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Passaic predator case marks change in Orthodox reaction

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

Charges against an Orthodox Passaic man of attempting to have sex with two 14-year-old boys come at a crucial moment in the history of Orthodox Jews nationwide, as they try to determine how best to deal with predators in their midst.

Already a convicted Megan’s Law offender, 48-year-old Mitchell Levinton of Passaic Park was working for a kosher catering company in 2006 when he befriended the boys and invited them to home, where he exposed them to pornography and graphic sex, Passaic County authorities said.

The boys told investigators he then offered them money for sex, but that they refused.

Levinton, who is being held on $300,000 bail in the Passaic County Jail, spent nearly a year in jail and was placed on lifetime probation after being convicted of a sex crime involving an adult in Atlantic City.

He already is awaiting sentencing on a lewdness conviction for exposing himself to a 17-year-old developmentally disabled boy in Passaic in May 2008.

This time, Levinton — an electrical contractor who also uses the name Levington — could go to prison for up to 40 years, in addition to 18 months for violating parole, if convicted.

The Orthodox community, while wanting to help an obviously troubled individual, also cannot overlook the alleged offenses.

“I am pleased to say that by far most of the rabbis in Passaic have been supportive of the alleged victims and of bringing the allegations to law enforcement authorities,” said attorney Michael Lesher, who has worked to protect children nationwide from sexual abuse.

Those unfamiliar with the Orthodox faith are only just discovering the struggles its people are dealing with. And yes, there are similarities to the scandals within the Catholic Church — with prior incidents handled, for want of a better term, in-house.

“[M]any of the Rabbanim, therapists and parents knew very, very well about the danger that this individual presented to children,” said Rabbi Asher Lipner, Ph.D. “He had been arrested several times prior.

“Some rabbis chose to cover it up by refusing to alert their congregations,” said Lipner, who is vice president of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children and an advocate for the victims of abuse. “Who knows how many more children had to pay the price for this decision.”

Lipner has tried to get the community to turn to law enforcement authorities when such incidents occur. His religion actually requires criminals be turned over to secular authorities, he said. Those who don’t are guilty of “idly standing by the blood of your neighbor.”

“Some people feel … if you publicly name a rabbi as a molester, you are ‘anti-rabbis,’ or if you publicly criticize a yeshiva that acts irresponsibly you are ‘attacking yeshivas,’ or if you say the Orthodox community has a problem, just like everybody else, then you are ‘anti-Orthodox’,” Lipner said in an interview with Jewish Week.

Indeed, critics within the Orthodox community have said that abusers often weren’t recognized for what they were. People simply couldn’t believe it could happen.

Orthodox leaders also apparently believed that if they counseled the abuser — or perhaps moved him someplace else — the trouble would end, community members say.

Such “behind-the-scenes” agreements obviously have failed, as the number of publicly-cited victims have increased. But they’ve also taught the community a lesson — at least in Lipner’s eyes.

In turn, the Orthodox community’s attitude toward sexual predators seems to be changing, he said.

The “fear so many have of speaking up is based on a stigma that is illogical and disappearing with education and awareness,” Lipner said.

The Jewish Board of Advocates for Children (www.jewishadvoctes.org) has called for mandated reporting of suspicion of abuse by rabbis and teachers in yeshivas; mandated fingerprinting and background checks of all employees in yeshivas; mandated safety plans with full transparency and written instructions to parents; and mandated firing and punishment of employees for any sexual or physical abuse.

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