Six years after a bombshell report revealed sexual abuse accusations against a beloved Orthodox rabbi, a jury will decide whether the claims have merit — or whether the families who brought them are liable for defamation.
Rabbi Steven (Shmuel) Krawatsky worked in Jewish education, mostly in the Baltimore area, for two decades before the families of three boys accused him of abusing their sons in 2014 and 2015. They said he abused the boys when he worked at Camp Shoresh, an Orthodox summer camp in Western Maryland.
When The New York Jewish Week reported the claims against Krawatsky in 2018, the rabbi sued the publication, the families and a former journalist who warned the public to stay away from him on Facebook. A judge dismissed Krawatsky’s claims against the Jewish Week in 2022, and last week threw out the families’ counterclaims against Camp Shoresh and its director, Rabbi David Finkelstein.
The civil trial that begins with opening arguments Tuesday will weigh both Krawatsky’s defamation suit against the families and the former journalist, Chaim Levin, and the families’ counterclaims of assault, battery and false imprisonment against Krawatsky. Child sex abuse watchdogs are describing it as a test of Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish community, which has rallied around Krawatsky.
Asher Lovy, head of Za’akah, an organization that fights child sex abuse in the Orthodox world, said the families of the alleged victims had been subject to intimidation by the community, which continued even after one of the families moved out of town.
The outcome of the trial, Lovy said, “will demonstrate to survivors in Baltimore whether they should feel empowered to come forward.”
A lawyer representing Krawatsky did not respond to a request for comment, and a lawyer for the families declined to comment.
Krawatsky, 46, was a popular and well-traveled figure in the world of Jewish education, teaching at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, an Orthodox school in Pikesville, Maryland, and leading youth programming at Suburban Orthodox Toras Chaim, a large Baltimore-area synagogue. Married with four children, he was known for hosting his students for sleepovers.
According to court documents, accusations of abuse were first made against Krawatsky in August 2015, by a Camp Shoresh parent, Joel Avrunin, whose then eight-year-old child, identified only as B.A., said the rabbi had touched him inappropriately that summer. Further allegations were made later by two other campers, then seven years old, one of whom said Krawatsky raped him, the other saying Krawatsky offered him $100 to touch his penis.
Maryland Child Protective Services investigators found that in two of the allegations, child abuse was “indicated” and in the third, abuse was “unsubstantiated” — a legal designation that means neither confirmed nor ruled out, but which adds the accused to a confidential database for five years. However, protective services later downgraded the two “indicated” determinations to “unsubstantiated” in exchange for Krawatsky dropping his appeal.
According to Krawatsky’s defamation suit, he voluntarily submitted to a polygraph examination by the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office in September 2015, following the accusations from B.A., and the polygraph showed no deception. The Sheriff’s Office in December 2015 declined to press charges. The families of the victims say they have been unable to review the polygraph examination.
The accusations did not come to light publicly until the 2018 Jewish Week article. It described not only the alleged abuses — which included oral and anal rape — but also accusations that camp leaders failed to respond as legally required, and that Maryland child protective services had botched the investigation. Following the article’s publication, Beth Tfiloh fired Krawatsky, and Suburban Orthodox Toras Chaim announced his resignation.
But the backlash against the families has continued since then, including public death threats, Lovy said.
“Their lives have been turned upside down,” he said.
While Krawatsky first filed suit the same year, the case did not make it to trial until now in part because of court delays related to COVID-19.
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