Identity Crisis | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Identity Crisis

Dogged by a decade-old scandal, a local rabbi tries to redefine himself

Search Google for Pittsburgh rabbi Gershon Freidlin and you'll have to scroll far down the list for the first mention of his work on Irving Howe's book, World of Our Fathers, the classic account of 20th-century Jewish immigrant life. You'll have to look further still for the Village Voice reviews of his musical appearances or references to his theatrical shows.

And that June 1971 evening, when Freidlin opened for Frank Zappa and John Lennon at the Fillmore East? Keep searching.

But click Google's "I'm Feeling Lucky" button and you'll land directly at the first item on the list: The Awareness Center in Baltimore, Md., part of the Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault.

This three-year-old group has 10-year-old copies of every article that appeared in The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., highlighting Freidlin's 1995 arrest in nearby Colonia for sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child.

Second and third on Google's list are similar collections: the newspaper of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization for atheists and agnostics that tracks reader-submitted clippings of "black-collar crimes," and "The Jewish Whistleblower," a blog that hasn't been updated in almost a year but which contains a passionate discussion of Freidlin's plea to the lesser charge, for which he received three years' probation, a $1,500 fine and mental-health counseling. The judge debated whether to place his name on publicly available Megan's Law lists, which track convicted sex offenders into the communities where they live, providing neighborhood notification in some cases.

The next few links Google generated by his name ... until Freidlin got them removed two weeks ago by requesting the action on Google's customer-services page ... were porn sites.

Freidlin, 69, is a small man who still sometimes displays a large vocal presence, a holdover from his days of stage work, perhaps, or from more recent years studying the cantorial arts ... Jewish liturgical chanting ... in Pittsburgh. If he came with a button to click, it would probably say "I'm Feeling Defiant."

In the years following the plea bargain he made to avoid a trial and raise his children, he has kept a low profile. But now, nearly a decade later, he's facing a civil suit ... on essentially the same two original charges. That, along with the Internet vigilantes and porn merchants, has prodded him to action.

Does the nature of sex crimes against children make all efforts to publicize the perpetrators fair ... including pornographers' efforts to cash in? Victims' rights groups point to the hidden nature of the crime and the recidivism rate among those arrested. One of the largest Department of Justice studies, a 1994 examination of nearly 10,000 male sex offenders (almost half of whom were child molesters) released from jail, found that 5.3 percent were rearrested for another sex crime within three years, and that "compared to non-sex offenders released from state prisons, released sex offenders were four times more likely to be rearrested for a sex crime."

Yet Freidlin, who is neither listed on the Megan's Law list in New Jersey or Pennsylvania nor has any criminal record apart from this plea bargain, finds himself sharing Internet watchdog lists with serial rapists. If he had pled guilty to killing a family while driving drunk, there would not be special Web sites, let alone pornography, carrying his name.

Freidlin's family disagrees with his new strategy and refuses to get involved, he says, or to speak with City Paper. But he is willing to risk further notoriety in the hopes of clearing his name.
"I would never have made a plea," he concludes, "if I would have known [Google] would happen."

Freidlin, a Scranton, Pa., native, was ordained in 1963 as a Conservative rabbi ... the middle of three main Jewish denominations, between the more traditional Orthodox and Reform.

"It wasn't a career thing," he says. "It was wanting to study the Talmud and be in the yeshiva world" ... the world of Jewish scholarship. "Which by the way is very helpful, now that I have to defend myself."

By 1971, he was living in Brooklyn, managing a Hyde Park morning newspaper delivery service and trying to make a name for himself as a performer of his own comic songs and chants.

"My first step onto the boards ... aged 9 ... was covering 'Mammy,'" Freidlin says. But the '60s, and their disappearance, were Freidlin's lasting inspiration. "I saw the '60s crumbling, the whole social change that I expected ... fall apart, and people I admired becoming Weathermen" ... a group that used violence rather than street protests.

He had recorded a demo for Columbia Records that nobody knew how to sell, he says. His producer matched him with other acts, including an avant-garde rock outfit, the Hampton Grease Band, out of Atlanta. He joined the Grease Band when they opened for Frank Zappa, who had John Lennon sitting in, during one of the last shows at the famous Fillmore East in New York City's East Village.

"They put me out on stage there," he recalls. "They stopped their music ... their pieces could take 10, 20 minutes. I did this chant, bare-chested, like a Yiddish theater matinee idol." The piece was called "Badiyoon."

What does it mean?

"You're asking me? I chanted, danced to the 'Badiyoon' before 2,500 screaming youths and all these lights. We were the hit of the night."

"Gershon did indeed perform that night, andwas given a great response by the crowd," reports Grease Band guitarist Glenn Phillips, whose group is set to reunite for the first time in 33 years. "Bruce [Hampton, vocalist] says he even remembers John Lennon commenting favorably on it."

Columbia also suggested Freidlin's music might fly in a theater setting. So he created the Martha Bippus Singers with several other performers and took his brand of absurdist theater around New York and other cities. "It started out as social commentary," he says. "But it went where it went." In a recorded performance from 1978, Freidlin introduces the Family Bippus: "Their all-encompassing philosophy calls for the pursuit of embarrassment" in daily life, he narrates, "by veneration of the remains of life, love and dinner."

"Bippus ended because I felt I was doing too many things," he adds. "I was the co-author/composer/dancer/actor."

On the back porch of his Pittsburgh home, Freidlin still offers the show's fake Latin and fake Yiddish with the convincing rapidity of a Sid Caesar. On an old stool, he lays out the work and the souvenirs of a three-decade career in the arts and scholarship: notices of performances on New York's WBAI-FM; a mimeographed rave in the New York Pinewood Folk Music Club Newsletter; a 1993 Hartford Courant account of his use of tap dancing in holiday services while he was a rabbi in Colchester, Conn.; a handbill from the Berkshire Theatre Festival of 1978, listing Freidlin as a Yiddish dialect consultant for a play starring Fyvush Finkel; a gushing recommendation letter from its director.

But the collection also contains copies of books for which Freidlin served as translator (the Holocaust memoir Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto by Ber Mark, published by Schocken) and editor (What a Life! The Autobiography of Pesach'ke Burstein, Yiddish Matinee Idol, published by Syracuse University Press).

There is also a letter of recommendation from Irving Howe, complete with Freidlin's name misspelled: "Rabbi Freidlin worked for me as a research assistant in the preparation of my book World of Our Fathers," Howe wrote in 1993. "He is a man of wit and kindliness, and should make an excellent moral and religious guide ... knowledgeable, tolerant, warm-hearted ... where he goes."

The pile is topped by a March 1995 positive recommendation from an official of the New Jersey temple where he served.

Just months later, the pile of clippings would be joined by a series of newspaper headlines, as Freidlin was arrested and jailed briefly on sexual assault charges.

In July 1995, when Freidlin was alleged to have assaulted a young boy, his sons were 11, 13 and 20. His accuser was 10.

"He was visiting my kid," Freidlin says today. The boy had arrived without a swimming suit, borrowed one from Freidlin's youngest son and put it on in their bathroom. "His mother had given word that we should put suntan lotion on him before taking him swimming. I then put suntan lotion on his back and chest and maybe his legs. I put it on my kids too."

The boy told a different story. According to the Star-Ledger, the boy said Freidlin had placed suntan lotion on his body, inside his bathing suit, twice inside the Freidlin home and once when he accompanied the Freidlins to another family's swimming pool. "Prosecutor Julia McClure," the paper reported, "said that about three weeks after the alleged assaults, the youngster asked his mother 'if things like this happened and if something was wrong with it.' It was then that the mother contacted police ..."

Freidlin denies ever touching the boy inside his bathing suit or seeing him naked, and pled not guilty when arrested. His defense lawyer, Barry Albin, spent a year wrangling with the prosecution in Middlesex County, N.J., then recommended Freidlin accept a plea deal that would keep him away from unpredictable juries and out of jail. Had Freidlin faced trial on the stronger charge of sexual assault and lost, he would likely have received a sentence that included jail time. (Albin would not comment today about the original criminal case because he sits on the New Jersey Supreme Court.)

The boy's mother told the court she accepted the plea to save her own child a trial as well. According to a Star-Ledger account of court proceedings prior to the plea agreement, "The victim's mother told [the judge] that a trial would likely make little difference, noting her family has already suffered so much since the crime occurred. [...] But the judge told the victim's family a trial could do more harm than good. He said the boy, who was in the courtroom, would have to testify. It would then be up to a jury to decide if he was telling the truth."

Although Freidlin says his wife passed through the basement room many times while he and the boy were together, there are no other potential witnesses to any of the incidents save Freidlin and the boy. The civil suit claims one suntan lotion application occurred in a locked room in the Freidlin home and charges false imprisonment, which Freidlin also denies.

On Dec. 13, 1996, Albin and the Superior Court judge led Freidlin through his plea, according to court transcripts, which use the boy's initials, V.K.:

MR. ALBIN: Did there come a time when you were in a bathroom with V.K. and V.K. had no clothes on?


MR. ALBIN: And did you place suntan lotion all over his body including his buttocks and his penis.


Later, the judge asks Freidlin, "Why did you do that?"

THE DEFENDANT: It was a misjudgment. I thought he was supposed to have it all over him. I was in a hurry and, you know, I smeared it and that's ... as I understand now, that certainly is a misjudgment.

His apology at the time of his sentencing ... he got three years' probation ... was in similarly careful language, as reported in the Star-Ledger: "Freidlin said he and his family have suffered and said he has an 'understanding and great regret for the hurt I've caused. I did something very thoughtless.'"

But Freidlin says today that he never did this crime to which he pled guilty under oath ... that he had to speak under duress because of the legal requirements of a plea, which include an admission by the defendant. The process is "a legal fiction," he says. "Otherwise the plea doesn't get accepted. That's how you have to talk.

"I was allowed to make clear," he adds, "that there was no sexual interest or activity. Even in court" ... by calling the incident "a misunderstanding" ... "[I said] I have never performed any sort of sexual act."

Even the judge may have been puzzled by the proceedings, as the Sentencing Order concludes: "This court can't fathom any reason why an adult would put sun tan lotion on the penis of a child who was going to cover it with a bathing suit unless there was a sexual basis."

As Freidlin's lawyer told the criminal judge in New Jersey, the rabbi had no criminal record prior to this arrest, and he has none now in Allegheny County. So why not fight the criminal charges?

Because by that point, Freidlin says, he felt as if he'd lost the case before even being tried.

"I took a plea because I wanted to raise my sons in peace," says Freidlin. "We had already been threatened by these procedures"... because of the prospect of jail time, during which his wife would be left alone to raise their sons. "This was wearing me down and wearing my family down. I saw no good from ongoing litigation. Whatever damages that would come to me had come from the charges ... you're ruined anyway."

Freidlin's two-year contract with Temple Ohev Shalom, the Colonia, N.J., synagogue where he'd served as rabbi, expired in August 1995 and was not renewed, but he had already been hired by New Light, a small congregation in Squirrel Hill. Freidlin says the synagogue supported him, displaying a letter from its then president to the congregation, calling for help with his legal expenses.

Even so, Freidlin went bankrupt six months after the plea, on July 25, 1997. He retired from the pulpit, he says, when he left New Light early in 1998. Now he finds ruination threatening on a fresh front.

His accuser, Vinnie King, has filed a civil suit against him in New Jersey Superior Court. King, who is now 21 and still lives at his childhood home in Colonia, alleges that Freidlin committed sexual assault ... the very charge Freidlin plea-bargained to avoid a decade ago.

Lawyers and victims' rights groups note that civil suits are easier to win than criminal prosecutions. The dueling verdicts on O.J. Simpson's criminal and civil trials is perhaps the most prominent modern example of the phenomenon. As one online group ..., Inc. (An Abuse, Rape and Domestic Violence Aid and Resource Collection) ... advises, "It is likely that a victim wishing to vindicate his or her rights against a perpetrator or third party will find the civil court to be a much more agreeable forum than the criminal court. ... [A] civil court plaintiff needs only to prove his or her case by a preponderance of the evidence; that is to say, he or she needs only to prove that it is more likely than not that the defendant is liable for the claims set forth in the complaint. This burden is less demanding than the one which must be carried by the criminal prosecutor ... the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the crimes charged."

The civil suit against Freidlin claims that King has suffered "permanent disability, emotional trauma, diminished childhood, permanent loss of bodily function, and has and will in the future incur expenses for treatment of said injuries and has been disabled, and will in future be disabled, and unable to perform his usual functions and has been caused and, will in the future be caused, great pain and suffering, loss and damages."

Legal language aside, Freidlin believes the accusation is a bit strong. "Even if I had been guilty, it could never have produced all this damage," he says.

"Children who experience maltreatment are at increased risk for adverse health effects and behaviors as adults," says the Center for Disease Control in its general fact sheet on "Child Maltreatment," "including smoking, alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders, severe obesity, depression, suicide, sexual promiscuity and certain chronic diseases." But what could have resulted from the one incident to which Freidlin pled guilty is another question entirely.

Freidlin ... representing himself, because he still owes money to his last lawyer, he says ... denies the new charges.

King's mother, Diane King, who answered their phone, expressed indignation at Freidlin's claims to innocence.

"He can deny it all he wants ...," she said before refusing to talk further.

King's civil lawyer, Mark E. Margiotta of Pollock, Montgomery and Chapin in Bedminster, N.J., admits that it "may actually be the case" that there are no witnesses to these incidents save Freidlin and King. So why sue Freidlin a decade after the original, perhaps unprovable, case?

Margiotta won't say. But revelations in the past decade about pedophile priests and the ongoing lawsuits may have something to do with the case's timing.

The crime to which Freidlin pled, and the vocation he chose, have attracted a huge amount of notice in recent years, as a slew of once-hidden allegations surfaced against religious authorities ... most prominently in the Catholic Church. Revelations of years of complicity on the part of some religious groups has resulted in lawsuits and outrage ... correctly so. Religious figures, once venerated, are now suspect.

A civil suit can't put Freidlin in jail, but it can extract monetary damages from him ... and from the synagogue where he once worked, even though King is neither Jewish nor was ever a congregant.

Two groups have already been dropped from the suit: the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which promotes the denomination, and the denomination's Rabbinical Assembly. Still listed as defendants are Temple Ohev Shalom, where Freidlin worked at the time of the incident, and the Metuchen, N.J., synagogue into which it has since merged, called Temple Neve Shalom. Ohev Shalom owned the Freidlins' house, where his accuser says part of the abuse happened. The suit alleges that numerous unnamed individuals and groups at both institutions, "negligently failed to investigate the background, history and prior conduct" of Freidlin before hiring him, and "knew or should have known" of unspecified "inappropriate" conduct by Freidlin with unspecified individuals. If the plaintiff's side of the case is aware of actual incidents of such conduct, the suit makes no mention of them. Neve Shalom's lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

As Freidlin's legal motions make clear, he hopes to prove that King's problems are not the result of anything that happened in July 1995. Freidlin is seeking another pile of papers: King's medical history and any cases from the state's child-welfare agency involving King, if such cases exist. Freidlin has already received some of King's medical records, and the judge has agreed to examine any records found in New Jersey's Division of Youth and Family Services before turning anything relevant over to Freidlin.

"Medical reports already sent me by [King's] attorney," reads one Freidlin motion, show signs of "a youth who has not reached his potential and who has turned violent towards both his family and towards himself. ... It is crucial to my defense that I also know and can document the mental/physical state of said youth before Summer, 1995.To wit, if he was already damaged by the time of his allegations, he has no basis coming to me for redress ... or, for very little redress."

"Even were I to have caused [King] damage ... I did not ... how damaged was he already both before and after his allegations," asks another Freidlin motion. "When almost a decade ago ... I entered a guilty plea to a lesser charge, the judge urged acceptance of the plea by all parties. Litigation would damage all of us, esp. Vinnie [the judge said]. By his or his mother's not heeding the words of [the] Judge ..., by presenting himself as a wreck and expecting someone to pay him for it, he perpetuates his status as wreck."

Whatever harm has actually occurred to King, from whatever cause, has so far played out far from public attention. Freidlin hasn't been so lucky.

While Freidlin has been spared the state-sanctioned humiliation of a Megan's Law listing, other Internet sites have made certain he will be unable to plug the gaping hole in his reputation any time soon.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, edits the group's newspaper, Freethought Today, which comes out 10 times a year with a two-page "Black Collar Crimes" roundup.

"We don't put ours online," Gaylor says, "and that is for legal reasons ... because we don't know the follow-up" ... whether some of those arrested were later convicted or acquitted, for instance.

Online, of course, is exactly where Freidlin's first case can still be found in Freethought Today's 1997 editions.

"There may be some back issues still up," Gaylor allows.

What legal issues is she concerned about? The Supreme Court has already ruled that Megan's Law, in using publicly available information, does not violate anyone's right to privacy.

"I don't really want to go into that," Gaylor says. "We have to rely on our readers for reports or updates. I'm not sure I always see the updates. We run everything we get."

The Awareness Center, whose Web site also features Freidlin's case, was founded in 2003 to provide sexual-abuse victim resources to Jews ... and incidentally to publicize Jewish perpetrators, says Executive Director Vicki Polin. The help offered by earlier groups was often Christian-based, she explains. And more insular, traditional segments of the Jewish community might shy from seeking help from secular authorities, or even reporting sexual abuse, she adds.

While the Center's Web site reproduces news accounts of any Jew accused of sexual offenses involving children, rabbis are, of course, the easiest to identify.

"We've taken some cases down," she reports. "We try our best ... we're so shorthanded. If somebody sends [an article] to us, we definitely put it [up]." Whatever the outcome of Freidlin's civil suit, he is destined to be on endless public probation for his criminal offense, even though his actual probation ended in 2000.

Unfamiliar with the Freidlin case on her own site, she takes a moment to review the old clippings: "If he pled guilty, he's going to stay on our Web site," Polin concludes. "An offender who molests children will molest 117 times before it's brought to the attention" of police, she adds, citing an unknown source. "That's what our fear is."

The author of "The Jewish Whistleblower" blog, who would not identify himself or be questioned via phone, echoes Polin in an e-mail: "The unfortunate problem in my community, is that by the time sexual predators are subject to Megan's Law they have caused decades of damage. My blog was designed to break the silence and make it tougher for the predators. I believe in that respect that my efforts have fostered others who have joined the blogosphere with their own blogs. There are now dozens of blogs that do what I once did alone."

This blogger claims he helped to reveal the identity of a molesting rabbi. Polin says her site has brought together a rabbi's victims, so they could support each other. But it's unclear who is being protected from Gershon Freidlin at this point. Court documents accepting Freidlin's plea state, "In helping the court make its determination, defendant was examined by an independent expert in the area of treatment of sex offender's [sic]. The expert felt defendant was not what otherwise would be considered repetitive and compulsive."

Those aren't the sorts of documents a blogger is ever likely to see. Or publish online.

In 10-year-old court transcripts, the judge seems to anticipate Freidlin's current regret: "You understand once you plead guilty I'm not going to let you take your plea back except for unusual circumstances ...," he said.

Freidlin's attorney then asked that "the plea not be admissible in any civil proceeding."

"I really never do that," the judge responded. "The application is denied."

Instead of singing the Jewish liturgy in a synagogue as an active rabbi, Freidlin is left distributing tapes of his cantorial performances. On the back of the Martha Bippus Singers sample cassette is Freidlin's clear tenor chanting the "Kol Nidre," one of the signature moments of the Yom Kippur service ... the Jewish Day of Atonement. This particular prayer is concerned with the way in which man views the making of oaths to God. Some believe it is intended to clear the petitioner of promises made under pressure.

"While reciting the prayer I often thought of the plea," Freidlin says in an e-mail, the worlds of the stage and the pulpit still evident in his words. "As to whether or not "Kol Nidre" absolves one of an oath taken under duress is a moot question here. Let it be known: Notwithstanding what my family and I have been through, I yet respect generally both the courts and police, guided as I am by theTalmudic maxim that, were it not for the State, 'humans would swallow one another alive.'"

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