New York Jewish School Secretly Keeps Staff Member Who ‘Quit’ Over Abuse Scandal

A New York Jewish school has secretly continued to employ a staff member whose resignation it previously announced following a child sex abuse scandal that rocked the community a year ago.

The secret employment of Long Island Schechter School’s director of student life, Mike Hirsch, was orchestrated by SSLI school principal Scott Sokol and the school’s associate principal Ofra Hiltzik, a current employee and two alumni from the school confirmed to The Times of Israel.

The board of SSLI – which serves about 250 K-12 students and is part of the conservative movement’s Schechter Day School network – was made aware of Sokol and Hiltzik’s actions earlier this summer , but allowed them both to remain in their positions, the three staff members said last month.

The revelation regarding Hirsch’s secretive employment shows the extraordinary lengths SSLI senior management was prepared to go to to protect the problematic employee.

Hirsch allegedly failed to report repeated allegations of abuse against a senior USY official that took place more than 15 years ago when Hirsch was an adviser to the conservative denomination’s United Synagogue Youth (USY) movement.

Additionally, Hirsch himself was listed on his SSLI personnel file for inappropriate touching and behavior with male students.

Suspension, “resignation”, employment

Hirsch, 43, was employed at both SSLI and USY when The Times of Israel published an expose in August 2021 about decades-long abuses at the latter institution. A former USY member said he confided in Hirsch that another senior executive in his 30s masturbated in front of him in the bathroom and urged him to join him in the bathroom. 15 years old. The former USY member said Hirsch urged him to continue relaying incidents of sexual misconduct by the senior executive, which the teenager did, but that Hirsch never reported those incidents. incidents to his employers.

After The Times of Israel’s expose was published, Hirsch was immediately suspended from both workplaces for allegedly failing to report the sexual abuse charges.

A spokesperson for USY said Hirsch’s job was terminated in December 2021 and he was barred from participating in any youth movement event, where he had recently been associated with the engagement . The Times of Israel spoke to two sources familiar with the matter who confirmed that this was indeed the case.

SSLI, whose students resumed classes on Tuesday for the start of the school year, handled Hirsch’s case very differently.

Last October, the director of the SSLI, Sokol, sent an e-mail to the parents informing them that Hirsch had decided to resign from his post at the school, without specifying the reasons. He and Hiltzik then called the school’s business staff and informed them that Hirsch would continue to work, but only on evenings and weekends when most people wouldn’t be in the building, two said. former staff members. While several people in the room voiced their objection, the older Sokol and Hiltzik replied that the matter was not up for debate.

Paychecks obtained by The Times of Israel showed that SSLI continued to pay Hirsch until the end of 2021, when a new corporate entity titled Hebrew Learning Services Inc was registered and replaced Hirsch’s name on paychecks. The listed address for Hebrew Learning Services is the same as Hirsch’s private residence, and the salary remained roughly the same in 2021 and 2022.

Hirsch maintained administrative access to the school’s online portal and was responsible for sending birth, marriage, and death notices. He also handled the issuance of security IDs to enter the building, the three staffers said, adding that Hirsch worked at an office right next to Hiltzik and Sokol.

On several occasions, Hirsch was spotted by relatives who approached Sokol or Hiltzik, asking him what he was doing there. They were assured that Hirsch had just moved on and was no longer employed by the school, former staffers said.

Graduates threaten legal action

Payments to Hirsch continued until July 2022, the three current and former staff members told The Times of Israel, at which time a group of recent alumni sent an anonymous letter to some administrators, teachers, parents and donors describing and protesting the ongoing secrecy. Hirsch’s job.

The writers, who identified themselves only as “former young USY members and victims,” ​​demanded that Sokol resign within two weeks, threatening to go public with their allegations and evidence in addition to filing a lawsuit. justice against the school. As of this writing, they have yet to follow through on their ultimatum.

The board investigated the allegations against Sokol and Hiltzik and received testimony from at least one employee who confirmed Hirsch’s continued employment was Sokol and Hiltzik’s idea, said current and former members of staff. Both the school principal and his deputy have denied allegations that they conspired to keep Hirsch on staff and were allowed to stay on.

Asked why Sokol and Hiltzik went to such lengths to help Hirsch, former employees who spoke to The Times of Israel said Hiltzik had long treated Hirsch “like a son” while Sokol and Hirsch had been friends ever since. decades before they even started working together. at SSLI.

Long Island Schechter School principal Scott Sokol speaks to prospective students on November 18, 2018. (Screen capture/YouTube)

Those connections helped Hirsch keep his job at SSLI even though he’s been accused of inappropriate touching and behavior with male students on at least three occasions in recent years, according to two former employees who reviewed his Personal file. One of the incidents took place in the student lounge, which Hirsch was tasked with managing until his suspension.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former USY member with direct knowledge of the case said Hirsch acted inappropriately sexually with underage boys while on USY staff.

“At the end of the day, Sokol and Hiltzik knew [about] Mike…and made him work at the school for over a year, putting hundreds of children at potential risk,” said a former SSLI employee.

The Times of Israel contacted Sokol last month to ask for his response to the allegations in the anonymous letter. Two days later, a lawyer from the Ruskin Moscow Faltischek law firm representing the school replied: “Mr. Hirsch is no longer employed by the school. We do not publicly respond to anonymous complaints.

Later that day, Sokol sent an email to staff members “reminds[ing them] that under no circumstances should anyone make statements to members of the press regarding school or staff situations. Two sources said individual employees saw their jobs threatened if they contacted the media.

Investigation “in progress”

The Times of Israel reached out to Sokol, Hiltzik and SSLI board chairman Jeffrey Shlefstein again last week, presenting further evidence of Hirsch’s continued employment and offering another opportunity to comment ahead of publication. This article.

Illustration photo (iStock)

Shlefstein replied, “The allegations you refer to are not new to us. We took them seriously when they came to our attention and they were investigated at our request by outside counsel before your investigation was undertaken. This investigation is ongoing and therefore our ability to comment is limited.

“Be aware that following an investigation by outside counsel, Mr. Hirsch was suspended and ultimately resigned,” Shlefstein said, apparently denying the allegation that Hirsch continued to work at SSLI. after the October 2021 resignation announced by Sokol.

However, the school continued to send paychecks written to Hirsch — and obtained by The Times of Israel — for two months after the resignation was announced. They included reimbursements for equipment and office supplies that Hirsch had purchased.

Asked to clarify the apparent discrepancy between Shlefstein’s characterization of the outside attorney’s investigation as “ongoing” and his subsequent explanation that the school suspended Hirsch “as a result” of the investigation, a lawyer from the SSLI board declined to do so.

“The payments at issue for Hirsch were made through an entity he formed with the assistance of our former CFO and remain a concern,” Shlefstein’s statement continued, seemingly confirming the creation of “Hebrew Learning Services Inc” to continue paying Hirsch while placing the blame on former SSLI chief financial officer David Ostrove, who was indicted in July for allegedly embezzling school funds.

However, paychecks obtained by The Times of Israel showed payments to Hebrew Learning Services Inc continued for months after Ostrove was suspended in April and no longer had access to the school’s computer systems. The former chief financial officer of SSLI declined a request for comment.

“Our counsel is working with outside attorneys and their auditors to review all aspects of this case,” Shlefstein said. “Our investigations – both our own and those conducted for the board by various outside attorneys – coupled with the actions taken against Mr. Hirsch and others are emblematic of our long-standing commitment to providing a safe environment for our students, faculty and personal.”

Hirsch’s attorney, Bruce Barket, called the “baseless” allegations against his client “false and libelous” in his response to The Times of Israel’s request for comment.

“We won’t have any further comment until we read the article and then our response will be in court, not in your publication,” he added.

About Charles D. Goolsby

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