June 24, 2004
Israel, N.Y. Schools Drop Weinberg Suits
Yeshiva University (YU) in New York and a Derech Etz Chaim yeshiva (DEC) in Israel have settled a lawsuit sparked by allegations that a former California rabbi made sexual advances toward students.
The settlement, which allows YU students to get credit for taking classes at DEC, closes one avenue through which to answer 20-year-old questions about whether Rabbi Matis Weinberg, who now lives in Jerusalem's Old City, might have stepped over the line from a nonconformist educator to an alleged sexual predator.
YU unceremoniously cut ties with DEC last year when allegations arose about about Weinberg's behavior toward a young man currently in Israel and about Weinberg's tenure at Kerem, a boarding yeshiva he founded in Santa Clarita in the late 1970s.
Some critics believe YU is overcompensating for historic lapses in the Baruch Lanner case, when Orthodox institutions had for decades covered up his sexual and emotional abuse of teenagers (Lanner's 2002 conviction for abusing girls in the high school is being appealed).
The dispute between YU and DEC ended earlier this month when the parties agreed to drop a suit and countersuit in Federal Court in Manhattan, where DEC had sued YU in June 2003 for cutting the school out of its Joint Israel Program, which allows YU students to enroll in yeshivas in Israel.
YU countersued DEC for "utterly failing to protect" its students, most of them post-high school students from the United States, from the accused rabbi.
The agreement, which came after a harsh rebuke from the judge when near-settlements failed because of disagreement over wording, drops both suits and states that students can apply for YU credits for their time at DEC. It does not reinstate DEC into the Joint Israel Program, which would allow students already enrolled in YU to take classes at DEC.
YU cut ties to DEC in February 2003 when allegations arose that Weinberg, whom YU claims was a figurehead at DEC, allegedly made sexual advances to boys at Kerem 20 years ago and to a young man in Israel last year. Weinberg denied any wrongdoing, and DEC, which claims its ties to Weinberg were tenuous to begin with, terminated the weekly class Weinberg gave soon after the allegations arose.
While Weinberg had no official role at DEC, his students founded the school, and his sons and many of his students teach there.
The case also went before a panel of rabbis in New York last May. The panel collected testimony from alleged victims, then sent the case to a beit din (rabbinic court) in Jerusalem. The beit din in Israel chose not to pursue the case.
While rumors have circulated that some alleged victims are planning to sue and that Interpol is investigating the matter, no such suits or investigations have been verified -- proof, Weinberg supporters say, that he did nothing wrong.
Weinberg has many supporters in Los Angeles, mostly students he mentored in the 1980s at Kerem. Those students are convinced that the allegations against Weinberg are a cruel vendetta against a master educator whose only crime was refusing to conform.
"I believe that Rabbi Weinberg is a good, wholesome person and I do not believe any of the allegations against him," said Rabbi Ari Heir, director of the Jewish Studies Institute at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who is among a group of community leaders in Los Angeles and elsewhere who attended Kerem. "I think that 99 percent of what is going in is that people didn't like him anyway because he's an iconoclast, and people in the Orthodox world don't like an iconoclast."
Heir and others who called The Jewish Journal said that Weinberg was affectionate and physical in his highly personal and effective pedagogical method, but never inappropriate.
Reports in the New York Jewish Week last year paint a different picture, where victims alleged that Weinberg stepped over the line and made clear sexual advances. Most of those allegations are from Kerem students, and one mother alleged that Weinberg behaved inappropriately with her son, who was a student in Israel (not at DEC) last year.
Many were looking to the beit din and to the trial court to either clear or condemn Weinberg's reputation, but now both those avenues have been closed.
It is not clear whether or where this case will be pursued next.
DEC, meanwhile, hopes to get its program back off the ground. Before the controversy, the yeshiva had about 45 students, a number that dropped precipitously this past year. But Rabbi Aharon Katz, dean and founder of DEC, said with the settlement, students have already started enrolling and he is expecting about 30 boys next year.