Lawsuit alleges long-running sexual abuse at Washington Hebrew preschool

Washington Hebrew Congregation. File Photo

Eight families whose children attended the Washington Hebrew Congregation’s Early Childhood Center are alleging in a lawsuit that their children were sexually abused by an assistant teacher for more than two years and that the preschool, through its own negligence, allowed it to happen.

Filed Monday evening, the lawsuit claims that Jordan Silverman, an assistant teacher at the preschool since early 2016, committed “the most grievous, demeaning and damaging forms of sexual abuse” against children between the ages of 2 and 4 at the preschool. According to the suit, the abuse began in in the spring of 2016 and ended in August of 2018, when a child reported abuse to their parents and Metropolitan Police began their investigation. According to the police, that investigation is still ongoing and no arrests have been made. Silverman was dismissed from the preschool shortly after August of last year.

The lawsuit specifically targets Washington Hebrew Congregation and DJ Schneider Jensen, the temple’s head of schools since 2014, saying that she dismissed specific and repeated warnings about Silverman’s behavior, at one point calling them the product of a witness’ own “sick mind.” The families, being represented Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, are not seeking a specific monetary sum. According to attorney Michael Dolce, damages will be determined by a jury. Dolce said that the families believe there are more victims than the eight children listed in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit accuses the preschool of violating District of Columbia law by allowing Silverman to be alone with children. In a statement, Washington Hebrew Congregation said it acted as soon as it learned of allegations of abuse.

“On August 16, 2018, as soon as we learned of these allegations, Washington Hebrew Congregation reported the allegations of sex abuse to DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and Child Protective Services,” the Washington Hebrew Congregation statement reads. “Since that moment and for the past eight months we have continually and fully cooperated with the ongoing criminal investigation. We have kept the community regularly apprised of what we know. … Child safety has always been our top priority. Contrary to allegations in the Complaint, our early childhood centers have not violated the law.”

Amy Rotenberg, a publicist, said the synagogue will not comment beyond the prepared statement.

The lawsuit alleges that Jensen recruited and hired Silverman despite him having no professional education experience. According to Silverman’s Linkedin page, he has volunteered with the Bethesda Elementary School parent-teacher association since 2013 as a “playground monitor, room parent, photographer, etc.” Dolce said he had not been in contact with Bethesda Elementary or Montgomery County Public Schools. No one from the Montgomery County Public Schools was available for comment at press time.

When reached via phone, Siva Anatham, the president of the Bethesda Elementary PTA, said he had not heard of the allegations against Silverman and that, to his knowledge, the school had not been informed of any investigations. Montgomery County Police said it was unable to confirm the existence of any investigations in Maryland.

“This is troubling,” Anatham said when told of the allegations in the lawsuit.

According to Anatham, a member of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Synagogue in Bethesda, Silverman joined the PTA when he moved to the area and one of his children began attending Bethesda Elementary in 2016. Divorced, he was looking to make new friends and volunteered his services as a photographer and handling logistics for certain school events. Anatham said he thought it would be difficult for any adult to have spent time alone with children at Bethesda Elementary.

“Bethesda has a number of controls,” Anatham said.

Silverman’s personal website describes him as a professional photographer who shoots “event, family and product photography.” It says he came to Washington after more than 16 years in Vermont. According to Dolce, fellow teachers began raising concerns about Silverman spending time alone with children shortly after he began working at the Early Childhood Center.

According to Dolce, witnesses saw him being unusually physical with children and “breaching physical touch barriers.” Still, the lawsuit says he was “encouraged” by others at the school to take children (either individually or in groups) to separate smaller rooms, out of sight from other adults. Sometimes, Dolce said, he would be late returning the children to the classroom and non-responsive to his walkie-talkie.

When some adults would raise concerns to Jensen, she was dismissive, according to Dolce.

“The response was, ‘You have a sick mind. He would not hurt a child, I know him,’” Dolce said, paraphrasing Jensen.

The lawsuit says Silverman “targeted specific victims, to reduce the chance of detection” and alleges that Jensen at no point asked Silverman to stop engaging in the behavior that was concerning to others and did not investigate the concerns any further.

Jensen did not respond to a voice mail left at her office number seeking comment. The lawsuit alleges that at Washington Hebrew Congregation, Silverman found a school environment that was “friendly to would-be child sex predators.” The complaint alleges that Silverman could easily create opportunities to be alone with children and that some employees who witnessed “red flags” had not been trained adequately to identify warning signs of sexual abuse.

The police investigation has been ongoing since August, but Dolce said the families decided to file their lawsuit now in part because they wanted the extent of Silverman’s alleged abuse to be public so that other victims may come forward. They also wanted to send a message to other institutions caring for young children.

“These families are definitely suffering,” Dolce said. “They’re incurring a lot of expenses to care for their children … and they’re hoping that this case will cause other institutions that take children under their care to learn from it.”

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