‘It made me want to cry’: Ramaz alumni and administrators react to report on sexual abuse at elite Jewish school
NEW YORK (JTA) — When he was attending the Ramaz School in the early 2000s, David Ellenberg heard whispers that Albert Goetz, a math teacher, photographed the feet of female students.
But Ellenberg was also skeptical of the Manhattan Jewish day school’s rumor mill. So when he heard about the photos, he said “it sounded so ridiculous, I didn’t think it had any meaning and didn’t give it a second thought.”
That changed last week after Ramaz released an independent report detailing a history of sexual misconduct by former teachers at the school, as well as instances when the school administration did not act on reports of teachers’ inappropriate behavior either at Ramaz or elsewhere. The report focused on misconduct by three teachers — including Goetz, who was fired following an investigation in 2005.
“Something about it made me want to cry,” Ellenberg, who graduated in 2003, told JTA. “Knowing not only that this was happening immediately surrounding me but that it had been going on in various capacities for so so long. The obvious statement in the report that they knew about pieces of this time and time again, I kept saying out loud to myself, time and time again, what were they waiting for?”
The report, sent to Ramaz’s email list on Aug. 30, is the result of a months-long investigation by the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton into allegations of sexual abuse by educators who worked at Ramaz. The investigation was launched at the beginning of 2018 in order to investigate whether Stanley Rosenfeld, who molested students at other Jewish schools, abused children while working as director of the Ramaz primary school in the 1970s.
The report ended up focusing on three teachers who were employed at Ramaz in that time period: Rosenfeld, Goetz and karate instructor Richard Andron.
According to the Forward, Rosenfeld admitted to sexually abusing hundreds of underage boys in his career as an educator and camp counselor, and the Debevoise report said some of that abuse occurred at Ramaz while he was employed there. The report cited evidence that Andron also abused underage boys at Ramaz.
Goetz, in addition to photographing the feet of female students, admitted to “romantic and physical relationships with two female students” at the school in the 1980s.
The report also said that Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Ramaz’s former principal, learned of Rosenfeld’s abuse sometime after Rosenfeld left Ramaz in 1974, but did not alert any third parties. Lookstein, according to the report, also kept Goetz at the school after receiving allegations of the photographs.
“Over the course of the investigation, Debevoise heard from multiple witnesses that they felt Ramaz had not appropriately addressed some of these allegations,” the report says. “Based on the findings of this Investigation, there are at least some instances in which administrators at Ramaz could have done more to protect Ramaz’s students.”
Lookstein did not respond to multiple calls and an email from JTA. But Ramaz’s current head of school, Jonathan Cannon, said the school has improved its procedures for handling sexual misconduct allegations from students, placing a priority on taking students who report allegations seriously. Both he and the report said that a teacher who was accused recently of sexual misconduct was promptly fired after an investigation.
“Our goal is that students would feel comfortable reporting something, and we would act immediately and decisively if a credible allegation is made,” he told JTA.
Lookstein retired as Ramaz principal in 2015 and is now listed as principal emeritus. The school told JTA it would not be changing its relationship with him as a result of the report.
Cannon said the exact procedure for handling allegations would vary on a case-by-case basis. But JTA has learned that there are now specific faculty members to whom students are told to report allegations. The allegations would then be relayed to senior administrators, and if the allegations are credible enough to be investigated, the teacher in question could be suspended during the investigation. If the investigation were to find that misconduct occurred, the teacher would be terminated, and if it involved a criminal offense, it would be reported to law enforcement.
Alumni of schools where Rosenfeld worked said the culture was different in the 1970s. One former student at Ramaz and Westchester Day School, where Rosenfeld worked previously as assistant principal, recalled a vivid memory from when he was in kindergarten or first grade and was called into the principal’s office. Rosenfeld called him over and placed the student on his lap. Then, the former student recalls, all the secretaries in the office stopped working and fixed their eyes on him.
“When I went to sit on his lap, the entire office stopped and was staring at me,” the man, who now lives in the New York tristate area, told JTA. “I don’t remember anything about him bouncing me, touching my knee. The only thing I remember was the office freezing. That to me told me everyone knew there was a problem going on.”
The Forward reported that while Rosenfeld was employed at Westchester, middle school students reported his behavior to faculty, but he remained at the school before moving to Ramaz the next year. The former student said he is confident that things have changed at the schools nowadays and allegations are taken seriously.
“It seems like it was a known problem and institutions back then handled it horribly,” he said. “I’m happy that we’re in 2018 and hopefully these things don’t happen, but if they happen, they get sniffed out.”
Westchester Day School’s head of school, Rabbi Joshua Lookstein, told JTA in an email that the allegations against Rosenfeld have “prompted extensive reflection,” and that the school now has protocols in place to address misconduct allegations. The school is conducting its own independent investigation of the allegations. Joshua Lookstein is the son of Haskel Lookstein.
“Westchester Day School has no greater obligation than to ensure a safe environment for our students and to be responsive to concerns,” he wrote. “This includes immediately investigating and addressing any reports of inappropriate behavior whenever they may have occurred. On behalf of the current administration and board leadership of Westchester Day School, we apologize to any former student who was impacted by this matter.”
Some recent alumni of Ramaz, however, are not confident of their alma mater’s capacity to undergo a transformation in how it treats its students. Both Ellenberg and Eliana Fishman, who graduated from the school in 2006, told JTA that they feel Ramaz puts its institutional reputation before its students’ well-being.
“Ramaz has always been more interested in its appearance, how it looks, than how it actually treats its students, so I wasn’t all that surprised,” Fishman said regarding the report. “The salient part here is how long these things have been covered up for and that’s kind of what really stands out for me.
“There was no public conversation when Mr. Goetz left about what he had done, why he had left. It was all hush-hush. No one talked about it openly.”