Jay Goldberg walked into the stone building just east of the Harlem River in Manhattan for his first day of school 38 years ago, a 16-year-old excited to attend the famed Yeshiva University High School for Boys. But Goldberg says he would soon spend hours being sexually abused in a rabbi’s office at the prep school.
“At the time, I told nobody,” he said at a Thursday news conference in New York. “I didn’t have anybody to tell. He was the person of authority; he controlled the day-to-day activities in school.”
After he graduated, Goldberg says, he endured years of nightmares about the rabbi with thick-framed glasses and a beard, finding his emotions so uncontrollable that he once broke his own hand. Now 54 and a software developer, Goldberg wants justice from the institution, which he says knew about the abuse and remained silent.
On Thursday, Goldberg and 37 other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against Yeshiva University, alleging that the institution failed to protect its students from two rabbis who abused students in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. “These men are men who deserve justice, they are entitled to it, and I assure you, they will get it,” said Kevin Mulhearn, an attorney for the plaintiffs, at the news conference.
The lawsuit was made possible by New York’s new Child Victims Act, which changed the statute of limitations on criminal charges and civil lawsuits involving children and opened a one-year window for new lawsuits over old cases. The group of Yeshiva students had brought a similar case in 2013 but lost because judges ruled that too much time had passed since the alleged assaults.
“They were barred from the courthouse in 2013, but now the door is open and they are walking right in,” Michael Dowd, a lead attorney on the case, told The Washington Post on Thursday. “They get their day in court to hold the Yeshiva accountable for the disgraceful coverup of sexual abuse.”
The high school is one of many institutions rocked by sexual abuse scandals that have been sued under the new law. Since the litigation window opened last week, hundreds of suits tied to old abuse have been filed, including cases against the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church.
The Yeshiva University High School for Boys, which is operated as a prep school for its namesake university, dates to 1916 and is considered to be the first academic Jewish high school in America. The school’s alumni include Los Angeles Dodgers President Stan Kasten and lawyer Alan Dershowitz.
The sexual abuse allegations about the school emerged in 2012, when the Jewish Daily Forward reported that Rabbi George Finkelstein, who eventually became the school’s principal, and Rabbi Macy Gordon, who taught the study of rabbinical law, had sexually abused students during the 1970s and ’80s. The paper also found that the school knew about the abuse but allowed the instructors to keep working for years. One student told the Daily Forward he tried to take his own life after Gordon sodomized him with a toothbrush. His parents allegedly reported the incident to the school, but nothing happened. Finkelstein later worked as a dean at a Jewish school near Miami, and both he and Gordon eventually moved to Israel.
Gordon is now deceased. Finkelstein could not be reached on Thursday night. He has denied the allegations in the past.
A year after the article landed, Yeshiva University Chancellor Norman Lamm apologized for how he handled the sexual abuse incidents in a letter announcing his retirement.
“At the time that inappropriate actions by individuals at Yeshiva were brought to my attention, I acted in a way that I thought was correct, but which now seems ill conceived,” Lamm wrote.
Goldberg said that he could have been saved from years of abuse had the school acted sooner.
“Had this been addressed years before, I would not have been abused,” he said.
The new lawsuit describes the high school as a place where “vicious and malicious” predators preyed on children. The complaint also alleges that Finkelstein targeted children of Holocaust survivors, telling them they would increase their parents’ suffering if they shared stories of their abuse.
Barry Singer, a 61-year-old plaintiff who spoke at the news conference, said he didn’t understand that he was a victim of sexual abuse until he had his own children.
“Having children was my salvation because that was when I was able to come to terms for the first time with what happened to me,” he said, adding that he has since compelled his daughters to speak up if they ever experience abuse. “I said to them, ‘Whatever happens to you, you have to understand that I didn’t speak up at the time but I’m speaking up now. You have to speak up the minute anyone touches you in a way that bothers you.’ ”
David Bressler, 51, another plaintiff, said he was scarred for life by the abuse. “I would wear my shirt out of my pants so there wasn’t all of this feeling around in there,” he said at the news conference. “And to this day I still do.”
Goldberg was an anonymous plaintiff in the 2013 lawsuit, but after the death last year of his mother, who was unaware of what he went through, he said he felt comfortable making his story public.
“It is still the culture of Yeshiva University and the culture of modern orthodoxy in Judaism that it is a scar for us to come forward, it is with shame,” he said. “And it shouldn’t be.”