A rabbi living in Northeast Philadelphia has been charged in Boston for allegedly sexually abusing two students at a day school there more than 30 years ago.
He was released on $5,000 bail following his arraignment on Oct. 7 on four counts of indecent assault and battery on a child. His trial is scheduled to begin July 12, 2010.
In the past decade, Rabbi Stanley Z. Levitt, 63, has faced similar charges here in Philadelphia.
Local court records show that in three separate cases, from August 2001 to May 2003, Levitt — who also goes by the first name Zusia — was arrested on various charges related to claims of indecent assault against three boys from the Rhawnhurst section in the Northeast.
In one case, Levitt entered a plea of no contest to indecent assault and corrupting a minor — both classified as misdemeanors. He was sentenced in 2004 in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to five years probation, which will be up in December.
Another case went to trial and resulted in a not guilty verdict. Charges were withdrawn in the third case, court documents show.
According to court records, a number of the alleged incidents took place from 1999 to 2002 inside Congregation Lubavitch, Lubavitcher Center, at 7622 Castor Ave., where Levitt attended services for a time.
A number of sources within the Orthodox community declined to speak on the record. But several said that Levitt — who apparently hasn't worked as a rabbi or teacher in the local community for years — was essentially shunned following the accusations.
For his part, Levitt said that he is "totally innocent.
"The entire thing is horrendous; it's a nightmare," Levitt declared earlier this week, before he appeared in court in Boston. At the Boston arraignment, Levitt pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Scott Curtis, the attorney representing Levitt in Massachusetts, said, "We are going to fight these all the way. He said he would raise questions about competency and motives in the case.
Jonathan James, an attorney who represented Levitt in Philadelphia, could not be reached.
Rabbi Abraham Shemtov — who has overseen Lubavitch efforts in the region for decades and who chairs the movement's umbrella body — said that Levitt used to attend his synagogue, but that he no longer does.
Shemtov said that there were "lots of rumor that flew back and forth" about Levitt over the years, but he never got involved, and the rumors have stopped.
"No one came to me either seeking a solution or asking for help," said Shemtov.
With these kind of rumors, "unless you can be of help or assistance, you don't get involved," he added.
The father of the boy whose accusations resulted in the no contest plea here said that Levitt had been a trusted friend and neighbor.
At the time, that boy and the other two boys involved in the Philadelphia cases were students enrolled at Politz Hebrew Academy in Northeast Philadelphia.
"The children called him 'uncle,' " said the father, who asked not be to identified to protect the privacy of his son, who is now in his early 20s and living in New York.
The father said that he was incensed that Levitt "seems to be walking around the Northeast as if nothing had ever happened. It's very hard to restrain myself."
The charges in Boston date back to 1975, when Levitt taught sixth grade at the Maimonides School, an Orthodox day school in Brookline, Mass.
He has been accused by two former students who were 11 years old at the time, and are now in their 40s.
Assistant District Attorney Wayne Margolis of Suffolk County. Mass., said in court that "a third victim has come forward in recent days" after hearing about the case in the media.
Usually, a statute of limitations makes it difficult for adults who were victims of abuse to come forward later in life and press charges.
However, according to Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, the Massachusetts statute was rendered null and void when Levitt moved to Pennsylvania in 1980.
"The clock stopped and left him open to these charges," Conley said in a news release.
The current indictment states that one 1975 incident allegedly took place when Levitt visited a student, Michael Brecher, at Children's Hospital in Boston after the boy had an accident — he got his finger slammed in a door and wound up having part of it reattached — in the classroom.
The now 46-year-old unemployed actor said in a telephone interview from Baltimore, where he now resides, that he has suffered from depression most of his adult life, although it wasn't until five or six years ago that he linked many of his emotional problems to the abuse he allegedly suffered as a boy.
He said that he contacted the Boston police about the incidents a year ago.
"It affects a person at the most intimate level of relationships, and the damages are just incredible," said Brecher.
"I don't know what God wants of me, I don't know what I'm supposed to do in this lifetime," but pursuing this case is one "obvious thing," he said.
After the indictment was handed down, Jeffrey Swarz, who chairs Maimonides' board of directors, sent a letter to parents.
"For me, the news of these allegations from the past is an unwelcome but timely means to redouble the sacred work of providing a safe, secure, Torah-centered educational experience for our children," wrote Swarz.
Over the last decade or so, a number of high-profile cases involving sexual abuse in several Orthodox communities in other cities have come to light.
Some claim that Orthodox religious leadership has, on more than on occasion, decided to handle allegations internally, rather than involve outside secular authorities.
"They don't have education [in the field], don't have training, and they end up blaming the victim," said Vicki Polin.
Polin, a Baltimore resident, founded the Awareness Center: The International Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault. She said that she has followed the Levitt case and has also advised Brecher.
"The time has come to break the taboo and allow all Jewish communities to face reality," said Polin.
The father of the boy in the Philadelphia case said that several members of his community had implored him not to go to the authorities. He declined to name them.
It's difficult to paint a full and accurate picture of Levitt's life, but it appears that for a time he moved from city to city. Currently, he has a Philadelphia address.
Sources said that Levitt grew up in the area and attended the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia.
According to a Maimonides yearbook from the mid-70s, he earned his ordination at the Rabbinical College of New Jersey, which later became the Rabbinical College of America, which is affiliated with the Lubavitch movement.
The same yearbook notes that from 1968-70, he taught at the Hebrew Day School of Eastern Connecticut in New Haven before moving to the now-defunct Beth Jacob School in Elkins Park, where he worked from 1970-72.
From 1972 to 1974, he was employed at the Hebrew Academy of Atlantic City, N.J., before moving on to Maimonides in Massachusetts, where they noted that he stayed until 1977.
Philadelphia court records from the early 2000s show that Levitt was then unemployed and living on a pension.
In the past few years, Levitt had been attending services at Young Israel of Oxford Circle in Northeast Philadelphia, which closed earlier this year, according to the synagogue's president, Stanley Grosswald.
Grosswald added that Levitt, whom he knew as Samuel Levitt, had helped out the congregation from time to time, including trying to sell the synagogue's scrolls when it was attempting to stay afloat.
Grosswald also said that Levitt had been in a car accident several years ago and now walks with a pronounced limp.
He said that these days, Levitt supports himself in part by getting work repairing damaged Torah scrolls.
Grosswald said that, for his part, he had never heard about the accusations against Levitt.