Petaluma rabbi pleads no contest to charges of sexual misconduct

The Petaluma rabbi accused of sexually molesting a bat mitzvah student has pleaded no contest to the charge and faces up to eight years in prison.

Rabbi Sidney Goldenberg, formerly of Petaluma's Congregation B'nai Israel, entered his plea at Santa Rosa Municipal Court Tuesday to a felony charge of lewd and lascivious conduct with a minor under the age of 14.

The sexual misconduct allegedly took place over several months late last year while Goldenberg was tutoring the victim, a 12-year-old girl, for her bat mitzvah.

Police said Goldenberg, 58, took the girl into his office, made lewd remarks, touched her breasts and asked that she put her hands into his pockets.

According to Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Gary Medvigy, a plea of no contest is the legal equivalent of a guilty plea.

The rabbi pleaded no contest "just to make himself feel better," Medvigy reported.

The rabbi's attorney, Stephen Gallenson, did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

Two misdemeanor counts of annoying a child will be dropped as part of Goldenberg's plea bargain, Medvigy said.

Goldenberg, who originally had pleaded not guilty, will return to the court Tuesday, Feb. 25, when a psychiatrist or psychologist will be appointed to evaluate him and a date will be set for sentencing. He could receive a minimum of probation, a maximum of an eight-year prison term.

Medvigy said the actual sentencing will not take place for another four to six weeks.

During that time, the Sonoma County court's probation department will review the psychologist's report, talk to the victim and her family, and investigate the case before recommending a sentence to the judge.

One factor that will be considered is whether the defendant has a history of sexual abuse involving minors, Medvigy said.

Several women from New York have contacted the Santa Rosa district attorney's office claiming to have been molested by Goldenberg while they were teenagers, Medvigy said. Their calls came amid national media attention to the case.

Goldenberg taught high school in Levittown, Long Island, and was a lay educator and cantor at several synagogues on Long Island.

Medvigy said his office has reports about 10 women, six of whom either made statements to his office or spoke to him. The other reports came from family members who refused to disclose the whereabouts of the alleged victims.

"The first victim we know of is from 27 years ago when [Goldenberg] was a high school teacher," Medvigy said.

Such cases can't be prosecuted in New York now because the statute of limitations has expired.

"Some [prior incidents] are more egregious than what we have here," Medvigy added. "The process began with dirty talking. There are allegations of serious sex acts. [With] those who didn't complain, [Goldenberg] seemed to go as far as he could."

According to Medvigy, complaints were made at the time, but no disciplinary action was taken. Goldenberg was either moved into a job where he was not working with adolescent girls or he was allowed to resign and subsequent employers were not told of the past misconduct.

"I think things are changing in the world," said Medvigy. "If we had the mentality back then [that] we have now, [Goldenberg] would have been stopped."

Although Goldenberg hasn't taught in the Levittown schools since the early '70s, he still holds New York teaching credentials. However, Peter Sherman of the New York State Teachers Certification Office expects action will be taken against Goldenberg's credentials in light of the Petaluma case.

Goldenberg, however, cannot be stripped of his rabbinic ordination.

"One cannot lift an ordination," said Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the national organization of Conservative rabbis. "It's like a degree."

Goldenberg was ordained four years ago by Tifereth Yisrael Rabbinical Yeshiva of Long Island, an independent seminary. For several years before that, he ran a small computer company. Medvigy said there are no indications of any complaints against Goldenberg during that time.

Last summer, Goldenberg was hired by B'nai Israel, a small, Conservative congregation of about 100 families. It was his first employment in California.

Meyers said the Rabbinical Assembly takes misconduct of its members seriously, but Goldenberg is not a member. The organization, thererefore, lacks jurisdiction to take disciplinary action.

"Congregations that employ rabbis who are not under the jurisdiction of a rabbinical organization run certain risks," Meyers said.

B'nai Israel is not a member of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the organization of Conservative synagogues, said Rabbi Jerome Epstein of United Synagogues, which helps its member synagogues check out rabbis.

B'nai Israel "isn't a member of any association, so they had no one to help them check this through," he said. "The congregation hired someone who is a freelancer."

Goldenberg resigned from B'nai Israel Jan. 11 after being put on paid leave in the wake of his Dec. 16 arrest.

Medvigy praised B'nai Israel for its handling of the situation.

"It's a testament to the community," Medvigy said. "They are really rallying and pulling together."