Yeshiva Officials, Rabbis Knew of Alleged Abuse

More Students Say Nothing Was Done About Allegations


By Paul Berger

Published December 20, 2012, issue of December 28, 2012.
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After the Forward published an investigation into sexual abuse allegations against two former staff members at a high school for boys run by Yeshiva University, Y.U. issued an immediate statement and said that it would investigate. Later that day, Modern Orthodoxy’s official rabbinic association, the Rabbinical Council of America, said it was “deeply troubled” by the report and confident that the university was “equal to the task” of confronting “improprieties.”

But interviews with current and former staff members of Y.U. and with high-ranking RCA officials, as well as with several former high school students who say they were abused, indicate that Y.U. and the RCA have known about some of the allegations against at least one of the alleged abusers, Rabbi George Finkelstein, for a decade or longer.

The Forward has spoken to 14 men who say that Finkelstein abused them while he was employed at Yeshiva University High School for Boys, in Manhattan, from 1968 to 1995.

George Finkelstein
George Finkelstein

From the mid 1980s until today, however, Y.U. officials and RCA rabbis have dismissed claims or kept them quiet. Some of these officials allowed Finkelstein to leave the Y.U. system and find a new position as dean of a Florida day school without disclosing the abuse allegations. Later, an RCA rabbi and a Y.U. rabbi warned the Florida school that Finkelstein could be a threat. And when Finkelstein’s next employer, the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, asked whether the allegations that dogged him were true, Y.U. assured the synagogue that there was nothing to worry about.

Maurice Wohl, the synagogue’s president at the time, “spoke to the responsible authorities at Y.U, who denied the charges outright,” Zev Lanton, the synagogue’s director general, said in a statement. “Later, the same authority, upon visiting Israel, offered similar denials, both to the chairman of the board of the synagogue and the vice president.”

In response to a Forward request for the identity of that Y.U. official, Lanton replied that the synagogue would “take outside advice” before responding.

The abuse allegations against Finkelstein and against Rabbi Macy Gordon, a Talmud teacher who served at Y.U.’s High School for Boys from 1956 to 1984, have shocked many in the tight-knit Modern Orthodox community. Even Jack Lew, the White House chief of staff, decried the allegations in his keynote address at the Y.U. annual dinner, held on December 16.

Following the Forward’s December 13 story, Finkelstein immediately resigned from the Jerusalem Great Synagogue; Gordon was placed on a “leave of absence” from his teaching duties at the Orthodox Union’s Israel Center, in Jerusalem. Both men denied the allegations to the Forward.

The story quoted three former students who said they were sexually abused by Finkelstein in a high school office or at his home, where he coerced them into wrestling with him. Each of the men said he could feel Finkelstein’s erect penis dig into him while the rabbi pinned him to the floor. One of them said Finkelstein kissed him on the neck; another said that Finkelstein declared his love for him. A fourth former student said that Gordon sodomized him with a toothbrush.

By December 18, the Forward had spoken to at least 11 more former students who said Finkelstein emotionally, physically or sexually abused them. Three more former students came forward to say that they were emotionally abused by Gordon, including one man who said that he was sodomized with an item taken from a medicine cabinet in his dorm room.

The former student, who is now in his late 40s and who does not wish to be identified, said he had returned to his dorm room during a lunch break to find Gordon sitting at his desk.

“I do remember that he said: ‘I have three coins in my pocket. If they’re heads, that’s bad for you, and if it’s tails, that’s good for you,’” the man recalled. “And I distinctly remember two heads and one tails, and he said, ‘That’s not good for you.’”

Gordon “pulled my pants down, went to [the] medicine cabinet and inserted something in my anus,” the man said.

Gordon denied that such an incident took place.

Finkelstein did not respond to a request for comment.

The Forward has interviewed former Y.U. high school students who say that Finkelstein abused them as early as 1972 and as late as 1995. They said that current and former Y.U. staff members were aware of abusive behavior by Finkelstein from at least 1984.

It was an open secret in the Modern Orthodox world.

But Finkelstein was never publicly questioned during his 27-year tenure at Y.U.’s high school, during which he rose to become principal, nor during his six years at the Samuel Scheck Hillel Community Day School, in North Miami Beach, Fla., nor during his 11 years as executive director of the prestigious Jerusalem Great Synagogue.

As the Forward has reported previously, Mordechai Twersky, a former high school student, said he told Y.U.’s then president, Norman Lamm, in 1986 that Finkelstein behaved inappropriately when he wrestled with boys. Twersky said he repeated the allegations to Lamm in 2000. Lamm said he could not recall either of the reports.

Twersky said he also had a conversation with Y.U.’s current president, Richard Joel, about Finkelstein’s abuse in 2001 and wrote to him again a couple of years later.

Now, the Forward has learned of allegations of at least three more occasions when a Y.U. staff or board member was made aware of Finkelstein’s inappropriate behavior.

In 1984, a former student who does not wish to be identified said he was invited to stay overnight at Finkelstein’s home. The student, who had already been wrestled by Finkelstein several times in a school office, told Finkelstein he had a bad back and did not want to wrestle.

“Less than three minutes later, he comes up behind me, grabs both of my shoulders and sticks his knee right into my back, and I went down on the floor, writhing in pain,” said the man, now 44.

He described what he said felt like 15 to 20 minutes in which Finkelstein lay on his back, with the short, lightweight 16-year-old student on top of him, facing the ceiling. Finkelstein started “shark-biting” him, which involved pinching very hard using all four fingers and the palm of his hand, all over the boy’s inner and outer thigh.

“I’m begging him: ‘Rabbi, please stop. I’m not feeling well,” the man said. “But he was twisting me and turning me and shark biting me all over my body and all over my thighs.”

The next day, at school, Rabbi Samuel Scheinberg noticed marks on the boy’s neck. He asked him to take off his shirt and lift his undershirt, revealing welts all over the boy’s body.

“He goes, ‘Who did this to you?’” the man said. “Rabbi Finkelstein walks in at that very second… and I look up, and I said, ‘He did.’”

The man said Scheinberg took Finkelstein out of the room and argued with him for some time before Finkelstein returned and reprimanded the boy. “I thought what happened last night was between the two of us,” the man said Finkelstein told him. He said he never reported the abuse to his parents. Scheinberg has since died.

In 1991, when Finkelstein was promoted to principal, another former student, Simeon Weber, said he went to Y.U. to complain that he had been sexually abused when Finkelstein wrestled with him.

Weber said he first approached Irwin Shapiro, chairman of the high school board. Weber said Shapiro removed the door from Finkelstein’s office. “He meant well but was naive,” Weber said. Shapiro did not return a call for comment.

Weber said he also approached Robert Hirt, who today is a vice president emeritus of Y.U. But Hirt cut off Weber before he could finish telling his story, Weber said.

“[Hirt] said, ‘Mr. Weber, stop speaking lashon hara [malicious gossip],’” Weber recalled. “It was like I was abused all over again.” (When reached by the Forward, Hirt referred questions to Y.U.’s communications department. A spokesman declined to comment.)

Lamm told the Forward on December 7 that Finkelstein was forced out of Y.U.’s high school in 1995 following accusations that he had inappropriate contact with students by wrestling with them in a high school office. But Y.U has not confirmed that explanation.

Finkelstein had risen to the principal’s position after a life spent almost entirely within Y.U.’s family. He attended Y.U. high school and then went on to Yeshiva College, graduating in 1967, one year before taking an office job at the high school. He graduated from Y.U.’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1972.

In those days, former students say, Finkelstein was known as the “office boy.” He was “very tall and thin,” recalled Steven Winter, who attended the high school from 1966 to 1970.

“He walked around with a severe facial expression and played the role of disciplinarian,” Winter added, “but [the staff] all did that; it was the cultural norm.”

One former student told the Forward that Finkelstein wielded a lot of power and that he was emotionally abusive even in the early 1970s. The man, now 57, said that his parents complained about emotional abuse to Rabbi Samuel Belkin, then president of Y.U., but the report only made Finkelstein’s bullying worse. “He thumbed his nose to all of them and kept doing what he wanted to do,” said the former student, who left halfway through his junior year because of the abuse. Belkin has been deceased for decades.

Interviews with former students who attended the school between 1968 and 1995 portray a man who tyrannized students psychologically, physically and sexually. According to these former students, his favorites could do no wrong — though they might be pulled into his office for wrestling bouts. Those to whom he took a disliking could be threatened with expulsion for the most minor of infractions: a haircut that Finkelstein did not like, or being in the gym when they were not supposed to be.

“What could potentially have been a great experience turned into a tortuous and anxiety-filled [experience], because you never knew if that was the day you were going to commit some sort of infraction that was going to land you in a heap of trouble,” said Coby Hakalir, who says he was threatened with expulsion about 40 or 50 times between 1991 and 1995.

“It was just constant [fear],” Hakalir added. “If you weren’t afraid or anxious that day, then [Finkelstein] had not accomplished his task for that day.”

Then there was the wrestling. In an interview with the Forward, Finkelstein said that the grappling was “a way of trying to remove the distance between students and faculty.” But former students have told the Forward that it constituted much more. Ivan Hartstein, who attended the high school from 1978 to 1982, said Finkelstein invited him to his apartment one night because he was lagging in his Judaic studies. “I didn’t want to go,” said Hartstein, who already disliked the way Finkelstein rubbed his back all the way down to his belt line, checking to see if he was wearing tzitzit, ritual undergarments.

When Hartstein arrived at the apartment, Finkelstein was home alone. “The deal was if I couldn’t answer the questions, he would wrestle me to the floor,” Hartstein said.

“It was pretty quick that he was on top of me. I was on the ground and he was on top of me. I could feel his breath on my neck, and his erection pressing against my butt.”

Hartstein, who was 16, said he pushed Finkelstein off and left. Zack Belil, who attended the high school at the same time, also said he was wrestled by Finkelstein and felt his erection pushing against him.

Barry Singer, who graduated from the high school in 1975, said Finkelstein wrestled with him and also put his hand down his trousers during a tzitzit check.

Another man, who did not wish to be named, said Finkelstein wrestled with him through the 10th and 11th grades at Y.U. high school, occasionally telling him that he loved him. After the student left the school in 1983, Finkelstein met the former student at a yeshiva in Israel and invited him back to his room at the Laromme Hotel — now known as the Inbal Jerusalem Hotel — which had two beds.

The man said that once he and Finkelstein were in the hotel room, Finkelstein began to wrestle. The man recalled, “He had me pinned on all fours and began to reach for my privates.”

The man told him to stop. “After he got off of me, [Finkelstein] proceeded to rail at me that he was very disappointed in me,” the man said. “I noticed that he was indeed quite aroused, and [I] was nauseated by it.”

The man, who came from a troubled family and who had seen Finkelstein as a father figure, said he was devastated. “I could not believe that this is what he believed our relationship was all about,” he said.

The man said that in 1995 one of his coworkers, another Y.U. high school graduate, contacted him to say that people were “speaking out against George” and asked if he had any bad experiences to report.

“I am embarrassed that I did not step up then, and I’ve not spoken with this individual regarding George since,” the man said. “I think at that time I was either embarrassed or in denial. I can’t say for sure. But it haunts me.”

The Forward asked Y.U. if a complaint against Finkelstein had been made in 1995. A spokesman said, “As mentioned before, Y.U. is looking into the allegations you’ve reported on, and as such we are not in a position to comment any further.”

In 2000, former student Twersky said he approached Michael Broyde, a Modern Orthodox rabbi who had just left a position at Beth Din of America, the official religious court of the RCA. Twersky asked if he should bring charges against Finkelstein in the beit din, and said that Broyde advised him that the allegations were “not flagrant enough.”

Broyde said he does not recall the exchange with Twersky “in any way, shape or form.”

“I don’t even know who Mordechai Twersky is,” Broyde said. “If he said he was sexually assaulted, I would have said to call the police.”

Twersky said Broyde ought to remember him; they were in the same constitutional law class at Yeshiva College in 1983. During the late 1990s, Beth Din of America retained Twersky for public relations work that involved “working closely with Broyde on the marketing materials for their newly established rabbinic court,” Twersky said.

Although he denied knowing about Twersky’s allegations, Broyde, a member of the RCA’s executive committee, said he had heard rumors about Finkelstein. “There had always been a rumor out there that there were kids who said this going back I don’t know how long,” Broyde said.

Weber said that in 2001 he persuaded Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a Y.U. seminary official, and Rabbi Basil Herring to contact the school in Florida to warn about Finkelstein. Herring, who went on to serve as executive vice president of the RCA from 2003 until 2011, declined to comment “on the record.” Schachter did not return calls for comment.

The Forward tried multiple times to contact Rafael Quintero, chief operating officer of the Florida school, about this report and to find out if any complaints had been made against Finkelstein. A colleague at the school said Quintero was “extremely busy.”

Weber also said he confronted Joel about Finkelstein several years ago, but nothing happened.

In Israel, the allegations against Finkelstein and against Gordon, who immigrated in 1985, have dogged both men.

Finkelstein and Gordon are listed as members of the advisory board of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel.

But Michael Strick, the organization’s executive director, said that the advisory board was suspended “three or four” years ago. Strick said the organization had heard “over the course of time” about allegations against the two men but had “no way of investigating.”

Strick insisted that the allegations were not the main reason for suspending the 13-member advisory board. But he acknowledged that the allegations against both men were “maybe in the background” of the decision.

Meanwhile, Lanton said that the Jerusalem Great Synagogue was informed about four years ago that Finkelstein “had been summoned to [Israeli] police following a complaint reiterating [an abuse allegation].”

“Rabbi Finkelstein informed the executive that in his interview with the police, he insisted that he be submitted to a polygraph test on the spot,” Lanton said in a statement. “The police responded that this would not be necessary. No further action was taken by the police.”

Joel and Lamm have been frequent guests for services at the synagogue. Y.U. has held at least one event there.

Joel did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. In a statement on December 19 Y.U. said it “continues to examine with concern the allegations of past abuse recently reported in the media. A subcommittee of the Board of Trustees is working with the law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell as outside Counsel, who is assisting us in investigating the allegations and consulting with nationally recognized specialists in this area to review our policies and procedures.”

Joel’s initial expression of regret was enough for the RCA’s president, Shmuel Goldin, to commend Joel for “his forthright response and statement of concern.”

Reached for comment December 18, Goldin said: “When you compare this community to others, at least what you are getting is an immediate expression that we are going to deal with this, not that we are going to sweep this under the rug.”

Goldin said he was not aware that Broyde or Herring, or any other RCA rabbis, knew about the allegations against Finkelstein.

The RCA’s executive vice president, Rabbi Mark Dratch, said he, too, was unaware of allegations against Finkelstein or any other former Y.U. staff members. Dratch, who is Lamm’s son-in-law, declined to comment on Lamm’s actions as Y.U. president.

Goldin said that he was not sure what he would have done if he had learned of such allegations in the past. But he added: “Our position is, individuals who are aware of such allegations should go directly to the authorities… And anything short of that does not satisfy that position.”

Goldin said Finkelstein and Gordon, “deserve to have a fair hearing on these allegations.”

“Nobody should be tried on the pages of a newspaper,” he added.

Nathan Jeffay contributed reporting from Jerusalem

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or follow him on Twitter @pdberger


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