Rabbis at five synagogues in Englewood say a local resident agreed not to show up at their congregations, after news of his conviction 16 years ago for lewdness resurfaced in connection with his hiring earlier this year by Yeshiva College.
Akiva Roth of Englewood, who had been an English instructor at the college, was fired last week after newspaper accounts resurrected his conviction on four charges of lewdness in 1997.
Roth, now 42, was arrested that year and charged with exposing himself to pre-bar mitzvah boys at private lessons, touching himself, and encouraging them to do as he did. He was then a teacher at what was the Solomon Schechter Day School of Union and Essex; the Conservative day school in West Orange has been renamed the Golda Och Academy.
The original charges were for sexual contact and endangering the welfare of a child; however, Roth was convicted on four far less serious charges. He was sentenced to 10 years of probation, a sentence that ended six years ago.
Because of the nature of the offense of which he was convicted, last week the Englewood synagogues decided that prudence dictated that he be asked not to show up for shul, and he agreed.
An email, not naming Roth, went out to the members of the shuls — Congregation Ahavath Torah, Congregation Shomrei Emunah, the East Hill Synagogue, and Kesher. That email soon made its way to the Internet, where it was posted on the Failed Messiah blog.
“It is important that we respond appropriately,” the email said. “On the one hand, with an eye towards the protection of all; on the other hand, without jumping to conclusions solely based upon media accounts.”
Therefore, “The individual in question has voluntarily offered not to attend any of our synagogues this Shabbat, in order to give the community the time it needs to consult with experts, research the issues, and respond appropriately.”
Last month, in an unrelated case, rabbis at two West Orange synagogues barred a man, Rabbi Dovid Katz, who is facing multiple allegations of exploiting his title as rabbi to manipulate women into having sexual relations.
Roth has worked in many Jewish institutions, mainly Orthodox or Conservative, including the Jewish Theological Seminary, Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, and YU. He also worked for Hillel and AIPAC.
The rabbis who signed the email — Akiva Block of Kesher, Menachem Genack of Shomrei Emunah, Shmuel Goldin and Chaim Poupko of Ahavath Torah, and Zev Reichman of East Hill — are making few public statements as they decide how to handle the issue, which is complicated by the age of the charges and the question of whether the behavior has ever recurred. As they consider their next steps, they are joined by Rabbi Fred Elias of Kol HaNeshamah, a Conservative synagogue in Englewood; Roth would sometimes go there as well as to the Orthodox ones.
“The community is discussing the matter and determining the best path to take,” Goldin, who is also the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Council of America, said. “We are also researching whether there are any current issues.
“We have to be sensitive both to the community and to Akiba,” he said.
In their email, the rabbis acknowledged the tightrope they are walking. “May Hashem grant us the wisdom to deal with this and other complex situations properly,” they wrote.
The judge who sentenced Roth, Barnett Hoffman, allowed him to plead guilty to lewdness rather than the more serious charges, but he is reported as having been uncomfortable with Roth. One the one hand, Hoffman said, Roth was “in the lowest category for risk of re-offense.” On the other hand, the judge said, Roth demonstrated “a lack of appreciation for the wrongfulness of his conduct.”
He went on: “Defendant is very arrogant and continues to blame the victims,” Hoffman said.
On Oct. 8, The Jewish Daily Forward reported that Yeshiva College had hired Roth. He was fired shortly thereafter. The university is facing multiple allegations that two staff members at its affiliated High School for Boys sexually abused students during the late 1970s and early 1980s.