Updated Thursday, 8/18/11, 11:54 a.m.
The arrest this week of Rabbi Uzi Rivlin casts doubt on the future of a scholarship fund he created for needy Israeli children.
Rivlin, 63, pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to two counts of aggravated criminal sexual contact and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child. The charges were brought by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit, the Teaneck Police Department, and the Israeli police, with the assistance of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Through the FBI, the county unit was informed of two separate complaints of inappropriate touching lodged with the Israeli police by two 13-year-old boys who had stayed at Rivlin’s home, one in the summer of 2009 and the other in 2010.
Maureen Parenta, spokeswoman for the Bergen County prosecutor’s office, told The Jewish Standard on Wednesday that the investigation will continue. “We’d like to determine if any other children have been victims,” she said.
Rivlin founded the Scholarship Fund for the Advancement of Children in Israel (Keren Milgot le-Kiddum Yeladim be-Yisrael) about 12 years ago, after learning of the desperate straits of families in impoverished areas in his native country. Over the years, the Standard has published several articles about Rivlin’s efforts, which include monetary and material assistance to hundreds of 4- to 18-year-old children recommended by Israeli social service agencies and municipal officials.
The teenagers in the fund are paired with pen-pals in Rivlin’s religious school classes at Temple Beth Abraham, located in Tarrytown, N.Y. Often, the American families support their children’s Israeli pen-pals and host them during the summer. Rivlin has arranged for several of the children to mark their becoming b’nai mitzvah at synagogues in and around Bergen County, including Cong. Beth Aaron and the Jewish Center of Teaneck and Fair Lawn’s Cong. Ahavat Achim. He also arranged b’nai and b’not mitzvah celebrations in Israel for indigent boys and girls under his care.
People who have worked with Rivlin on both sides of the ocean expressed shock and disbelief over his arrest.
“I couldn’t give you the exact number of years I’ve known him, but the accusations are inconsistent with anything we know about Uzi Rivlin,” said Rabbi David Holtz of Temple Beth Abraham. “As far as we know, he’s spent his life taking care of kids through his scholarship organization, getting kids out of poverty, and making sure they get appropriate education.”
Reached by the Standard on Wednesday, Holtz said that Rivlin had been teaching fifth-grade students about Israel’s history and politics.
“We’ve never had a hint of a complaint about this kind of thing,” Holtz said. “He is passionate about teaching kids and the work he does in his foundation in helping kids.”
Rivlin’s wife and daughter have also taught in the after-school program, according to Holtz.
“I’m sure you are emphasizing the innocent till proven guilty aspect of all this,” Holtz said.
Echoing the Tarrytown rabbi was Chaim Shalom, the former vice mayor of Kiryat Gat, a development town where many of the scholarship’s beneficiaries live. “I don’t believe it,” Shalom said.
Shalom said several boys who have stayed at Rivlin’s home the past few summers were from particularly troubled backgrounds and that at least one of them lives in a group home.
“Uzi has done only good for kids here. No other man has done so much for these children. I’ve worked with him many years; I just spoke with him two weeks ago,” said Shalom. “He sends clothing, food for holidays, school supplies…. He takes children from very sad situations to the United States to go to camp. He arranges bar mitzvahs for them, he buys them tallit and tefillin. This must be a mistake. It is terrible for a man who has fought for so many children to have his good name tarnished in this way.”
Shalom said two of Rivlin’s six children live in Israel – a daughter with several children of her own and a son serving with the paratroopers. Shalom did not hear of the arrest until informed by this reporter, and said he would try to call Rivlin’s wife, Jenny, immediately.
At press time, The Jewish Standard was unable to reach Jenny Rivlin or Rabbi Moshe Yasgur of Teaneck, who until a few years ago helped Rivlin with the fund.
Rabbi Yosef Adler, principal of Torah Academy of Bergen County, also expressed surprise at the news. Last year, Adler said, a 14-year-old boy from Sderot boarded with the Rivlins and attended the all-boys high school in Teaneck through the fund.
“There were no problems and no suspicions whatsoever,” said Adler. “I had contact with Rabbi Rivlin many times, and he only had the best interests of the children in mind. He gives his life for these people.”
The previous year, the Rivlins had housed two boys from the scholarship fund while they attended Yeshiva University’s high school for boys for a semester. Rivlin reportedly traveled to Israel often to check on the circumstances of each child in his care. He once told the Standard that he spent many hours at home in Teaneck calling government officials in Israel to gain better housing or other social welfare assistance for the most serious cases.
At his arraignment on Wednesday, Rivlin was ordered to surrender his Israeli passport (he told the court he did not have a U.S. passport) and he was forbidden to have contact with any children under age 18, including the two alleged victims. Bail was set at $175,000, to be paid in full, meaning that the traditional 10 percent bond will not be accepted in this case.
Since suffering a stroke this spring that left him unable to travel, Rivlin had turned some of his responsibilities over to 19-year-old Daniel Vaks of Kiryat Gat, an orphan who lives with his grandmother and is one of the fund’s first beneficiaries. In 2006, when he was 14 1/2, Vaks marked his becoming a bar mitzvah at Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Aaron. Rivlin also arranged for a party at a now-defunct Hackensack hotel.
An accounting and economics major at Bar-Ilan University, in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, as part of an army program for gifted students, Vaks was to have returned to Bergen County in September to accompany two of the fund’s current recipients, one from Eilat and one from Kiryat Gat, on a vacation break before the school year begins.
A week before Rivlin’s arrest, the Standard spoke with Vaks about his then-upcoming trip and how the scholarship fund (“keren”) had helped him. “I really think I would be in a much worse place now if I didn’t have the keren helping me,” he said.
Now supporting himself, Vaks has been counseling younger fund participants, helping to distribute money and items sent from the United States and advising Rivlin on the most efficient use of donations earmarked for such necessities as clothing, shoes, and bedding.
Rivlin said in early August that he was short of money to buy the school supplies that the parents of at least half the children in the fund could not afford.
In Israel on Thursday, Vaks said that he had not heard about Rivlin’s arrest until contacted by The Jewish Standard and was “totally in shock” over the news. He said he did not stay at the Rivlins during the two summers in question, but he had been a house guest during Passover and two other summers, and had never experienced any inappropriate behavior toward himself or other Israeli teenagers who stayed there with him.
“I just do not believe it,” said Vaks. “Rav Rivlin is an honorable human being who has helped so many of us.” He added that the Rivlins and his Westchester sponsors are like family to him.
“I really think I would be in a much worse place now if I didn’t have the keren helping me,” he said.
Regardless of the eventual outcome of the charges, it is unlikely that Rivlin will be able to continue administering the scholarship fund.
On Thursday morning, Jenny Rivlin e-mailed this reporter, saying, “We can only hope that justice will prevail.”
Heather Robinson contributed to this story.