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 The Jewish Week 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. After the incident Zuckerman says Mondrowitz took him to a bookstore and bought him 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.
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. 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 The Jewish Week, via a letter written to his parents explaining that he “didn’t fit the school and they should find another school.”
(In 2006 Leizerowitz fled to Israel after allegations surfaced that he had molested boys. A post on the website of the now-defunct Awareness Center reported that a civil suit was filed against him alleging that he improperly touched a boy during a one-on-one help session in his office.)
Over the course of a three-hour interview with The Jewish Week, Zuckerman recounted how he was then sent to a Ger yeshiva in Israel. Once there, he says he “managed very well not to think of what happened” with Mondrowitz. Ultimately, however, the head of that yeshiva kicked him out, telling him in Yiddish to “pack and go” without further explanation.
Zuckerman says he was too embarrassed to contact his parents and, with nowhere else to go, ended up sleeping “in the streets.”
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.” As a result of this failure, Zuckerman claims in the suit that he has “suffered and continues to suffer mental anguish, and emotional and psychological injuries [which] have caused irreparable damage and are believed to be permanent.”
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. While Jewish children were alleged by police to be among Mondrowitz’s victims, none of them testified in the grand jury that indicted him and thus were not part of the criminal case.
At the time, then-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 Jewish Week 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.
But more ominous rumors about him circulated as well. 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.
With the criminal pursuit of Mondrowitz apparently stalled, many of his alleged victims and their advocates continued to seek justice, both within and outside legal channels. Haaretz reported in 2007 that several of his alleged victims had, over the years, hatched plans to kidnap or kill him, or have him murdered — none of which came to fruition but nonetheless spoke to the depth of rage and torment his alleged actions had caused.
Haaretz and The Jewish Week reported at the time 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. That same year, both The Village Voice and ABC’s “Nightline” ran in-depth pieces about the Mondrowitz case.
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. Around that same time, reports surfaced that the Israeli authorities had found evidence of his involvement in child pornography and his selling bogus online degrees through a fake university.
Mondrowitz was arrested in Israel pending a decision on the extradition request. 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. The high court’s ruling effectively dashed 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 sought out a friend of his father who lived in the charedi city of Bnei Brak; the man took him to see the Gerer Rebbe in an unsuccessful bid to get him readmitted to the yeshiva. Zuckerman then spent “months sleeping on buses and in the bus station in Tel Aviv … stopping people on the street asking [them] for money.”
Eventually, he was befriended by a Gerer chasid who welcomed him into his home for Shabbos, 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.”
Zuckerman believes that it is crucial to talk “loud enough so that every child should hear that if something is done to you that way, it’s wrong. And you must come out and say the truth because [if you don’t] you’re going to suffer throughout your life.”