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On the Rabbi's Knee

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David Framowitz's Yeshiva Torah Vodaath yearbook photo, 1971.  

Framowitz is far from the rabbi’s only accuser. A second plaintiff, who wishes to maintain his anonymity, claims to have been fondled and rubbed up against by Kolko in the eighties, most often in the basement book room of the yeshiva. And on Friday, Framowitz’s attorney, Jeffrey Herman, was expected to file a separate, $10 million suit on behalf of an unnamed plaintiff who says he was abused by Kolko in the late eighties. All told, Herman says he knows of as many as twenty victims between the ages of 19 and 50 who say they were abused by Kolko. There’s the seventh-grader whom Kolko allegedly pulled into a closet in the seventies and held against his erection until that boy broke free. The dozen campers who came forward in the eighties, only to be rebuffed. And one boy who, twenty years later, is said to have punched Kolko at a Bris they were both attending, because of what he said Kolko had done to him years earlier. “It particularly haunted them,” Herman says, “that Kolko was still at the school and children were still being exposed to him.”

One rabbi molesting twenty students over several decades would be disturbing enough, but Framowitz’s lawsuit alleges that there was also a conspiracy among powerful members of the ultra-Orthodox community to cover up Kolko’s actions. The suit names not just Kolko but his yeshiva—accusing Kolko’s boss, Rabbi Lipa Margulies, of orchestrating “a campaign of intimidation, concealment and misrepresentations designed to prevent victims from filing lawsuits.” According to the complaint, Margulies, a pillar of the Borough Park community, took extraordinary measures to derail a rabbinical court action, or beit din, against Kolko in the eighties—telling family members of a dozen alleged victims that if they came forward, they’d be shunned by the ultra-Orthodox world and their other children would be expelled from his respected yeshiva and kept from enrolling elsewhere (Margulies is named in the suit but not as a defendant). The suit also alleges that Margulies had a revered ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Pinchus Scheinberg (also not a defendant), tell the victims that as a matter of Jewish law, Kolko would have had to have more than just fondled them for the acts to qualify as sexual abuse.

Framowitz typed the words Rabbi Yehuda Kolko into Google. The reference that came up contained the words known pedophile.

The yeshiva—then called Torah Vodaath, now called Torah Temimah—is known today as the Harvard of the Jewish world, educating 1,000 boys at a time in a complex of modern buildings on Ocean Parkway. Kolko is no longer just a first-grade Hebrew teacher but also a school administrator and active in the school’s summer camp, Camp Silver Lake. In the past six months, as Framowitz’s attorney and other community members attempted to bring Kolko to a beit din, Margulies permitted Kolko to keep teaching. He even stayed on for two days after the lawsuit was announced—until last week, when, as New York was preparing this story, the yeshiva placed him on administrative leave and issued a statement denying “that anyone acting on its behalf took any steps to prevent alleged victims of sexual abuse from seeking redress in rabbinical or civil courts.” (Kolko and Margulies would not respond to requests for comment. Scheinberg, 93 and living in Israel, could not be reached.)

What is perhaps most troubling about Framowitz’s case is the idea that Kolko, if culpable, could just be the tip of the iceberg. Rabbi-on-child molestation is a widespread problem in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, and one that has long been covered up, according to rabbis, former students, parents, social-service workers, sociologists, psychologists, victims’ rights advocates, and survivors of abuse interviewed for this story. They argue that sexual repression, the resistance to modernity, and the barriers to outsiders foster an atmosphere conducive to abuse and silence. The most outspoken advocates believe that the secular authorities—the police and the Brooklyn district attorney’s office—are intimidated by rabbinic authorities who don’t want their community’s issues aired publicly and who wield considerable political influence. They are hoping Framowitz’s lawsuit—one of just a few of its kind ever filed and the first to allege a high-level cover-up—could be a signal event, encouraging scores of molestation victims to come forward. Already, the Kolko case is said to have influenced plans for an unrelated case against a prominent Jewish summer camp.

The echoes of another insular religious community—one with its own particular set of sexual restrictions and a proven capacity for institutional denial—are, of course, impossible to miss. “This reminds me of where the Catholic Church was fifteen or twenty years ago,” says Herman, who just before taking on the Kolko case won a $5 million judgment for abuse victims of a Catholic priest. “What I see are some members of the community turning a blind eye to what’s going on in their backyards.”


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