It was a Friday at Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy, just hours before Shabbat was set to begin.
Every student and teacher — from kindergarten through eighth grade — was pulled from their lessons, gathering on the balconies of their open learning space to hear what their principal, Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, had to say.
A week earlier, the school was rocked by news a now former administrator, Jonathan Skolnick, was arrested by the FBI, accused of posing as teenaged girls online, soliciting sexually explicit photos of boys as young as 11. Investigators believe some of the 20 to 25 children Skolnick reportedly admitted to messaging were students at SAR and his former employer, Yeshiva of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School in Brooklyn, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Now that the SAR community is beginning to heal, Krauss says he wants to bring joy back into the school, and start re-seeding the trust that he believes has been lost between students and the adults around him after Skolnick’s arrest.
“This was the hardest week,” Krauss told the students and teachers. “This was a very, very hard week for the kids. Most importantly for victims. Every single night we had meetings with parents, with the FBI. The next night with a psychologist who was bringing guidance. Every single day and every night.”
Rebecca Ostro Nagata, a middle school general studies assistant principal, reminded the students of “the single story.” It’s a concept explored by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — how a single story can portray a group of people as only one thing. To others, they exist only in the way that they are described in the story. The story can be true, Ostro Nagata said, but it’s not complete.
“This week there was a true story that was painful, and this story has to be told,” Ostro Nagata said. “But it is not our only story. It is in no way the entirety of who we are as a community.”
Earlier this week, FBI agent Aaron Spivak told JTA there was no way SAR could have known Skolnick was “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” A background check before SAR hired him was clean and he had good references. Nothing betrayed what he was capable of.
“What can be done better? That’s an important part of this too,” Krauss told The Riverdale Press.
“There was the FBI statement … nothing could have prevented this. But we have a responsibility to do whatever we could possibly do.”
Yet, the school searches for solutions for how they can keep students safer moving forward.
“Everything,” the rabbi said, “everything is open for review.”
Krauss and other administrators spoke with all grades last week about what happened, explaining the situation to each grade level in a way they could understand.
“I told them, actually, right now, I can’t tell you trust the adults,” Krauss said. “Because guess what? That didn’t work. But I told them I still believe that the overwhelming majority of the adults around them are people that care about them, and want only good.”
They’ve tried to be as transparent as they could with students, he said, while not sugarcoating what happened. The goal is not to scare students, but to tell them the truth on a level they understand.
“We’ve been focusing on the heroism of the people coming forward,” Krauss said. “It’s a very hard thing to do, and those are true acts of heroism.”
The pre-Shabbat assembly was the first step in moving back to normalcy, the rabbi said. But while move forward is important, so is keeping in mind how to handle what happened to victims.
“The goal is to move into a routine, but at the same time to make sure we’re taking care of anyone who needs to be taken care of,” Krauss said.
That protection can be felt in the song “Hamalach Hagoel,” performed during the assembly by musician Noah Solomon.
“We come here on Monday morning, and we’re going to be very happy to come to school on just a regular day,” Krauss told the students.
“We’re going get a lot of rest this Shabbat, and we’re going to remember to be grateful for everything that we have, and for the people who are here and who take care of us.”