For three young boys from Baltimore, Camp Shoresh, an Orthodox day camp tucked into the gently rolling hills of Frederick County in western Maryland, must have seemed a child’s paradise.
For three young boys from Baltimore, Camp Shoresh, an Orthodox day camp tucked into the gently rolling hills of Frederick County in western Maryland, must have seemed a child’s paradise.
It had a twisty water slide, a spacious game room packed with pool, ping-pong and foosball tables, a zip line, a climbing wall reaching into the sky, and a creek winding through the grounds, perfect for nature hikes.
But in the summer of 2015, dark clouds pierced paradise.
Soon after Zev, then 7; Boaz, then 8; and Adam, then 7 (not their real names) started spending their days at the camp in late June and early July, each boy’s parents began to notice disturbing changes in their children’s behavior.
Zev, a sensitive, intellectual child, began waking up in the middle of the night screaming. Later that summer he complained of headaches and stomach aches, and he began wetting his bed.
Boaz, an active, “always laughing” kid, began acting out — shouting and becoming violent with his siblings, displaying “explosive” episodes of anger, his parents said. During a family drive, Boaz took off his seat belt, fell to the floor of the moving car, and started screaming and crying.
Adam’s mother sensed something was wrong when the usually energetic and curious child started complaining of horrible stomach aches and developed a tick. He smeared feces on the walls, and he started to believe that “monsters lived in bathrooms.”
The connective tissue tying the boys’ similar stories together is Rabbi Steven (Shmuel) Krawatsky, who in the summer of 2015 served as the head of the lower boys’ division at Camp Shoresh.
Krawatsky, 40, has worked in Jewish education for more than two decades and is considered to be a highly respected, charismatic leader who creates close personal relationships with his students. Before moving to Baltimore in 2003, he worked as a Judaic studies teacher at HAFTR, a large Jewish day school in the Five Towns area, and as the youth director at the White Shul in Far Rockaway. Married and the father of four, he lives in Baltimore and taught middle school Judaic studies at Beth Tfiloh, the local Modern Orthodox day school, and ran youth programming at Suburban Orthodox Toras Chaim, a large Orthodox synagogue in Baltimore. He began working at Camp Shoresh, an outreach, or kiruv, camp, in the early 2000s.
The boys’ parents describe behavior that experts in the field of child sexual abuse label as “grooming.” Rabbi K, as he is known around Baltimore, took a special interest in each child, giving them gifts (a signed basketball in Boaz’s case, davening prizes in Adam’s). Two of the three sets of parents recalled receiving phone calls from Rabbi K early in the camp season offering to give their sons private, one-on-one “social skills” lessons to improve their behavior. In the phone conversation, he praised each boy, calling them “special.”
Adam’s mother recalled Krawatsky telling her over the phone that he had taken her son into the camp locker room to reprimand him for “inappropriate” behavior. He had gone with him alone into the locker room so as “not to embarrass him,” she recalls him explaining.
Toward the end of camp that summer, the boys’ stories of alleged sexual abuse at the hands of Krawatsky began to spill out, first to their parents and then to staff at Child Protective Services (CPS) in Frederick County, Md. Two of the alleged victims underwent forensic interviews.
Krawatsky declined to speak directly with NJJN. His attorney said the rabbi continues to proclaim his complete innocence and denies that any misconduct took place.
NJJN reviewed the transcript of one of the forensic interviews, which provides abundant and disturbing detail of what took place, according to one of the young boys.
According to the transcript, the rabbi, who was naked and alone in the pool changing room with two alleged victims, touched the young boys “inappropriately” before asking them to touch his “private parts” in exchange for $100. The report also states that the rabbi threatened the young boys not to tell their parents what had happened and hit one boy in the stomach because “he was mad because we didn’t do what he said; touch his private parts.” (The parents of the young boy recalled finding bruises on their son’s stomach in July.) Similar incidents took place three times over the course of the summer, according to the report.
The first alleged victim interviewed by CPS later revealed to a private therapist that Krawatsky had anally raped him, according to the boy’s parents. (The therapist, a mandated reporter, reported the rape to the Frederick County Child Advocacy center on Nov. 9, 2017, according to an email exchange between the boy’s parents and the therapist.)
Another disclosed to his parents and to CPS that he had been anally and orally raped by Krawatsky. (The alleged victim disclosed details of the abuse to CPS in early 2017. A time lapse between sexual abuse and a victim’s disclosure of the abuse is expected, child trauma experts say.)
Frederick County CPS declined to release a transcript of the forensic interview, according to the victims’ parents. CPS did not respond to requests for comment.
The third child initially did not disclose abuse when he was interviewed by a CPS caseworker and the Frederick County Police on Dec. 22, 2015.
However, according to his father, he later disclosed to a private therapist that Krawatsky had propositioned him to touch his penis in the pool locker room two times over the course of the summer. The child said Krawatsky was naked and verbally abusive toward him, threatening to “punish” him if he did not comply with his proposition, according to the young boy’s father. (These details are corroborated in the CPS transcript of the first alleged victim’s forensic interview.)
In the first two cases, CPS case workers, trained extensively to detect child sexual abuse and trauma, concluded that Krawatsky was “indicated” for child sexual abuse. (In the third case, CPS ruled that sexual abuse was “unsubstantiated.”) These CPS terms are critical to understanding the case.
According to Sandra Barnes, assistant attorney general at Maryland Attorney General’s Office and the point person on cases that involve CPS, an “indication” from Child Protective Services means there was a “preponderance of evidence” that sexual abuse took place.
“To issue an indication, CPS must be convinced that it is more likely sexual abuse occurred than that it did not occur,” she said. “Where there is all that smoke, there must be fire.”
Krawatsky appealed both determinations, a move that is not unusual, according to Barnes. In both instances, the cases were settled prior to an appellate ruling. In the end, CPS, in what amounts to a plea bargain, downgraded its determination from “indicated” to “unsubstantiated,” which means that there is not a preponderance of evidence that abuse took place.
Much of the Baltimore Orthodox community continues to vocally support and defend the rabbi, citing him as a warm and caring leader.
Krawatsky stopped working at the camp after the summer of 2015, according to a letter sent out by the camp director to the “friends and families” of Camp Shoresh in February 2016 addressing the “allegation … about improper conduct.”
More than two years after the events of the summer of 2015, the boys are still struggling to deal with the effects of what allegedly took place, according to their parents. The three boys (two of whom are cousins) continue to disclose details about what they went through that summer, under the care of therapists trained in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy.
The parents of each child are still searching for answers.
“I simply cannot stay silent when I know that this man is still working with children,” said the mother of one of the alleged victims, who requested to remain anonymous to protect her son’s privacy. Though her preference would be to “bury my head in the sand and just move forward,” she feels compelled to speak out “to prevent future victims.”
“This nearly broke us,” said Joel Avrunin, Zev’s father, who met with me in mid-November. “I’m fighting for my son’s childhood. You only get one. I want my son to have his.”
An anomalous investigation
An investigation by NJJN into the allegations against Krawatsky paints a disturbing picture of how the Camp Shoresh case played out — from the perspectives of law enforcement, organizational “best practices” to guard against abuse, and the Orthodox community’s reaction.
The story comes as the Jewish community is in the midst of what many say is a long-overdue conversation about how to prevent child sexual abuse. A number of major philanthropists recently signed on to a pledge saying they would no longer fund schools and camps that do not put into place best practices to combat such abuse. Nonprofits have sprung up in an effort to guide Jewish institutions toward setting up policies to protect children. And the case comes as the Conservative Movement is dealing with newly published allegations (and in some cases confirmation, as The New York Jewish Week reported) of sexual abuse carried out years ago by leaders in its youth arm, United Synagogue Youth.
“It is extremely rare to have a false allegation of child sexual abuse,” said Victor Vieth, founder and senior director of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center and a nationally recognized expert in child sexual abuse prevention. “The more victims there are, the less likely it is that the accused is innocent.” A false allegation is akin to being “struck by lightning,” he said. The likelihood that three separate allegations are false is “equivalent to the same person being struck by lightning three times. It is improbable enough to stagger the imagination.”
In the case of the Shoresh allegations, the police opened a criminal investigation in late August, two days after the alleged sexual abuse had been reported to the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, and a day after Zev went to the Child Advocacy Center for his forensic interview. The charges: sex offense in the third degree and sexual abuse of a minor.
But, experts assert, it may have been a flawed probe from the start.
According to the police report, obtained by NJJN, the investigating detective, Michael P. Davies, brought Zev, his father, and the CPS caseworker back to the scene of the alleged abuse — the pool changing room at camp. When they arrived at the camp, Davies met up with the camp’s director, Rabbi David Finkelstein. Together, Davies and Finkelstein questioned Zev about the alleged incident.
Finkelstein declined to comment for this story.
Zev’s father, Mr. Avrunin, recalled that the police detective, who was armed at the time, asked him to remain outside the changing room while his son was questioned. The move struck him as strange. Nonetheless, he complied. (A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office said that requesting a parent not to be present while a child victim is questioned is “standard procedure.”)
The investigative detective told NJJN he was unable to provide comment for confidentiality reasons and directed questions to Maj. Tim Clarke, operations commander and spokesman at the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office. According to Clarke, taking a child victim back to the scene of the alleged crime is “normally not done.” However, in this case, the investigator felt it necessary because “the child may have been unclear of the location where the incident occurred.”
Sandra Barnes of the state attorney general’s office said bringing a victim back to the scene of an alleged crime just days after it was suspected to have taken place is “very unusual” and a tactic she has “never seen before.”
The police investigation also does not include any video footage, photographs, sworn statements, or witness testimonies, all methods of corroboration criminal investigators generally try to include, said Clarke. In this case, Davies must not have thought them “necessary,” said Clarke. Investigative tactics are left up to the police detective’s “discretion.”
The police report also indicates that Finkelstein, the camp director, was involved in the criminal probe of his employee, Krawatsky — an unusual circumstance, according to legal experts, given his apparent conflict of interest. The report states that Finkelstein “asked several other counselors about changing habits at the pools changing rooms(s)” and that these counselors said that, unlike other counselors, Krawatsky used a private pool utility room to change.
Maj. Clarke, who reviewed the case prior to an interview with NJJN, said he was not aware that Finkelstein had been involved in the investigation; however, under normal circumstances, any information used by police is received via direct interviews or in-person statements.
According to Marci Hamilton, CEO and academic director of CHILD USA, a think tank dedicating to preventing child abuse, this case has “all the earmarks typical of an investigation constructed to protect the perpetrator.” (Hamilton, a distinguished legal scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, did not have access to the police report but was informed of the facts of the case.)
Further, a significant part of the criminal investigation — referenced by community leaders and Krawatsky’s lawyer as evidence of his innocence — was a polygraph examination. On Sept. 11, 2015, Krawatsky submitted to a polygraph examination at the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, according to the police report. After the exam was completed, the officer who conducted the test advised Davies that “deception was NOT detected.”
Krawatsky’s attorney cited the polygraph as evidence of his client’s innocence. “He [Krawatsky] immediately offered to take a polygraph test which he passed without question,” Rolle wrote to NJJN in an email.
(The polygraph report was not included in the police report. The Frederick County Sheriff’s Office denied the victim’s father access to the polygraph report, according to a letter from the Frederick County Sheriff’s office. The letter did not cite a reason for the denial.)
Experts say the polygraph exam is unreliable, and polygraphs are not admissible as evidence in court. The manual of the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse, an arm of the National District Attorneys’ Association, writes about the polygraph: “These investigative tools should never be the controlling factor in a decision about whether to proceed with a case.”
On Dec. 8, 2015, Lindell Angel, assistant state’s attorney in Frederick County and the chief of the sex crimes and child abuse unit, decided not to pursue criminal charges against Krawatsky “at this time.” After she reviewed the case with Davies on Dec. 2, the police report states Angel declined to prosecute due to “the lack of evidence and witnesses.”
In an email, Angel told NJJN “it was apparent that the allegations of the complaint could not be corroborated, and furthermore were contradicted by other witnesses reported to be present as well as well as the physicality of the alleged scene of the reported event.”
The police report includes no witness testimony contradicting the alleged victims’ accounts. When asked for comment on why this seemingly pivotal testimony is absent, Clarke said, “I have not additional comments to add.”
Experts explain that the standard used to prosecute a case — confidence that a crime can be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” — is much higher than CPS’ threshold to “indicate” someone for sexual abuse.
“Our threshold is not ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’” said Barnes. Still, “To indicate, we have to be convinced abuse happened.”
Hamilton points out that the decision not to prosecute a case does not suggest the alleged abuser’s innocence. “There is a common and grave misunderstanding out there that failure to prosecute exonerates the perpetrator. It does not. It just means more evidence is needed,” she said. When the accused is a religious figure and beloved community member, gaining enough evidence to prosecute becomes increasingly difficult, she continued.
Hamilton pointed out, though, that “New victims can come forward at any point.” (In 2017, Maryland extended the statute of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse to age 38.)
Communal silence & cognitive dissonance
The Orthodox community’s reaction to the allegations against Krawatsky, which reaches from local leaders in Baltimore to the national umbrella group the Orthodox Union, is an example of what one abuse prevention expert called “cognitive dissonance.”
According to Shira M. Berkovits, an expert in abuse prevention, the inclination among community members to defend the accused is typical, even expected. (It was a pattern that was common in the sexual abuse case of National Council of Synagogue Youth Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a story first reported in The New York Jewish Week in 2000.)
“When a respected religious leader is accused of a morally repugnant crime, the impulse not to believe goes to the core,” said Berkovits, who holds a doctorate in psychology as well as a law degree.
Indeed, the Baltimore community has rallied around the popular Rabbi Krawatsky.
Complicating the picture is the rabbi’s successful appeals of the Child Protective Services rulings that there was a preponderance of evidence to suggest that he had sexually abused two of the Baltimore boys; the term “unsubstantiated” may have left the impression that Krawatsky was cleared when in fact it meant that there was not a preponderance of evidence of abuse.
During the appeal of the first case, which took place in early 2016, Krawatsky was placed on leave by the Beth Tfiloh day school, his primary employer.
Speaking to NJJN, Zipora Schorr, Beth Tfiloh’s director of education, said she was unaware that the rabbi had been indicated for sexual abuse in September 2015 or in March 2017.
In a subsequent email exchange, Schorr acknowledged that she “was informed of the indication via email on September 25, 2015 from Frederick County Child Protective Services unit.” She said Krawatsky was immediately suspended and escorted out of the building.
Schorr maintains she did not know about Krawatsky’s second indication or his subsequent appeal.
According to experts, a successful appeal does not exonerate the accused. The case was closed on Feb. 10, 2016, after the parties settled the matter prior to any appellate review. The lawyer representing CPS and Krawatsky’s attorney, Chris Rolle, reached a settlement to downgrade Krawatsky’s “indication” to an “unsubstantiated” status.
Krawatsky was immediately reinstated at Beth Tfiloh after the first appeal, with no further investigation by the school.
It is not unusual for CPS legal personnel to settle with an alleged abuser’s attorney, legal experts say. “With limited financial and legal resources, CPS caseworkers will often choose to settle with the alleged abuser’s attorney, a preferable outcome to the indication being ruled out and the record destroyed,” said Barnes.
Converting a ruling from “indicated” to “unsubstantiated” preserves a paper trail on the alleged abuser. (In Maryland, anyone with an “indicated” or “unsubstantiated” finding of child abuse is entered into a central confidential state database, according to the Maryland Department of Human Resources.)
Victor Veith, the child sex abuse expert, agreed: “A high-priced attorney can browbeat CPS to downgrade that ‘indicated’ to ‘unsubstantiated,’” he said. “That’s not rare.”
(In Maryland, the third potential outcome of a CPS investigation is “ruled out,” meaning that based on the available information, child maltreatment did not occur. This determination was not reached in the cases involving Krawatsky.)
Schorr, meanwhile, continues to affirm her belief in Krawatsky’s “complete innocence,” though she declined to explain why.
As an example of Krawatsky’s popularity, last November, when Chaim Levin, an activist and advocate for child abuse victims, posted a warning about the rabbi on his Facebook wall, indignant responses poured in. Most of them attested to Krawatsky’s exceptional character and fastidious care of the children under his watch. (Levin previously worked for The Jewish Week as an editorial intern.)
To date, the Nov. 10 post has received nearly 70 comments, almost exclusively defending the rabbi.
“I can prove to you that Rabbi K is innocent. Stop hurting HIS children by bringing up a case that was thoroughly investigated and thrown out. It is honorable to protect kids. It is awful to slander an innocent person,” one mother wrote.
One commenter posted about his “multiple 1 on 1 lunch and learns with the accused as a middle schooler” and recalls going over to the rabbi’s house “for sleepovers as an elementary school student” as evidence of his trustworthiness.
The thread also contains vicious verbal attacks against Levin (who said he received multiple threats) and the victims’ families.
The OU’s knowledge — and apparent inaction
In September 2016, more than a year after the allegations against Krawatsky surfaced, the Orthodox Union’s Yachad, a national organization that works to include individuals with disabilities in Jewish life, struck up a collaboration with Suburban Orthodox synagogue in Baltimore to create a Teen Inclusion Minyan, a prayer service catering to children and teens with disabilities.
Krawatsky, the synagogue youth director, was appointed to lead the Yachad program in addition to his job at Beth Tfiloh. Days after the new Yachad minyan began to advertise, several different individuals approached the Orthodox Union with concerns about Krawatsky’s appointment. David Ohsie, a concerned father of eight living in the Baltimore Orthodox community, communicated his concerns to Deborah Rockoff, Yachad’s director of national programs, via email and phone for nearly two months.
(Rockoff, who did not respond to requests for comment, assured Ohsie that the OU was going to remove Krawatsky from his position of leadership, according to Ohsie. Krawatsky was not removed from the special needs minyan.)
Upon receiving complaints, Jeffrey Lichtman, international director of Yachad, conducted a “preliminary investigation” into the rabbi, according to Lichtman. (The Yachad employee tasked with investigating the matter had no training in cases of child sexual abuse, Lichtman said.)
The OU reached out to two independent groups for further information: the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center and GRACE, an organization that has in the past helped Christian organizations respond to abuse. Both organizations confirmed to NJJN that Lichtman reached out regarding the matter of Krawatsky in November 2016, and both strongly recommended that the OU engage a third party to conduct an independent investigation into what Boz Tchividjian, founder of GRACE, described as the “very serious allegation in Baltimore County.”
(The OU has a fund set aside to help member synagogues investigate abuse claims.)
The Gundersen and GRACE organizations said the OU expressed interest in retaining their expert personnel to conduct an investigation into the matter. Both organizations said Lichtman requested proposals for conducting an investigative assessment. Both independently took the time to prepare these proposals for the OU, but said they did not hear back from Lichtman.
Lichtman said he did not follow through with these experts because Krawatsky “was not an employee so we did not conduct further investigation.”
Meanwhile, the results of the OU’s internal investigation, which unearthed sexual allegations made against the rabbi, prompted Lichtman to “immediately disassociate from this person [Krawatsky] and not be involved with him in any way, shape, or form,” he told NJJN. Lichtman said he advised his fellow OU staff members not to partner with Krawatsky on any OU-sponsored programs.
In December 2016, nearly two months after initial concerns about the rabbi leading the Yachad minyan were brought to the OU’s attention, Yachad dropped its name from the special teen service. But the special needs minyan, under the leadership of Krawatsky, continued, according to the synagogue’s weekly bulletins. (A phone call to the synagogue last month confirmed that Krawatsky is still the youth director and still coordinates programming for special needs children.)
Lichtman said that, at the time, he “informed our [Yachad] participants who would potentially be involved in the program” that the OU had decided not to work with Krawatsky.
The OU took no further steps to inform the Baltimore Orthodox community of its concerns about Krawatsky. Lichtman said: “The OU has no mechanism to communicate with the community aside from telling the rabbi” of the congregation.
Lichtman said he personally told Rabbi Shmuel Silber, rabbi of the synagogue hosting the Yachad minyan, about his concerns regarding Krawatsky. In a phone interview with NJJN, Lichtman said he “informed” Silber over the phone that conducting an independent investigation is the recommended best practice.
Silber did not respond to several requests for comment. However, Baltimore community members say that Silber remains vocally supportive of Krawatsky and convinced of his innocence.
Lichtman said he also informed Beth Tfiloh of the OU’s decision to remove Krawatsky from all their programming. Beth Tfiloh’s Zipora Schorr emailed NJJN that the school “never received any notification by the OU of its decision to sever all ties with Rabbi Krawatsky.”
Lichtman said he believes the OU followed best practices in responding in this case. He said: “We did everything we needed to do to protect our people.”
During the summer of 2016, NCSY Camp Sports, an all-boys sleepaway camp sponsored by the Orthodox Union, hosted Krawatsky as their special Shabbat guest. He slept on-site and conducted learning workshops with campers.
According to NCSY’s Conduct, Policy and Behavioral Standards manual, volunteer hires who interact with teens are hired only after various background checks and an interview.
NJJN reached out to Rabbi Jon Green, NCSY Camp Sports’ director, to inquire who conducted the background check into Krawatsky. Green assured this reporter that he would “100 percent” respond to the question.
“But,” he said, “you do know Rabbi K was totally cleared, right?” His source: a “passing conversation” with a “mutual friend” who knows Krawatsky. (Green did not respond to NJJN’s question about who conducted the background check.)
Rabbi Yosef Blau, a longtime spiritual adviser at Yeshiva University and advocate for victims of child sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, said that “not having enough evidence of child sexual abuse is a ridiculous standard” for the individuals the community chooses to teach its children.
“The potential danger to children should be far greater than any other concern,” Blau continued. “The notion that if the police don’t arrest the guy you should keep him teaching is absurd.”
Reflecting on the case in light of the recent national reckoning surrounding sexual abuse and harassment, University of Pennsylvania’s Marci Hamilton said, “What is happening with this man is indefensible. This is willing ignorance, and nothing else. In the #MeToo era, the decision to ignore all of these very loud bells could lead to endangering children.”
‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire’
The three families whose boys were allegedly abused now plan to sue Krawatsky and any organization that “had knowledge that Rabbi K was being inappropriate with children and failed to intervene,” said Jon Little, the attorney who will be representing the families.
“From these three kids, we’ve gleaned the names of five more kids,” all of whom were allegedly abused by Krawatsky at Camp Shoresh and in his other roles, said Little. “We have the record from the Maryland Child Protective Services — that’s a lot in my world. I am pretty confident that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and here there’s a raging forest fire.”
Chris Rolle, Krawatsky’s attorney, stated by email that the rabbi is “heartbroken and dismayed that the parents of the children are continuing to press these false allegations. There isn’t any more that my client can say other than he is innocent.” (Aside from citing the fact that his client passed a polygraph exam, Rolle declined to provide further evidence of his client’s innocence.)
For the parents of the alleged victims, the last two years have been a nightmare. The father of Krawatsky’s third alleged victim said the community’s inaction is what pains him most deeply.
“It’s not the abuser — he’s a weed, a sick person who needs treatment. The real problem is the willingness of the whole community — including its leaders — to shelter him,” said the father, an Israeli physicist who lives with his wife and three children in a suburb of Washington, D.C.
As for the Avrunins, who have been the most vocal about their son’s alleged abuse, they say that over the last two years they have been slandered, defamed, and accused by members of the Baltimore Orthodox community of spreading “lashon harah,” malicious gossip, about an innocent man. Some have claimed the family is pursuing a “personal vendetta” against Krawatsky.
The situation eventually caused the family to leave their Baltimore home of nine years; they now live in another state.
“The constant disbelief was the second wound our family endured, and the one that leaves a deeper scar,” said Rachel Avrunin, speaking to NJJN by phone in November.
“It is one thing to wrap our mind around the fact that our son was sexually abused,” she said. “It’s another to realize that our community — our friends and neighbors, the people who davened next to us in shul and had playdates at our house — chose to turn a blind eye, or worse, betray us.”