Alleged Predator’s Former Students Saw A Pattern
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Alleged Predator’s Former Students Saw A Pattern

Young men who met Rabbi Jonathan Skolnick at an Israeli yeshiva say he targeted them with aliases and coercion.

Hannah Dreyfus

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

“He had a way of getting you to give over private information, all while making it seem like it was for your own good,” a former student of Rabbi Skolnick says. JW
“He had a way of getting you to give over private information, all while making it seem like it was for your own good,” a former student of Rabbi Skolnick says. JW

In the fall of 2006, Andrew Finkelstein, then an 18-year-old student at a well-regarded all-male yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City, struck up a close friendship with Rabbi Jonathan, or “Jonny,” Skolnick.

At the time, Rabbi Skolnick had returned to the Netiv Aryeh yeshiva to advance his Jewish studies after pursuing a law degree at the University of Cambridge. Alongside his yeshiva learning, Skolnick was assigned by the yeshiva’s founding rabbi, Rav Aharon Bina, with counseling students one-on-one, according to Finkelstein. Finkelstein remembers sessions with Skolnick in which they studied text “about 25 percent of the time”; the rest of the time was spent discussing personal matters, which included highly sexualized questions from the rabbi about Finkelstein’s desires and personal habits. While the line of questioning frequently made Finkelstein uncomfortable, he took it as typical of a yeshiva teacher assigned to counsel a young man.

Finkelstein stopped learning one-on-one with Skolnick in 2007, after Skolnick returned to England to practice law. But the two corresponded for years, mainly via online messaging services.

Although Finkelstein was not a minor at the time, the online correspondence — dozens of pages of which were reviewed by The Jewish Week — suggests behaviors by Skolnick similar to those outlined by the FBI last month after he was arrested and charged with possessing and producing child pornography and coercing at least one minor into sending him sexually explicit photographs. (Full report here.) Skolnick was associate middle school principal at SAR at the time of his arrest.

According to the FBI’s ongoing investigation, Skolnick would employ a wide array of online aliases, primarily posing as girls and young women, to solicit explicit content from students, most of whom were minors.

Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh, where Rabbi Skolnick taught in the mid- to late-2000s, is located adjacent to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. YouTube

Finkelstein’s messages include one Facebook exchange from August 2010 initiated by “Elie Drelich,” an account Finkelstein believes to have been created by Skolnick, in which the sender asked Finkelstein to exchange nude photos. At the time, Finkelstein suspected Skolnick might be “pranking” him — “It was the type of thing he would do,” he said. But after reviewing the charges outlined in the September FBI complaint — which describe Skolnick’s use of online pseudonyms to solicit nude pictures from minors — Finkelstein became “99.9 percent sure” that this unknown Facebook user was Skolnick.

“I just like the look of u and im trying to get us to see each other naked,” read a message from “Drelich” to Finkelstein on Aug. 8, 2010. (Finkelstein never complied with the request to exchange photos, he said.)

‘I just like the look of u and im trying to get us to see each other naked,’ read a message from ‘Drelich’ to Finkelstein on Aug. 8, 2010.

At an Oct. 16 court hearing in Manhattan, Skolnick pled not guilty to five charges of producing, possessing and receiving child pornography; inducing a minor for sexual activity; and extorting at least one minor for nude photographs. At the hearing, which took place at the U.S. District Court in lower Manhattan, about a dozen former students of Skolnick’s from Yeshivah of Flatbush, where he taught from 2012 to 2018, attended.

(In a September email sent out to the Flatbush community, Raymond Harari, the head of school, and Jeffrey Rothman, the school’s executive director, wrote that they are “not aware of any inappropriate behavior” on Skolnick’s part while he was at the school. In a follow-up email signed by Rabbi Joseph Beyda, the school’s principal, the school reported that since the rabbi’s arrest, the school received reports from the FBI that the former educator “created fake social media accounts with the intention of attempting to obtain pictures of minors.” In a meeting with parents and alumni, Rabbi Beyda said he believes “greater than 100” Flatbush students may have been solicited by Skolnick for explicit photographs.)

Neither Skolnick nor his attorney responded to requests for comment for this story.

As the FBI continues to investigate new claims, primarily but not only by minors — according to the Netiv Aryeh yeshiva students who have since reached out to the FBI — The Jewish Week has learned that several Netiv Aryeh students believe themselves to have been victims of Skolnick’s predatory online behavior before the rabbi began teaching at American yeshiva day schools.

The Jewish Week has learned that several Netiv Aryeh students believe themselves to have been victims of Skolnick’s predatory online behavior before the rabbi began teaching at American yeshiva day schools.

Finkelstein, today a 31-year-old doctoral student living in Forest Hills, Queens, recalled Rav Bina inviting him over to his home towards the beginning of his yeshiva year and introducing him to Rabbi Skolnick. He recalled the head rabbi saying Skolnick would help him become a more “thoughtful” and refined person. Rav Bina and Netiv declined repeated requests to comment on Skolnick’s role at the yeshiva, or to confirm or deny Finkelstein’s account of how he came to be counseled by Skolnick.

Rabbi Skolnick worked one-on-one with students at Netiv Aryeh in Jerusalem. JTA

Under Rav Bina’s instruction, Finkelstein said, he and Skolnick began meeting daily in the yeshiva’s study hall.

“We became very close,” said Finkelstein, who said most of their sessions were dedicated to personal conversations, though the exchange of information was largely one-sided.

In subsequent online conversations, Skolnick “would regularly ask me for details about my pornography watching habits and masturbation habits,” said Finkelstein.

“I would ask him, ‘Why are we having this conversation again?’” said Finkelstein. Still, as a teenager, Finkelstein said Skolnick’s intrusive line of questioning did not raise alarms for him. “In American yeshivas, rabbis spend a lot of time trying to get 18-year-old boys to stop masturbating and watching porn,” he said. (There is extensive yeshiva literature, aimed at young men, on “shmirat habrit,” or avoiding masturbation and pornography.) “Jonny presented himself as my mentor — someone who I could safely open up to about these things. He was going to help me improve myself.”

Victor Vieth, the director of education and research at the Minneapolis-based Zero Abuse Project, told The Jewish Week that talking about sexuality and pushing students to share “intimate information” is a hallmark of sex offenders. “It is often a part of moving towards sexual abuse,” said Vieth, whose nonprofit works to eliminate child sexual abuse through education and prevention training.

“Yes, students must be given avenues to ask questions about sexuality. But that is very different from a staff member inviting a conversation about a student’s personal sexual desires,” he said.

Vieth added that “incorporating religion into the abuse of a child” is a “blasphemous, but strikingly common” method embraced by perpetrators; he cited a 2001 study of 3,952 male sex offenders, 93 percent of whom described themselves as “religious.” Another study found that sex offenders maintaining significant involvement with religious institutions had “more sexual offense convictions, more victims and younger victims” than offenders who did not affiliate with religious institutions.

Clear guidelines, policies and training “can prevent behaviors from becoming nefarious,” said Vieth. “Policies can strictly limit one-on-one contact, methods of isolation and online contact. Without policies, there is no meaningful barrier between children and those who would harm them.”

Netiv Aryeh declined to comment on whether the school has any policies to monitor appropriate conduct between staff and students.

Netiv Aryeh declined to comment on whether the school has any policies to monitor appropriate conduct between staff and students.

In an email sent out to yeshiva alumni in September, the school acknowledged that Skolnick learned one-on-one with students between 2009 and 2011. Rav Chanan Bina, son of the school’s founder, in an interview with The Jewish Week last month, denied that Rabbi Skolnick was ever on staff at the school. The school declined further comment about the terms of the rabbi’s tenure at the school.

Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh is located in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Skolnick left his post at the yeshiva at the end of the school year in 2011; details about the nature of his departure remain unclear. The yeshiva did not respond to requests for comment regarding the nature of Skolnick’s departure.

However, according to a November 2010 Google chat between Finkelstein and Skolnick, Skolnick maintained that the yeshiva received at least one complaint about him from a student.

“One kid who I spent hundreds of hours helping somehow managed to convince Rav Bina I ruined his life,” Skolnick messaged Finkelstein in the exchange.

“I’ve had terrible problems with Rav Bina this year, between u and me. I’m working 16 hours a day … they pay me almost nothing,” Skolnick continues, an apparent reference to his employment at the yeshiva.

Skolnick went on to pursue a master’s degree in Jewish education at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School, and then went on to teach as a staff faculty member at various yeshiva day schools.

Finkelstein and Skolnick kept in touch over Google chat when Skolnick left the yeshiva.

In one Google chat conversation from June 17, 2009, Finkelstein confronted Skolnick about a series of “strange friend requests” he had been receiving on Facebook.

“I’ve been getting these strange friend requests with not so appropriate pics I block them all but then I got one that was from rachel cohen,” Finkelstein writes in a message to Skolnick. The pictures he received were mainly generic photos of women in bikinis, largely with their faces obscured.

(Last month, The Jewish Week learned of another, similar alias that was allegedly being used by Skolnick to solicit minors on Instagram. The FBI could not confirm if “Rachel Cohen” was one of the aliases used by Skolnick, as the investigation is ongoing.)

Skolnick replied: “‘why would I send u “not so appropriate pics’???????? U definitely didn’t get them from my account.”

Later in the exchange, Skolnick mistakenly sends to Finkelstein a fabricated Facebook profile he is creating. After acknowledging that he shared the profile by mistake, Skolnick admits to Finkelstein that he is using the phony profile — but only to prank another resident of Cambridge.

Reading back through these exchanges since Skolnick’s arrest last month has left Finkelstein — who viewed Skolnick as a close friend and mentor for years — deeply unsettled.

“Skolnick was a master at secret-keeping, and has a distinctly manipulative nature,” recalled Finkelstein, who has since reported his detailed correspondence with the rabbi to the FBI. “He had a way of getting you to give over private information, all while making it seem like it was for your own good.”

“Skolnick was a master at secret-keeping, and has a distinctly manipulative nature.

Finkelstein, 31, attended the Oct. 16 hearing alongside several other former students of Skolnick’s. “I’m not sure what brought me there,” he said. “Maybe I was looking for some sort of vindication after the years Skolnick spent criticizing my behaviors.”

Abusive Messages

Another alumnus of Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh believes Skolnick sent him abusive messages under various aliases during his yeshiva stay and after. The student, who requested his name not be used for privacy concerns, said he was counseled one-on-one by Skolnick between 2009 and 2011.

The former student recalled the relationship being “very complicated” from the start. “When we first met, I thought he was really funny and easy to talk to. He seemed like he cared deeply about me and my growth,” said the former student, today in his late twenties. “On the other hand, he psychologically abused me. He would constantly gaslight me, manipulate me and ignore my boundaries.”

Skolnick also touched him sporadically — rubbing his shoulders, sitting on his bed and ruffling his hair — in ways he considered inappropriate.

Skolnick also touched him sporadically — rubbing his shoulders, sitting on his bed and ruffling his hair — in ways he considered inappropriate.

(Another former student, who learned one-on-one with Rabbi Skolnick at Netiv Aryeh between 2010 and 2011, told The Jewish Week that Rabbi Skolnick kissed him on the cheek during one session. The student, who requested to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, said he immediately recoiled from the gesture and told the rabbi “never to do that again.”)

The former student said he was “psychologically abused by Skolnick for 7 years” after he left the yeshiva, at which point neither he nor the rabbi were associated with the school.

Fake Accounts

The Netiv Aryeh alumnus also believes Skolnick messaged him under a fake online account. The first time, he said, was between his first and second year at the yeshiva.

“He created a Facebook account for me towards the end of my Shana Alef,” or first year, the student said. “He said he was trying to help make me more ‘social’.” Over the summer, he received a Facebook message from a girl he did not know — “Elie Drelich.” (Finkelstein was contacted by the same account in 2010.) After she began flirting with him “in a way I knew was fake,” the student blocked the profile. When “creepy messages” from other accounts persisted, the student deactivated and then deleted his Facebook account.

After the student’s personal email account was hacked in 2012, an alleged online predator, who the student now believes to be Skolnick, gained access to over a dozen nude photographs of the student. The photographs were used to threaten and psychologically abuse the student between 2012 and 2019. “He threatened to tell everyone or show everyone if I didn’t send him more photos,” said the student.

Via Yeshiva of Flatbush

Since Skolnick’s arrest last month, the student has compiled a list of dozens of email addresses that the perpetrator used to solicit him for nude photographs and make crude comments about his body since he left Netiv Aryeh in 2012. Those email addresses include two pseudonyms — “Tina Warner” and “Anna Freed” — identified as Skolnick in the Sept. 14 FBI complaint.

When the student stopped responding to the emails, he began to receive texts to his cellphone, under what he believes were fake email addresses, that crudely described his body parts and solicited him for more nude photographs. It’s a tactic similar to the one Skolnick used, according to the indictment against him. (The student has since reported the list of email addresses to the FBI.)

In April 2012, Rabbi Skolnick, who had returned from Israel to pursue a degree in Jewish education, reached out to the student to reconnect. The two remained in touch through 2018, during which time Skolnick mentored the student on how to respond — or not respond — to the continued cyber threats.

At no point did Rabbi Skolnick, acting as a mentor, encourage the student to contact law enforcement about the situation.

At no point did Rabbi Skolnick, acting as a mentor, encourage the student to contact law enforcement about the situation. In an Oct. 24, 2018 WhatsApp exchange between the student and Skolnick, reviewed by The Jewish Week, Skolnick dissuaded the student from reporting the incidents to the FBI after the student reiterated that he wanted to do so.

“I’m worried that if you went to someone about it that might [end up] making people aware of what he has,” Skolnick wrote, adding “also your parents.” Skolnick instead recommended that the student create a fake email address impersonating the FBI to “see if it stops.”

At times, Skolnick would suggest the perpetrator was “just a girl” who wanted the student’s attention, in order to try and “get me excited about it,” the student said.

Though the student stopped communicating with Skolnick as a mentor towards the end of 2018, he continued to receive sexually explicit text messages to his cell phone from suspicious email addresses. He received the last such message on Sept. 1, two weeks before the rabbi’s arrest. He has received no such text messages or emails since.

“I spent nights crying to Skolnick on the phone about how I was being blackmailed,” he said. “He would always try to comfort me, telling me I was going to be fine.”

I had lived under a cloud of fear since I was 21 years old. I knew it was over, but I also knew my reckoning with what had happened was just beginning.

The day the student found out about the FBI arrest of an SAR middle school rabbi, he “knew it was Skolnick before I saw the headlines.”

“My heart was pounding,” said the young professional. “I had lived under a cloud of fear since I was 21 years old. I knew it was over, but I also knew my reckoning with what had happened was just beginning.”

The vibration of his phone when he receives a text message still “spikes my anxiety,” the student said. “Anytime I get a message, I’m scared it’s him texting me again. I wonder if that will ever go away.”

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