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Exclusive'They knowingly put hundreds of kids in potential danger'

New York Jewish school secretly kept on staffer who ‘resigned’ over abuse scandal

Schechter principal, deputy directed creation of a corporation to keep paying student life director Mike Hirsch, who had also been written up for inappropriately touching students

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

The Schechter School of Long Island's building in Williston Park, New York. (Schechter LI/Facebook)
The Schechter School of Long Island's building in Williston Park, New York. (Schechter LI/Facebook)

A Jewish day school in New York secretly continued to employ a staff member whose resignation it had previously announced in the fallout of a child sex abuse scandal that rocked the community a year ago.

The secret employment of the Schechter School of Long Island’s director of student life Mike Hirsch was orchestrated by SSLI’s head of school Scott Sokol and associate head of school Ofra Hiltzik, one current and two former employees of the school confirmed to The Times of Israel.

The board of trustees at SSLI — which serves roughly 250 students between kindergarten and 12th grade and is part of the Conservative movement’s Schechter Day School Network — was made aware of Sokol and Hiltzik’s actions earlier this summer but has allowed both of them to remain in their positions, the three staffers said last month.

The revelation regarding the secret employment of Hirsch shows the extraordinary lengths to which SSLI’s senior leadership was willing to go in order to protect the problematic employee.

Hirsch allegedly failed to report repeated allegations of abuse made against a senior USY staffer that took place more than 15 years ago when Hirsch was a counselor for the Conservative denomination’s United Synagogue Youth (USY) movement.

Furthermore, Hirsch has himself been written up in his SSLI personnel file for inappropriate touching and behavior with male students.

Suspension, ‘resignation,’ employment

Hirsch, 43, was employed at both SSLI and USY when The Times of Israel published an exposé in August 2021 about decades-long abuse in the latter institution. A former USY member said he 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 when he was 15 years old. The former USY member said Hirsch urged him to continue relaying incidents of sexual misconduct by the senior staffer, which the teenager did, but that Hirsch never reported these incidents to his employers.

After The Times of Israel’s exposé was published, Hirsch was immediately suspended from both workplaces for allegedly not reporting the sexual abuse accusations.

A spokesperson for USY said Hirsch’s employment was terminated in December 2021 and that he had been barred from participating in any events of the youth movement, where he had most recently served as engagement associate. The Times of Israel spoke with two sources familiar with the matter who confirmed this to be the case.

SSLI, whose students returned to classes on Tuesday for the new school year, handled Hirsch’s case very differently.

Last October, SSLI head 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. He and Hiltzik then called in the school’s business staff and informed them that Hirsch would actually continue working but only during evenings and weekends when most people would not be in the building, two former staff members said. While several individuals in the room voiced their objection, the more senior Sokol and Hiltzik responded that the matter wasn’t up for debate.

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.

Hirsch maintained administrative access to the school’s online portal and was tasked with sending out notices about births, weddings and deaths. He also handled the issuing of security ID cards to get into the building, the three staffers said, adding that Hirsch worked at a desk right next to Hiltzik’s and Sokol’s.

On several occasions, Hirsch was spotted by parents who approached Sokol or Hiltzik, asking what he was doing there. They were assured that Hirsch was just stopping by and that he was not still employed by the school, the former staff members said.

Alumni threaten legal action

The payments to Hirsch continued until July 2022, the three current and former staffers told The Times of Israel, at which point, a group of recent alumni sent an anonymous letter to select administrators, teachers, parents and donors describing and protesting the ongoing, secret employment of Hirsch.

The writers, who identified themselves only as “former USY youth members and victims,” demanded that Sokol resign within two weeks, threatening to go public with their allegations and evidence in addition to pursuing legal action against the school. As of this writing, they have yet to act on their ultimatum.

The board of trustees conducted an investigation into the allegations against Sokol and Hiltzik and received testimony from at least one employee who confirmed that Hirsch’s continued employment was Sokol and Hiltzik’s idea, the current and former staffers said. The head of school and his deputy both denied the allegations that they conspired to keep Hirsch on staff and have been allowed to remain in their posts.

Asked why Sokol and Hiltzik went to such lengths to help Hirsch, the former employees who spoke with The Times of Israel said Hiltzik had long treated Hirsch “like a son” while Sokol and Hirsch had been friends for decades, even before they began working together at SSLI.

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

These relationships helped Hirsch keep his SSLI job even though he was written up on at least three occasions for inappropriate touching and behavior with male students over the past several years, according to two former employees who reviewed his personnel file. One of the incidents took place in the student lounge, which Hirsch was tasked with running until his suspension.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one former USY member with direct knowledge of the matter said Hirsch had acted sexually inappropriately with underage boys when he was a USY staffer.

“Bottom line is that Sokol and Hiltzik knew [about] Mike… and kept him working in the school for over a year, putting hundreds of kids in potential danger,” said one former SSLI employee.

The Times of Israel reached out to Sokol last month seeking his response to the allegations in the anonymous letter. Two days later, a lawyer from the Ruskin Moscou Faltischek law firm representing the school replied, “Mr. Hirsch is no longer in the employ of the school. We do not respond publicly to anonymous complaints.”

Later that day, Sokol emailed staff members “remind[ing them] that under no circumstances should anyone be giving any type of statements to members of the press regarding school or staffing situations.” Two sources said that individual employees had their jobs threatened if they made contact with the media.

‘Ongoing’ investigation

The Times of Israel reached out again last week to Sokol, Hiltzik and SSLI board chairman Jeffrey Shlefstein, presenting additional evidence of Hirsch’s continued employment and offering another opportunity to comment prior to publication of this article.

Illustrative photo (iStock)

Shlefstein responded, “The allegations you refer to are not new to us. We took them seriously when they came to our attention, and they were investigated at our request by outside counsel before your inquiry was undertaken. That inquiry is ongoing and, as a result, our ability to comment is limited.

“Please know that following an investigation by outside counsel, Mr. Hirsch was suspended and he ultimately resigned,” Shlefstein said, seemingly denying the allegation that Hirsch continued working at SSLI after the October 2021 resignation announced by Sokol.

However, the school continued to send paychecks written out to Hirsch — and obtained by The Times of Israel — for two months after the resignation announcement. They included reimbursements for equipment and office supplies that Hirsch had purchased.

Asked to clarify the apparent discrepancy between Shlefstein’s characterization of the outside counsel’s investigation as “ongoing” and his subsequent explanation that the school suspended Hirsch “following” the investigation, an attorney for the SSLI board declined to do so.

“Payments at issue for Hirsch were made through an entity he formed with the assistance of our former CFO and remain a concern,” Shlefstein’s statement continued, apparently confirming the creation of “Hebrew Learning Services Inc” in order to continue paying Hirsch while placing the blame on former SSLI CFO David Ostrove, who was indicted in July for allegedly embezzling school funds.

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.

“Our board is working with outside counsel and their auditors in reviewing all aspects in this matter,” Shlefstein said. “Our inquiries — both our own and those conducted for the board by various outside counsel — coupled with the action taken against Mr. Hirsch and others are emblematic of our longstanding commitment to provide a safe environment for our students, faculty and staff.”

Hirsch’s attorney Bruce Barket called the “baseless” allegations against his client “false and slanderous” in his response to The Times of Israel’s request for comment.

“We will have no further comment until after we read the article and then our response will be in court, not in your publication,” he added.

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

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