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Inside storyBoard says probe into misconduct allegations will continue

Jewish school head to leave after exposé showed scandal-hit staffer secretly kept on

2 months after ToI report on continued employment of man who ostensibly resigned in abuse scandal’s fallout, Schechter Long Island tells parents Scott Sokol has taken job elsewhere

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

The Solomon Schechter Long Island in Williston Park, New York is grappling with an unfolding scandal being investigated by ToI (Courtesy SSLI Facebook page)
The Solomon Schechter Long Island in Williston Park, New York is grappling with an unfolding scandal being investigated by ToI (Courtesy SSLI Facebook page)

A Jewish day school in New York informed parents Monday that its principal will be stepping down, two months after The Times of Israel revealed the secret continued employment of a staffer who had supposedly resigned in the fallout of an abuse scandal that rocked the community last year.

In an email to parents, the Schechter School of Long Island (SSLI) board of trustees president wrote, “We understand that Dr. Sokol has decided to leave our school to pursue a new career path. Dr. Sokol has agreed to remain until February 2023.”

A cybersecurity firm hired by the school will continue its “independent, external” investigation “into the [T]imes of Israel/Mike Hirsch matter,” board president Jeffrey Shlefstein wrote.

Hirsch, 43, was employed as a student life director at SSLI and as a senior staffer at the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth when The Times of Israel published an exposé in August 2021 on allegations of decades-long abuse in the latter institution. A former USY member alleged that as a 15-year-old, he had confided in Hirsch that another senior staff member in his mid-30s had masturbated in front of him in the bathroom and urged him to join. The former USY member said Hirsch told him to continue relaying incidents of sexual misconduct by the staffer, which the teenager did, but that Hirsch never reported these incidents to his employers.

After the exposé’s publication, Hirsch was immediately suspended from both workplaces. In October 2021, Sokol sent out an email to parents informing them that Hirsch had decided to resign from his position at the school, without elaborating on the reasons.

But on September 7, The Times of Israel published a report, citing two former and one current SSLI employee, who said the head of school Scott Sokol and the associate head of school Ofra Hiltzik had secretly orchestrated Hirsch’s continued employment over the previous year.

According to two former staff members, Sokol and Hiltzik — following the announcement of Hirsch’s resignation — informed the school’s business staff that Hirsch would actually continue working evenings and weekends when most people would not be in the building.

Hirsch was kept on even though he had been written up on at least three occasions for inappropriate behavior with male students over the past several years, according to the two former employees who reviewed his personnel file.

Schechter School of Long Island’s head of school Scott Sokol speaks to prospective students on November 18, 2018. (Screen capture/YouTube)

Paychecks obtained by The Times of Israel showed that SSLI continued to pay Hirsch until the end of 2021, at which point a new corporate entity titled Hebrew Learning Services Inc. was registered and replaced Hirsch’s name on paychecks. The address listed for Hebrew Learning Services is the same as Hirsch’s private residence, and the salary remained roughly the same in 2021 and 2022.

Following the publication of the September 7 report, Shlefstein told parents in an email that the school had already conducted an investigation a year ago (ostensibly into Hirsch’s conduct, though he did not specify), which found “no evidence of any sexual misconduct by any staff member and no allegation that any student was ever abused here.”

Still, Shlefstein said a subsequent “independent review” would be conducted into the latest allegations.

Later that day, at least one anonymous email was sent out to parents, which included the text of The Times of Israel article from the previous day and a message castigating Sokol and Hiltzik.

On Septmber 8, Shlefstein sent out a response email to parents saying that the school had fallen victim to “a cynical, calculated online assault by person or persons unknown for the purpose of unraveling the very fabric of our institution.”

“These emails were clearly timed to come on the heels of a story carefully planted overseas and then mass-emailed to the Schechter school body on the eve of the new school year. The timing isn’t incidental,” he wrote.

A week later, Shlefstein sent out an additional email saying the board “has been made aware that there are parents who saw Mike Hirsch on campus after hours when school was not in session. The board only recently became aware that Mike Hirsch was being paid for work assignments other than unreimbursed health benefits which were part of his suspension in August 2021.”

He said the already-ongoing investigation by an outside legal firm would seek to “determine how this arrangement was made and by whom.”

Illustrative photo (iStock)

“We remain confident, despite the attempt by an anonymous source to tarnish the reputation of our school and its administrators, that our school has been, currently is, and will remain a safe and secure space for your children to learn and thrive,” Shlefstein wrote in that September 15 email.

He added that “the day-to-day operations of our school are run, with the full support of the board, by our Head of School, Dr. Scott Sokol, and our Assistant HOS, Ofra Hiltzik.”

On November 1, another anonymous message went out to parents that called into question the integrity of the board-initiated independent investigation, with the writer claiming to have gotten wind of additional evidence against Sokol and Hiltzik.

On Sunday, a petition titled “Stand With Schechter” went up on Change.org, calling on community members to sign on in solidarity with Sokol, Hiltzik and Hirsch, whose “characters have unfairly been assassinated and their lives are being ruined in the aftermath of the indictment of the school’s former CFO.”

Former CFO David Ostrove was indicted in July for allegedly embezzling school funds.

In a statement prepared for the September 7 story, Shlefstein told The Times of Israel that it was Ostrove who assisted in the creation of the Hebrew Learning Services Inc. business entity, which allowed for Hirsch’s continued payment without his name showing up on financial records.

However, paychecks obtained by The Times of Israel showed that payments to Hebrew Learning Services Inc. continued for months after Ostrove was suspended in April and no longer had access to the school’s computer systems. The former SSLI CFO declined a request to comment at the time.

Some 48 hours after going live, the petition in support of Sokol, Hitzik and Hirsch had garnered 235 signatures. But by Monday, Sokol was out.

Illustrative: In this image made from video, an empty classroom is shown at David Ellis Academy in Detroit on February. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Mike Householder File)

In Shlefstein’s message to parents announcing the departure on Monday, he noted the latest anonymous accusations that were disseminated last week, saying that “while [that] email is perhaps a clever mix of fact and fiction, we are confident in our choice to engage outside professionals to protect our school.”

“As the headlines reveal a rise in the scourge of antisemitism, the role of The Schechter School of Long Island could not be more important: instilling our Jewish values, creating a challenging and stimulating academic environment, and providing a strong ethical foundation for a new generation of Jewish youngsters,” the SSLI board chairman added.

On Tuesday, Sokol sent out an email of his own, prefacing that he felt “the need to explain a bit more about the reasons for my leaving than was afforded in [Shlefstein’s] correspondence.”

Sokol wrote that he had hoped not to have to leave the school after having relocated his family from Boston in order to take the job at SSLI five years ago. “Nonetheless and despite the current situation, I do not regret that move because SSLI is in fact the wonderful school I believed it to be, and my own child benefited directly from its superlative faculty, first-rate education and strong Jewish environment.”

He then went on to describe a “culture of entitlement and incivility among a small, but very vocal subset of families, which oftentimes makes its teachers and administrators feel abused” and that “ultimately forced my hand in announcing my departure.”

“The general lack of appreciation for the work of so many on behalf of your children, and the lack of human decency in managing conflict, is something I have not experienced elsewhere. I am sorry to be so harsh and negative in my assessment, but in my opinion, if SSLI is to move forward successfully this subculture needs to be weeded out,” he wrote, without elaborating further or commenting specifically on the allegations revealed in The Times of Israel’s reporting.

While he appeared to be exposing a rift between himself and Shlefstein’s board, Sokol did echo the latter’s assertion that the anonymous emails and letters sent out in recent months had been “designed to misdirect and/or destroy our community.”

Sokol said he still planned to work with the SSLI board “to help the school make a smooth transition to new leadership.”

He signed off by quoting a Jewish Rabbinic passage: “Rabbi Shimon teaches that there are three crowns [that one may seek in life]: the Crown of Learning, the Crown of Priesthood and the Crown of Leadership, but the Crown of a Good Name surpasses them all.”

This reporter can be contacted in confidence at office2@timesofisrael.com

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