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Yeshiva University Rabbis, Professor Asked for Leniency for Child Abuser

Yeshiva College alumnus Evan Zauder (YC ‘09), who pled guilty to one count of enticement of a minor to engage in illegal sexual activity, one count of transportation, receipt, and distribution of child pornography, and one count of possession of child pornography on January 3, 2013, garnered the support of rabbis and a professor who taught him at Yeshiva University. A number of his supporters within the university wrote personal pleas of leniency, letters commonly written at the conclusion of a trial, to Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the United States District Court in New York.

Zauder, a sixth grade teacher at Yeshivat Noam in New Jersey, was a former youth director at Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck and a former part-time youth director with Bnei Akiva youth groups. He was also pursuing a master’s of education program at New York University and Semikah at RIETS when he was apprehended by the FBI. A spokesperson for the United States District Attorney told The Commentator that Zauder was sentenced to 156 months in Federal Prison Tuesday, April 1, 2014.

According to court documents, Zauder was in possession of two laptops and a number of DVDs containing “hundreds of images and videos of child pornography” including “child pornography involving prepubescent minors and child pornography containing sadistic or masochistic material.” The trial also revealed that on April 14, 2011, Zauder solicited sex from a male minor between the ages of 14 and 15 in a park in New Jersey and continued a relationship with the boy for several months. A text message sent by Zauder to a third party and intercepted by the FBI described Zauder “convincing Minor-1 to perform oral sex on him.”

Dr. David Pelcovitz, Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Chair in Psychology and Jewish Education at Azrieli, special assistant to YU’s President Richard Joel, and an instructor in pastoral counseling at YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, asked Judge Kaplan for the “lowest sentence permitted under the law” because of “Evan’s advanced capacity for self awareness and empathy.”

In an interview with The Commentator, Dr. Pelcovitz, who authored Child Abuse in the Jewish Community and peer reviewed publications on child physical abuse and emotional abuse, claimed that, at the time of his writing the letter, the only charge he was aware of against Zauder was child pornography use. “I would never have done this if there was a direct victim involved,” he said.

However court records show that reports of Zauder’s abuse of a minor were released in early January 2013, when Zauder plead guilty to enticement. The FBI press release related to the case was carried in multiple Jewish papers that week, while the letters in support of leniency are dated from February through April of 2013. Although the date of Dr. Pelcovitz’s letter was blacked out by the court, none of the post-trial leniency letters written in support of Zauder were dated before February 1, 2013.

“The market for child pornography creates demand for production of images, and every photo and video is a record of abuse.”

-FBI Assistant Director in Charge Janice Fedarcyk

“The purpose of the letter was not a clinical evaluation, it was asking that justice be tempered with mercy.” Dr. Pelcovitz, a child abuse advocate since the 1970s, told The Commentator. He urged “nuance” in this case involving his former student, arguing that “child pornography use rarely translates into physical abuse of minors [...] The letter was just saying that, maybe, Evan will respond to treatment after his jail time.”

Dr. Pelcovitz, who said prison terms for convicted possessors of child pornography were often “draconian,” concluded, “You have to understand that this was not arguing that he shouldn’t be punished. It’s common that people in the community argue that some of his redeeming features should be taken into account by the judge.”

In another letter, Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Ezra Y. Schwartz said that “I believe that a contributing factor in his terrible acts were a number of difficult personal situations, the death of his brother, and his sister’s divorce.” Rabbi Schwartz asked for “mercy in his sentencing.” Rabbi Schwartz declined to comment.

Yeshiva University Vice President for University and Community Life Rabbi Kenneth Brander said that as a student of his at RIETS, Zauder’s “questions in class were very much focused on the balance that clergy must struggle between caring for their congregation and concern for general needs of the local community and society.” Brander noted Zauder’s participation in service missions and asked that the judge “take these personal reflections into consideration.” Rabbi Brander did not respond to multiple email messages and calls to his office.

Other prominent members of the modern and centrist Orthodox communities lined up in support of Zauder. Rabbi Reuven Taragin, dean of overseas students at Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem, asked the court for the “maximum possible leniency” based on Zauder’s “good heartedness and community service.” The Commentator was unable to reach Rabbi Taragin by the time of publication.

None of the letters by those affiliated with Yeshiva University acknowledged Zauder’s victims. “If there were victims I would have certainly acknowledged them,” Dr. Pelcovitz said. FBI Assistant Director in Charge Janice Fedarcyk stated in a bureau press release about this case that “The market for child pornography creates demand for production of images, and every photo and video is a record of abuse.”

David Cheifetz, founder of the sexual abuse support group “Mi Li--Who Is For Me,” published the letters last week.  “Would Rabbi Brander or Dr. Pelcovitz or Rabbi Pruzansky or Rabbi Schwartz or Rabbi Taragin or any of the other letter writers have written the same notes of character endorsement if they had known the victims of Evan Zauder?” Cheifetz wrote on the website Frum Follies.

“Evan Zauder’s abuse and exploitation of minors was heinous criminal conduct perpetrated on some of the most vulnerable and powerless members of society,” Manhattan U.S Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement. Zauder faced a possible life sentence on the enticement charge, along with a maximum 20 year prison term on the child pornography distribution charge and ten years for the possession charge. The minimum sentence on his crimes was 10 years.

In an August 26, 2013 letter to students after the Sullivan & Cromwell report on sexual abuse at YU’s MTA high school, President Joel assured the community that “using our resources and the talents of our experts and educators, YU will launch new efforts to supplement our existing programs and to strengthen awareness of, and to combat, abuse in our community.” He said that “Yeshiva University and communities everywhere will persevere with an unwavering commitment to protect our children as they themselves develop into the stewards of tomorrow.”