Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sex-abuse case against rabbi raises larger issues 

Two years ago, Michael Brecher came to prosecutors in Boston with a disturbing allegation: In the 1970s, he said, he had been molested by a rabbi who was teaching sixth grade at one of the region’s most prestigious Jewish day schools, the Maimonides School.

One of Brecher’s classmates came forward at the same time. And last year, after reading news accounts of indecent sexual assault and battery charges filed against Stanley Z. Levitt, a third person said that he, too, was abused by Levitt.

Now, court records show that Levitt might have tried to entice two more students into having intimate contact with him while they took showers in his Brighton home.

One of those former students has told Boston police that Levitt took him and other students on a field trip to Montreal where Levitt directed the students in a ritual purification bath, or mikvah, while all of them were naked, an inappropriate practice, according to an official at a prominent Jewish theological seminary.

Levitt has also faced allegations in Philadelphia, where he lived after leaving Maimonides.

The case, with echoes of clergy sexual abuse incidents in the Catholic Church, is a reflection, scholars say, of similar abuse cases that have taken place in the orthodox Jewish community, where rabbis are held in high regard and the social penalties for criticizing clergy can be high.

A number of prominent orthdox rabbis have faced charges, including Baruch Lanner, the subject of a 2000 expose in The Jewish Week, and Yehuda Kolko, who was featured in a 2006 New York magazine article.

“There is a growing acknowledgment that we have a problem, which has taken a long time,’’ said Yosef Blau, an Orthodox rabbi who is the spiritual adviser at the theological seminary at New York’s Yeshiva University. “Denial has been very powerful in the community.’’

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley has charged Levitt, 64, with molesting three of the students, and the rabbi, now a Philadelphia resident free on $5,000 bail, has pleaded not guilty.

Neither Levitt nor his Boston attorney, Scott Curtis, returned messages from the Globe seeking comment on the allegations made by Maimonides School alumni. But court records show that Curtis is seeking to have the charges against Levitt dismissed based in part on “the age of the allegations.’’

Rabbi David Shapiro, the religious leader at Maimonides, who was an assistant principal in the mid-1970s, and Nathan Katz, the school’s executive director, declined to comment on the allegations by the former students.


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