The nightmare that began for Rabbi Bryan Bramly when he was arrested in his synagogue parking lot last March for the alleged rape of a 7-year-old did not end when the case against him collapsed on September 15.
Bramly, who was the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom of the East Valley, a Conservative congregation in Chandler, Ariz., at the time of his arrest, confronted a cascade of consequences as a result of being indicted.
During the period in which he was under indictment, his congregation publicly asked for his resignation, his son’s bar mitzvah was canceled and his mug shot was plastered across the Internet.
“The genie cannot be put back in the bottle,” said Alan Lewis, Bramly’s defense attorney. “People who Rabbi Bramly interacts with will forever know that he was accused of this.”
Bramly, 46, was arrested and extradited to New York, where he pleaded not guilty to two counts of first-degree rape and was released on $10,000 bail. The alleged victim, who is now 17, claimed that at his Manhattan apartment in March 2000, Bramly, then a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, had hit her and then had intercourse with her during a sleepover with Bramly’s daughter.
As it turned out, the case never made it to trial.
On September 15, the New York County District Attorney’s Office moved to drop the charges. In a letter to Bramly’s attorney the same day, assistant district attorney Rachel Ferrari explained that the complaining witness could not recall certain details of the alleged incident, that there were “certain inconsistencies in the evidence” and that the district attorney was no longer confident that it could make its case.
Michael Shapiro, one of Bramly’s defense attorneys, termed the DA’s action “an exceedingly unusual event,” coming as it did just six months after the indictment and before any motions were decided by the court.
In an interview with the Forward, Bramly said that when the plainclothes police approached him, guns drawn, in the synagogue parking lot, he thought he was being mugged. “We thought we were going to be murdered,” he said. “The only reason I walked toward the guy was to allow my wife to run away.”
Although the complaining witness had visited Bramly’s wife and daughter in Arizona a few months earlier and told them that she had recalled the alleged incident, Bramly said he had no idea why he was being arrested. He said he was held for three hours before being told of the allegations.
The girl who made the allegations was a close friend of Bramly’s daughter when the two were younger, and had visited with the family frequently. Bramly’s attorneys said that the girl, now 17, had been withdrawn from her school after experiencing socialization problems, and that she was undergoing therapy.
Bramly has been on paid administrative leave from his congregation since his arrest. In mid-August, before the charges were dropped, the board of the synagogue publicly asked for his resignation. In a press release, board president Joel Munter said that “after a four month review of all issues related to Rabbi Bramly it became clear that he has lost the confidence of the board of directors and a percentage of the congregation.”
Bramly noted that four years remain in his current contract. “I have certain rights guaranteed to me under my contract, and I intend to make sure that those rights are honored,” he said. Bramly has hired an Arizona-based labor lawyer and is engaged in mediation with the board.
“He wants to be a rabbi,” said Richard Thomas, Bramly’s labor lawyer. “But he also wants to feel that he’s welcomed.”
When contacted by the Forward, Munter declined to comment in detail on the status of Bramly’s employment with the synagogue. “We’re in the midst of discussions with Rabbi Bramly about the future,” he said. An interim rabbi named Yaacov Rone has been with the congregation through September and will continue to spend weekends there in October.
Although the prosecutor’s letter to Bramly’s defense attorneys stated that the charges against the rabbi were being dropped, it did not say that the district attorney’s office believed that Bramly was innocent. Nor did it concede that prosecutors had erred in asking for the indictment. Rather, it cited the effect of a trial on the alleged victim. “Our role as prosecutors demands that we balance the strength of our case against the consequences to all involved while making these decisions,” Ferrari wrote.
In a footnote, she also challenged defense claims that Bramly passed a polygraph test, clearing him of the crime “with flying colors.” A prosecution expert who reviewed the video and charts of the test found the results “inconclusive,” Ferrari wrote.
Bramly’s attorneys dismissed the prosecution’s review of the test as incomplete. They said the prosecution had asked for access to the original polygraph examiner but had not yet interviewed him when it dropped its charges.
Saying that they deplore what they see as errors in the district attorney’s conduct of the case, Bramly’s attorneys complain that investigators failed to contact Bramly, his family or members of his current congregation before his arrest. They argue that the investigation that uncovered the inconsistencies cited by the prosecutors should have been conducted before Bramly’s arrest.
“We’re not over this just because the judge says the case is dismissed,” Bramly said. “How do you ever make all of that on the Internet, hundreds of thousands of pages, go away? How do you have a discussion with your 13-year-old son that somebody accused his father of these disgusting, despicable things?”
Vicki Polin, an activist against child sexual abuse by Jewish clergy and teachers, appeared to demonstrate the hurdle of skepticism Bramly described. “Sometimes when charges are dropped, it’s not because [those accused] are not guilty,” she said. “It could be that the victim isn’t in a place to provide testimony. It’s a case-by-case thing. We would have to find out the reasons why the charges were dropped.”
Bramly said that his son’s bar mitzvah, which had been scheduled for May, was canceled. “We ultimately decided we were not in the right frame of mind to have a celebration,” he said.
“It’s almost like fiction. It’s completely surreal,” Bramly said of the experience. He compared it to Franz Kafka’s novel “The Trial,” the story of a confounding bureaucratic nightmare.
“I don’t know how you get through all of it. I really don’t,” he said. “Right now, the plan is to breathe and to get some distance behind us so that we could try to approach whatever decision we make about the future in the most balanced and healthy way.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.