A Greenpoint man is suing his former Williamsburg Satmar Talmudic school, alleging that the school’s principal repeatedly molested him when he was an eight-year-old student in 1993.
Joel Engelman, 23, now a graphic designer and drummer who has long been estranged from the Satmar community, alleges that Rabbi Avrohom Reichman, now 57, molested him while he was the principal of the United Talmudical Academy.
Filed on August 27, the $5 million civil lawsuit – which names Reichman, UTA, and the Satmar Bungalow Colony, an upstate summer camp where Reichman taught, as defendants – claims school leadership reneged on a promise to fire Reichman by reinstating him once the criminal statute of limitations on the alleged abuse had passed.
Engelman decided to come forward in April “out of conscience” after hearing stories of other Satmar boys allegedly being molested by Reichman, according to his lawyer, Elliot Pasik.
“He would swivel the chair from right to left and ask me, ‘How are you? How was your day?’ And then he would start touching me, starting at my shoulders and working his way down gradually, until his hands passed over my genitals,” Engelman told reporters for the Jewish Week, an independent Jewish weekly newspaper.
Engelman alleged that Reichman would conclude each approximately 15-minute session – which went on several times a week for around two months, he alleges – by saying, “Dismissed,” and making him promise he would keep the encounters a secret.
According to Pasik, Engelman and his parents demanded in April that Reichman leave UTA and never teach school or supervise children ever again. In return, the Engelmans would not press charges.
Pasik said that school officials agreed to remove Reichman after a period of negotiations that allegedly included the Rabbi’s failing a polygraph test. But once Engelman turned 23 years old in June, thereby surpassing the date at which the statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse passed, Reichman was reinstated, Pasik said.
“The grounds of the civil suit is that my client was fraudulently induced into forgoing criminal prosecution against Reichman,” said Pasik.
Messages left on Reichman’s voicemail at UTA were not returned. An employee answering the phone at the switchboard said, “The administrator doesn’t answer questions. We keep that between ourselves.”
Rabbi David Niederman, head of the United Jewish Organizations, told the Jewish Week that Reichman had only been suspended pending an investigation he said did not find sufficient evidence to support Engelman’s claims.
“It’s only normal when charges like this are brought to suspend the teacher in question and conduct your investigation,” Niederman told the paper.
“That’s a totally normal reaction. Then, when you have gathered enough information, you act on what you’ve heard.”
The UTA case is the latest sex abuse case to rock Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox community in recent months.
In April, Rabbi Yehuda Koldo, a first-grade teacher at Yeshiva Torah Temima in Flatbush, pleaded guilty to charges of child endangerment that stemmed from sex abuse charges. Civil suits currently pending against Koldo and the yeshiva seek more than $50 million in damages.
Assemblymember Dov Hikind, who represents Borough Park but is considered a leader of the Orthodox community in all of Brooklyn, said his office has been “listening to stories over the past seven weeks. People are coming forward to tell stories of abuse.”
Hikind recently formed a task force aimed at addressing a problem he says “is so dramatic because not enough has been done to address the issue.”
He pointed to his desire to change the statute of limitations, as well as mandating finger printing and background checks for private school teachers similar to those mandated in public schools.
He also wants to work to change a culture of denial and shame he says precludes people “from coming forward because they’re worried about the reaction of their neighbors and what they will say about them. If you’re a molester, you’re probably safest in our Jewish communities, unfortunately.”