On Sunday, a crowd of 30 people gathered to protest in front of the Humble Toast, a kosher restaurant in Teaneck’s Queen Anne Road business district.
The protest came in response to two civil suits alleging that the restaurant’s owner and chef, Shalom Yehudiel, had allegedly sexually assaulted and harassed two underage girls; one of them was an employee of the Humble Toast, and the other alleged that the assault happened at the synagogue where she and her family go.
Mr. Yehudiel has heatedly denied the charges, stating in court filings that they are false and frivolous and countersuing for defamation.
Richard Mazawey, Mr. Yehudiel’s attorney, insists that the lawsuits “are absolutely baseless and defamatory in nature. My client totally disavows each and every allegation.”
He said there is “a campaign of hate against my client, probably coming from the plaintiffs and their related parties, seeking to portray my client in a false light as a sex offender. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s been very very difficult. My client has received hate threats. You can win in a court of law and sometimes lose in the court of public opinion. If people do enough damage on the street and social media and the corridors of non-legal activity, they can certainly do extreme damage to one’s livelihood. My client’s numbers have been drastically off in the past 30 to 60 days.
“The subject of childhood sexual abuse should be on everyone’s mind and should be a top priority to have zero tolerance for, but we should also have a zero tolerance in our laws and court of public opinion for false and bald allegations.”
Mr. Mazawey said he plans to be aggressive in the lawsuit and he looks forward to taking the plaintiffs’ depositions. He said that New Jersey provides 450 days of discovery for civil suits such as this one — a period that began when the cases were filed in February — so he expects a trial date some time next fall.
Last week, before the rally, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which certifies the kashrut at the Humble Toast as well as at Mr. Yehudiel’s nearby kosher Italian restaurant, La Cucina di Nava, issued a statement concerning the allegations.
“Over the course of the past several weeks, it has been brought to the attention of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (the ‘RCBC’) that Shalom Yehudiel, owner of the Humble Toast and La Cucina di Nava, is the subject of multiple civil lawsuits in the Superior Court of the State of New Jersey. The RCBC reiterates its unequivocal stance that there is zero tolerance for any form of sexual misconduct or abuse both in and out of our synagogues, schools or restaurants and that victims of sexual misconduct or abuse, in any form, must be given the ability to have their voices heard and to have all allegations seriously considered,” the statement said.
“In light of the serious nature of the aforementioned allegations, the RCBC is closely monitoring the ongoing civil case as it works its way through the legal system. In the interim, the RCBC has implemented a number of internal policy changes to ensure that the employees and patrons of both restaurants are safe and that the integrity of the kashrut supervision is not compromised. We take this opportunity to remind the Bergen County community that we must remain vigilant and report any instance of abuse to the proper authorities,” the statement concluded.
On Wednesday morning, president of the RCBC, Rabbi Zev Goldberg of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, noted that the situation is evolving.
“The RCBC has a twofold responsibility in this situation,” he explained in an email. “Given the serious nature of the allegations put forth in the civil lawsuit, we have a responsibility to consider the safety and welfare of the current employees and customers at the restaurants. At the same time, there is a presumption of innocence unless proven guilty. We have been working hard to respond in a balanced fashion. With all of this in mind, the RCBC and Shalom Yehudiel have come to an agreement that Shalom will not be present at either restaurant until this matter is resolved.”
Sunday’s rally was organized under the auspices of Za’akah, an organization formed to fight child sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, by Netanel Zellis-Paley, who grew up in Bergenfield and Teaneck, attended local day schools and Yeshiva College, and now is a graduate student at Temple University in Philadelphia studying to be a school psychologist.
“I felt I had to do something,” he said. “I would ask people if they had heard these allegations and they hadn’t.”
Mr. Zellis-Paley said he wanted “to give community members an opportunity to make an informed decision about whether they want to patronize the restaurant, whether for moral reasons or to protect their own safety or the safety of their children. We weren’t trying to get the restaurant shut down. We weren’t even trying to get the RCBC to remove the hashgacha,” its kosher supervision.
“I would be pleased if as a result of our efforts, there are safety measures implemented that protect employees and customers, whether it’s installing cameras everywhere to make sure he is never alone with female employees or customers, or even forbidding him from being in the restaurant at all,” he said.
Mr. Zellis-Paley said that over the weekend he met with a rabbi who is a member of the RCBC to explain the rally and discuss the case. He said the conversation captured the dynamic that advocates of alleged victims frequently encounter.
“He kept referring to the fact that the allegations are only accusations,” he said. “He referenced the fact that they may be fabricated. He repeated a lot of the common dismissive arguments. He asked why hasn’t there been a criminal case? I told him that in at least one of the cases there was a criminal case that was closed in a matter of weeks, because the standard of evidence the criminal justice system requires in these kind of cases is impossibly high. The prosecution will only take cases if they’re almost certain they’re going to win. Also, victims of sexual abuse often prefer to go to civil court, because in criminal cases they are not directly represented; they are just witnesses in the state’s case against the accused perpetrator. In civil cases they get direct representation.
“He kept coming back to the fact that this is an open case that hasn’t been adjudicated in court yet. But it’s my firm belief that the justice system is not the only one who can make a determination about whether these things happened or not. Despite the robust application of halacha” — Jewish law — “to so many other areas of daily life, Orthodox halacha and Orthodox rabbis haven’t formulated an application of halacha to cases of sexual abuse, a way to clarify the credibility of claims of sexual abuse, even though there is a robust system of halachic concepts available to do that. There are so many cases in the Shulchan Aruch, in halachic tort law and monetary law, where we don’t know exactly what happened, and there are competing claims, but halacha has certain mechanisms for determining what the truth is. Even if it’s admitted that we can’t determine what happened a hundred percent, what can we assume happened based on all the evidence we have?
“In the case of sexual abuse, a lot of the evidence is directly in the experience of the victim, in their own trauma, in the way it affected their lives. Until Orthodox halacha seriously addresses the issue of sexual abuse and seriously formulates an approach to applying these halachic concepts to complicated cases like this, I don’t think there will be real progress. You don’t need the justice system to determine the truth all the time, and there are so many other cases where halacha, rather than the American legal system, is enough to determine the truth.”
Shabbos Kestenbaum, 23, lived in Teaneck until the end of ninth grade, when his family moved to Riverdale. He has volunteered for Zaaka’s hotline for Orthodox Jews who feel alone and despondent on Shabbat and Jewish holidays and need to talk to someone who understands them. He gave the main speech at the rally.
“For far too long, there has been abuse in our communities, whether we like to admit it or not, and the change starts with us,” he said. “We are saying enough is enough. Our goal was to send a clear message that the Jewish community and the Teaneck community will not tolerate this anymore.”
Mr. Kestenbaum echoed the argument that the Jewish community should not withhold its judgment until allegations are proven in court.
“As Orthodox Jews, we believe safek d’oraita l’chumra — if there is a doubt in terms of biblical law, you follow the most stringent opinion. Sexual abuse and rape demand stringency.”