Legendary Orthodox Rabbi Aware of Sexual Abuse of Children, Report Says

Report by Ramaz Academy says Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who officiated at Ivanka Trump's wedding and ran the school for 50 years, was aware of misconduct

File photo: The corner of 88th St. and 1st Ave. in New York City, 2016.
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Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a global Jewish leader who officiated at Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s wedding, was aware of multiple instances of sexual misconduct by educators affiliated with the Upper East Side school he ran for 50 years, which is considered one of the best private Jewish academies in the country.

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This is according to an independent report the Ramaz Academy released on Thursday that describes the sexual abuse of students at the school by three former employees, as well as allegations of sexual misconduct, including a possible sexual relationship with a student, against three additional former employees.

“We […] learned of instances in which the Ramaz administration could have done more to protect our students,” board chairman Dr. Philip Wilner wrote in a letter that accompanied the report.

Lookstein was not quoted in the report, but cooperated with the investigation and conceded to investigators that with regards to one instance of sexual misconduct he “could have handled the situation better.”

“The report pretty much speaks for itself,” Lookstein told the Forward without elaborating.

Ramaz hired the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton to investigate in January after another Jewish day school notified its community of allegations of child abuse against Stanley Rosenfeld, who taught at both schools in the 1970s and was the subject of a recent Forward investigation. Ramaz engaged Debevoise to probe not just accusations against Rosenfeld, but all reports of abuse in the school’s history. Now, as Yom Kippur approaches, the school is calling the report its collective effort at teshuvah, or atonement.

“The season of repentance asks of us to acknowledge our wrongdoings, reflect upon our missteps in judgment, and resolve to being a better person going forward,” the letter the chairman of the school’s board concludes.

Lookstein, principal of the school from 1966 to 2015 and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, was aware that the three teachers accused of repeated sexual abuse had abused Ramaz students, according to multiple people interviewed for the report.

The report states that in the case of Rosenfeld, Lookstein told investigators he knew “within several years” of Rosenfeld leaving Ramaz that Rosenfeld was a predator. In another case, a former employee at Ramaz accused of molesting multiple Ramaz students claimed Lookstein knew about the abuse before the employee was dismissed from the school. In a third case, Lookstein was aware of past abuse while the perpetrator was still a teacher at the school, and after investigating the misconduct, allowed the teacher to remain at the school.

In the case of the teacher that was investigated but not let go, the report states that Lookstein “recognizes that he could have handled the situation better.”

Lookstein also was allegedly made aware that Rosenfeld molested a Ramaz student in 1980, shortly after the abuse occurred, according to an account included in the report and also relayed to the Forward. However, Lookstein told investigators that he doesn’t recall being told about the incident.

The report states that none of the three teachers accused of repeated sexual abuse were ever reported to police. New York State has had laws about “mandatory reporters” — individuals required to report sexual abuse of children to authorities — since the 1960s. Any employee of a school is considered a mandatory reporter.

Though the report notes that one of the instances of repeated child abuse was previously investigated by the school in 2005, the report marks the first time the school has admitted that its officers, administrators or teachers knew about allegations of sexual misconduct with students.

SAR Academy, in the Bronx, and Westchester Day School, in Mamaroneck, both of which also employed Rosenfeld, have each commissioned investigations into Rosenfeld’s tenures at the schools. Lookstein’s son, Rabbi Joshua Lookstein, is the head of school at Westchester Day School.

Though the report does not give a total tally of victims, it suggests that the abuses — from sexual relationships with students, to genital groping, to inappropriate touching and communications — touched the lives of dozens of Ramaz students, from the 1970s until earlier this year, when the school swiftly investigated an allegation of misconduct against a teacher and removed that teacher.

“[W]e offer our deepest apologies to the victims and their families, and openly acknowledge all the ways in which we have erred in cases of abuse,” Dr. Philip Wilner, the chairman of Ramaz’s board, wrote in the report’s cover letter.

Ivanka Trump's rabbi

Ramaz, which opened in the fall of 1937, is considered one of the most prestigious private Jewish academies in the country. It is a Modern Orthodox institution, meaning that many of its 1000-plus students have traditionally come from homes that are strictly observant of Jewish law, strongly encourage interaction with the secular world and prize equal educational opportunities for men and women. Ramaz, which has styled itself on New York City preparatory academies, is a broadly conservative institution, with a student body that has showcased strong pro-Israel positions and some discomfort with women having an equal role to men in ritual observance.

The school was founded by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein’s father, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, also the long-time leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, a major Orthodox synagogue that is closely tied to Ramaz. The younger Lookstein, who was one of the Ramaz’s first six students, served as his father’s apprentice, eventually taking over the leadership of both Ramaz and KJ, as the synagogue is widely called. Due to the prominence of KJ and Ramaz, Lookstein is an internationally known rabbi. His congregants include the prominent Jewish businessmen Michael Steinhardt and George Rohr. Lookstein also oversaw Ivanka Trump’s conversion process and officiated her wedding to Jared Kushner in 2009. He stepped down as the senior rabbi and head principal of the institutions in 2015.

The Ramaz report, at 10 pages, devotes most of its space to the investigators’ account of Rosenfeld’s abuses while he was employed at Ramaz, as well as afterward, as a member of the greater Ramaz community. It also devotes one-and-a-half pages to the cases of Richard Andron and Albert Goetz, two former Ramaz employees found to have sexually abused multiple Ramaz students. It’s based on over 40 interviews with Ramaz officials and community members, as well as an interview with Rosenfeld. The only people named in the report are Lookstein, Rosenfeld and two other perpetrators.

The report states that Rosenfeld was head of Ramaz’s Primary School from 1972-1974. The report states that “there is evidence that, at a minimum, administrators and employees of Ramaz… were made aware of Rosenfeld’s misconduct after Rosenfeld left Ramaz.” But, it added, there is no such evidence that the school knew before it hired Rosenfeld, or at the time that Rosenfeld left the school, according to the investigators’ review of “Board meeting minutes and documents from 1974.”

After the first school year, Rosenfeld was offered a two-year contract, which he signed. However, Rosenfeld resigned from Ramaz “towards the end of the 1974 school year.” Rosenfeld left the school to become the assistant principal at SAR Academy, because he wanted to work more closely with middle school-aged students, the report states, citing “contemporaneous documents viewed by the investigators.”

In a 2001 conversation with his probation officer, Rosenfeld said his “preferred prey” was adolescent boys, according to a probation report viewed by the Forward. Rosenfeld told the Forward in an August interview that he preferred boys older than 10 but younger than 15, “kids who were just beginning to mature.”

But even while at Ramaz, Rosenfeld had inappropriate contact with children as young as seven years old, such as “Nathan,” a former student at the school who requested anonymity. He said Rosenfeld groped him in his office when he was in first or second grade.

“He’d put me on his lap, he would touch me in my crotch,” Nathan told the Forward. “I knew even as a little kid that this was not right. It made me uncomfortable, and I stopped going back.”

The Ramaz report also states that Rosenfeld molested children after he left Ramaz while employed by a Jewish summer camp in the Pennsylvania Poconos, Camp Massad Bet. Rosenfeld’s employment at Massad Bet has not been previously reported. The report states that investigators were “informed that there was significant overlap in students/campers and employees between Ramaz and Camp Massad Bet during this period, though there was no official affiliation between the two institutions.” Massad Bet (the second in a network of three Zionist summer camps) closed in 1981.

The incident that allegedly led to Lookstein being made aware of Rosenfeld’s behavior occurred at the home of Nathan and his brother, six years after Rosenfeld had left Ramaz. The incident is referenced in the Ramaz report. Nathan requested anonymity to discuss the incident because he has relatives that currently attend the school, and didn’t want this incident to impact them in any way. His account was confirmed by another Ramaz alumnus, who said Nathan told him about the incident several years ago.

By the time Rosenfeld left his position at Ramaz, he had become a widely respected figure within the Ramaz community. He was a frequent Shabbat guest with Ramaz families, where he sometimes led the singing of hymns after the Friday night meal and often brought a housewarming gift of homemade pickles or sauerkraut, according to the person who confirmed Nathan’s story. Rosenfeld also attended multiple bar and bat mitzvahs of young children he had known while head of the lower school.

“He was this larger-than-life guy,” the person said. “If you would have told me he was there [at Ramaz] for seven years I would have believed you. He just made himself so a part of the community.”

In early 1980, Rosenfeld attended the bar mitzvah of a Ramaz student at an Upper West Side synagogue. Because Rosenfeld was Orthodox he did not travel on the Sabbath. That weekend he stayed at the home of two Ramaz students, Nathan and his brother, whom the Forward will refer to as Eli. Nathan and Eli’s father had known Rosenfeld as a child, since both grew up in the Boro Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, and Rosenfeld was considered “a bit of a friend of the family,” according to Nathan.

That Friday evening, Nathan was having a sleepover with another Ramaz student. At some point during the night, Nathan said, Eli woke up and saw Rosenfeld fondling the boy as he slept. Later that weekend, Eli told his parents about what happened. The father asked Rosenfeld to leave.

Nathan and Eli’s parents later met with Lookstein about the incident with Rosenfeld at his home, a meeting that is referenced in the Ramaz report. The report states that the parents “informed [Lookstein] of what happened and urged him to keep Rosenfeld away from children.” The report also states that “several other witnesses” said they knew about this episode, including the meeting with Lookstein, contemporaneously.

Lookstein, however, indicated to the investigators that he “did not recall” any Ramaz parents informing him that Rosenfeld had abused Ramaz students. He told investigators that he learned that Rosenfeld had abused children at SAR “within several years” of Rosenfeld leaving Ramaz.

The report identifies two other instances in which Ramaz teachers were likely made aware of Rosenfeld’s sexual abuse of children within several years of him leaving the school. One instance, possibly in 1980, involved a camper at Massad Bet telling two administrators at the camp, who were also then employed at Ramaz, that Rosenfeld had abused his friend. The other, in the early 1980s, involved a “former victim of Rosenfeld” telling a teacher at Ramaz — who was also then the educational director of Massad Bet — that Rosenfeld “liked little boys.”

The report also states what the Forward was told by Nathan and the person who confirmed Nathan’s account: that “Rosenfeld’s misconduct was widely known throughout the Ramaz community and at Camp Massad.”

“There is no evidence of any Ramaz or Camp Massad employee or administrator taking action with respect to Rosenfeld, either referring his conduct to law enforcement or warning other schools about the potential for misconduct,” the report states. 

Widespread misconduct

The report includes information about allegations of sexual misconduct against five other former Ramaz teachers, only two of which are named. The reports’ authors wrote that they chose to name the two perpetrators because of the severity of their misconduct.

Richard Andron, a former karate teacher in Ramaz’s after-school programs in the late 1970s and early 1980s, likely molested “multiple” Ramaz students while he was employed at Ramaz, according to the report. Like Rosenfeld, Andron groped the genitals of teenage boys while the slept at his home, and showed the boys “films containing inappropriate sexual content.”

The report states that it’s not clear if the Ramaz administration knew contemporaneously about Andron’s misconduct. However, Andron told the investigators that he met with Lookstein and other community rabbis “at some point in the 1980s.” The cause of the meeting, Andron said, was regarding a complaint from a teenager not then affiliated with Ramaz. (Andron was implicated in a 2013 lawsuit brought against Yeshiva University detailing multiple accounts of molestation of students of the university’s high school in the 1970s and 1980s.)

“According to Andron, as a result of that meeting, Andron was no longer a staff member at Ramaz,” the report states.

Lookstein told the investigators that he did not recall the meeting, and the report states that the meeting itself was not “directly corroborated” by anyone else they spoke to.

The report also discusses the case of Albert Goetz — the only other official investigation into sexual misconduct with a student initiated by Ramaz that is mentioned in the report. The report states that Debevoise & Plimpton found in 2005 that Goetz, a math teacher, had photographed the feet of at least 17 female students between 1976 and the early 1990s. Goetz also admitted to investigators at the time that he had had “romantic and physical relationships” with two female students.

Lookstein was informed about Goetz’s photographing one female student’s feet in the early 1990s, the 2005 report found. After referring Goetz to a psychiatrist, Lookstein allowed him to stay at the school. Lookstein told the investigators that he did not learn until 2005 about Goetz’s two physical relationships, and only knew of the photographs. He also said that “with the benefit of hindsight,” he “could have handled the situation better.”

The other three stories of abuse include allegations against former teachers that stretch from the early 1980s until earlier this year. The most recent episode involved a teacher who was determined to have had an “inappropriate, non-physical relationship” with a female student, and who exchanged “overly familiar” emails with other female students. The school received information about the relationship shortly after it sent its initial email about Rosenfeld in January. The report says that the teacher was “immediately removed from the school and was subsequently terminated.”

Another case involved second-hand accounts received from people spoken to during the course of the investigation that a former teacher had a sexual relationship with a student in the early-to-mid-1980s. The report states that the investigators could not confirm the relationship.

The third case involved allegations from nearly twenty years ago by former female students of the middle school that a male teacher made them feel uncomfortable by touching them their hair, shoulders or lower waist. The teacher also may have complemented one of the girls repeatedly and asked her to meet him alone.

The teacher’s misconduct was immediately reported to the Ramaz administration, according to the report. In a meeting with an outside counsel, the teacher denied the allegations. After speaking with school officials, the teacher was allowed to remain at the school. The school did not receive additional allegations against the teacher, the report states, although the students felt that the school “did not […] support them at the time.”

Ramaz now conducts extensive background checks on any new employee, including teachers, adjunct instructors and staff, according to the school’s letter.

“Today, we have a zero-tolerance policy for any inappropriate behavior between a Ramaz employee and a student,” the board chairman’s letter reads.

On Thursday, the school conducted training for faculty and staff across the school’s three divisions on appropriate interactions between students and adults in the school. The training was led by T&M Protection Services, the firm hired by SAR Academy to conduct its investigation into sexual misconduct. The board chairman’s letter also said that the school plans to add further policies aimed at preventing abuse after Thursday’s training. 

After leaving the community of Jewish schools and camps at which he taught in the 1950s through the 1980s, Rosenfeld went onto molest multiple children in Rhode Island, as a recent Forward investigation revealed. It’s not clear if any of Rosenfeld’s employers in New York or at the summer camps he worked at ever attempted to contact the Rhode Island Jewish community about the widespread rumors and allegations that Rosenfeld was a predator.

In 2001, Rosenfeld was convicted for child molestation, after admitting to police officers that he had fondled the genitals of a bar mitzvah student he was tutoring over the course of nine months of one-on-one classes.

Rabbi Richard Perlman, the leader of the temple where Rosenfeld worked then, Am David, in Warwick, told the Forward that he later received multiple reports from other families that Rosenfeld had interacted inappropriately with their children as well. One family told Perlman that as a result of being molested by Rosenfeld, their child had been institutionalized twice for mental health issues, according to the 2001 probation report. The revelations of Rosenfeld’s misconduct were devastating to the synagogue, Perlman said.

“They felt as though there was some misinformation on his background,” Perlman said. “That somehow, somewhere, someplace, he had been let go and no one had been told why.”

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