Twelve-year-old Ozer Simon hadn’t grown up Hasidic, but after his parents divorced, his mom became abaal teshuva, a secular Jew who has “returned” to religious ways, and enrolled him at a yeshiva. He immediately fell behind because the other kids had been studying Hebrew since they were toddlers, so when Rabbi Joseph Reizes, a new teacher recently arrived from Brooklyn, offered to tutor the child, his mother jumped at the opportunity.
But when she asked Simon how his first lesson went, she could tell “something was really wrong.” Simon told her the rabbi hadn’t taught him anything; instead, he’d asked the boy to lie down and take a nap. When he did, the older man lay down on top of him. The next school day, Simon’s mother went to Rabbi Avrohom Korf, principal of the boy’s school, and told him what had happened. “I said to him, ‘If Reizes continues to teach here, I’m going to go to the newspaper. Or whatever it takes,’” she recalls. “The next thing I know, the guy is gone.”
Ozer o Simon, now in his 40s, says he was molested by a rabbi working as a teacher in his school in Miami in the 1980s. The rabbi fled to Brooklyn after being accused of abuse. There, he worked as a teacher for another decade, until he was fired after another kid came forward with allegations that the rabbi had molested him.
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Korf says he confronted Reizes with Simon’s mother’s complaint and that the teacher fled back to Brooklyn of his own volition. Soon after, Reizes was hired to teach elementary school at Oholei Torah, a yeshiva in Crown Heights. No official complaint against him was ever filed in Miami, and Simon’s school never alerted Oholei Torah about the incident that had prompted Reizes’s quick return to Brooklyn.
Fifteen years later, Reizes was fired from Oholei Torah after allegations of sexual abuse arose yet again. A parent “informed a principal that his son was inappropriately touched during a private tutoring session with Reices [sic], after school hours and off school premises,” Oholei Torah’s director, Rabbi Sholom Rosenfeld, tells Newsweek via email.
Reizes was allowed to finish the school year, but Rosenfeld insists he was kept under “constant monitoring” for those three weeks. (Oholei Torah denied Newsweekmany requests to speak to someone about this issue and stopped responding to email questions after an initial exchange. Through its lawyer, the school sent a note stating that to answer more questions would “compromise its legal and religious obligations.” Reizes did not respond to requests for comment.)
When contacted by Newsweek, the child whose parents brought the complaint to the school in 1996 didn’t want to speak about it publicly, but other students from that class say Reizes long had a reputation for inappropriate behavior. Bibi Morozow, 31 years old and now living in Florida, says a relative was molested by Reizes while attending Oholei Torah in the 1990s. (When reached by Newsweekon the phone, the relative declined to be interviewed.) “Reizes was always touchy; he’d put kids in his lap,” says one student who asked to remain anonymous because he feared being shunned by his community.
But no complaints were ever registered about the rabbi, nor were any criminal charges filed—in fact, a Freedom of Information Act request to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office turned up no evidence of his name ever appearing in its records. By now, the statute of limitations for most, if not all, of Reizes’s alleged crimes has expired, and the survivors are grown men, some with young boys in the Hasidic school system. Most are afraid to go public because they fear ruining the lives of their children. Reizes, now retired and in his 60s, lives across the street from the school where he used to teach.
While there is no evidence that child abuse is any more likely to occur in ultra-Orthodox schools than in public or secular institutions, stories like Reizes’s—an alleged abuser sheltered and victims unwilling to talk for fear of losing the only way of life they know—are common in the Hasidic school system. The many former students, advocates, sociologists, social workers and survivors interviewed by Newsweek, along with recordings, documents, public filings and personal emails that Newsweekobtained, place the blame on a confluence of factors: widespread sexual repression, a strong resistance to the secular world, and, most important, a power structure designed to keep people from speaking up about abuse.
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Set on a leafy stretch of Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Oholei Torah is one of the most important institutions in the Chabad movement’s global yeshiva network and one of the largest of the dozens of Chabad schools in Brooklyn, with nearly 2,000 students at any given time. But stop any middle-school-age kid in the school’s hallways, and he—there are no female students—will likely know nothing of world history, won’t be able to do long division and will speak only rudimentary English—even though he’s growing up in the biggest city in the United States.
Oholei Torah conducts its seven-plus daily hours of religious lessons mostly in Yiddish. According to more than a dozen former students across three decades, it provides almost no lessons in science, math, English grammar or history. (The school did not respond to queries about its curriculum.) Many of these students go home to an apartment with no television, no Internet, no newspapers and no books except religious texts. Many will not gain the basic knowledge of how to navigate the world until they are married off around age 18, like how to write a check, how to order General Tso’s chicken or even what sex is. When you’re a child in this environment, you don’t question the fact that you can’t identify your own state on a map. And when you are molested, you don’t ask questions about that either.
In the ultra-Orthodox world, sexuality is simultaneously denied and monitored to the point of obsession. Starting in childhood, boys and girls are separated; the opposite gender remains a mystery until it’s time to marry, usually in an arranged pairing. Boys are taught to avoid looking at girls, while girls are taught that they are a source of sex and transgression, say former members of the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jewish, community.
If children aren’t taught by their parents and teachers about appropriate sexual behavior, they have no way to sense when touching turns into something that is wrong. “You don’t even know what your body is,” says Lynn Davidman, a professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Kansas who grew up in a religious Jewish family. “And you are not supposed to touch or know, and then all of a sudden you are introduced to forbidden knowledge in a most abusive way.” The abused have no way to make sense of what’s going on, to stop it or to tell anybody about it.
When Manny Vogel was in seventh grade at Oholei Torah, a student a few years older, high school age, wouldn’t let him alone—he’d follow Vogel in the hallways, into study halls and in the lunchroom. Then, Vogel recalls, the boy asked for a favor. “He claimed he wanted to try karate moves on me.” But karate was simply a pretense to touch the younger boy in ways he would later come to recognize as inappropriate. One time, Vogel says, the classmate paid him $5 to let him touch Vogel’s genitals over his pants. Vogel never said anything to his teachers, principal or parents. “He took advantage of me. I didn’t know any better.”
According to Vogel and other students, this older student had a reputation for touching younger kids—and teachers and administrators knew it. There were rumors he offered a classmate $175 for a “karate practice session.” Students believed the kid used the money he raised from selling bagels—eaten at school, after morning prayers—to fund his perversion.
Manny Vogel, a survivor of abuse, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on February 25.
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