sexual harassment for all the children,” Lefkowitz said. “But you don’t do this in public.”

The angry exchange outside the annual dinner May 15 for Agudath Israel, a national ultra-Orthodox umbrella group, encapsulates the escalating battle within the Orthodox community over sexual abuse of children by rabbis, yeshiva teachers and other religious authority figures. On one side, a band of loosely organized victims of sexual abuse and their supporters are crying out for community leaders to take a tougher stand against pedophilia. On the other side, many powerful leaders regard any public airing of sexual abuse allegations in the Orthodox community as hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

One of the protesters, Mark Appel, yelled at Lefkowitz in his car: “Your children are being molested, and you know that [officials from Agudath] are not doing anything about it.”

“Why are you so angry?” Lefkowitz asked.

“What is Agudah doing to my molester?” asked Joe DiAngelo, who says he was raped as a child in a Brooklyn mikveh.

In his defense, Lefkowitz replied that he booted out a principal who was molesting boys at his son’s school.

“What happened to him? Why wasn’t he arrested?” asked Levi Goldberg, a soft-spoken young man wearing a traditional black suit, hat and peyes.

“I do not know,” Lefkowitz said. He called the protest “a desecration of a Godly institution.”

The protesters’ ire was aimed at Agudah’s opposition to a bill now before the state Legislature that would extend the statute of limitations for civil and criminal claims of child sexual abuse and create a one-time, one-year “window” during which victims of crimes committed beyond the statute of limitations could file civil claims against their alleged abusers and the institutions that harbored them.

The bill appears stalled in the state Assembly a few weeks before the legislative session adjourns.

Agudah’s official position is that it supports lengthening the statute of limitations, but opposes the one-year window because it could allow plaintiffs to file decades-old claims.

“Reasonable people can disagree on this,” Agudah spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran said inside the dinner hall. “We have no problem with extending the statute of limitations, we have no problem with anything preventative, we only have problems with the so-called ‘window’ provision.”

Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe and Rosh Agudath Israel of America, took a harsher tone in his dinner address, chiding “the bloggers and the picketers, presumptuous promoters” for the notion that “they know better [than Agudah’s Council of Torah Sages] what is good for the Jews.”

Perlow called child sexual abuse “a serious issue.” He acknowledged a need “for correcting the past – and for addressing the future, creating means to guide against wrongdoing to children.”

The protesters find Agudah’s statements short on specifics.

They accused Agudah of a conflict of interest. The organization is named as a defendant in sex-abuse lawsuits involving Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, accused of molesting dozens of students, including boys at an Agudah-run summer camp, and would likely face more lawsuits if the window legislation passes.

Appel, one of the protesters, is founder of a Jewish community group called Am Echad aimed at promoting Jewish unity and supporting social services. It is New York-based with chapters in other cities.

“I’ve met kids who have been abused [recently] by people who were abusing kids 30 years ago,” said Appel. “These guys [Agudah] are just stalling – they’re emotionless on this issue. So they’re going to sit here tonight and have a nice collective meal, and meanwhile their community is being torn apart.”

Elliot Pasik, a director of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children, a group in favor of the window legislation as well as mandatory fingerprinting of private school teachers, said he’s disappointed by Agudah’s response.

Contact Rebecca Dube at dube@forward.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.