Grand jury to hear sexual misconduct case involving rabbis

LOS ANGELES — Federal authorities will decide next week whether to seek indictments of a respected Chassidic rabbi and his assistant, both of whom have been charged with sexually abusing a 15-year old girl on a flight from Australia to Los Angeles.

The assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, Joel Thvedt, said he intended to present the case to a grand jury, which would decide whether to prosecute.

The accused are Rabbi Israel Grunwald of Brooklyn, a leader of the Hungarian Pupa Chassidim, and his assistant, Yehudah Friedlander, both 44 years old.

Their arrests have sparked outrage in the Chassidic and Orthodox communities of New York, while Los Angeles rabbis moved quickly to aid their colleagues.

Both of the accused have vehemently denied the charges, according to their attorney, Mitchell W. Egers.

After a hearing here June 2, U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn Turchin released Grunwald on $10,000 bail. He immediately flew back to New York.

Grunwald, charged with sexually touching a minor, faces a maximum of two years in prison and a $250,000 fine if he is convicted.

Friedlander remained in detention over the Sabbath and the Shavuot holiday, despite Egers' protests. He was being held pending clarification of the disposition of a 1991 arrest in New York state, in which he was charged with a sexual offense.

On Tuesday, Turchin denied a cash bail to Friedlander, calling him "a danger to society."

The judge said Friedlander only would be released if someone put up his or her house with equity valued at least at $100,000.

If convicted, Friedlander, who was charged with more extensive sexual abuse, faces up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Friedlander has been identified in the media as a rabbi or "assistant rabbi," but according to Egers and New York sources, he is actually a non-rabbinical assistant.

A nine-page affidavit submitted to the court by an FBI agent, which cites statements by the young girl, a witness on the plane and Friedlander, alleges a number of occurrences during the long United Air Lines overnight flight.

The girl, an American traveling alone, accused Grunwald of leaning across an empty seat and, following some conversation, touching her necklace and fondling her breasts.

At some point, Friedlander allegedly exchanged seats with Grunwald, and while the cabin lights were dimmed, Friedlander allegedly groped and fondled the girl's private parts and breast for some five to eight minutes, the complaint charged.

The teenager told authorities that she tried to fend off the advances but was too embarrassed to call for help. However, a woman passenger observed the alleged incident, talked to the girl and then notified the flight crew, which radioed a report to authorities.

When the plane landed in Los Angeles, FBI agents, who assumed jurisdiction under the laws governing American aircraft in flight, arrested the two men.

One agent quoted Friedlander as telling him that it was the girl who initiated the advances, adding that "I shouldn't have done it, but it happened."

Egers said Friedlander was "in a state of shock and deeply upset that the whole Jewish world" knows about the accusations.

Egers, a veteran trial lawyer with close ties to the Orthodox community, said when he and his two clients appeared in court last week, he was "besieged by armies of reporters, with just about all the media from New York and Los Angeles on hand." For a day, "we were bigger than the O.J. Simpson case."

Reaction to the arrests was sharpest in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn, where Grunwald serves as rabbi of Congregation Tuldos Yacov Yosef.

Rabbi Bernard Freilich, administrator of the Council of Jewish Organizations in Boro Park, told The New York Times that "people are outraged at these charges. They are unbelievable, impossible nonsense. It is impossible that an Orthodox Chassidic person would even speak to a female, much less touch her."

Rabbi Abner Weiss of the Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills took a less categorical view. He was being installed as the new president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California when he received word of the arrests.

In his first act in office, Weiss conferred with Aaron Kriegel, a Conservative rabbi who serves as prison chaplain, to assure that the two Chasidim would receive kosher food. Weiss said he personally bought loaves of challah for Grunwald and Friedlander.

Without passing judgment on the case, Weiss, who holds a graduate degree in psychology, noted that, in general, "Jews are not immune to any kind of illness, physical or mental."

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent