In an ultra-Orthodox enclave of upstate New York, a former student has accused a principal of sex acts. But amid the allegations of sexual abuse, allegations of physical abuse have also begun to resurface. Rabbi Gavriel Bodenheimer, the principal of Bais Mikroh, a Yeshiva in Monsey for grades K-8, was arraigned on Aug. 12 and charged with three counts of criminal sexual acts and one count of sex abuse. Bodenheimer, who is 71 and a father of 14 and grandfather of 100, faces a maximum sentence of 25 years.
The abuse allegedly began when the accuser was 7 years old, in August 2009, and went on for a year, until July 2010. According to the charges, the sexual acts took place in Bodenheimer’s office at Bais Mikroh, where the boy was a student. The accuser and his mother went to the police in December 2013. A police investigation to establish probable cause took eight months, according to Lieutenant Emma at the Ramapo Police Department, who says the arrest was publicized in the hope that more victims will come forward.
But Bodenheimer’s lawyer, Deborah Wolikow-Loewenberg, said on the phone that her client is not guilty. He denies all the allegations and is proceeding to trial.
“There’s not a scintilla of corroboration on the case,” said another lawyer for Bodenheimer, Kenneth Gribetz. “It’s complete nonsense.” On a taped phone call between Bodenheimer and his accuser, Bodenheimer called his accuser crazy, according to Gribetz, and even told his accuser to go to the police if he has a complaint.
When reached by phone, Bodenheimer declined to comment except to say, “The whole thing is ridiculous.”
Another rabbi at the school, Rabbi Shamai Blobstein, confirmed that the allegation is not being taken very seriously at Bais Mikroh. When asked if the school had been shaken up by the allegations against its principal, he said, “They’re laughing,” and that people pitied Bodenheimer but only for his lawyers’ fees. As to whether the allegations have any merit, Blobstein said there was “no way” Bodenheimer could have sexually molested his accuser. “I worked for the guy 16 years,” he said on the phone. “He’s the most kaddushdikeh (holy) guy.”
Bodenheimer is very respected in his community, where other friends also cast doubt on the veracity of the allegations and the credibility of the accuser.
But younger members of the community who encountered the man as a principal had a different tale to tell. While abuse of a sexual nature is new for the principal, accusations of physical abuse have long dogged the school. In 2012, a former student, Shlomo Silber, wrote a harrowing blog post chronicling the physical abuse he endured at Bais Mikroh, including being smacked, punched and kicked by Bodenheimer. He recalled one event, when he was playing with a friend, Areah, when the principal came outside and found them. “By this point I knew what was coming,” Silver writes. “Standing before him as he towered over me, he looked eight feet tall. He began to scream at me and tell me how Areah’s mother has ‘yenah machlah’ (Cancer) and that by corrupting Areah, I am making his mother sicker. He then told me in disgust to bend down and untie my shoe. I got down on one knee and began to untie the laces. Next thing I knew I was being struck from every side and I didn’t know what was happening as Rabbi Bodenheimer smacked me with both hands and kicked me.”
Silver also described another teacher at the school whose punishment method involved tickling. From the comments on the blog post, it seems like many former students endured similar ordeals. Silver, who attended the school from 1990 to 1998 and dropped out before graduating, was pressured by members of the community to retract the blog post, but he refused. One of the comments on the blog post is from Blobstein: “He’s a very nice boy but was not an easy student from day one,” Blobstein wrote of Silver. “Bais Mikra tried very hard with him. He should appreciate it. Now if he had problems, and felt he was abused he had me or the Rabbi in his Shul to discuss it with. Not to air it publicly. I think he should publicly apologize for publicly airing his views.”
When I spoke to him, Blobstein insisted that if Bodenheimer ever hit a child, it was done “with love.” Bodenheimer refused to comment on the allegations of physical abuse.
When asked if he thought that sexual abuse might have also been part of Bodenheimer’s repertoire of abuse, Silver responded, “Anything’s possible these days although I don’t personally know of any sexual abuse case. I obviously know of much emotional and physical abuse.”
Another former student, Barry Lambert, who attended Bais Mikroh from 1989 to 1993, said that while Bodenheimer’s peers may respect him, not a single child who graduated from Bais Mikroh thought of Bodenheimer as a pillar of the community. “It was an extremely abusive atmosphere from the moment that I started there until the moment I left,” he said on the phone. “I suffered from physical abuse from all of the rabbis I had there as teachers as well as from Rabbi Bodenheimer himself. … He would use hitting as a punishment on a regular basis.”
Lambert does not recall this physical abuse as “loving.” He remembered one day when Rabbi Bodenheimer came outside during recess. He came up behind a student and hit him on the head. When the child turned around and wondered why he had been hit, it turned out that Bodenheimer had mistaken him for another child. “But you must have done something to deserve it,” Lambert recalled Bodenheimer saying before he walked off. “The abuse was not out of love or caring,” Lambert said. “I never felt that way. It was more a matter of, that was the only way any of them knew how to discipline and without that they didn’t have the control that they wanted or the responsiveness they wanted from the students.”
Still, Lambert says, he was surprised to hear about the allegations of sexual abuse. “It doesn’t sound right to me,” he said. “As much as I have a strong dislike and distaste for the man—I don’t think he should be in charge of that school or any school for that matter—but the allegations are difficult to believe… Obviously, anything is possible.”