A rabbi accused of molesting three boys at a Chabad elementary school was arrested Dec. 3 and remained at the L.A. Men's Central Jail in lieu of $500,000 bail as The Journal went to press.
Rabbi Mordechai Yomtov's arrest on 10 felony counts of committing lewd acts with children came following an investigation by the LAPD after three boys, ages 8 to 10, reported last month that Yomtov was keeping each of them alone in the classroom and molesting them while the other children were at recess.
Yomtov, 36, an Australian-born rabbi with a wife and four children, pleaded not guilty. A preliminary hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court is set for Dec. 17.
Yomtov has taught 8- to 10-year-olds for six years at Cheder Menachem, a school with 220 boys, kindergarten through eighth grade, on Melrose Avenue in the Beverly Boulevard-La Brea Avenue neighborhood.
The school issued a written statement following the arrest: "Due to the sensitivity of the issues involved and to protect the privacy of our students, parents, teachers and staff, the school will be making no public comment." The statement went on, "We request that our privacy be respected. The school is cooperating fully with all applicable authorities."
Rabbi Chaim Cunin, spokesman for West Coast Chabad, expressed deep pain at the incident and said the school is doing everything possible to cooperate with the authorities.
"In over 36 years and in well over 30 schools that are under the Chabad umbrella on the West Coast, we have never had to deal with anything remotely similar to this," he said. "It is very painful to even be having this conversation."
Cunin said Chabad has arranged for therapists and psychiatrists to come to the school and give the parents, teachers and children the tools they need to deal with the incident. "We are doing everything we can do to be there for the community and the school and the parents, and we are doing anything and everything we can to make sure nothing like this should, God forbid, ever happen again, not in our school or in any school or in any community," he said.
Mental health professionals familiar with the situation said the school seems to be taking all the correct restorative steps to help students, parents and staff cope.
Dr. David Fox, a clinical psychologist and Orthodox rabbi who is not involved with the Cheder Menachem case, said situations of abuse in the Orthodox community arouse feelings of "shock and grave disappointment."
"We expect our people to conform not just to the general standards of moral decency, but to the Torah system. We expect observant Jewish people to function at the highest level of regard for people's welfare and for own moral welfare," he said, adding that nonetheless, in the last seven years or so, "there has been a lot more openness in discussing these issues in discreet forums, and, more and more, the rabbinic community is making use of Orthodox mental health professionals who have specialized training in both prevention and treatment of perpetrators and their victims."
Fox himself is a leader in Nefesh, the International Association of Orthodox Mental Health Professionals, which, in conjunction with several Orthodox umbrella organizations, put together a think tank in September 2000 to develop prevention models for the Jewish community.
Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS), a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has an Orthodox Counseling Division staffed by Orthodox professionals sensitive to the particular cultural and religious milieu of the community.
And, Fox said, he has seen a rise both in the number of articles in rabbinic journals dealing with maladaptive behavior, and in conferences targeting youth leaders, mikvah personnel and educators, to train them how to spot abuse or potentially abusive situations.
Still, he acknowledged, "There has not been an overwhelmingly unanimous receptiveness, because many of these groups hail from a tradition where the problems are dealt with very discreetly and in-house, and they shun publicity."
Resistance to preventive and educational programs is not exclusive to the Orthodox community, said Sally Weber, director of Jewish Community Programs for JFS, which has developed Steps to Safety, an abuse prevention program involving children, parents and educators that has been presented at some Los Angeles preschools and day schools.
There are still a lot of barriers to realizing that this happens in the Jewish community and in Jewish schools. There is a certain resistance to the urgency of it," she said.
Weber is meeting this week with several Orthodox principals to review the program and see what changes would be necessary to make the script more appropriate for the observant community.
The program involves one session each for teachers, parents and children. It begins with training educators to spot signs of abuse and reviewing the legal issues around reporting suspected abuse. JFS also works with schools to have a system in place so that any abuse can be handled appropriately and efficiently.
JFS professionals let parents know what their children will be learning and teach them how to talk to their children about body privacy and abuse. The program for children, tailored to age levels, reviews what is inappropriate behavior, how to get out of uncomfortable situations, and how to tell a trusted adult.
One Orthodox mental health professional says the work should not be left just to schools, but should begin at home with children as young as preschool age.
"The children need to be taught how and when to say no; they need to be taught that anytime an adult says 'don't tell your Mommy or Daddy,' that you have to tell, even if they [the adult] says Mommy and Daddy won't love you," she said.
Fox said that while he and other professionals are not adopting an attitude of "I told you so," there is a certain satisfaction in knowing that cases like the one at Cheder Menachem, devastating as it is, can only help increase awareness.
"There's always been a kill-the-messenger attitude in religious circles when someone blows the whistle or tries to alert those in charge to the presence of a deviant or a molester or an abuser," Fox said. "Everyone used to hush these things up, and no one likes to be reminded that these pathologies can seep into religious circles. But when, to our chagrin, some of these situations do attract publicity, there is some satisfaction in the mental health community that now, maybe we will take appropriate steps to offer some prevention."
For more information on Steps to Safety, contact Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles at (323) 761-8800. Anyone with information relating to this case should call the LAPD's Sexually Exploited Child Unit, Monday thru Friday at (213) 485-2883. On weekends and evenings, call the Detective Information Desk at (877) 529-3855.