In a new lawsuit, a first-time plaintiff is alleging sexual abuse at the hands of a rabbi who worked at an all-boys Jewish summer camp in the Catskills that he attended as an 8-year-old in 1969.
The suit, filed on Oct. 28 in state Supreme Court, names Heshi Nussbaum, a former staff member at camp Mogen Avraham, as a defendant. It also names Camps Mogen Avraham, Heller, Sternberg, Inc., a corporation consisting of several Jewish overnight camps, and UJA-Federation of New York, which, according to the lawsuit, financially supported the camps.
UJA-Federation replied that it “never owned, operated or controlled the camp, and is wrongly included as a defendant.”
According to the complaint, Nussbaum, the camp rabbi, sexually abused the plaintiff between 20 and 30 times over the course of the summer of 1969. Nussbaum would take the plaintiff, identified as John WR Doe, into his cabin alone where he would sexually abuse him, according to the suit. The molestation, the suit alleges, continued throughout the summer session, even after a fellow camp attendee witnessed and reported the abuse to a head counselor.
In the early 1980s, Nussbaum pleaded guilty in Toronto to child abuse charges relating to his time as a teacher at a local yeshiva, but served no jail time. In approximately 2012, Nussbaum was arrested in Toronto, where he lives, for abuse against multiple minors.
“Conversations around child sexual abuse in the Jewish community have just begun,” said Saul E. Wolf, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiff. While Wolf has litigated cases against Catholic dioceses “across the country,” this is his firm’s first case involving the New York Jewish community since the passage of the revised Child Victims Act earlier this year. Signed into law on Aug. 14, the legislation opened up a one-year period to allow victims of all ages to seek redress in the courts despite prevailing statutes of limitation. The law allows survivors to seek justice against perpetrators and institutions that enabled abuse.
“As with a lot of tight-knit communities, leaders and institutions have prioritized looking out for their own ahead of the safety of children,” said Wolf.
While the plaintiff, now in his late 50s, was “torn” about whether or not to come forward, the pain of being “completely pushed aside by the faith community he loved” helped him make the decision to proceed, said Wolf.
“My objective in filing this lawsuit is not to hurt the Jewish community as a whole, but rather to expose these crimes and to ‘call out’ those who enabled them in my case and other similar cases,” the plaintiff said in a written statement. “Additionally, I believe it will decrease future crimes and bring perpetrators and enablers to justice.”
The lawsuit claims that Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald, an educator, activist and founder of Mogen Avraham, who is described in the suit as an “iconic” leader of Jewish camping, knew about Nussbaum’s behavior, yet failed to prevent his hire at Camp Mogen Avraham. Rabbi Greenwald died in 2016.
The defendants stand accused of neglecting to prevent child sexual abuse at the camp and continuing to employ Nussbaum to work with children unsupervised despite allegations of abuse.
Asked for comment about the lawsuit, a UJA-Federation spokesperson said, “We don’t currently make a grant to the camp. We have made grants in the past. We don’t know if a grant was made in 1969. UJA-Federation of New York was unaware of the allegations made in the complaint. The allegations are very disturbing.” The spokesperson added that the charity neither owned nor operated the camp and should not be included in the suit.
A timeline of UJA-Federation activities, available on the website of the American Jewish Historical Society, notes that in 1961, “the Williamsburg YM-YWHA begins sponsoring Camp Mogen Avraham.” Elsewhere on the same website Mogen Avraham is listed among over 300 “affiliated agencies,” or fundees.
Efforts to reach the camp were unsuccessful.