NEW YORK (JTA) — Sitting at the front of a large room lined floor to ceiling with Jewish holy books, Rabbi Joseph Beyda’s voice broke as he processed, seemingly in real time, the idea that a trusted teacher had preyed on his students.
“I think the overarching feeling of the administrators and the faculty and the board of the school is, we know you trust us, we take that trust very deeply, we dedicate our lives to it, we failed on this,” said Beyda, the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush’s Joel Braverman High School. “You could say it’s not our fault, but we feel like we failed.”
Beyda was speaking Wednesday night at a forum for parents and alumni at the Brooklyn high school that was called in the wake of last week’s arrest of Rabbi Jonathan Skolnick, a former teacher charged with soliciting naked photos of students for years, going back to at least 2012. An FBI special agent sitting to Beyda’s left confirmed the rabbi’s assertion: There was no way for the school to have known what Skolnick was doing.
“This is a man who hid in plain sight,” said Agent Aaron Spivack. “There is nothing this school could have done. There’s nothing that anybody could have done. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, if you want to use that analogy. Predators are predators for a reason. They find ways to be predators.”
Skolnick, who moved last year to an administrative position at SAR Academy, another Orthodox school in New York City, was arrested Friday night by the FBI and charged with the production, receipt and possession of child pornography and child enticement. He was immediately fired by SAR. He taught at Flatbush from 2012 to 2018.
Days after the arrest, which came only weeks into a new school year, parents, faculty and administration are still in shock. They want to know if there is any way to prevent this in the future, what to tell their kids and how to encourage them to talk about any abuse by Skolnick. SAR also held an open meeting for parents to speak with an FBI representative and school administrators.
“It’s just very sad that it took a long time until this came out in the open,” said the grandmother of one of Skolnick’s students, who declined to give her name for fear of being publicly linked to the scandal. “But it’s understandable because people are reluctant to expose such incidents. It’s sad, and I know he was a good teacher, he had a good reputation. My granddaughter and her friends, they were shocked.”
At the Flatbush forum, Spivack reviewed the FBI investigation of Skolnick’s alleged crimes. The rabbi is accused of posing as a teenage girl online and soliciting underage boys to send him explicit photos. At least one boy complied, and Skolnick threatened to release the pictures publicly after the boy said he wouldn’t send more. Spivack said there is no evidence at this time suggesting that Skolnick inappropriately touched students or distributed the photos.
According to the FBI’s criminal complaint, Skolnick admitted that he had requested explicit photos from 20 to 25 people, most of them children. Beyda said he believes many Flatbush students were solicited.
“The number is really high,” the principal said. “And it’s not going to be surprising to be greater than 100, and maybe more than that.”
Both SAR and Flatbush have policies governing the reporting of sexual harassment, teacher communication with students and the boundaries of teacher behavior with students. SAR conducted a background check before Skolnick was hired that came up clean, as did an FBI check. Beyda said Flatbush has an extensive interview and reference-checking process, and now does criminal background checks as well.
Advocates for preventing sexual abuse in the Jewish community said that the key for schools is to recognize and prevent what are called “grooming” behaviors — actions such as inviting kids over for sleepovers or luring them to secluded spaces — that lay the groundwork for abuse.
“If you see a rebbe insisting that a child spend Shabbos at his house without any other supervision there, that’s a red flag,” said Asher Lovy, the director of community organizing for Zaakah, which combats child sex abuse in the Orthodox community.
Joel Avrunin, the parent of a child who allegedly was sexually abused by a rabbi at a Jewish camp in Maryland, said that schools should hire an external firm to investigate Skolnick’s behavior and the school’s response to it. That’s what SAR did following revelations that Stanley Rosenfeld, an assistant principal at SAR in the 1970s who later taught English there, had abused students.
“What are the schools doing to find out the extent of his involvement with children?” Avrunin asked. “I’d like to see any school first hire an outside investigator. Who did he have contact with and what anti-grooming policies did the schools have in place?”
SAR did not respond to a JTA request for comment.
Parents at the Flatbush event expressed concern about limiting online contact between teachers and students. Beyda said the school is addressing the issue, creating a service on the messaging platform WhatsApp that allows teachers and students to communicate in a supervised space.
Parents and administrators said it appears that Skolnick was in a group chat where students told him about requests they were getting for explicit photos. The students did not realize it was Skolnick who was sending the requests.
A recent Flatbush graduate who attended the event said she appreciated having her teachers’ cellphone numbers.
“I think that all of us felt more connected to the teacher if they had our number,” she said. “We’re calling them in the middle of the night like, ‘I need help with this answer, explain this to us.’ All of these things. Even in school, like, ‘Hey, I’m coming late to class, I wanted to get coffee.’ We were very close to the teachers here.”
Parents also expressed concern about communicating to their kids that they should speak up if they experienced abuse. Laura Rizzo, a victim specialist with the FBI, said the key is to give children space and to emphasize that they should not feel guilty for their actions.
“You can’t force a child to talk to a parent,” Rizzo said. “A lot of kids feel like it’s their fault, they’re in trouble. They’re afraid to get other people in trouble. They’re afraid to out their friend who might be a victim. So it’s very complicated. It’s scary.”
Beyda said the community also needs to encourage people to report abuse rather than hide it for fear of being ostracized.
“We have an uphill cultural battle,” he said. “A lot of our parents are saying, ‘I don’t know why my child wouldn’t have said something.’ We teach our children not to say anything. We teach our children that when we say something, we might become cultural, societal outcasts, and that’s the worst possible thing that can happen to you. It’s a mistake. We should stop doing it.”