By Elijah Wolfson
March 3, 2016
Like many grade-school kids, Mendy Raymond acted up every now and then and occasionally got detention. When he was in fourth grade at Oholei Torah, for example, he was teasing a classmate. Normal kid stuff. His teacher told him to stop, but he didn’t. He says the teacher, infuriated, charged the desk and him so hard that he fell to the ground and “nearly fractured” his arm. He was then sent to the detention teacher, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Zalmanov, who locked away Raymond’s coat and bag and told him to sit down.
Now in his 20s, Raymond doesn’t remember what he did that set off Zalmanov—though he does remember being upset about his throbbing arm—but the next thing he knew, the teacher had hit him across the face so hard that he went flying into a closet, slamming his head into the hardwood. As the young child held his head in his hands, Zalmanov pulled him up by his shirt and threw him out of the class, closing the door behind him. Raymond ran out of the building, down the street and then home in the dead of winter, with no coat.
When his mother returned home that evening, the baby sitter was distraught. When Raymond had walked in the door, “he was shivering so uncontrollable it took a half-hour with blankets and hot drinks to warm him up, ” the baby sitter told his mother. Raymond’s parents took their son to the family physician, a religious man respected in the community who, when he heard the story, called Lustig. He was blunt: “I have to stop seeing these kids with bruises coming from your school. You need to get a grip on what’s happening.” Lustig agreed to meet with Raymond, his father, mother and Zalmanov later that week. Meanwhile, Raymond would be suspended from the school, Lustig said.
“It was supposed to be a meeting where they would apologize to us, ” says Raymond’s mother. “We got there expecting remorse and contrition, and it turned into a farce. They badmouthed Mendy and said he got what he deserved. I was in tears when they left.” When they asked Zalmanov about his behavior, he was blunt, according to Raymond’s mother: “For chutzpah [impudence], I patsh [smack].”
This wasn’t the first time Zalmanov had allegedly harmed a student. Raymond’s older brother Nachum says he’s seen Zalmanov slap kids and even beat them up. “He was a known abuser, ” says Mendy Alexander, a former Oholei Torah student, now a 25-year-old studying pre-med at Brooklyn College. “I’ve seen him hit kids multiple times.”
At the close of that meeting, Raymond’s mother says, Lustig “seemed quite appalled.” But when she and her husband asked Lustig to transfer Raymond to another teacher’s class, the principal said there was no room for him. And neither Raymond’s teacher nor Zalmanov was ever disciplined.
There was little the family could do. “It was traumatic, ” Raymond’s mother says. “You feel helpless. You open up your mouth, and you get ostracized.”
It was widely known that if you ratted out someone in the community for abuse, the community would turn its back on you. Gena Diacomanolis is the senior director of Safe Horizon’s Jane Barker Brooklyn Child Advocacy Center, where, over the past decade, she says, they have made tremendous strides in the Haredi communities. But the biggest barrier remains the pressure the community puts on individuals who want to come forward with stories of abuse.
“I can tell you tons of stories where they were so fearful of going forward, ” she says. “I had one dad who said his son was sexually abused at school.” He decided not to press charges, Diacomanolis recalls. “He said, ‘I don’t want you to think I don’t love my child, but if I go forward, I won’t find a marriage for my daughter.’”
Diacomanolis also says families are often harassed when they come forward. One client who charged her husband with abusing their child “left her house, and the whole block was papered with things saying terrible things about her.”