CROWN HEIGHTS — Protesters called out one of the neighborhood’s most prestigious yeshivas for what they called a “culture of violence” in a rally at the Eastern Parkway school over the weekend.
The demonstration, attended by former students and parents of the Oholei Torah elementary and high school in Crown Heights, came on the heels of an investigation by Newsweek published earlier this month that alleged years of sexual and physical abuse in the Hasidic Jewish community, including victims from the Chabad-Lubavitch school for boys.
Subjects in the report, together with about two dozen abuse survivors and activists, joined the protest Sunday, picketing outside the school as the administration hosted an annual fundraising gala inside.
“I witnessed things here that no child should ever witness,” including a teacher physically throwing students across classrooms, said protester Chaim Levin, who said he attended Oholei Torah until he was 15 years old.
“The culture of violence against students was very common,” he added, saying that the dean of the elementary school, Rabbi Hershel Lustig, for years turned a blind eye.
An inquiry to Oholei Torah was not returned Sunday. However, in response to the Newsweek allegations, a top administrator at the school told the Forward on March 13 that “categorically … there is absolutely no abuse taking place in Oholei Torah that we know of.”
Now, Levin is trying to force the school to address the issues, saying that many other former students and parents have come forward to express similar concerns since he began speaking out on the issue.
While Levin was protesting outside the school Sunday, he said a young Jewish man he’d never met approached him to say his brother had also been abused at the school.
The man asked Levin to lay tefillin, a religious item, as a mitzvah. While Levin is no longer observant, he obliged.
“This kid is like, ‘I’m sympathetic [to the protest], just do me this favor and pray’,” Levin said. “So, you know what, I’ll pray.”
Still, he added, many in the Lubavitch community don’t want to discuss it, he said.
“They were like ‘How dare you speak out against the Rebbe’s school,’” he said, referring to the longtime Lubavitch leader, Rebbe Menachem Schneerson. “But … this is the truth and it’s about time people acknowledge it.”
Mendy Alexander, another former Oholei Torah student from pre-K to eighth grade also came out to support the rally.
“From what I feel, there’s a massive, massive silent majority in the community who are standing with us, who are supporting us,” said Alexander, who also described his experience of abuse at the school to Newsweek.
For Levin, the school’s denial is exactly part of the problem.
“The school doesn’t even acknowledge what happened — these horrible, horrible things,” he said. “How far does it have to go?”
One mother of two boys at the school who identified herself only as Esty because of “community pressure,” she said came to the protest Sunday to send a message to the school that she expects “some kind of accountability.”
“I really think they should have come out and said something, at least … even an apology would have been a start,” she said, adding that days after the Newsweek report came out March 3, the administration did “nothing” except send a defensive email.
She added that while her sons are happy at the school, the administration seems unwilling to admit that anything could be wrong.
Though their email insisted that no abuse could take place at the school because “We have windows in the [classroom] doors,” she said, “I don’t know what that means.”
Shula Haber attended the protest with her young son, who used to attend a different Lubavitch yeshiva in the neighborhood before she moved him out over concerns with “disciplinary tactics” and a culture of intimidation there, she said.
“I am here just to stand up against any violence … that’s being done in secret in homes, in schools, anywhere,” she said.
She said, in her life, she has observed a pattern of secrecy surrounding abuse in the Lubavitch community, starting with her grandmother, who in response to a sexual assault committed against a member of her family, said, “Oh, don’t call the cops. We don’t tell anybody our problems,” she recalled.
Shula Haber, pictured in the center at right on Eastern Parkway, said she came to the rally Sunday with her young son (not pictured) to “stand up against any violence” done in secret “anywhere.”
And while she encouraged victims to speak out, she said she wouldn’t “judge anyone’s choices” about whether or not to come forward. “I’m here to stand up for myself and my family, my community,” she said. “And for anyone who couldn’t be here, I’m standing up here for you.”