Rabbi George Finkelstein has resigned his position at the Great Jerusalem Synagogue after the Forward reported that he had sexually abused students at Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan during the 1970s and ‘80s.
“He sent us an email saying he’s resigning because he does not want to expose the Great Synagogue to embarrassment,” Zalli Jaffe, the synagogue’s vice president, said in an interview. Finkelstein had served as the institution’s executive director since 2001; last month, he began serving as its ritual director.
Jaffe said that the resignation was received on Thursday, “immediately following the publication” of the Forward’s investigation. The correspondence came from France, where Finkelstein is currently vacationing.
Around the same time as Finkelstein resigned, senior staff of the Orthodox Union in America and Jerusalem held a teleconference regarding the position of the other Y.U. high school staff member investigated by the Forward, Rabbi Macy Gordon. They decided to impose a “leave of absence” on Gordon’s teaching duties at the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem, where he gives a weekly class on the laws of the Sabbath, Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, OU executive vice president emeritus, told the Forward on December 16.
He said that the unilaterally-imposed leave of absence will last until the OU can “clarify exactly what happened.” This is in spite of the fact that the OU has “to presume that he’s innocent until we find out more about it.”
Weinreb said: “When we became aware of the news article we felt we had to investigate ourselves to see what kind of credence to give [the claims].” He stressed that the allegations were dated to a time before Gordon started teaching at the OU.
He said of Gordon: “I know that he has no memory of the alleged incident whatsoever.”
The dramatic news came as five more men have stepped forward to say they were inappropriately touched and suffered emotional and sexual abuse at the high school.
In its investigation published online December 13, The Forward described the claims of three former students who said that they were abused by Finkelstein, who rose to become principal of the high school. Another former student said he was sodomized with a toothbrush by Gordon, a Talmud teacher.
Three of the former students said that their subsequent appeals to Y.U. to take action were ignored.
While denying that he knew about the severity of the allegations against the staff members, Norman Lamm, the chancellor of Y.U., told the Forward on December 7 that the school dealt with allegations of “improper sexual activity” against staff members by quietly allowing them to leave and find jobs elsewhere. Lamm was president of Y.U. from 1976 to 2003.
In particular, Lamm said that he did not report anything about the allegations against Finkelstein when he left after 27 years at the high school for a position at a Jewish school in Florida. Finkelstein was dean of the Samuel Scheck Hillel Community Day School in North Miami Beach, Fla. until moving to Israel.
Now, the Forward has heard from five more men who say they were harassed by Finkelstein and Gordon during the 1970s and ’80s.
The claims included description of how both men thrust their hands under boys’ shirts to check whether they were wearing tzitzit, the tasseled undershirts required under Orthodox Jewish law.
Finkelstein and Gordon, interviewed by the Forward in Israel where both men now live, denied the initial allegations. Efforts to reach them to respond to the latest allegations were unsuccessful.
“Macy Gordon was malevolence personified,” said Barry Singer, who graduated from Y.U.’s Manhattan High School for Boys in 1975, “whereas George Finkelstein was a more complicated, disturbed individual.”
“I fought these guys tooth and nail the entire time I was in school,” Singer added. “I had no idea that what was being done to me was sexual abuse or any abuse, I merely knew I didn’t want these guys touching me and I did my best to keep them away from me.”
Singer, now a New York City journalist and bookseller, recalled walking into a school stairwell one day and being grabbed by Finkelstein who thrust him over the railings and “groped me looking to see if I was wearing tzitzit.” “It went under the shirt to the skin and below the waistline,” Singer said. “Hanging over the stairwell I didn’t understand what was being done to me, I just knew I hated him for it.”
Singer said Gordon emotionally abused him. “I believe that Macy Gordon found a way to emotionally abuse and intimidate any student that ever crossed his path,” Singer said. “He conducted tzitzit checks under my shirt that made me very uncomfortable.”
Singer, along with two other former students, also described being wrestled by Finkelstein in his office. “I was 6 foot tall and a basketball player,” Singer said. “I didn’t know I was fighting someone off sexually, I just knew I was fighting someone off I didn’t want near me.”
Zack Belil, who graduated from Y.U. in the early 1980s, said that he was forced to wrestle with Finkelstein for four years, at his home or in an office at the high school. Often, Belil said, Finkelstein would initiate the wrestling by asking Belil a question he could not answer and then wrestle him as a form of punishment. “It was very rough for an adult and a child…You can feel an erection through someone’s pants rubbing up against you. That was the most horrifying part,” Belil told the Forward.
Belil, now a New York real estate developer, said that during school hours Finkelstein could appear at the classroom door at any time of day and pull him out of class. On one occasion, Belil said Finkelstein led him to a staircase behind a closed door and asked him a question that he knew Belil could not answer.
“[Finkelstein] slapped me,” Belil said, “And then he said, ‘Aren’t you going to slap me back?’
“What are you to do at that age when this man of authority says something like this to you?” Belil said he gave Finkelstein a light slap on the cheek hoping that it might make Finkelstein stop, but Finkelstein replied, “Harder!” Belil said.
Belil, like other Y.U. high school alumni, said Finkelstein often called him at home. “I think that my parents actually felt honored that he took such an interest,” Belil said.
A fourth man, aged 57, contacted the Forward to describe months of emotional abuse by Finkelstein that drove the man out of Y.U. high school and away from Judaism for more than a decade.
“As soon as I saw the picture [of Finkelstein in the Forward] I got nauseous,” the man said. “I wasn’t touched by him, but he emotionally almost destroyed me.”
The fifth man said Finkelstein and Gordon put their hands under his shirt to check for tzitzit. The man, who had been abused by a rabbi at his elementary school, said he did his best to give both men a wide berth. After the Forward submitted a list of questions to Y.U. on November 26, detailing allegations of abuse against Finkelstein and Gordon, the University said that it would look into the claims.
Asked how the investigation was progressing on December 14, a spokesman for Y.U. said: “I can’t offer you any update beyond the fact we are conducting an investigation and when we have something to share we will do so at the proper time.”
Asked who was leading the investigation, how many people were involved and how it was being conducted, the spokesman said: “I’m not the right person to speak to about that.”
In a statement released December 13 Y.U. President Richard Joel said the “inappropriate behavior and abuse alleged by The Forward…and described in statements attributed by The Forward to Dr. Lamm, are reprehensible.”
The statement continued: “The thought that such behavior could have occurred at our boys’ high school, or anywhere at this institution, at any time in its past, is more than sufficient reason to express on behalf of the University, my deepest, most profound apology.”