A 35-year-old counselor at an Orthodox day camp was arrested last Sunday after two preschool boys told their parents that the counselor had sexually abused them.
David Schwartz, a counselor at Camp Ruach in Culver City, has been charged with six felony counts of lewd and lascivious behavior with minors under 14 and one misdemeanor of indecent exposure. He is awaiting arraignment at the Culver City jail, where he is being held for $300,000 bail, which was reduced from the original $1 million bail.
The boys, ages 4 and 5, came forward on Friday, Aug. 2, their last day this summer at Camp Ruach, a music and arts camp for Orthodox boys. The parents went to the police late Saturday night, after Shabbat, and took the children to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to be examined. Early Sunday, the LAPD passed the case to the Culver City Police Department, who arrested Schwartz, a married man with young children, outside of Congregation Anshe Emes on Robertson Boulevard near Pico Boulevard after morning services on Sunday.
Police are continuing the investigation to determine whether there are more victims, according to Lt. Dave Takenson of the Culver City Police Department.
The case is being handled by Stuart House, a cutting-edge facility at Santa Monica Hospital where the police, the district attorney, social workers and medical personnel all work together so the children are subjected to only one interview.
"We put our heart, soul and personal means into this camp with a dream that Jewish kids should be able to have Torah with music and art in their lives. The accusations are truly heartrending and devastating to all involved," read a statement from Rabbi David and Rena Sudaley, who founded the camp last summer.
Schwartz, who worked at Camp Ruach last summer as well, has been a social studies teacher at the Yeshivat Yavneh middle school in Hancock Park for three years. Both camp and school officials say that until now, Schwartz has had a clean record with no complaints.
Rabbi Moshe Dear, headmaster of Yeshivat Yavneh, says that police are not conducting any investigations at Yavneh, since no one has come forward with any allegations against Schwartz. Yavneh has placed Schwartz on administrative leave.
"Our only interest is the security and safety of our children, and until these allegations are dealt with by the court system, we are doing to do what is in the best interest of our students," Dear told The Journal.
Camp Ruach leases space from Ohr Eliyahu Academy in Culver City. While many of the campers come from Ohr Eliyahu, the school is not affiliated with the camp and has nothing to do with the camp or its staff.
The case comes just after Baruch Lanner, 52, a former day school principal in New Jersey, was found guilty June 27 of endangering the welfare of two girls at his school. Lanner was also convicted of aggravated criminal sexual contact and sexual contact against one of the girls. His case stirred controversy because Lanner worked for decades for the NCSY, the Orthodox Union's youth group, and officials there are accused of covering up his misconduct.
Locally, the Orthodox community was rocked in December 2001 when Mordechai Yomtov, a teacher at Cheder Menachem, a Chabad school, plead guilty to continuous sexual abuse of three students.
Rabbi Zalman Uri, senior consultant for Orthodox schools at the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), says there is growing awareness of the problem in the day school world.
Uri says the principal's council, a group run by the BJE, has met frequently with the Orthodox division for Jewish Family Services (JFS) to discuss how to spot problems and what to do once they occur.
This fall, the staff of JFS's Orthodox division will begin training in the Steps to Safety program, a three-pronged approach to child abuse prevention to raise awareness among parents, teachers and students.
Sally Weber, director of Jewish community programs at JFS, says that many preschools and some non-Orthodox day schools have already hosted the program.
"We don't believe children can be responsible for their own safety," Weber says. "But we do believe there are self-assertion skills we can teach them that will make them less-desirable targets for perpetrators."
JFS has also hired social worker Laurie Tragen-Boykoff as a child advocacy specialist to guide schools and parents in situations when abuse is suspected.
"I have been well-utilized in the Orthodox community," she says. "We have made some really good inroads in terms of a willingness to entertain the idea that various forms of abuse do take place everywhere, regardless of religious affiliation."
Tragen-Boykoff has also run awareness programs for faculty at day schools.
Dear says his faculty has participated in such workshops, and he is open to bringing programs to students and parents.
"Especially with the church scandals and scandals within our own community, as unfortunate as it is, it creates heightened awareness on the part of everyone involved," he says.