Students at SAR Academy in the Bronx have begun helping investigate the case of a rabbi arrested on child pornography charges and have identified additional aliases he may have used to solicit explicit photographs from minors attending the Modern Orthodox day school.
Meanwhile, NJJN has learned that prior to his position as a middle school associate principal at SAR, Rabbi Jonathan, or “Jonny,” Skolnick, 37, was an unofficial guidance counselor at Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh, a Zionist Orthodox yeshiva located in Jerusalem’s Old City.
In a letter sent out Sunday night to yeshiva alumni and signed by the school’s founding rabbi, Aharon Bina, the yeshiva acknowledged that Skolnick was an alumnus of the yeshiva, graduating in 2001, and that he returned to the yeshiva from 2009 to 2011, during which time he “learned b’chavruta [in pairs] with several of our students.”
A school newsletter and various alumni say Skolnick counseled students one-on-one regarding personal and religious matters, a role that was encouraged and supported by the yeshiva’s upper staff.
Skolnick was arrested by federal authorities earlier this month on charges of possessing and producing child pornography and coercing a 14-year-old boy into sending him sexually explicit pictures.
The original FBI complaint, filed on Sept. 14, identified several online aliases the former educator used to solicit explicit photographs from minors; three pseudonyms — “Molly Dejmal,” “Tina Warner,” and “Anna Freed” — are identified in the report.
Since Skolnick’s arrest, students at SAR have exchanged information about other online aliases that they now believe to have been Skolnick. One alias on Instagram, impersonating a woman, sent friend requests to students and then asked the students for photos of themselves, according to an SAR student who was personally contacted by the alias account.
(The student said he did not accept the alias account’s request.)
“After the news broke in school, my friends and I were discussing the events and one friend mentioned [one alias] that had asked many people for photos of themselves,” the student wrote to NJJN in an email. “I told my parents, who gave the information to the FBI.”
Jessica Haller, an SAR parent and Riverdale resident, said students have been discussing pseudonyms the rabbi allegedly used on several social media platforms, and communicating relevant information to the FBI.
“This is not a case of a rabbi approaching a student face to face,” Haller told NJJN. “He was preying on children on Facebook, Instagram, text, and Snapchat, while pretending to be someone else.”
Haller, who created the online hashtag #WeAreSAR to encourage solidarity with the school, said it is “critically important” for parents from other yeshiva day schools and Jewish camps to “sit down with your children of this age and make sure they KNOW everyone they are friends with on social media.”
A second SAR parent, who requested anonymity, confirmed Haller’s account. “A lot of kids now realize they were contacted by him, though he was not necessarily asking for pictures,” said the parent. “Most said: ‘Who is this random stranger?’ and ignored him.”
Students have noticed that Skolnick would use “kid-speak” in his communication with minors, the parent said. She said her child had been following an Instagram account that is believed to have been created by Skolnick using an alias; students reported the account to the FBI.
News of Skolnick’s arrest rippled through other institutions where he worked.
After a meeting last week for parents and alumni at Yeshivah of Flatbush’s Joel Braverman High School, where Skolnick taught from 2012 to 2018, Rabbi Joseph Beyda, the school’s principal, said he believes the number of Flatbush students solicited could be “greater than 100.”
According to the FBI’s criminal complaint, Skolnick admitted that he had requested explicit photos from 20 to 25 people, most of them children.
(In an email to the Flatbush community last week, Raymond Harari, the head of school, and Jeffrey Rothman, the school’s executive director, wrote that they are “not aware of any inappropriate behavior” on Skolnick’s part while he was at the school. In a follow-up email signed by Beyda, school leadership wrote that since the rabbi’s arrest, the school received reports from the FBI that the former educator “created fake social media accounts with the intention of attempting to obtain pictures of minors.” To the best of the FBI’s knowledge, “those photos remained with Skolnick and were not distributed.”)
At the Wednesday night Flatbush meeting, Aaron Spivack, the FBI special agent investigating the case, said “there is nothing this school could have done” to prevent Skolnick from preying on children, according to a report in JTA.
In his letter sent to alumni of Jerusalem’s Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh, Bina encouraged anyone “impacted in an adverse way” by Skolnick to report the incident to law enforcement authorities in the U.S. The letter noted that “although nothing inappropriate was ever reported to us during the time he was at the yeshiva,” the school is reaching out to alumni to offer support.
In an April 2011 newsletter distributed by the school, Skolnick was referred to as a member of the staff; Bina said that was an “editorial mistake.”
Netiv Aryeh alumni, who wished to remain anonymous, said it was also well known that Skolnick participated in staff meetings and was assigned to “schmooze” with students about religious matters.
In its own follow-up gatherings for parents, SAR administration provided support and guidance on how to speak to their children about the incident and allowed parents to speak directly with FBI agents investigating the case.
But the school also drew criticism from activists and parents for inviting Rabbi David A. Pelcovitz, a clinical psychologist and chair in Jewish Education at Yeshiva University, to speak about the matter.
In December 2013, Rabbi Pelcovitz wrote a leniency request to a judge on behalf of Evan Zauder, a former sixth-grade teacher at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus who pleaded guilty that year in Manhattan federal court to charges of soliciting a minor online to engage in illegal sexual activity and to possessing and distributing child pornography.
Pelcovitz urged that Zauder receive the “lowest sentence permitted under law.” In April 2014, Zauder was sentenced by a U.S. District Court in New York to 13 years in federal prison.
At the meet-up for SAR parents last week, Pelcovitz responded to a written question from parents about why he’d written the letter on behalf of Zauder. Parents questioned Pelcovitz’s fitness to advise on the issue, given this history.
In a video of the event, Pelcovitz responded that he did not know the full extent of the charges against Zauder. Pelcovitz told parents he “thought” the charges against Zauder were only for possessing child pornography, rather than soliciting sex from a minor. Only later did he learn of the charge of child abuse, he said.
“I never ever would have written the letter and when I found out I apologized publicly, I felt terrible. I know the impact it must have had on other victims. … It was a mistake and I apologized. Are we good now?”
One SAR parent, who wished to remain anonymous, said the school’s decision to invite Pelcovitz “flew in the face” of efforts to restore confidence in the school. “Given SAR’s history, I think they need to be especially careful in what they do to regain parents’ trust,” the parent said. “It doesn’t make sense that an ‘expert’ would write a letter requesting leniency on behalf of a convicted pedophile without knowing all the facts.”
Pelcovitz did not respond to a request for additional comment.
“We, all of us — parents, faculty, administrators, and students — have been equally gobsmacked by this,” Haller said. “The school did everything in their power to get rid of him [after they learned of his arrest] and cooperate with the FBI. Blaming SAR is the same thing as blaming me, as a parent.”
Skolnick’s lawyer, Jonathan Marvinny, did not respond to additional requests for comment.
At some Jewish schools not directly involved in the scandal, administrators have sent out statements informing parents of updated security protocols to protect students.
Rabbi Eli Ciner, the associate principal at The Frisch School, a large Modern Orthodox high school in New Jersey, provided examples of “recently adopted protocols” enacted by the school in August, including limiting text messaging between students and faculty to the school’s mass text system, where texts are stored and can be monitored.
Sacred Spaces, a nonprofit organization that helps Jewish institutions prevent and respond to abuse, put out a statement last week saying they have received a “deluge of requests” for education and resources after the Skolnick story broke. The organization invited lay and professional leaders to join experts on a webinar hosted by UJA-Federation of New York on “concrete steps schools can take to safeguard the children in their care.”
Sacred Spaces is preparing for the release of Aleinu, a campaign to safeguard children against abuse, due to launch after the High Holidays.
Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.
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