March 18, 2004
Rabbis’ Tact Puts Sex Victims First
David Schwartz, who pleaded no contest last year to charges associated with child molestation at an Orthodox summer camp, has been released from a yearlong stay at a residential treatment facility and is now living in the Pico-Robertson area. Rabbinic and mental health professionals are taking steps to help the victims and their families, as well as the community at large, feel safe and protected from a man who allegedly sexually brutalized and psychologically tormented 4-year-old boys at a Culver City camp for the arts in summer 2002.
Despite his plea, outside of courtroom proceedings Schwartz has maintained his innocence. His wife Nitzah, a preschool teacher at Yeshivat Yavneh in Hancock Park (where Schwartz himself used to teach), has stood by him throughout, saying to rabbis and others that there is no way the father of her children could have committed the lewd acts attributed to him.
While some rabbis who know the family have quietly supported Schwartz and his family, many prominent rabbis and community leaders have been strident and outspoken in their support for the victims -- an indication that the Orthodox community has overcome its historic hush-hush approach to abuse. Taking its lead from Jewish Family Service's Aleinu Family Resource Center, a group of rabbis has attended hearings, counseled the victims and inserted itself into the case.
Several high-profile cases in recent years -- both locally and nationally -- have helped foster a newfound willingness among rabbis to work with mental health professionals not only to handle crises, but to take proactive measures as well.
"The families see us there and the community knows we're there, and I think that it's an important factor for them to know we are not just going to sweep this under the rug," said Rabbi Berish Goldenberg, chair of the Rabbinical Council of California's (RCC) Family Commission and a member of Aleinu's Halachic Advisory Board -- groups that often collaborate and have overlapping membership.
In a plea bargain reached in January 2003, Schwartz pleaded no contest to one count of committing lewd acts with a minor under 14. Eight other charges were dismissed, and Schwartz received a six-year suspended prison sentence and one year in a treatment facility, and is now on probation for an additional four years. He must undergo another year of therapy, cannot work as a teacher or with children and must register as a sex offender for life.
Upon Schwartz's release in late January this year, Superior Court Judge Katherine Mader at the Airport Courthouse ordered Schwartz to stay out of an area roughly encompassing the Pico-Robertson and south Westwood neighborhoods. Schwartz, his wife and their three young children reportedly live just east of Robertson Boulevard, one of the boundaries, but have been ordered by the court to move east of La Cienega Boulevard. In addition, Schwartz must stay 100 yards away from a list of synagogues and schools where some of his victims may attend.
In a letter filed with the court March 2, RCC's Goldenberg and Rabbi Avrohom Union recommended the judge also prohibit Schwartz from attending any synagogue where children are present and only allow him to attend synagogues populated mostly by senior citizens. They also asked that Schwartz be ordered stay away from all schools and be prohibited from using the mikvah (ritual bath). Mader rejected those recommendations.
"The court has commented that the victims need to step back and let the man lead his life," said Vicki Podberesky, Schwartz's attorney. "The court put on restrictions it feels are appropriate and the DA thought those restrictions were appropriate."
Podberesky said that while she can't comment on the Schwartz case, in general the criminal justice system is imperfect and innocent people do get convicted. "Sex offense can carry a life sentence and people make decisions many times about how to handle their case based on the fact that they want to ensure that they will see their family again," she said.
The rabbis say their job is not to retry the case, but to accept Schwartz's plea and treat him as a sex offender. The RCC, together with the Halachic Advisory Board, oversees a beit din (rabbinic court) to deal with such issues. Schwartz has been invited to sit down with the beit din.
Goldenberg, who is also principal of Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Toras Emes, said that the beit din's aim is not to penalize Schwartz, but to protect the community and to work with Schwartz to help rehabilitate him -- perhaps help him find a job and a synagogue.
"In one sense we want to be harsh and tough and make him understand that he is going to be monitored," Goldenberg said. "On the other hand we are here to help and we are willing to come to an agreement. If we can tell the victims' families that he is going to follow what he is supposed to do and be where he is supposed to be, we can help make things better for him and his family."
The most likely scenario, many acknowledge, is that Schwartz will leave town, which he can do with proper permission from the court. Jewish sex offenders have been known to resettle in Israel or other Jewish communities.
Such was the case with Rabbi Mordechai Yomtov, who divorced his wife and left Los Angeles soon after he was released from prison about a year ago. In February 2002, Yomtov pleaded guilty to two counts of committing continuous sexual abuse on a minor and one count of lewd act on a minor at Chabad's Cheder Menachem. He was in prison for a year and his whereabouts are currently unknown.
While both Schwartz and his victims would likely be happier with him out of Los Angeles, the beit din acknowledges its responsibility to keep tabs on him. "There is no question that theoretically the ideal situation would be for him to leave town, assuming he could be monitored," said Rabbi Shalom Tendler, a member of the Halachic Advisory Board. "It would be entirely wrong and irresponsible for us to just push our problem on somebody else."
The Halachic Advisory Board has taken a strong stand on issues of abuse. Aside from working directly with Aleinu Director Debbie Fox to respond to crisis situations, the board helped draft and implement guidelines for schools and camps to prevent, recognize and deal with situations of abuse.
Those guidelines have set a national standard in the Orthodox community, and have since been modified and adopted by schools throughout the country.
"That is the beauty of our community -- the rabbonim and JFS and Aleinu work together on crises and we provide advocacy and support from a spiritual as well as a mental health model," Fox said.
The victims' families will need that support, now that Schwartz is back in the neighborhood. One mother of a victim said her son had been doing better but is now having nightmares and acting out again.
She plans to take him to the Culver City Police Department, where detectives have been helpful all along, so they can explain to him how Schwartz is free but the child will still be safe.
"He's always been so worried about other kids getting hurt, so the police made him a special junior detective," the mother said. "Now they'll give him one more badge and promote him."
For more information on Jewish Family Service's Aleinu Family Resource Center, call (323) 761-8816.