|Guilty or Innocent?|
"Hazmana" Belsky leading the pack
leaders want abuse
As rift widens, community insists problems
should be brought to rabbis
By ZACH PATBERG • STAFF WRITER • August 25,
One man's criminal accusation that a teacher
molested his young son has widened the rift in the
Orthodox Jewish community over where religious
rights stop and the justice system begins.
Some inside the tight-knit enclave praised the
child's father for bypassing religious protocols last
year and reporting the alleged attack first to Ocean
County prosecutors. Others believe he committed a
sin because he failed to get permission from a
rabbinic court before pressing charges against a
Meir Katz, a senior Dayan, or decider of Jewish law.
He teaches at Beth Medrash Govoha, a yeshiva in
Lakewood that is one of the foremost Jewish
universities in the world. "We have our own system.
We have our own laws, and as long as the Bais Din
(rabbinical tribunal) feels competent on taking care
of something themselves, that's our surest recourse
in our circles.''
charges against Yosef Kolko, 36, a former camp
counselor and local yeshiva teacher. At his
arraignment Tuesday, Kolko pleaded not guilty to
charges of aggravated sexual assault and child
endangerment. The child was between 11 and 12
years old when the more than yearlong alleged
abuse began in Lakewood, according to the
indictment. The Asbury Park Press is withholding
the father's name to protect the child's identity.
The case is a stark example of what Ocean County
Prosecutor Marlene Lynch Ford described as a "wall
of silence'' in the community that has made
investigating crimes difficult.
to authorities last year has sparked reprisals,
according to prosecutors and witnesses.
charges. Fliers about him were circulated. In June, a
Lakewood resident was arrested and charged with
enforcement authorities pledged to work together to
better prosecute crimes within the Orthodox
community. Since then, more sex crimes in
Lakewood have been reported, but there is no
information if those cases came from inside or
outside the Orthodox community.
But the Kolko case has exposed a strong
undercurrent of resistance to outside involvement.
signed by prominent rabbis that discouraged
cooperation with secular courts.
flier was circulated with a letter titled "How (the child's father) Makes a Mockery of
the Torah.'' It described the father's choice to go to
prosecutors as a "terrible deed,'' according to a t
ranslation from Hebrew. It also threatened to
publicize the names of his supporters if they don't
"We hope that after tonight further letters will not be
necessary,'' it stated. "However, let the perpetrators
of this (shameful thing) know that ... we will not stop
(until this horrible shame is removed from us).''
The letter includes the name of a Bronx rabbi, Abba
Hershkowitz, and his phone number. It is otherwise
unsigned. It could not be verified that Hershkowitz
approved the letter.
Attached to the same flier was a proclamation
signed by nine Lakewood rabbis that instructs
people to bring allegations to a Bais Din rabbinical
tribunal before alerting government authorities.
At this point, there is no evidence that the signers
of the proclamation meant to have their names
distributed with the letter.
The proclamation reads in part: "And if, in fact, he
has transgressed and has gone so far as to bring
the matter to the secular (nonreligious) courts, he
is, perforce, obligated to do everything possible in
order to remove any scintilla of accusation against
the other party from the secular courts,'' it states,
according to a translation by Rina Ne'eman Hebrew
Language Services in New Brunswick paid for by the
Press. "And it need not be stated that it is forbidden
(for him) to continue to cooperate with them (secular
courts) and to assist them in their efforts to pursue
The proclamation, dated in the spring of 2010, is
signed by some of Lakewood's leading authorities
on Jewish law, including heads of yeshivas and
synagogues, Bais Din judges and two rabbis from
the Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva.
Three rabbis confirmed they signed the
proclamation but declined to say more. They were
Avrohom Spitzer, a Dayan; Yosef Zimbal, a rabbi at
Westgate Congregation; and Simcha Bunim Cohen, a
rabbi at Congregation Ateres Yeshaya. Another,
Rabbi Shmuel Katz, said he did not remember the
repeated its philosophy.
"From the time we open our eyes in the morning,
our religion tells us how to take care of this,'' he
Katz compared the religious and legal courts to the
two houses of Congress. Batei Din, he said, offers a
platform for cooler heads to prevail when dealing
with emotional issues that may otherwise spark rash
accusations and damage reputations.
While he put both systems on equal footing, Katz
did say accusers should go to rabbis before the
police. He added that if a rabbi were unsure of the
answer or direction to proceed, he would be
obligated to consult professionals.
When asked if that included going to law
enforcement, Katz didn't specify.
"If somebody's engaging in devious activities, he
(the consulted rabbi) should speak to an expert in
those things,'' he said. "And if he doesn't know, he
says he doesn't know.''
Such an internal system has previously raised
concerns among child advocates and some
Orthodox families who fear it can act as a
gatekeeper in sex-abuse cases. Its lack of
investigative skills and real judicial authority, they
say, leave wide cracks through which pedophiles
can, and have, slipped.
not condone going to a rabbi first about a crime, as
third-party delays can contaminate evidence and
But, she said, sex crimes, more so than most
offenses, often are reported to a confidant before
law enforcement because of their sensitive nature.
Ford said she recognizes this "reality'' as her office
tries to "penetrate a wall of silence that has
admittedly existed in the Orthodox community for
However, when people are ordered to first seek
rabbinic permission, she said, "that clearly conflicts
with the law.''
"And someone would not be insulated from liability
or even prosecution if they fail to report to
authorities reasonable suspicions,'' she said.
Lakewood, was charged with witness-tampering. Prosecutors say he sent text
messages that urged people to pressure the child's
father to drop the charges.
The letter with Hershkowitz's name is in that same
vein and is being investigated, said Assistant
Prosecutor Lara Pierro, who is handling the Kolko
"When we receive word that there's pressure on the
family, we pursue it,'' she said.
Messages seeking comment and left with
Hershkowitz at the number listed on the letter and at
the college in Riverdale, N.Y., where he works, were
supported the position stated in the letter, saying
"such behavior (as that of the victim's father)
wouldn't be tolerated'' elsewhere. "When your child
tells you something, you don't go straight to a prosecutor, you go to a Bais Din and let them
examine the (evidence).''
Belsky, a rabbi at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas in the
Flatbush section of Brooklyn and a member of the
Orthodox Union, a national Jewish lobby, said he
has not seen the flier but claims "there's no evidence
at all'' against Kolko.
an authority on Jewish law in Brooklyn, said he
received a call not long ago. It was from a
representative of the Orthodox community who
asked if the Kolko allegation should be taken to
"Not only do I permit it, it is an obligation,'' he said
"There are others who disagree,'' Cohen said
recently. "Those people aren't for molesters; they simply feel that there's a chance a
person will be slandered. ... They feel it's not ethical
to go to authorities until it's first verified by a Bais
Din. That's where we differ.''
Cohen said he heard about the fliers in Lakewood
after a social worker called and told him the father
was "getting a lot of pressure.'' The father could not
be reached for comment.
Rabbi Weisberg of the Vaad said he believes those
who signed the proclamation were expressing
themselves "as individuals and not as some
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