LOS ANGELES, Sept. 9 (JTA) – A Chasidic rabbi charged with groping a teen-age girl aboard an airplane was the victim of an extortion plot, according to the rabbi’s attorney. As a result of this development, the U.S. government may drop its case against Rabbi Israel Grunwald, a leader of a group of Pupa Chasidim in Brooklyn, N.Y. “The government has agreed to dismiss the misdemeanor charge (of abusive sexual contact with a minor) against Rabbi Grunwald,” Washington attorney Nathan Lewin, who represents the rabbi, said in a statement. But the U.S. government is less certain. “The charges are still pending and trial is still set for Sept. 22,” said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles. Lewin said in a telephone interview that he has a written agreement with the U.S. attorney to drop all charges. But Mrozek said he could neither confirm nor deny this assertion. Grunwald and his assistant Yehudah Friedlander were arrested on May 31, 1995, at Los Angeles International Airport after an overnight flight from Melbourne, Australia. The arrests were based on allegations by a 15-year-old girl, with residences in Australia and the United States, that during the flight the two men had fondled her. Friedlander, facing a felony charge, subsequently pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 22 months in prison. He is due to be released in November. Charges against Grunwald were dropped at the time, but reinstated last October. According to Lewin and a source familiar with the case, the father of the teen-ager last month contacted a Jewish community leader in Australia and said his daughter would retract her testimony in return for a $1.2 million payment from the Chasidic communities in Australia and Brooklyn. The demand was relayed to Australian lawyer Norman Rosenbaum, the brother of yeshiva student Yankel Rosenbaum, who was killed in the 1991 Crown Heights riots, and the information ultimately reached Lewin. Lewin notified federal authorities. On Aug. 24, two days before a previously scheduled trial date, an FBI undercover agent, posing as a friend of Grunwald, turned over a “down payment” of $50,000 to the girl’s father in Burbank, Calif. Kiara Andrich, spokeswoman for the FBI’s Los Angeles office, said that while the FBI was involved in the initial investigation of Grunwald and Friedlander, she could not comment on the alleged undercover operation. Lewin said he hoped that the U.S. attorney’s office, would “vigorously prosecute all parties involved in the attempted extortion of the Jewish communities in Melbourne and Brooklyn.” The New York Post reported “real anger” in the Brooklyn Chasidic community about the government’s failure to arrest the father. Grunwald leads a faction of some 100 Pupa Chasidim in the Brooklyn community of Borough Park. He is the son of the late Josef Grunwald, the Hungarian-born founder and grand rabbi of the 12,000-member Pupa movement.
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.