Ariella Kay’s professional credentials and work history are in genomics and clinical research. However, she is passionate about the public health crises affecting her community. Ariella has been quietly observing sex abuse cases in the Jewish world since the Weberman Trial 2012. It wasn’t until 2016 she became a vocal activist, speaking out against institutions and askanim for covering up predators. In her free time she works for Zaakah and helps survivors seeking legal justice against their perpetrators. When she isn’t doing this she is spending time with her family and loved ones. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Ariella_Kay.
I met Miss Yocheved (Chevi) Garfinkel during my senior year at Bruriah High School. Part of my 12th grade curriculum included a hashkafa class taught by her. Aside from teaching, she was a featured speaker on school shabbatons. She was a celebrity. People would flock to hear her speak whether it was in person or live broadcast. I remember her being loud, passionate, emotional, and long. I wasn’t a fan of her fire and brimstone Ted-style talks. In 2014, I heard her speak at Brooklyn College’s Hillel Center and was still unimpressed with her intense mannerisms. I always felt something was the matter with ME for not being infatuated by her.
In August 2021 Chevi was sued for the harm she caused to a then 11-year-old girl for allegedly molesting her, starting in 1994. The lawsuit was filed in Kings County Court against Yocheved (Chevi) Garfinkel, her father Abraham Garfinkel, Yeshiva R’Tzahd, Camp Sternberg, the camp’s parent organization, SHMA, LLC. (Sternberg, Heller and Magen Avraham), and others. Filing as “Jane Doe” she accuses Chevi of molesting her from 1994 until 2001.
According to the complaint, Jane, a baalat teshuvah, was a child of immigrants and a student of Chevi’s in Yeshiva R’Tzahd, a kiruv day school in Brooklyn. The grooming allegedly began when Jane was 11 years old. Chevi successfully convinced Jane’s parents it would be beneficial for their daughter’s spiritual growth and development to have her sleep over for Shabbat at Chevi’s childhood home where Chevi lived at the time. Chevi would crawl into Jane’s bed at night, take off the girl’s clothes and fondle her. There were dozens of these sleepovers. According to the complaint, Chevi’s parents repeatedly caught Chevi in the Jane’s bed and told her to “stop whatever is going on.” According to the lawsuit (line 29) “At one point, Defendant Abraham Garfinkel informed Ms. Garfinkel she could no longer sleep in the same bed as Plaintiff and ordered that whatever was going on between Plaintiff and Garfinkel to stop” The alleged abuse took place in Chevi’s bedroom and Camp Sternberg’s campus many times. It did not stop until the victim was 18 years old and left for seminary in Israel.
That victim could have been me. I was in the same room as Chevi many times. I was a baalat teshuvah. We were vulnerable because predators like Chevi knew we relied on the frum community for support, and were so eager to be accepted. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time, any of us baalei teshuvah could have become victims.
When I read the lawsuit, I was shocked that the alleged abuser was someone I knew. I thought of my friends from high school and how devastated they will be. And sure enough they were. I felt empathy for the survivor, knowing she would face backlash in the frum world for speaking up.
Chevi wasn’t like other frum speakers. She was single and used her marital status. She told students she had a “holy” reason for delaying marriage. She was like many cult personalities who tell their followers that their leader is too holy or different for others to handle and that they have a special mission. This cultish, charismatic shtick should have been a red flag to the schools and camps. But they viewed this trait as an asset for growth and development. They believed she could get students to aspire spiritually by convincing them that they were valued for more than just getting married.
Bruriah and Lev Bais Yaakov Responds
Zaakah advocates for survivors of sex abuse in the frum world. Unlike most frum organizations it fully supports survivors who choose to press criminal charges or file civil lawsuits against sex abusers. Zaakah posted the lawsuit on Facebook on Sept 4, 2021. The next day, Bruriah High School’s Executive VP, Rabbi Pinchos Shapiro, emailed:
Earlier today I was made aware of a lawsuit filed under New York’s Child Victims Act involving a part-time member of our faculty alleging past misconduct entirely unrelated to our school or students (past or present) that was said to have occurred between 20 and 27 years ago. The lawsuit does not name our institution, or anyone associated with us aside from this one individual who teaches one-half day a week.
While we are unaware of the veracity of the allegations, we take these matters very seriously. We are working with our legal counsel, outside experts, and have sought guidance from law enforcement regarding this matter. We are proceeding with their guidance. In the interim, the individual who was named in the lawsuit has been placed on administrative leave and will not be in school, pending further review of this matter.
Our dedicated teachers and staff are here to support our students, help them process this, and address any of their questions or concerns. Our Director of Guidance, Shira Sommerstein, is working with her team at Bruriah and experts in the field to provide additional support.
Be assured of our absolute responsibility to ensure a safe and welcoming learning environment for our students, as well as a supportive and fair workspace for our employees. We will continue to act in accordance with those obligations, the law, the dictates of halacha, and the values that we hold most dear as a Torah institution.
As always, should you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to reach out.
Rabbi Pinchas Shapiro
Executive Vice President
Jewish Educational Center
Lower School – High School – Bruriah
They managed to never use Chevi Garfinkel’s name. So parents, students, and others who had pertinent info or suspicions about Chevi were not alerted to consider the connection. Very often additional victims only surface once they know there was another who came first. This sort of secretiveness short circuits that possibility.
Their statement makes it look like they suspended Chavi as soon as they heard about the allegations. But according to parents, Bruriah first learned about the allegations in 2016. Jewish Community Watch contacted them about Jane’s allegations. Back then Bruriah did not suspend Chevi. They instead emailed parents, assuring them that they checked with Chevi Garfinkel, Jewish Community Watch, halachic authorities, law enforcement, legal counsel, lay leadership, and faculty. But notice, they did not check with professionals specialized in child protection policy and practices.
In their first response to the allegations they dismissed the possible risks writing “We have also reviewed an evaluation which testifies to the subject faculty member’s fitness to continue serving as an educator… Based on the above and in the absence of any contravening evidence or additional information we are comfortable with the faculty member continuing in their role at Bruriah.”
Thus there was five years between their first awareness of the allegation and their finally taking the action of suspending Chevi. One has to wonder whether they only acted because the facts of the case were out in public. Given the internet savvy of their parents there was no longer any possibility of concealing the allegations.
Either way, Bruriah had the knowledge for five years while giving Chevi access to teenage girls. This is gross negligence. If students in Bruriah were molested by Garfinkel during that period, the school could be liable for knowing she posed a risk and ignoring the warning.
Lev Bais Yaakov waited until after Sukkos to release this statement to parents:
Dear Parents and staff,
A few days before Succos, we were notified of a pending lawsuit filed under the New York Child Victims Act against a long time teacher in our school for alleged misconduct which occurred over 25 years ago at a different institution. The named teacher is currently employed at Lev Bais Yaakov on a part time basis. The lawsuit does not name our school or any other individual associated with Lev Bais Yaakov.
The named teacher is renowned as an educator par excellence and her sterling character is well known to us. We truly believe these allegations to be totally out of character for this teacher, and completely inconsistent with who she is. However, we are a Bais Yaakov committed to Halacha directives in all matters. We, thus, consulted with Rabbonim and legal counsel.
In accordance with their guidance, Lev Bais Yaakov has taken the difficult step of placing our teacher on administrative leave at this time.
As always, Lev Bais Yaakov is cognizant of its responsibility to provide a comfortable and worry-free learning environment for its staff and students. Just as we have taken the necessary steps to achieve this goal in the past, we will certainly continue to do so, IY”H, in the future.
Please feel free to reach out with questions. We will do our utmost to address your concerns while respecting the privacy of the involved parties.
Lev Bais Yaakov Administration
Months after the lawsuit was filed in August 2021, Chevi hosted a Chanukah party at her home for Lev Bais Yaakov alumni and students.
Years ago, “Jane” spoke to Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein, the founder and director of the Ohr Naava school, alleging that Chevi abused her. Wallerstein said he would investigate the matter and get back to her. But he never followed up. This is especially concerning because his school serves a population of girls, several of whom were sexually abused. Ohr Naava’s Executive Director, Yanky Elefant is Wallerstein’s brother-in-law and Chevi’s brother-in-law. So, one can wonder if there was some family protektsia involved.
Social Media Reactions
On Facebook and Twitter, people expressed three different reactions. Some parents were horrified by the allegations and expressed their frustration with Bruriah for knowing since 2016 without acting on them. Other parents cast doubt on the allegations and said they will wait until the lawsuit is over before drawing their own conclusions. This position allows a risk to persist for the years it can take until a lawsuit is resolved.
You also had a group in the middle. Some acknowledged allegations are not to be taken lightly however they couldn’t wrap their head around this case. It’s possible this is because of assumption tha only men are abusers. The only other highly publicized case of a frum female perpetrator is Malka Leifer, who was extradited to Australia in 2020.
From the date the lawsuit was filed until February of 2022, the only actions to come out of this is Bruriah and Lev Bais Yaakov putting Chevi on administrative leave and writing vague statements to parents explaining their decisions. Other venues, like Ohr Naava or Camp Sternberg, have done nothing to address the allegations. In fact, Ohr Naava had two events with her speaking. One was in December 2021 and the other in February 2022. Camp Sternberg hasn’t put out a statement on whether she will return for the summer of 2021. This is not considered best practice. This is not how institutions properly handle abuse allegations.
Grading the Institutions
- Bruriah shouldn’t have waited for the complaint to go viral on social media before putting her on leave. While I’m proud of Zaakah’s work in getting the message out, schools need to act on their own. They should act because abuse matters that much to them, not just because it is bad PR.
- Bruriah and Lev Bais Yaakov’s emails shouldn’t have omitted Chevi’s name from the body of the email. There’s no reason to make parents guess who they’re talking about.
- Neither school should write about how long ago the alleged abuse happened since it’s irrelevant to the threat it poses to students. The omission of Garfinkel’s name and their doubts about “the veracity” of the allegation were a feeble attempt to downplay the scope of the problem. Casting doubt on the implication of the allegation feeds the mindset of doubting abuse allegations when almost all of them are true.
- They should have reminded parents to call police if their daughter reports having had similar interactions with Chevi Garfinkel. This is especially important in frum communities to overcome underreporting and stigmatizing of anyone who approaches law enforcement.
- Schools should have up to date policies on their training procedures and reporting protocols. It should be easily accessible for parents, having it available on the school website for example. This is to show parents what responsibilities the school has to the kids. The same way you have school handbooks dictating rules about proof of vaccinations and dress code, there should be guidelines on what the school’s procedure is when a student discloses abuse.
- Given their poor handling of this case, these schools and camps should hire third-party firms to conduct thorough investigations of their history of addressing assault. This would show parents they are proactive in finding the gaps which lead to these situations. We know gaps exist.
If Chevi Is Guilty Why Hasn’t Jane Gone to the Police?
Because Jane wasn’t ready to go to the police before she was 23 years old. She is now close to 40. Before the NYS Child Victims Act bill passed in 2019, the Statute Of Limitations (SOL) for reporting child sex abuse was the age of 23. Once an SOL expires, regardless of the level of proof, one cannot bring criminal charges That also applies to filing civil lawsuits. After the bill passed in 2019 (thanks to lobbying by Zaakah and others), the age for criminal filing was changed to twenty seven years and to age fifty five for civil filing. A significant feature of this bill is the two year “lookback” window that allowed victims of child sex abuse to sue in civil court, even if the abuse happened before the SOL was changed.
But there are reasons to file a civil suit even when an abuser is charged and sentenced. Criminal prosecution helps protect the community but they don’t fix the damage done to the victim. According to the lawsuit, Jane suffered “ severe emotional, psychological, and psychiatric injuries, distress, and harm to Plaintiff, which also manifested in physical and emotional injuries to Plaintiff.” Dealing with the harm can entail disruptions in schooling, careers, and family life. Trying to manage the harm can include all sorts of medical/psychotherapeutic expenses and lost income.
Simply put, being raped is expensive and someone must pay for it. Let this be a lesson to Chevi, Chevy’s enablers and negligent institutions. Your conduct caused damage and now the bill is due.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP
Jillian Roth is the attorney representing the survivor, Jane Doe. Their legal team is interested in speaking to others who experienced, observed, or heard about abuse or grooming behavior by Chevi Garfinkel. That could have happened through experiences with Chevi in any of these institutions, or others not on this list. It could be someone presently with these institutions or former students, campers, and staff of these institutions:
- Camp Frontier
- Yeshiva R’Tzahd
- Camp Sternberg
- Ohr Naava
- Lev Bais Yaakov
- Shulamith High School
The attorney is also interested in getting more information about the nature of Chevi’s relationship with Camp Sternberg, Ohr Naava, and special courses or camp programs run by Chevi.
You can reach out to Janes attorney, Jill Roth, by phone (215-399-9255) or email (email@example.com).
You can contact Zaakah’s Ariella Kay at Ariella@zaakah.org or on Twitter @Ariella_Kay.