Victims of child abuse in the Orthodox community have attacked Chabad over the acceptance of a Sefer Torah donated by a convicted sex offender.
Golders Green Lubavitch was given the scroll by Mendy Levy, a builder from Golders Green, who was jailed for three years in 2013 for sexual assault on a girl under the age of 16.
On December 25, over a thousand people attended a celebration of the completion of the Sefer Torah commissioned by Mr Levy. Many leading Chabad rabbis were present and posters advertising the event carried the Chabad logo.
At the celebration, Rabbi Yossi Simon of Golders Green Chabad effusively thanked Mr Levy for his gift.
It was only once news of the donation seeped beyond the Orthodox community and was attacked by Mr Levy’s victim, Yehudis Goldsobel, that Chabad then changed its mind and rejected it.
Ms Goldsobel said: “A Sefer Torah dedication is a lovely thing, but how can a community of people ignore the fact that the person donating it is a convicted sex offender? Does this not somehow tarnish this mitzvah? I would think so.”
In a statement issued on Sunday, Rabbi Simon defended his behaviour: “An individual approached us about a Sefer Torah he was completing and asked us if we would house it, as loan, for our use when we move into our premises. He then chose to turn the completion of the Sefer Torah into a public event, organising all the details, down to the production of the flyers and post event publicity.
“It’s worth noting that the people who came out to celebrate at the event were there to celebrate the Torah (as is the Halachic requirement) not an individual, including the person who gave the Torah. That being said, we are reviewing what happened, seeing what we need to do differently in the future to always ensure that our community is safe and set the highest standards possible for ourselves.
“In light of the public nature of this celebration, and how it has come to be perceived as a celebration of this individual, we have decided not to house this Sefer Torah when we move into our premises. We have also asked news outlets that publicised the donor’s article to remove it from their sites.”
Manny Waks, a leading campaigner against child abuse in the Orthodox community and himself a former victim, described the response by Rabbi Simon and Chabad as a disgrace.
“Chabad didn’t publicly come clean about this matter until Mr Levy’s courageous victim, Yehudis Goldsobel, and I raised this issue publicly. And their response was just as disgraceful as their major public event,” he said.
Shimon Cohen, a spokesman for Chabad Lubavitch UK, said it was not consulted about the event and that Chabad Houses in the UK operate independently.
He said the umbrella organisation would have rejected the offer from Mr Levy had it been aware of it. It was not its policy nor would it ever be acceptable for Chabad houses to accept donations from sex offenders. “Chabad Lubavitch UK has very strict and robust guidelines regarding safeguarding which were developed together with the NSPCC some years ago.”
Mr Waks said Chabad Lubavitch UK’s claim that it was unaware of the huge event celebrating the Torah was itself evidence of a major institutional failing. “How is the community meant to entrust them with protecting children and supporting victims when there’s complete chaos within their institutions?” he asked.
Mr Waks also criticised the reaction from the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council, both of which welcomed the move by Chabad to reject to scroll.
Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies, said: “Care should be taken not to honour people who have committed these sorts of terrible crimes. I am therefore reassured to note that Chabad has decided not to accept the scroll.”
The JLC said it was “encouraged to read of the strong action he [Rabbi Simon] has taken.”
In a later statement, it added: “As was reported at the end of last year, the JLC together with the Board of Deputies and Jewish Women’s Aid are working with other organisations to make sure that every person in our community should feel respected, secure and protected and that there is no tolerance of sexual misconduct including abuse and harassment.”
But Mr Waks insisted that instead of praising Chabad for rejecting the scroll, “they should be asking how it ever came to this in the first place. It has been left entirely to victims to cry out against the terrible injustice,” he said.
In a statement, the Chief Rabbi described the incident as “extremely disturbing”.
He said he had met Ms Goldsobel on a number of occasions and she was “a brave and tireless campaigner.
“It is impossible for us to appreciate the kind of pain that this episode must have caused her.
“What is essential is that a clear message goes out to all concerned that these kind of antics will never find support within our community…
“The very idea that a man convicted of sexual abuse should seek public acclaim in this way is extremely disturbing.”
It is understood that at the end of the celebration the Torah was placed at a Lubavitch shul, Hechal Menachem.
The shul did not respond to questions on the scrolls current whereabouts.