Less than 24 hours after having sex assault charges against him dismissed without prejudice on Monday, August 7, former kosher Teaneck restaurateur Shalom Yehudiel was again under arrest, detained in Queens after being caught at Kennedy Airport with a one-way ticket to Thailand in hand.
It was a dramatic day for Mr. Yehudiel, who rocketed to local fame as the first kosher chef to appear on “Chopped,” only to lose his two restaurants in the wake of multiple allegations of sexually abusing minors and to have his self-styled reputation as a world-class chef trashed as legal proceedings revealed that he had lied widely and often about his professional experience prior to moving back to his home town of Fair Lawn in 2015.
It was also a dramatic day for Fair Lawn native Elisheva Akselrod, whose complaints against Mr. Yehudiel for allegedly grooming and abusing her at Fair Lawn’s Anshei Lubavitch synagogue, starting in 2016 when she was 14, began the complicated mixture of civil suits, criminal indictments, and public protests that have drastically reversed Mr. Yehudiel’s public image.
On that Monday and Tuesday earlier this month, “There was a lot of anxiety,” Ms. Akselrod said. She and her attorney, Michael Gorokhovich, were not surprised by the dismissal of the charges against Mr. Yehudiel. Those charges concerned a different alleged victim and reflected a failure of the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office to obtain evidence in the FBI’s possession and turn it over to Mr. Yehudiel’s attorneys. But they were shocked when they learned that the judge had released Mr. Yehudiel from the home confinement and monitoring that were put in place following his arrest on those charges in 2022.
“And then there was the surprise that we actually caught him in the nick of time,” Ms. Akselrod said. “Part of me almost didn’t believe that he was going to flee the country. He has a wife and a kid. Maybe he cared about them a little bit?”
Mr. Gorokhovich had laid out the arguments that Mr. Yehudiel, as a citizen of Israel with no ongoing business interests in the United States, was a flight risk. In a series of court filings, he urged that Mr. Yehudiel be prevented from leaving the country before his August 7 court date.
“I didn’t think he would do it,” Ms. Akselrod said of Mr. Yehudiel’s attempt to leave the country. “I thought he would be too lazy. When Michael told me they caught him at the airport, there was a part of me that was a little surprised. What is this, a heist movie?”
Ms. Akselrod told her story to her parents for the first time in 2019; once they heard it, they went to the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office to seek criminal charges. But the prosecutor’s office said that there was not sufficient evidence to prosecute. Mr. Gorokhovich says that the office’s response reflects a lazy investigation that, among other things, failed to interview a key witness and review Mr. Yehudiel’s text messages; those texts, according to the lawsuit Mr. Gorokhovich later filed, included strong indications that Mr. Yehudiel sought a sexual relationship with the girl.
(While court records maintain the anonymity of minors alleging abuse, Ms. Akselrod, now 21, has chosen not to be anonymous with her name and story.)
In 2021, Ms. Akselrod filed her civil suit, hoping to get at the truth of the matter and enable a fuller investigation.
That same year, another civil suit was filed from a former employee of the Humble Toast, the high-end kosher sandwich restaurant Mr. Yehudiel had opened in Teaneck in 2018. A year later, in March 2022, the prosecutor’s office took the allegations of yet another underage employee, identified only as S.B., before a grand jury, which handed up the indictment. That’s the indictment that was dismissed earlier this month.
State Superior Court Judge Christopher Kazlau dismissed the criminal charges based on S.B.’s complaint because of the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office’s failure to obtain evidence from the FBI that Mr. Yehudiel argued would prove his innocence. Mr. Gorokhovich sees that as a further instance of the office’s negligence. At issue were video recordings made by the Humble Toast surveillance system, which Mr. Yehudiel’s attorneys asserted would prove his contention that nothing untoward happened between him and S.B. The FBI seized those recording from the restaurant in 2022. The FBI provided brief clips from the videos to the attorneys, proving that the surveillance system was functioning. But the Bergen Prosecutor’s Office said they were unable to gain access to the full files.
Without the footage, the judge agreed with Mr. Yehudiel’s attorneys that his rights were violated and dismissed the charges without prejudice — meaning that the state could seek another indictment before another grand jury if it gets the video from the FBI.
And at the end of the hearing, the judge announced that Mr. Yehudiel would be released from home confinement.
For Mr. Gorokhovich, who had taken on Ms. Akselrod’s case pro bono, this was a nightmare.
In the months between Mr. Yehudiel filing his motion to dismiss the S.B. indictment because of the failure to provide the surveillance evidence, and the August 7 hearing on that motion, Mr. Gorokhovich had sought to reopen Eli Akselrod’s criminal case to prevent Mr. Yehudiel from leaving the country. To that end, he filed a criminal complaint about Mr. Yehudiel’s assaults on Ms. Akselrod in Fair Lawn municipal court and obtained a probable cause finding in April 2023 that should have resulted in his arrest at that time.
Mr. Gorokhovich had sought as well to move the investigation in Ms. Akselrod’s case from the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, which he argued had an interest in not revealing the failures of its initial investigation. After a series of legal motions, New Jersey’s attorney general, Matthew J. Platkin, took control of the case and deputized members of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office to carry out the investigation on its behalf.
Still, Mr. Yehudiel’s full release following the dismissal came as a shock to Mr. Gorokhovich.
“The only reason Yehudiel was even running away was because the prosecutor’s office did not make an objection to his release,” Mr. Gorokhovich said. And that failure, he continued, was a violation of the relevant statute, which demands “a hearing to determine whether the perpetrator was a flight risk. The prosecutor’s office did not object to it, even though the probable cause for his March 2022 arrest was never vacated. Even crazier, Yehudiel’s attorneys did not even ask for him to be released.”
Further, he said, “When somebody gets released from arrest, the victim by law must be notified. They didn’t notify S.B. The person who notified her was Asher Lovy” — founder of Za’akah, an organization devoted to helping survivors of sexual violence. “It was not a great conversation to have with her parents. Where was the Bergen County prosecutor?
So, with Mr. Yehudiel released from the indictment and no longer mandated to wear an ankle monitor, Mr. Gorokhovich reached out to several prosecutors and to the court, hoping to secure the arrest warrant that he said should have been issued in April.
He succeeded when Caroline Lawlor, the director of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office’s Special Victims Unit, obtained an arrest warrant on Eli Akselrod’s longstanding allegations the Tuesday morning after Mr. Yehudiel was released.
Hours later, the restaurateur was detained at the airport on his way to Thailand.
Why was he headed there?
“I don’t even know that he was,” Lee Vartan, one of Mr. Yehudiel’s attorneys, said on Sunday. “I haven’t had a one-on-one conversation with him so I don’t know.”
After his arrest, Mr. Yehudiel was transferred to Rikers Island prison. There, other prisoners attacked him, and they broke his arm. Two days later, his attorneys wrote in a court filing, Mr. Yehudiel was still throwing up blood.
“Notwithstanding his family’s and his counsel’s best efforts, he was not taken for X-ray,” the court filing reported.
Now, following a hearing conducted on Zoom last Friday, Mr. Yehudiel is being released on his own recognizance. He told the court he plans to travel to Florida, where he will reunite with his wife and child. His passport will not be returned, and he will check in with the court weekly.
On Monday, however, Mr. Gorokhovich filed a motion objecting to what he termed lenient release terms. In contrast to Mr. Yehudiel’s situation at the time of his earlier arrest, Mr. Gorokhovich noted, now he is not operating restaurants. Further, despite his claims to want to reunite with his wife, Mr. Yehudiel made no effort to seek permission to visit her and their young child during the year and a half of his previous arrest, but once he could fly, instead of buying round-trip passage to Florida instead he tried to rush off to Thailand on a one-way ticket. Finally, Mr. Gorokhovich argued that compared to New Jersey and New York, the state of Florida records far more illegal border crossings, making it plausible that Mr. Yehudiel would leave the country and subsequently simply replace his Israeli passport now held by the New Jersey court with a new one.
Mr. Yehudiel’s attorneys have filed a motion arguing for the case to be dismissed, saying that it is inappropriate for the state to launch a prosecution against him from the Union County Prosecutor’s Office for allegations that the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office already had decided could not be prosecuted.
For his part, Mr. Gorokhovich is prepared to argue that the filing is frivolous and makes direct misrepresentations to the court regarding evidence collected in the civil case.
Meanwhile, Mr. Gorokhovich has dropped Ms. Akselrod’s civil suit against Mr. Yehudiel, saying that the case had fulfilled its aim of gathering criminal evidence,.
“The biggest reason I pursued any of this in the first place, when my parents encouraged me to go to the authorities about this, was that I heard I wasn’t the only victim,” Ms. Akselrod said. “That motivated me more than almost anything. It’s not just about justice but making sure he doesn’t get to do this ever again. You can’t eliminate pedophilia, but if you know there’s a way to stop one of them…
“Going all hard on someone like this, literally arresting them at the airport, is needed to prove the seriousness of these kinds of crimes. It’s about making sure it never happens again.”