One would think that a convicted sex offender might want to stay out of the courts in his new country of residence.
Not so with Yona Weinberg.
The Brooklyn sex offender, who moved to Israel in 2014 the day after police knocked on his door over new charges, is suing a New York rabbi for defamation after the rabbi, Yakov Horowitz, tweeted Weinberg’s whereabouts in Jerusalem. Israel does not have a public sex-offender registry, so the rabbi, a child advocate, warned residents via Twitter that Weinberg was a dangerous presence in their midst.
Weinberg’s Brooklyn-based lawyer, Samuel Karliner, who helped him manage sex-offender registry requirements while he was in the United States, said his client did not flee to Israel, as Horowitz’s tweets contended, and that he had been planning to move there with his family for some time.
After more than a year of legal wrestling, the two are set to appear in a Jerusalem court on Nov. 23 for a preliminary hearing.
Rabbi Horowitz is flying to Israel to defend himself.
“The ticket is purchased. Let the games begin,” said Horowitz, founding dean of Orthodox yeshiva Darchei Noam in Rockland County, about 25 miles north of New York City.
The rabbi said he must fight the charges to avoid setting a dangerous legal precedent in a country that has become a destination of choice for some Orthodox child molesters, due to its open-door policies toward all Jews.
A loss would mean “every sex offender would be given the script: Molest kids, move to Israel, sue anyone who posts anything about you,” said Horowitz, who is also the founder and director of the Center for Jewish Family Life/Project Y.E.S., a mentorship program for at-risk teens in New York.
Israeli courts leveled a $55,000 default judgment against Horowitz in June 2015 after he didn’t show up in court. He said was unaware that he was being sued because he never opened the documents that a stranger threw at him while he was in the middle of teaching hundreds of people in a Jerusalem lecture hall late at night.
“I assumed it was threatening stuff for my advocacy, which has happened before,” he said of the papers.
He ended up paying several hundred dollars to have the judgment removed, money he could have spent settling the case, he said. But that would have required him to admit wrongdoing and remain quiet.
He refused. “I will fight this until the end,” he said. Otherwise, “People will be terrified to post information about sex offenders.”
To win a defamation case in Israel, a plaintiff must only prove that degrading things had been said or written about him. Unlike in the United States, he does not have to prove his reputation, livelihood, or social standing have been harmed, legal experts said.
Horowitz has already spent more than $5,000 in legal fees on the case.
“The fact that it’s already cost him financially is a concern,” said Manny Waks, founder of Kol v’Oz, an Israel-based nonprofit that aims to prevent child sexual abuse among Jews worldwide. “It may embolden others to try to muzzle other victim advocates.”
Indeed, Weinberg silenced Jerusalem’s Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn by threatening him with a defamation lawsuit in May. Eidensohn, a psychologist and child advocate who had posted newspaper accounts of the 2009 conviction and warnings that included Weinberg’s address in Har Nof, immediately deleted all mentions of the convicted sex offender from his blog.
Weinberg’s lawsuit against Horowitz centers on statements the rabbi tweeted a year ago.
Magen, the Israeli child-protection agency, posted an online warning in January 2014 that Weinberg had moved to Har Nof, a Jerusalem neighborhood that’s home to thousands of children. The rabbi soon became worried they weren’t being adequately protected.
“A lot of people there don’t have internet access,” he said of the Orthodox community. “So rather than go online and check the registry, they’ll just ask someone in the neighborhood if it’s true.”
Apparently, he said, a few people heard Weinberg was a nice guy with no criminal background and, if they heard about it at all, didn’t take Magen’s warnings seriously.
So in January 2015, Horowitz tweeted, “Har Nof residents, Convicted sex offender Yona Weinberg is LEVEL 3. Treat him as a terrorist with a machete.”
A year earlier, axe-swinging men killed six people in a gruesome attack at a Har Nof synagogue. Horowitz said he referenced the event to emphasize that Weinberg posed a threat to their children.
In the defamation suit, Weinberg’s Israeli lawyer, Eitan Lehman, took issue with the comparison. “How dare Horowitz use the Har Nof massacre, when everyone is on high alert, to compare my client to such people?” he wrote in the complaint.
At the time, Weinberg said Har Nof neighbors began harassing him after Horowitz posted the warning.
Lehman did not respond to email requests for comment.
Update: Weinberg, who didn’t respond to two Daily Beast requests for comment sent via email, returned a message after the publication of this article Sunday. In an email, he wrote, “The law permits me and my family to live in peace and that’s what I’m looking to do.” He also denied that he is a pedophile and wrote, “There hasn’t been a complaint about me since 2008 for something that allegedly occurred in 2007—that’s almost a decade. The conviction, itself, was for inappropriate touching—nothing forced.”
Horowitz stands by his tweet.
“He absolutely is as dangerous as a terrorist. With a terrorist, you see they are killing somebody but with child molesters, no one sees. And for the victim, life as they knew it was never the same,” said Horowitz, who has advocated on behalf of child sex-abuse victims in the Orthodox Jewish community for nearly 15 years and has written several books on parenting.
Karliner, who is not representing Weinberg in the defamation suit, said his client has taken to the courts because he just wants to be to be left alone.
“They want to ruin him,” Karliner said of “Horowitz and his lackeys.” “Anything they can do boost their own credibility, they do.”
Karliner continued, “Was he convicted of a misdemeanor several years ago in the U.S.? Yes. Was he punished? Yes. That’s it.” Karliner denies that Weinberg is a pedophile and said, “He’s never been convicted of any sexual-abuse act.”
In fact, Weinberg, 38, a former bar mitzvah tutor and licensed social worker, was convicted in 2009 of nine counts for victimizing two boys he was charged with teaching—seven counts of second-degree sexual abuse (forcible touching) and two of child endangerment.
At the time, The Daily News reported that one boy was molested in his home and in a synagogue’s ritual bath, the other in a van and yeshiva stairwell. Weinberg spent about a year in jail in 2009 for the charges, and upon release in 2010, he was designated a Level 3 sex offender, a status indicating the highest risk of repeat offense and an immediate threat to public safety.
He returned to live in Brooklyn with his wife and children.
In 2014, New York City police were pursuing him on a new misdemeanor charge that he physically assaulted an 11-year-old boy, pushing him into a synagogue coat rack and injuring his back. The child had filed an earlier molestation complaint against Weinberg with the police, but the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office did not charge him related to that complaint, according to The Journal News.
When police went to Weinberg’s Brooklyn apartment to arrest him, his wife said he was not home and referred them to his attorney, according to the Daily News. Shortly after, his wife and four children joined him in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof.
“In the event he returns to New York, he will be charged,” Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office spokesman Oren Yaniv told The Journal News in August.
Law-enforcement sources say it is unlikely that Weinberg would be extradited on a misdemeanor charge.
Update: In his email after this article was published, Weinberg noted that in previous coverage of his story, police denied they had a warrant out for his arrest. He also shot down reports that the district attorney could arrest him without one. “Anyone with a basic understanding of government will assume that the reason the district attorney is speaking about the case, especially the way you phrased it, is because they already have a warrant. Saying the district attorney has a warrant keeps with Horowitz’s narrative.”
Since Horowitz began posting updates about Weinberg, Horowitz says two men have come forward with allegations that Weinberg acted lewdly around them when they were children. One of those men told The Daily Beast that when he was a 12-year-old student, Weinberg obsessively talked about masturbation and aggressively cornered him to give him “wedgies,” encouraging the boy to do the same to him, all while panting furiously. Neither alleged victim reported Weinberg to the police.
Weinberg isn’t the first sex offender to take advantage of Israel’s Law of Return, which welcomes anyone who is Jewish to come to Israel without a rigorous background check, said Waks of Kol v’Oz.
“The overwhelming majority of Jews are law-abiding citizens and those who immigrate to Israel do so for legitimate reasons. However, some have a checkered past and exploit the system to evade justice,” he said.
Waks said he is aware of multiple sex offenders—some convicted and in other cases alleged perpetrators—who have sought refuge in Israel. Perhaps the most notorious was Orthodox Rabbi Abraham Mondrowitz, who left Brooklyn for Israel in 1985 after being charged with sodomizing four boys. Israel police arrested him in 2007, but as of 2010, his extradition was still reportedly stuck in the Israel courts. He remains free in Israel. Malka Leifer, the former principal of an ultra-Orthodox girls school in Australia who was accused of 74 charges of sexually abusing the girls in her case, was recently ruled mentally unfit to face extradition and had her Israeli home detention lifted earlier this year.
Leifer faces 74 criminal charges filed in Australian courts by at least nine girls.
“It’s impossible to estimate the number due to the lack of information available at the moment. This is one of the several tasks we hope to achieve at Kol v’Oz,” he said.
One recent arrival is Stefan Colmer, a Brooklyn sex offender who spent nearly three years in jail for a 2009 conviction for “deviate sexual intercourse and sexual contact” with two 13-year-old boys. He faced pressure from the Orthodox community in Passaic, New Jersey, where he moved this summer. Rabbis there distributed a letter with his local address to alert congregations of his potential danger.
“So what did he do? He moved to sex-offender heaven in Jerusalem,” said Horowitz, who regularly posts updates on sex offenders’ whereabouts.
Colmer arrived in Israel this month, where he also uses the name Dovid Cohen, according to Jewish Community Watch, an advocacy group.
“He is now living in an apartment in Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem. We will be posting a more exact address (soon),” Jewish Community Watch’s Shana Aaronson wrote in an email from Israel.
Aaronson said that only police in Israel have access to a list of sex offenders.
“The average parent in America has tools—they can look up their ZIP Code online and see if anyone around them is dangerous to their children,” Horowitz said referring to the U.S. Justice Department’s National Sex Offender Public Website.
“In Israel, they have only child advocates to warn them,” said Horowitz.
Weinberg and his family recently left Har Nof for Ashdod, a coastal city south of Tel Aviv, according to sources close to the case.
Karliner, who would not confirm Weinberg’s new residence, said, “He moved because they made his life miserable.”
Weinberg had been facing increasing scrutiny after he unsuccessfully attempted to secure an order of protection against Horowitz in August. He contended that Horowitz would incite community violence against him and his family while the visiting rabbi was in Har Nof to give a lecture on child safety.
The order would have prevented the rabbi from teaching there because the community-center venue was less than a third of a mile from Weinberg’s home.
Horowitz dismissed the allegations and said he would never encourage violence against anyone. As for the defamation suit, Horowitz said he is confident about his case and plans to return to Israel for every step of the trial.
“I want to ask the judge why in the world he is wasting the time of someone who wants to protect children.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated with comment from Yona Weinberg on Tuesday, Nov. 15, at 12:45 p.m.