Accused chef faces charges on several fronts
As abuse cases proceed against former Humble Toast owner, his career boasts are undercut
When Shalom Yehudiel first was sued in January 2021 for allegedly sexually assaulting two underage girls – one a fellow congregant at Anshei Lubavitch in Fair Lawn, one a former employee — he was defiant.
His attorney at the time, Richard Mazawey, said the lawsuits were “absolutely baseless and defamatory in nature.” These civil lawsuits, asking for compensatory and punitive damages, came after the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office investigated and declined to prosecute the alleged incidents.
In his response to the lawsuits, Mr. Yehudiel countersued for defamation.
At the time, Mr. Yehudiel was a successful restaurateur, with two kosher establishments in Teaneck: The Humble Toast and La Cucina di Nava.
Ten months after the cases were filed, on a Sunday in late November 2021, protesters picketed the Humble Toast in a demonstration organized by Za’akah, an organization formed to fight child sexual abuse in the Orthodox community. Shortly after, the Rabbinic Council of Bergen County, which provided kosher certification for his restaurants, told Mr. Yehudiel that he no longer was allowed in them.
“Given the serious nature of the allegations put forth in the civil lawsuit, we have a responsibility to consider the safety and welfare of the current employees and customers at the restaurants,” Rabbi Zev Goldberg of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, who then headed the Orthodox rabbinical council, said at the time.
Four months later, in March 2022, Mr. Yehudiel was arrested and criminally charged by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office with raping a minor he employed in one of his restaurants — not the same employee who had filed the original complaint. This rape allegedly took place in early November of 2021, shortly before the demonstrations outside the Humble Toast.
Since then, Mr. Yehudiel has been subject to home confinement.
Recent weeks have seen significant developments in both his civil and criminal cases.
He was formally indicted in the criminal case on January 31. His attorneys entered a plea of not guilty; they maintain his innocence of all the allegations.
On March 6, his attorneys filed a motion challenging the criminal indictment as unconstitutional. One piece of this claim is the failure of the prosecutor’s office to show the grand jury video from the Humble Toast’s surveillance system that the Federal Bureau of Investigations seized in November 2021, shortly after the alleged rape had taken place and was reported. In a letter to the prosecutor’s office before the indictment, the attorneys wrote that they “believe the overall surveillance footage will prove” the accuser’s “story wrong in multiple and material ways.” The motion further argues that prosecutors improperly described text messages between Mr. Yehudiel and the alleged victim in their presentation to the grand jury. And they say that DNA testing refutes the victim’s claim of rape.
This motion will be heard on April 3.
Meanwhile, a Superior Court judge has been asked to order the State Attorney General’s office to reopen an earlier aborted criminal investigation against Mr. Yehudiel for allegedly sexually abusing the young woman at Anshei Lubavitch. Michael A. Gorokhovich, the attorney for the Fair Lawn plaintiff, argued in his filing before the court that the BCPO “bungled” the investigation and that “BCPO’s investigating Detective did not look for any corroborating evidence, but represented to her superiors that there was no such evidence in existence.” In fact, the attorney argued, such evidence supporting his client’s complaint includes text messages that Mr. Yehudiel sent to the teen, which were not retrieved by the prosecutors, and a friend who witnessed inappropriate encounters between the plaintiff and Mr. Yehudiel but whom the prosecutors did not interview.
In the filing, Mr. Gorokhovich urged the court to order a pretrial hearing to consider charging Mr. Yehudiel criminally for his alleged crimes against his client before the possible dismissal of the current criminal indictment at the April 3 hearing. Noting that Mr. Yehudiel is a citizen of Israel and has family there, the filing warned that should the indictment be dismissed, “Yehudiel becomes free to leave to Israel… There is no question that this is exactly what he will do in such an event.”
Mr. Gorokhovich has already succeeded in getting Mr. Yehudiel’s attorneys to dismiss Mr. Yehudiel’s counterclaims in the civil case. This followed a case management conference on January 19. There, Judge Rachelle Lea Harz said that Mr. Yehudiel’s claim of “frivolous” litigation against the civil plaintiffs was not appropriate as part of a counterclaim, and seemed to agree with the plaintiff attorney’s arguments that a lawsuit could not itself be defamatory. Further, she said that Mr. Yehudiel could not advance an alternative account of what happened between him and the plaintiff, given that he asserted his Fifth Amendment right and declined to answer questions on the topic when he was deposed.
“He cannot invoke Fifth Amendment privilege to make affirmative claims against the plaintiff for defamation,” Mr. Gorokhovich said at the case management conference.
More recently, Mr. Gorokhovich filed an amended complaint in the civil action. This complaint lays out a timetable of how Mr. Yehudiel is alleged to have groomed his client, Elisheva Akselrod, in a series of encounters at Anshei Lubavitch beginning in March 2016, when she was 14 years old.
A footnote on the first page of the revised pleading states that while Ms. Akselrod “is fully aware of her right to remain anonymous,” she is now “of the age of majority, and as such… knowingly and voluntarily waives her right to remain anonymous. Eli further objects to any references to her in any anonymous or depersonalizing manner as Eli finds this dehumanizing. Eli feels that any anonymity would deprive her of her personhood and identity while the personhood and identity of her abuser, Shalom Yehudiel, would be retained.” Confirming this with this newspaper, Mr. Gorokhovich wrote: “Eli has a name and a face, she is a real human being, not a ‘litigant,’ ‘woman,’ ‘plaintiff,’ or ‘alleged victim.’ She is a subject, not an object, and it is very important to her to be portrayed in this way.”
(By contrast, the other civil plaintiff — who like the alleged victim in the criminal case is a former employee of the Humble Toast — dropped her complaint alleging an assault, saying she did not want to testify at the required deposition.)
Unlike Ms. Akselrod’s first civil complaint, prepared by a different attorney, the revised complaint details the circumstances of Mr. Yehudiel’s alleged encounters with her, starting when he joined a private conversation between her and a younger friend on an isolated stairway at the Fair Lawn synagogue.
According to the complaint, “This interaction made 14-year old [sic] Eli uncomfortable as to why this unfamiliar man nearly of her parents’ age would compliment her appearance and why he interrupted and joined — uninvited — her private conversation with her 12 year old [sic] friend. Eli did not know anything about pedophilia or grooming and was not taught to shy away from anyone at shul, so given her lack of experience and knowledge at that time, she wrote off the uncomfortable feeling from this encounter as a mere annoyance and nothing more.”
The complaint spells out the way Mr. Yehudiel allegedly manipulated Ms. Akselrod as he first began to kiss her against her will, and then, in subsequent months, escalated to sexual talk and contact.
The presence of this younger friend as a potential witness is notable in this new complaint, as is the claim that Ms. Akselrod’s mother allegedly overheard Mr. Yehudiel refer to her daughter’s haircut as “sexy” and then “immediately reacted to this by turning around to confront Yehudiel and tell him that Eli was 14 and that his remark was not an appropriate comment for a 14 year old.”
In another victory for the plaintiff in the civil case, the court dismissed attempts by Mr. Yehudiel’s attorneys to block subpoenas aimed at gathering information about the chef’s employment history and relationship with local Jewish institutions.
Already, responses to the subpoenas have enabled Mr. Gorokhovich to argue in court papers seeking to reopen the criminal investigation that Mr. Yehudiel “fabricated a false aura of respectability and success, defrauding everyone around him, including mass media and the Food Network which even featured him on an episode of ‘Chopped.’ Instead of being an ‘acclaimed Chef,’ as he held himself out to be, he was a total failure who was repeatedly fired from culinary jobs for misconduct and sexual harassment allegations, and rarely held any job for more than 1 year, with numerous jobs held for 6 months or less.”
Mr. Yehudiel’s appearance on “Chopped” aired on September 22, 2020. At the time, this paper reported that Mr. Yehudiel was the show’s “first contestant who both keeps and cooks kosher; in another first, the show made all necessary provisions for him.”
In his interview with this newspaper and when he was deposed under oath for the civil lawsuit, Mr. Yehudiel said that his professional successes in Arizona and California included a job as a chef in Disney Land. He told this paper that he left Disney because he “still felt unfulfilled” and was able to see his father in New Jersey only “once or twice a year.” But Mr. Gorokhovich received employment records from Disney, turned over in response to the subpoenas, documenting that Mr. Yehudiel was in fact fired for “violation of company policy.”
Similarly, while Mr. Yehudiel told this newspaper that celebrity chef Aaron May “helped me get my start” and that the two hit it off after meeting at a charity event, Mr. Gorokhovich presented an affidavit from Mr. May in which the chef, after reviewing the statements by Mr. Yehudiel about their relationship, said that he wanted to “emphatically deny all such statements and implications by Yehudiel, as they are completely and utterly false from beginning to the end.
“The only truth in Yehudiel’s statements that he made about me and my restaurants is that Yehudiel was employed at some point in an entry level line cook position” by a restaurant Mr. May was involved with.
“I do remember Yehudiel, but only tangentially as someone who was employed in the most basic entry level position…. The extent of that connection was as remote as the connection between a supermarket cashier and the supermarket chain’s CEO.”
The two Jewish institutions that have been served subpoenas regarding their communications with Mr. Yehudiel are the Jewish Family Service of Clifton-Passaic and the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County. The JFS subpoena concerns Mr. Yehudiel’s involvement in Project Sarah’s annual breakfast, held in April 2021, four months after Mr. Yehudiel first was sued. According to a press release JFS released after the breakfast, it was held “to support those affected by domestic violence and sexual abuse…. The breakfast participants were able to cook their own tasty Shakshuka dish along with Chef Shalom Yehudiel from the Humble Toast and La Cucina Di Nava.”
The subpoena to the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County seeks all documents relating to Mr. Yehudiel, communications regarding the Project Sarah breakfast, all documents related to Za’akah, all communications and documents related to the November 2021 Humble Toast protest, and all “communications and documents relating to all RCBC’s actions, decisions, press releases, and negotiations concerning Shalom Yehudiel and his restaurants.”