In the Court of Public Opinion, There Are No Clear Winners

Written by Rachel Kohn on . Posted in Community News

Rabbi Shmuel Krawatsky – Rabbi K, as he is fondly called – was head of the lower boys division at Camp Shoresh in Adamstown, Maryland, until 2015. As the New York Jewish Week recently reported and Kol HaBirah has confirmed, allegations of sexual abuse from three children after the conclusion of the camp season resulted in an investigation by Child Protective Services (CPS). Two of the children participated in forensic interviews with CPS. Based on its investigation, the agency concluded both cases were “indicated” cases of sexual abuse of a child. Before Rabbi Krawatsky’s appeal of the ruling took place, a settlement brokered with CPS in February 2016 resulted in the cases being downgraded from “indicated” to “unsubstantiated” cases of abuse, but — significantly — not ruled out as cases of abuse.

Until the day after the Jewish Week’s article came out, Rabbi Krawatsky was still working with children in community institutions.

An investigation and ruling by CPS is not the same as a criminal investigation and conviction, as the Jewish Week article explained. According to the article, the Maryland State Attorney’s office did not choose to take the case to trial, based on the results of the police investigation. Kol HaBirah has not independently confirmed the details of any of the CPS proceedings or police investigation at this time, but is pursuing records available through the Freedom of Information Act.

Chaim Levin is a member of the  legal counsel for the alleged victims, and he explained how the Jewish Week reporter first lit upon their case as a potential subject for investigation.

A survivor of sexual abuse and an advocate for accountability in Orthodox Jewish circles, Levin said he first heard about the allegations against Rabbi Krawatsky on Oct. 23, 2017. He posted a public warning, addressed to the Baltimore community, on Facebook on Nov. 10; and Jewish Week reporter Hannah Dreyfuss, who he knew from his time interning at the New York Jewish Week, saw the post and reached out, Levin said. Her investigation for the Jewish Week proceeded from there.

Dreyfuss shared with Kol HaBirah that her intention for the article was not to pronounce Rabbi Krawatsky guilty or innocent, nor was she aiming to try the Baltimore Jewish community in the court of public opinion. “If that is what people are taking away from the article, that is unfortunate,” she said. Rather, as someone who regularly covers stories of abuse and vulnerable populations, she said her objective was to present a detailed picture of the systems currently in place for protecting children and ensuring accountability; and any weaknesses revealed to the public in that system, composed of institutional protocol and human choices, were meant to be a catalyst for change.

According to the statement released by Shoresh Director Rabbi David Finkelstein Jan. 19, Shoresh promptly notified Frederick County Child Protective Services of the accusations when informed of them and hired the Baltimore Child Abuse Center (BCAC) to review all the policies, procedures, staff training sessions, and handbooks, and to perform regular staff trainings.

Counselors from Camp Shoresh’s summer 2017 staff, contacted independently by Kol HaBirah, confirmed that BCAC provided them with thorough training regarding abuse, inappropriate contact, and supervision. The mechanism for reporting abuse was also shared in detail and its use encouraged.

One young woman, a long-time camper before becoming a counselor last year, only learned the extent of the allegations against Rabbi Krawatsky when the BCAC representative alluded to them during the training session. “They said a recent head staff member was fired because of accusations,” she said. They didn’t mention him by name, but “they showed examples of what he was accused of.”

She and other counselors said Shoresh makes the safety of their campers a clear priority. One counselor who joined the staff after 2015 and didn’t know about the allegations against the rabbi until he read the Jewish Week article said he would send his kids to Shoresh.

Levin echoed Dreyfuss’s denial that the article was meant to serve in lieu of judge and jury, but he made it clear that he was prompted to action by the rabbi’s continued access to children as a teacher and youth leader despite the CPS rulings.

In that sense, the article achieved his goal.

Initially, Beth Tfiloh stood behind Rabbi Krawatsky, who was “put on leave at the time the allegations were made, until the case was resolved,” according to the school’s statement of support released January 18.

Within less than 24 hours, however, another statement came out.

“Prior to yesterday’s article, Beth Tfiloh was not privy to the scope of the allegations due to the fact that the case involved another organization, and the details were not shared with us by the investigating agencies,” it said. “Given the specific details alleged in the article, the need for immediate and decisive action became clear.”

On January 18, Suburban Orthodox Toras Chaim also released a statement: Rabbi Krawatsky resigned from his position with the synagogue, where he runs a teen inclusion minyan. According to the statement, the synagogue leadership “promptly spoke with many of the involved parties (including law enoforcement officials)” after the article was published. Based on the “very different picture” they received, they ruled that he could retain his current position, (which, it was pointed out, was in “a group setting with other adults present”). He opted to resign.

Beth Tfiloh and the synagogue both said in their statements that Rabbi Krawatsky’s termination and resignation, respectively, “should not be taken as an indication of guilt or innocence.” Neither Beth Tfiloh’s head of school nor the synagogue leadership responded to a request for comment for this article.

Speaking to members of the community in the wake of the Jewish Week’s article, it was clear that many were unaware that the term “unsubstantiated” has a specific meaning in CPS jargon. At the same time, the word is still being widely used by Rabbi Krawatsky’s supporters on social media to justify their faith in his innocence.

Correspondence with Rabbi Krawatsky’s lawyer and a conversation with Rachel Avrunin (she and her husband were the only parents identified by their real names in the Jewish week article) indicated that both parties are grateful for their supporters, unwavering in their claims of innocence or guilt, and looking forward to the time when the truth is known to all (though that obviously means something different to each of them). Both sides also report receiving harassment and threats of violence from people in Baltimore and beyond.

“The Torah urges us to stand up for the victim. In reality, this is a difficult task, as we will rarely receive the sort of ‘proof’ we seek,” said Dr. Shira Berkovitz, founder and CEO of Sacred Spaces, a nonprofit creating systemic solutions to abuses of power in Jewish institutions.

“We don’t fix our roofs ourselves, and we don’t fix our broken bones ourselves. We shouldn’t try to ‘fix’ abuse allegations either. “The average layperson does not — and is not expected to — understand the dynamics of sexual abuse or how offenders operate. What people are expected to do is recognize their biases, note their limitations, and seek expert consultation.”

By Rachel Kohn

 Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.