Baltimore - A series of exposés on sexual abuse at a well-known yeshiva is roiling the Baltimore Jewish community and inflaming the already strained relations between the local Jewish newspaper and the city’s sizable Orthodox population.
The controversy revolves around allegations in the Baltimore Jewish Times that the late principal of the Talmudical Academy, Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro, may have molested Jewish students at the school and other youngsters who came to him for bar mitzvah classes.
In the wake of the allegations, local Orthodox rabbis have delivered sermons on the need to speak out against abuse and do a better job of responding to allegations that do arise. At the same time, the articles have upset members of the city’s Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox population who feel that the paper crossed the line by identifying Shapiro — almost two decades after his death.
Case in point is Moshe Heinemann, perhaps the city’s most prominent Orthodox rabbi and head of the Star-K kosher certification service. He signed on to a letter calling for more action in tackling abuse. Soon after, he also posted a separate letter in his synagogue calling on congregants to boycott the Baltimore Jewish Times.
“Based on last week’s vicious article in the Baltimore Jewish Times,” Heinemann wrote, “it is my opinion that it is totally inappropriate for this publication to be found in any Jewish home.”
Baltimore’s 100,000-person Jewish community is about 20% Orthodox — twice the national average. In contrast to other cities, the Orthodox in Baltimore — even those furthest to the right religiously — often engage the wider Jewish community and work closely with the local Jewish federation and its subsidiary agencies. The city has two Jewish Community Centers: one in the Orthodox neighborhood is closed on Saturday, the other remains open.
But the paper, with a circulation of 15,000, has become an increasing point of tension for many in the Orthodox community. Even before the sex-abuse controversy, Orthodox rabbis complained about the Jewish Times publishing marriage announcements of interfaith couples, advertising non-kosher restaurants and running ads with pictures of women whose outfits fail to meet Orthodox requirements for modest dress.
Now, in some Orthodox circles, with the publication of the recent articles on sex abuse, the sense of frustration is boiling over into anger.
“We were outraged by the way they dealt with the molestation case,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, a prominent rabbi living in Baltimore who heads up the Washington office of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America.
“The person who is accused is dead,” Cohen added. “We need to ask what good does publishing his name do and what harm does it cause his family.”
The author of the articles, Baltimore Jewish Times executive editor Phil Jacobs, also published a subsequent column defending the decision to publish. Jacobs argued that just as Shapiro cannot defend himself now, his victims could not defend themselves when the acts were carried out. In addition, Jacobs argued that making the story public was a needed step in helping the victims achieve closure. “For the survivors, Rabbi Shapiro is still very much alive,” Jacobs told the Forward.
One article quoted Murray Levin, 64, who took bar mitzvah lessons as a child with Shapiro. “Rabbi Shapiro was grooming me with French kissing and masturbation,” Levin alleged. Another survivor of the rabbi’s alleged sexual molestation, Bob Glickstein, told the Baltimore Jewish Times that even though decades have passed, he could still feel Rabbi Shapiro’s mustache touching his face.
It was more than a year ago that Jacobs first learned of a regular group of 20 alleged victims of sexual abuse who held a regular Kiddush on Shabbat afternoons. When he met with the group, the stories burst out, including ones about the Talmudical Academy, a widely respected institution within ultra-Orthodox educational circles, but best known to the outside world as the home of high-school basketball phenom Tamir Goodman.
“It was gut-wrenching,” Jacobs said, “there was a feeling that if we could have, we would kick open the window and gasp for air.”
More research, including conversations with victims, rabbis and mental health professionals, led to a February 23 cover story, which told the story of “Steve,” a survivor of sexual abuse in the synagogue.
The paper did not reveal the identity of the victim nor of the alleged abuser. According to Jacobs, the paper suspected that Shapiro was the rabbi in question but could not confirm it.
After the first article came out, a friend walked up to Jacobs and identified Shapiro as the rabbi in question.
Jacobs met with Shapiro’s sons and with several Orthodox rabbis. No understanding was reached — and Jacobs decided to name Shapiro in print.
In its April 13 edition, the paper published three testimonies of victims who alleged that they had been abused by Shapiro. The allegations ran under the headline “Rabbi, Teacher, Molester,” along with a large photo of the late Shapiro, who served as a rabbi at several local synagogues, in addition to his stint as principal and dorm counselor at Talmudical Academy.
The second story, which named Shapiro, ran inside the paper, with no mention on the cover. Still, it instantly became the talk of the city’s Jewish community. The paper was flooded with letters. “About 70% were supportive and 30% were against us publishing the story,” said Neil Rubin, the paper’s editor. No one, he added, has canceled a subscription over the matter.
In a tightly knit community such as Baltimore, feedback comes from all sides, even during off hours. When Rubin and Jacobs sat at the local Goldberg’s bagel shop, a person came up to them and said “me too.” In another instance, Jacobs was walking home from synagogue and people on a porch applauded him for the article.
Yet not all reactions were as supportive. When shopping at the local grocery store, a woman came up to Jacobs and attacked him verbally. He also received an e-mail suggesting that he and his family leave town.
Many rabbis in the Orthodox community have refrained from speaking to the press about the issue. But Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, of congregation Shomrei Emunah, delivered a sermon on the topic that appeared to shed some light on the thinking of the community’s leaders. Gottlieb, as well as rabbis at three other Orthodox synagogues, devoted his sermon to the need to speak out against sexual abuse.
The sermons were followed by a letter on the issue from the Va’ad Ha’Rabonim, the community’s main Orthodox rabbinical council. In the detailed appeal, titled “Abuse in Our Community,” the Orthodox rabbis acknowledged that mistakes were made in the past and called on followers to be aware of the issue of abuse. The letter called for educating children on the issue and advocated referring cases to “the authorities who have the expertise, experience and wisdom.” The rabbis also stated that they are in the process of developing a new approach to protect the community from sexual abusers. “We pray that Hashem spares us such tragedies in the future and that he grants us the wisdom and the courage to responsibly address the threats we face,” the letter concluded.
Sources in the Orthodox community said the appeal was ground breaking and reflected a sincere desire to uproot such conduct. Though the rabbis’ letter does not refer directly to the newspaper articles about Shapiro, sources said that the exposés were the trigger for taking on the issue.
Among those signing the letter was Heinemann, director of the Star-K kosher certifier. He did not respond to calls from the Forward. Several Jewish activists in Baltimore said that he has taken down the sign calling for a boycott of the paper.
As the Orthodox community in Baltimore struggles to adopt new procedures to address sexual abuse, other Jewish groups are also taking action. Shofar, a coalition of mental health and treatment providers in the Jewish community, convened Tuesday to discuss the new revelations about sexual abuse in the community.
“This issue was terrifically hidden in our community,” said Ester Giller of the coalition, “Now that the wall of silence and shame has been broken, people know they are not alone.”
The group is focusing on providing counseling options to those who now feel they can discuss any abuse that they endured.
Rubin and Jacobs estimate that more than 100 cases of abuse occurred, with more allegations pouring in about Shapiro and others in the community. As long as abuse allegations continue to flow, Jacobs said, the newspaper would keep running articles on a monthly basis.
The intensive coverage though has not sat well with everyone.
“What are they going to do next? Have a molester of the week feature?” Agudath Israel’s Cohen asked.
Jacobs and his colleagues, however, say that they have no plans of giving up. “If it keeps a perpetrator away, then we go on with it for as long as we can,” said Jacobs.