Despite Abuse Claims, Jewish Agency Allowed Alleged Pedophile to Immigrate to Israel

A former karate instructor was allowed to immigrate to Israel in 2015 even though the Jewish Agency — which heads the vetting of Jewish applicants for immigration — knew about the alleged child sexual abuse claims against him, the agency confirmed to Haaretz.

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The Agency said it could not legally deny his immigration request because the man had no criminal record.

However, legal experts say that particular determination depends on how Israel’s Law of Return, which allows Diaspora Jews to immigrate here, is interpreted. The law, which permits the country to ban anyone with a “criminal background who may endanger public safety,” leaves room for a broad interpretation, the lawyers say.

The claims against Richard Andron are from the 1970s and ’80s and were made public in 2013, two years before his immigration was approved. The $680 million civil lawsuit against Yeshiva University was filed by 19 former students at the Yeshiva University High School for Boys. Three of the plaintiffs named Andron as their abuser, though the majority of the claims were made against two others who, unlike Andron, were school employees. The case was dismissed in 2014 due to New York State’s statue of limitations for childhood sex abuse at the time. A 2013 article in The Forward also cited seven men who said Andron had molested them.

Andron, who now lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, has told Haaretz he denies all the allegations against him.

The Yeshiva University logo.

Yeshiva University, which has existed for over a century, is one of the flagship institutions of the Modern Orthodox world, and the lawsuit was among the highest-profile ever in the organized Jewish world.

The 2013 lawsuit claimed the university enabled and covered up abuse from the ’70s through the early ’90s. They named Rabbi George Finkelstein, a former principal at the school, and Rabbi Macy Gordon as the main abusers. Gordon passed away in Israel in 2017, although both men denied the allegations against them when the lawsuit was first brought. Neither were ever convicted.

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A new opportunity arose for the former Yeshiva University High School students through a landmark New York law that extends the statue of limitations on child sexual abuse. It went into effect on August 14 and hundreds of lawsuits have since been filed, including suits against the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts.

In turn, the original lawsuit by the former high school students was reprised against Yeshiva University on August 22. In it, three of its 38 plaintiffs accuse the university of enabling alleged sexual abuse by Andron. As in the previous lawsuit, most of the accusations center around Finkelstein and Gordon.

Finkelstein did not respond to new requests for comment by Haaretz and other media outlets who reported on the latest lawsuit.

A view of the Israeli settlement of Efrat situated on the southern outskirts of the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on April 12, 2019.AFP

Andron is identified in the suit as having been at one time a Yeshiva University High School dorm counselor who had studied at the affiliated university. The lawsuit claims, “Andron was allowed to roam the halls of the Strenger High School dorm freely and would engage students in the hallways and would enter their dorm rooms.”

No monetary figure has been set in the reprised civil suit, which says the Jewish high school received “numerous complaints about Andron’s sexual abuse of minor students.”

The suit charges, as the previous lawsuit did, that the school “took no action to protect YUHS students from Andron, but instead continued to encourage YUHS students to spend time with Andron (including overnight stays at Andron’s apartment).”

“At all material times, despite having actual knowledge of Andron’s repeated sexual abuse of children, the Defendants negligently and carelessly permitted Andron to work with (and have access to) young boys, to entertain young boys both on and away from school grounds, and to prey on those boys he deemed vulnerable to abuse,” the suit added.

Andron did not respond to a Haaretz request for comment this week regarding the new lawsuit.

‘Sleepovers and pornography’

M., not the actual initial of his first or last name, immigrated to Israel several years ago. He was a plaintiff in both lawsuits and says he suffered from depression and drug and alcohol addiction for years, which he attributes to his abuse as a student at Yeshiva U. High School for Boys.

According to M. and The Forward — which cited a number of men who had studied at the school — Andron had an apartment near Central Park, where he would host sleepovers. He would allegedly pass around pornographic magazines, which M. says Andron would use to make the boys feel guilty for looking at, thus making them less likely to speak out against him.

M. told Haaretz he was 15 when Andron sexually assaulted him on a Friday night he spent at his apartment, and he then took him to synagogue the following morning.

The Jewish Agency acknowledged in a statement that it was aware of the past allegations against Andron, who immigrated using his Hebrew name Reuven Andron, but said there was no legal basis to refuse his request because he did not have a criminal background. Among the three restrictions that would provide for restricting eligibility, the Agency wrote in a statement, one is if a candidate possesses a “criminal background who may endanger public safety.”

The statement continued: “In cases where a doubt as to criminal background arises, the candidate is required to submit documents proving he or she has no such criminal background. Regarding Reuven Andron, in 2015 the relevant department of the Jewish Agency conducted an extensive inquiry in light of information received during the evaluation of the Andron eligibility for Aliyah. Mr. Andron was very clearly required to provide written proof that he did not have a federal nor state criminal record, which was presented by Mr. Andron. On the basis of these documents, it was decided that there are no limitations preventing Mr. Andron’s Aliyah.”

The Agency added that over the past decade, in only a handful of cases has aliyah been denied because of a criminal record.

“Clearly the Jewish Agency remains vigilant in the aliyah-vetting process and makes every effort to uphold the guidelines preventing the immigration of those who would pose harm to Israeli society,” it said.

Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that facilitates North American aliyah, noted that it has no role in vetting aliyah candidates and this is the purview of the Jewish Agency. In a statement it said, “Discussions were held with specific members of the community about this individual,” but would not elaborate further.

Andron’s story has emerged as Israelis follow the Malka Leifer saga — one of the country’s most high-profile cases of alleged child sexual abuse allegedly committed abroad by someone who sought refuge in Israel.

Malka Leifer during a hearing at Jerusalem District Court, March 2018.Olivier Fitoussi

Leifer faces 74 charges, including the rape and sexual assault of three sisters who were students of hers at an ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne.

Hours after the accusations emerged in 2008, Leifer, who is an Israeli citizen, fled to Israel and Australia is seeking her extradition. The question of her fitness to stand trial is still being discussed by Israel’s courts.

The lawyers’ view

The Law of Return, one of Israel’s cornerstone laws, is what granted Andron — and potentially any Diaspora Jew — the opportunity to immigrate to Israel.

The law has three main conditions: The applicant must not endanger the state’s security or public health; must not have acted against the Jewish people; and must not have a criminal past.

In recent years, concern has grown among some Israeli advocates for child victims of sexual abuse that Israel has become something of a haven for Jewish child molesters who take advantage of the Law of Return.

The Forward reported that both Finkelstein and Gordon immigrated to Israel, but the Agency could not confirm this, saying that this was “most likely due to the time passed since” their applications. Although his immigration status could not be confirmed, after moving to Israel Finkelstein did serve as executive director of the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem.

Yeshiva University High School for Boys in New York City.Jim Henderson

Immigration lawyers say it is extremely difficult to rescind someone’s citizenship once it has been granted.

Three Israeli immigration attorneys told Haaretz they disagreed with the Agency’s interpretation on admitting Andron because he had no criminal record. And a fourth defended the Agency’s interpretation of the law.

Joshua Pex said the Law of Return and past Supreme Court decisions give the Interior Ministry and Agency “a wide range of discretion” regarding aliyah applicants.

“At the very least the individual can be asked to bring more proof, and he has the right if denied to a hearing. … They can bring in reports that they went through therapy and understand the severity of what they did,” Pex said.

“To say that just because an individual has a clean record and say they are then legally bound to let him make aliyah is not true at all,” he added.

Leora Bechor noted, meanwhile, that “the actual law says ‘a danger to the safety of the country,’” which she said is enough to warrant an applicant’s rejection. “It’s very vague, broad language that could potentially encompass a lot of acts that don’t rise to the level of conviction.”

Attorney Nicole Maor added that “you don’t have to be found guilty in a criminal proceeding for you to be considered to have a criminal past.”

But Shimon Shetreet, an emeritus law professor at Hebrew University, said “you cannot turn the Jewish Agency into an investigation agency. When you only have accusations, it would be quite a stretch” to reject Andron’s application, he said.

Reaction in Efrat

Despite the fact he had no criminal record, Haaretz has learned that Andron’s arrival in Israel was met with concern by the settlement’s leading rabbis, who heard about the abuse claims against Andron and wrestled with how to respond.

Shlomo Riskin, an American-born rabbi who became Efrat’s chief rabbi in 1983, told Haaretz that he queried a local expert and later Efrat’s head of psychological services about the claims against Andron, who residents say still lives in the settlement.

“I was told that no action could be taken based on a 40-year-old allegation, and that unless a crime was committed in Israel there was nothing anyone could proactively do,” Riskin said in a statement. “While I understood these legal challenges, as the chief rabbi of Efrat I felt a need to nonetheless speak to Andron and ensure that he would not work with children in any capacity.”

Rabbi Kenneth Brander heads the Ohr Torah Stone yeshiva in Efrat, and from 1991 to 2005 was senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida, where Andron was a founding member.

Brander said in a statement to Haaretz that back in Boca Raton, a stranger once told him that Andron had been disrespectful to her child, but did not elaborate. When Brander asked Andron about this, he became hostile, the rabbi said.

Brander said he then contacted the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. “They told me that without a specific allegation of wrongdoing in the community, there was nothing that could be done,” Brander said, adding that he took steps so that both at Boca Raton and Efrat, Andron would not be involved with youth or children.

Last year, after he had made aliyah, Andron was also named as an alleged sexual abuser of children in the ’70s by the Ramaz School, a prestigious private Jewish day school in Manhattan where he taught after-school karate classes on its campus. The report was conducted at the school’s request by a New York law firm.

According to the internal report, made public by the school itself, Andron had “sexually abused multiple Ramaz students.” The report added that Andron declined to comment on whether he had “behaved inappropriately with Ramaz students.”

Mordechai Twersky, who was a named plaintiff in both the 2013 and 2019 lawsuits against Yeshiva University, and who now lives in Israel, says the Agency’s decision reinforced what he said were already serious concerns about the vetting process for immigration to Israel.

“I think the Jewish Agency’s response is deeply offensive, quite frankly,” he wrote in a statement to Haaretz via email. “It masks its resounding due-diligence failure and institutional negligence with an interpretation of Law of Return criteria that betrays the public trust and places children in danger.”

Twersky also told Haaretz concrete changes he would like to see made in the system: “It is incumbent upon the government to immediately establish and maintain a registry and database (that would also contain information about individuals with no prior arrests or convictions who were ‘banished’ from communities, schools, and synagogues). Relevant entities must be compelled to immediately make public the aliyah files of predator applicants, so that persons and entities facilitating their arrival to Israel can be exposed and held accountable.”