Haim Zuckerman couldn’t believe his eyes.
As the ninth grader was passing through the basement dining room of his Brooklyn yeshiva on his way to work on a large candle he was making with friends to mark the yahrtzeit of the fifth Gerer Rebbe, he saw a schoolmate leaning against a table with a man lying on top of him. Both the man — known to the students as a child therapist — and the boy had their pants down.
It was “the sickest, craziest thing” Zuckerman, then 13, had ever seen.
The boy rushed upstairs and told a teacher what he had witnessed.
The teacher took him to the office of the school’s spiritual supervisor, Avrohom Leizerowitz, who, Zuckerman claims, berated him for his “dirty mind” and instructed him that he would be required to receive counseling from the very man in the basement, Avrohom Mondrowitz.
Despite feeling “worried [and] uncomfortable,” Zuckerman told NJJN that he felt obligated to “follow the system” and obey. What happened next has haunted him ever since.
Now, 37 years later, he has filed a lawsuit against Mondrowitz as well as the school, Yeshiva & Mesivta Bais Yisroel, and Leizerowitz.
The suit alleges that during their mandated counseling session, Mondrowitz — who at the time had a popular radio show and was revered by many within the charedi world as a talented psychologist despite having faked his credentials — molested Zuckerman. The complaint, filed Monday in Brooklyn Supreme Court, takes advantage of a law passed last year allowing victims of childhood sexual abuse a limited window of time in which to pursue abuse claims even if the statute of limitations has run out. (In 2006 Leizerowitz fled to Israel after allegations surfaced that he, too, had molested boys.)
After the incident, Zuckerman said that Mondrowitz took him to a bookstore and bought the boy an expensive set of young adult books he wanted, written by the 19th-century German rabbi and author, Marcus Lehmann. For the next few days Zuckerman says he felt “doped. I felt hopeless.” He wanted to tell his parents — both Holocaust survivors — about what Mondrowitz had done to him, but as soon as they heard he had met the famous “Dr.” they began gushing about how privileged he was. The boy clammed up.
Zuckerman also asserts in the complaint that after he reported the abuse to Leizerowitz he was expelled from the yeshiva, which is affiliated with the Ger chasidic sect; the expulsion came, he told NJJN, via a letter written to his parents explaining that he “didn’t fit the school and they should find another school.”
Over the course of a three-hour interview with NJJN, Zuckerman recounted the story and how he was then sent to a Ger yeshiva in Israel but ultimately kicked out without explanation.
Zuckerman says it was years later, after he was married with children, that he learned from friends about other people who were victimized by Mondrowitz, including one man who had committed suicide.
The lawsuit asserts that both the Brooklyn yeshiva and Leizerowitz “acted with reckless disregard of [Zuckerman’s] safety,” breaching “their duty to care by failing to protect him.” Zuckerman is seeking damages “in an amount to be determined at trial.”
A voicemail message left at Bais Yisroel did not receive a response and an email to Mondrowitz was returned as undeliverable. Neither Mondrowitz nor Leizerowitz, both believed to be living in Israel, could be reached by phone for comment.
Long trail of allegations
While Zuckerman’s is the only lawsuit that has been filed against Mondrowitz to date, U.S. law enforcement pursued him for years on abuse charges. In 1985, Mondrowitz was indicted in absentia on four counts of sodomy and eight counts of sexual abuse in the first degree, after he fled to Israel in 1984 on the eve of a planned arrest in Brooklyn for sex offenses against four non-Jewish children in his Borough Park neighborhood.
At the time, then-Kings County Brooklyn District Attorney Elizabeth Holtzman pursued Mondrowitz’s extradition. She was thwarted in 1985 when Israeli officials informed the United States that extradition would be impossible because sodomy was not included in the Israeli definition of rape and thus not an extraditable offense.
Prior to his flight, Mondrowitz — who was born in Poland in 1947 and lived in Chicago before settling in New York in the late 1970s — ran a child-counseling program out of his Brooklyn home and worked in a special-education school for boys that had connections to Ohel Children and Family Services. The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication, reported in 2010 that one of Mondrowitz’s alleged Jewish victims was referred to him for counseling directly by Ohel. (A 2009 press release issued by Ohel said that it had never employed Mondrowitz but was silent on the issue of whether it made referrals to him). Several others reportedly made their way to him because he had a reputation within the community for being able to help “troubled” boys.
In a 2009 interview, Jewish radio talk show host Zev Brenner recounted how, just prior to Mondrowitz’s flight to Israel, Brenner had learned of abuse allegations against Mondrowitz and reported them to Brooklyn Jewish leaders. They told him they “were handling the situation,” Brenner said. Haaretz and The Jewish Week also reported that Mondrowitz’s various credentials, including a doctorate in clinical psychology, were either fake or unsubstantiated.
In 2006, attorney and author Michael Lesher, who had been working to bring Mondrowitz to justice since 1999, initiated a campaign to pressure Holtzman’s successor, Charles Hynes, to renew extradition efforts. After the extradition treaty between Israel and the U.S. was amended in 2007, Lesher stepped up his efforts and the United States issued an extradition request for Mondrowitz. He was arrested in Israel and a lower court ordered him to be returned to Brooklyn, but that decision was overturned by a unanimous three-judge panel of the Israeli Supreme Court, effectively dashing the hopes of those who sought to hold him to account.
Zuckerman’s lawsuit may renew those hopes.
‘If my story saves one child…’
Now 50, living in Rockland County and working as a contractor/developer, Zuckerman, who is divorced, says he has never identified himself publicly as a Mondrowitz victim until now.
“In the past I had been contacted [by other victims] … about Mondrowitz, but I never wanted to go into real details [about myself] because if you are considered a victim there’s a blemish.”
Zuckerman says he has decided to speak out now because he is “done hiding” and wants to prevent the same thing from happening to another child.
At one point, still living in Israel after being expelled from yeshiva, he was befriended by a Gerer chasid who welcomed him into his home for Shabbat, and over time Zuckerman became like a member of his family. He enrolled in a technical school in Bnei Brak and found work with a solar panel company. He also volunteered in the Israeli police force and the army, remaining in Israel until 1990, when he came back to live in the U.S.
He says that the abuse he witnessed and experienced at the hands of Mondrowitz, and his treatment by the Ger yeshiva system — it turns out he was kicked out of the Ger yeshiva in Israel right around the time Mondrowitz had fled there — have “never allowed me to trust.”
“If my story will make a change just to save one child … I think it’s worth it.”