Yeshiva University moved quickly last week to reassure parents and students that it maintains a zero tolerance policy when it comes to the physical or psychological abuse of students. YU President Richard Joel acted following reports on the website of The Jewish Daily Forward and The New York Times that alleged that two men – a former principal of the Manhattan-based Yeshiva University High School for Boys (known as MTA) and a highly regarded former Teaneck rabbi who taught there – had engaged in both forms of abuse during the 1970s and ’80s.
“The actions described [in the news reports] represent heinous and inexcusable acts that are antithetical both to Torah values and to everything that Yeshiva University stands for,” Joel said in a statement. “They have no place here, in our community, or anywhere at all.”
For at least one Teaneck resident, the reports came as little surprise. Rather, the reports brought back unpleasant memories for Juda Engelmayer, who graduated MTA in 1987.
“When we were in school, [my friends and I] viewed it as a jail,” said Engelmayer, a public relations executive whose father is executive editor of this newspaper. The Jewish Standard interviewed him after a web-based search found a blog post he wrote about abuse in 2009.
Engelmayer and his classmates now are sharing their reactions on Facebook. “We’re all angry. We don’t know why no one raised it before,” Engelmayer said.
In his blog post three years ago, Engelmayer described his high-school experience. “Imagine ‘Lord of the Flies in Anatevka,'” he wrote.
In a comment to that post, another MTA student recalled being “a frequent victim of ‘wrestling with George.'”
As media reports in The Forward and the New York Times revealed last week, George was Rabbi George Finkelstein, the school’s principal. He was infamous among students for “summoning students into his office and inviting them to his Washington Heights apartment under the guise of Torah study, only to wrestle them to the ground against their will and pin his stimulated body over theirs,” in the words of former MTA student Mordechai Twersky. Twersky, who graduated MTA in 1981, is a journalist who now lives in Israel. He wrote this description of Finkelstein in an article published in February in the Beacon, an online journal started by Yeshiva University students.
In his statement, Joel apologized for the alleged misbehavior, and noted that procedures now in place at YU’s institutions are meant to prevent such abuse and to act swiftly when abuse is charged.
“At this institution we continually review and strengthen policies and practices addressing the safety of all members of the Yeshiva family,” Joel said in his statement, which was sent to, among others, members of its alumni mailing list. “We are vigilant and responsible, and always will be. While we cannot change the past, I can say with absolute certainty that Yeshiva University has implemented, and will continue to maintain and enforce, the policies and procedures necessary to assure a safe environment.”
Regarding the specific allegations in the news reports, Joel said, “The inappropriate behavior and abuse alleged by The Forward to have taken place in the past, and described in statements attributed by The Forward to [YU’s former president and current chancellor, Dr. Norman] Lamm, are reprehensible.”
He added, “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.”
Reaction to the misdeeds at MTA came even from the White House, as the president’s chief of staff, Jack Lew, an Orthodox Jew, issued a sharp rebuke during his speech at YU’s annual Chanukah dinner, where he was guest of honor.
“The alleged behavior is despicable and cannot be tolerated in any place, at any time, and the response must transcend the confines of religious teaching,” Lew said. “Leaders of this and every educational institution have a sacred responsibility under civil law to protect children from any action that might endanger or exploit them.”
Joel’s apology, however, came on the heels of a far weaker mea culpa from Lamm, who headed the school during most of the 1970s and ’80s, when the alleged abuse took place.
“This was before things of this sort had attained a certain notoriety,” Lamm is quoted as saying. “There was a great deal of confusion.
“My question was not whether to report to police, but to ask the person to leave the job.”
That appears to be the course Lamm eventually took with Finkelstein in 1995.
“When [the wrestling] came up, [Finkelstein] had decided to leave because he knew we were going to ask him to leave,” Lamm is quoted as saying.
Finkelstein went on to serve as dean of the Samuel Scheck Hillel Community Day School in North Miami Beach, Fla.
When asked why the university did not inform the Florida school about Finkelstein’s behavior, Lamm replied: “The responsibility of a school in hiring someone is to check with the previous job. No one checked with me about George.”
In 2001 Finkelstein moved to Israel, where he became executive director of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, a post he held until stepping aside in November to become the Jerusalem institution’s ritual director. Soon after the abuse allegations were made public he resigned that post.
Also implicated in the news reports was Rabbi Macy Gordon, who was rabbi of Teaneck’s Congregation Bnai Yeshurun for nearly 25 years, until he made aliyah in 1985. During that time he also taught at MTA.
A former student, then 16, was quoted as saying that Gordon sodomized him with a toothbrush. The Forward also quoted the student’s father, who said that he raised the issue with an administrator, but nothing came of that.
“We had a lot of ties to YU, our family has a lot of ties to YU,” the father is quoted by the online edition of the newspaper as saying, “and at that point we also felt that this kind of exposÃ© would not do [our son] any good, either.”
Reached in Israel by The Forward, Gordon was asked whether there was any contact that could be defined as sexual between him and students. “I don’t think so,” he replied. Pressed on his response, the rabbi said, “To the best of my memory, there was not.”
Following the first revelations, another former student, writer and bookseller Barry Singer, came forward to assert that Gordon was “malevolence personified.”
Singer said: “I believe that Macy Gordon found a way to emotionally abuse and intimidate any student that ever crossed his path. He conducted tzitzit checks under my shirt that made me very uncomfortable.”
The Orthodox Union put Gordon on a leave of absence this week. He had been teaching a weekly class at the OU’s Israel Center in Jerusalem.
“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],” Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, OU’s executive vice president emeritus, is quoted as saying.
Gordon, himself a graduate of the YU boys high school in 1949, earned his rabbinic ordination from YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1956 and was hired by Teaneck’s fledgling Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in 1961. He requested early retirement in December 1984, and in 1985 he moved to Israel, where he has continued to teach adult education courses.
By the time he left Bnai Yeshurun, the congregation had grown to more than 400 families (today it has 800 member and affiliate families). Gordon left a lasting legacy not only in the shul but in the greater community as well, according to two longtime Bnai Yeshurun members who spoke with the Jewish Standard on condition of anonymity.
“He was, in essence, the first rabbi of an Orthodox shul in Teaneck,” one source said. “He set the religious tone of the entire Orthodox community. He was an exceptionally fine speaker and teacher, and he made it his business to know all the members of the synagogue personally. Under his tenure, Teaneck’s Orthodox community really took off.”
In a 1982 article in The New York Times, “If You’re Thinking of Living In: Teaneck,” Gordon was asked about the perception of the township’s Orthodox Jews as insular. ”We have often been maligned as being separatists, isolationists. But, except in education, where we find it religiously necessary, I don’t feel we are,” he was quoted as saying.
Another longtime Bnai Yeshurun member related that Gordon was instrumental in bringing kosher retail shops and restaurants to Bergen County, particularly on Cedar Lane in Teaneck.
“He was a very strong presence. Teaneck at that time was a very infant community and he became a force for attracting a lot of [modern Orthodox] residents into Teaneck and did what needed to be done to build the foundation. That was his greatest gift.”
Both of these sources said they never experienced, saw, or heard of any inappropriate behavior on Gordon’s part. The Forward’s follow-up story included remarks from former high school students who said they felt uncomfortable with Gordon’s “tzitzit checks,” where he would feel their backs to learn if they were wearing the traditional four-cornered fringed garment formally known as a tallit katan, or “small prayer shawl.” Such tzitzit checks, however, were not an unusual practice among teachers in Jewish schools, although asking to see the tzitzit strings was the usual method.
“Bnai Yeshurun is essentially a shul of YU graduates,” said the first source, “and Rabbi Gordon was noted for tzitzit checks, but that’s the extent of physical contact I ever heard about him.”
Trudy Levine, whose husband, Abraham, was president of Bnai Yeshurun for part of the time that Gordon was rabbi of the shul, said the two families were close friends and her children spent a lot of time playing with the four Gordon children.
“My kids were over there all the time, and I never heard any complaints from them,” she said, recalling Gordon as “a very good rabbi who gave terrific sermons” and who took on the high school teaching job because the Teaneck congregation was too small to pay him a full-time salary.
“He was a very good influence. I think it’s wrong for The Forward to have printed this one allegation without further investigation,” she added.
After his tenure at Bnai Yeshurun, Gordon was director of a camp in Israel; honorary president of the non-profit Just One Life, which aids women considering abortions; and an advisory board member of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel.
Neither of two former MTA students with whom the Standard spoke this week recalled any encounters with Gordon.
“He was not my rebbe,” said Mordecai Twersky, whose article last February about Finkelstein in the online publication the Beacon – founded by YU students – prompted The Forward’s investigation.
Both, however, recalled an atmosphere they described as abusive, and that went beyond the two faculty members discussed by The Forward. Some of the rabbis they remember as cruel and abusive are dead; at least one is still working as a Jewish educator.
Twersky said he recalled “being tormented by one rabbi, trembling in fear as he would make an example of me and of others” who were not sufficiently prepared for Talmud class “and who risked being called upon and ridiculed by the rabbi in a ‘cross examination’ that would go on for up to an hour or more.
“Some students found this persecution entertaining. But it was excruciating and humiliating. It certainly did not motivate me to prepare and only turned me off,” Twersky said.
“That having been said, I can’t say this was the norm among teachers and faculty. I had some excellent teachers at MTA,” in both Jewish and secular classes.
“People don’t believe the stories,” Engelmayer said. “They think they’re all made up. They’re not.”
Engelmayer said that through their Facebook discussion, he has learned that other MTA graduates “all have the same memories, they’re all angry, they don’t know why nobody raised it beforehand. The overall commentary is, why did it take so long to come out.
“There were plenty of abusive rabbis.”
Different rabbis had different ways of dealing with students. “Wrestling with the kids and grinding, that was [just] Rabbi Finkelstein,” Engelmayer said. He added that he had a friend at the school “who kind of had problems then. Instead of dealing with it, to shut him up, a rabbi tied him with duct tape from head to foot.”
The student left the school after that “and is kind of a troubled child now,” said Engelmayer. The rabbi who taped his friend, he added, now is a principal in another Jewish school.
Engelmayer recalled another rabbi as “an angry, angry guy. There was a lot of verbal abuse, yelling at students, ‘You’re a moron, you’re a [expletive].'”
“It was wrong when it was happening to us,” he said. “We had no means of correcting it. No one wanted to listen.
“It was a different time back then, a time when discipline was a different world, when you maintained order and discipline with physical acts. The school wasn’t equipped to deal with problem children,” he said.
This was not a problem at all Jewish high schools in the 1980s, however, Engelmayer added.
“From my stories from colleagues at Ramaz and SAR” – modern Orthodox day schools in Manhattan and Riverdale, respectively – “it didn’t happen there. Only in the darker hat yeshivah world. MTA wasn’t a Brooklyn yeshivah, but it was the closest thing that resembled one in Manhattan. Classes were taught by a bunch of people who graduated rabbinical school and had no idea about child psychology.”
As a parent of two current students and one recent graduate of yeshivah high schools – Ramaz and Frisch – Engelmayer said there is “no comparison” between his experience and his children’s.
“My kids’ gripes with school tend to focus on the amount of homework they have, not the fact they hate going there because it is dark environment. We didn’t want to go to school because we were sick and afraid,” he said.
And if a teacher were to call one of his children a disgusting name?
“I would go right to the principal and demand action. That’s an unacceptable kind of behavior. You can’t teach kids that way, you can’t motivate them that way. They raise their hands in class, because even if they’re wrong, they’re not going to be called out. I was afraid to raise my hand, because if I was wrong, that was embarrassing,” he said.
Over the years, one change in particular is regarded as very positive by students: The free forum that YU students have on line.
Twersky was active on MTA’s high school newspaper; later, as a student at Yeshiva College, he was news editor at the college’s Commentator newspaper, more than once arousing the ire of the administration for his reporting in the university-funded publication.
He did not dare, however, to raise the issue of the abuse he suffered at MTA in print. That would not be a concern today, he said.
“I view the existence – and the emergence – of a publication like The Beacon as a constructive and healthy development for YU students,” he said. “I commend them for considering and accepting my piece for publication. This could not have happened with The Commentator years ago.”
JTA Wire Service contributed to this story.