[Reprinted with Permission] A Queens rabbi who has been dogged by allegations of sexual abuse against children, but never charged with a crime, has reached a negotiated agreement to leave the Rabbinical Board of Queens in the fall, The Jewish Week has learned.
Rabbi Ephraim Bryks, who was investigated by police in Winnipeg, Canada, on suspicion of inappropriate contact with children at a yeshiva where he was principal, resigned from the Orthodox Union’s Rabbinical Council of America in 2003 without admitting any wrongdoing.
Sources told The Jewish Week that the Queens board, known as the Vaad Harabonim, had long sought to have Rabbi Bryks removed as allegations against him persisted but was advised by lawyers that doing so was complicated because there has been no formal legal or halachic proceeding against him. Rabbi Bryks has been a member of the Vaad since the early ‘90s. Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, co-president of the Vaad, would tell The Jewish Week only that “we reached an agreement with an individual that will take full effect in October.”
The October date, coming at the start of the new Jewish year, appears to coincide with the time when membership renewals are considered.
The board’s other president, Rabbi Richard Weiss, declined to comment and would not confirm or deny that the person involved in the agreement was Rabbi Bryks.
Last June, the same Vaad ordered Queens Pita, a bakery that it certifies kosher, to terminate the ownership interest of a man, Isaac Ebstein, who had pled guilty to abuse charges involving a 10-year-old boy. The bakery’s co-owner reportedly complied in order to maintain the kosher certification.
Rabbi Bryks has held leadership positions at two Queens yeshivas, but left for unspecified reasons. He now makes his living as a mortgage broker, has a blog seeking to field questions on halachic issues and is said to involve himself in marriage counseling, advocacy for women seeking religious divorces and in a rabbinical court, the Queens Beth Din, which he convenes with other rabbis.
Asher Lipner, a clinical psychologist who counsels sex abuse victims and, in a Jewish Week op-ed last week accused the Vaad of Queens of “protecting one of their own,” without mentioning Rabbi Bryks by name, said the Vaad had a responsibility to publicize the circumstances of Rabbi Bryks’ departure from the Vaad if it has to do with the past allegations.
“If the agreement was due to some other reason that is personal and does not affect the community and they are not telling anyone, that is fine with me,” said Lipner. “But if the reason the agreement was reached is because they suspect him of being a danger to the community, it’s their responsibility to let people know why they reached that agreement in order that he doesn’t join another organization.
“They gave a heksher and made this rabbi kosher,” Lipner continued. “If they are removing their heksher, they have to tell people he is not kosher. If they don’t, it leads to more people getting hurt.”
Religious organizations generally have a free hand in expelling members as they see fit, but must be careful how they do it, said Marc Stern of the American Jewish Congress, an expert on matters of religion and law.
“The internal workings of clergy organizations are beyond the scrutiny of the court,” said Stern. But he added that leveling a specific charge of illegal conduct against an individual in the process of severing ties to him could open the organization to legal action.
“Clergy are not exempt from slander suits or defamation,” said Stern. “In general, one of the reasons for throwing people out or taking action against a member of the clergy is to alert members of the faith that X’s conduct is not acceptable and they need to be aware.”
Rabbi Bryks did not respond to two messages left at his home or to e-mails sent via his blog and Facebook.
Rabbi Schonfeld said Rabbi Bryks was never involved in any kashrut certification work, a key function of the Vaad, and never held any leadership positions in the organization. In 2008, he was reported in the Jewish Star of Long Island to be acting as an advocate on behalf of a woman trying to obtain a religious divorce, with a notation that he was a Vaad member.
Rabbi Bryks’ resignation from the RCA after 25 years of membership came at the same time the group, at its annual convention, adopted policies and procedures to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct, The Jewish Week reported at the time. But the rabbi told the council’s leadership then that the resignation should in no way be taken as admission of wrongdoing. Since he was no longer working in Jewish education, he did not need to belong to a national rabbinical council, Rabbi Hershel Billet, then the council’s immediate past president, quoted Rabbi Bryks as saying then.
A Denver native, Rabbi Bryks, as principal of the Torah Academy in Winnipeg was found in 1988 to have tickled and hugged some students but denied more serious charges of sexual molestation, according to press reports. While the more serious charges were not substantiated by an investigation by Winnipeg social workers, the substantiated contact was deemed inappropriate and the Winnipeg Child and Family Services agency recommended that the school adopt guidelines against such behavior. The school has since closed.
In 1993, after Rabbi Bryks had moved to New York, a former student in Winnipeg accused him of having fondled him at the school when the student was 8, but prosecutors reportedly declined to press charges, citing lack of corroboration. When the boy, Daniel Leven, at age 17, was asked to re-record a statement he had given earlier, he committed suicide.