Rabbi Aaron Katz
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Rabbi Aaron Katz

 

Young, charismatic and gay, Rabbi Aaron Katz came to the Jewish community of Warsaw, from where his father fled during the Second World War.  But research by The Magazine reveals that on his way, the Rabbi left a trail of unpaid debts, various rumors and angry friends.

by Nissan Tzur

 
 
 

Rabbi Aaron Katz looks like the dream of the modern Jewish Diaspora. Katz, 53 years old, who was born in Argentina, left his family (a wife and five children), some twenty years ago, and now lives in Warsaw with his partner, Kevin Gleason, whom he married in a ceremony in which some of the relatives of the two were present. Kevin and Aaron live only a few streets away from Katz's father’s childhood home; Katz's father fled Poland when the Second World War began.

The story begins in the 1980s. Katz, then a young rabbi who had just graduated from school, married a Hungarian-Swedish citizen and decided to move to Stockholm. He offered himself as the community rabbi and was appointed as the orthodox rabbi of Stockholm, one of two rabbis who headed this small community. Katz was a cherished member and was very popular within this small community. "He is a friendly, warm and a fun loving person" says the president of the city’s Jewish community, Lena Posner-Korosi. "He and his wife opened their home to everybody; they always had guests and they performed wonderful religious services."

Sometime later a new rabbi arrived to the small community and frictions began to emerge between him and Katz. Then, many rumors started surrounding Katz; one rumor suggested that Katz used to hang out in gay clubs, another, that he used to approve certain products as kosher when they were not. "We had and still have problems with Kashrut in Sweden” says Posner-Korosi.  "I am sorry I have to say this, but this is a mafia that has a lot of money and everybody wants to take part in it. But it is impossible that Rabbi Katz had issues with Kashrut. His ex wife was very pious, in the positive sense of the word and I do not believe that she would have approved of improper Kashrut."

Regardless of the truth of these rumors, one Shabbat the rabbi decided to change his life, come what may. After spending the Shabbat with a group of young people, Katz reached the conclusion that he was ready to reveal the secret that accompanied him throughout his life: he is gay. Katz told his wife and his five children that he was going to come out of the closet. Despite their amazement, Katz's children, now aged 16 to 31, decided to stand by their father and respect his decision. After his family found out about his secret Katz left Stockholm, travelled throughout the world and served as a rabbi in many different places.

"After he came out of the closet and a long time after he had left us, many new rumors started to circulate" says Posner-Korosi. "People say this was predictable but I don’t think that's fair. Like every public official, some people are bound to like you and some will criticize you."

In 1998 Katz arrived in Berlin where he served as a coordinator for Jewish studies for six months in the Jewish community school. "He showed me a rabbinical ordination certificate" recalls Andreas Nachama who was then the head of the Jewish community in Berlin. "Members in the community wanted him to stay in office but he had no teaching credentials and the municipality did not allow us to employ him any longer."

No Discretion

About a decade ago, Severyn Ashkenazy, Rafal Imbro, Jonathan Mills, and several other American and Polish Jews, established the Reform Jewish community in Warsaw, Beit Warszawa Association, which counts approximately 250 members. A few months ago, the former assistant to the Senior Rabbi Burt Schuman, Tanya Segal, decided to take on the challenge of rebuilding the Jewish progressive life in Krakow, and Beit Warszawa started to look for her replacement in order to help its Senior Rabbi Burt Schuman to carry on its mission.  Rabbi Aaron Katz, Rabbi of Beth Shalom Congregation of Whittier in southern California, was recommended.  Severyn Ashkenazy who lives in the area met him. "I found a sociable and energetic rabbi with lots of personal charm" Ashkenazy recalls. "He told me that he was gay and living with his partner.  I had no problem with it, but asked him to keep his relationship discreet and not to flaunt it. Katz agreed to keep his personal life private, and also assured that although he was an orthodox rabbi, he had the most liberal outlook and would welcome the opportunity to serve as rabbi at a progressive community. The deal was reached and Katz was on his way to Warsaw. Katz started working at Beit Warszawa as the Scholar-in-Residence, assistant to Senior Rabbi Burt Schuman, with the task to travel to many different cities in Poland to help awaken and organize the Jewish communities there.

Katz arrived in Warsaw and started his work there mid-March. Most of the members of this reform community quickly took a liking to this friendly and charming rabbi. However, in May, some troubling signs began to appear. The first thing was the fact that Katz did not keep his relationship as discrete as he promised and started promoting himself as the first gay Rabbi in Poland, including convincing the Bureau Chief of the Associated Press in Warsaw to write a complimentary article about him titled “The First Openly Gay Rabbi in Poland.”

Katz also had not visited any other cities in Poland, as he was instructed to do and started deprecating and undermining in many different ways, his superior, Senior Rabbi Burt Schuman. Then the employees and senior members of the community started noticing that from the moment Aaron Katz and his partner Kevin Gleason sat in the community's offices they started looking into the financial affairs of the community: bank accounts, sources of financing, expenses, and Beit Warszawa’s financial structure.  “A few days after my arrival in Warsaw,” says Severyn Ashkenazy, “Katz approached me for a $10,000 loan claiming that someone had broken into his credit line.  I told him that I would think about it.”   At exactly that time, the article “The First Openly Gay Rabbi in Poland" started to be distributed around the world and calls came pouring into Beit Warszawa from people who had known him previously – they were dismayed that the Warsaw community had hired Rabbi Katz without checking him thoroughly, because he was a “charlatan” and a “psychopath” that had left debts and misery in his path.

Mr. Ashkenazy decided to call Katz's former work place, Beth Shalom Congregation of Whittier. When he informed their secretary of the reason for his call, the secretary’s response was immediate, “I am so sorry for you.” "She told me that right before Rabbi Katz resigned from his position there, he took a loan from the congregation for approximately $10,000 which he had not repaid.”  The Treasurer of the congregation sent a letter to Beit Warszawa stating that Rabbi Katz was not eligible for rehiring.  Further investigation revealed that Rabbi Katz's resume was a fabrication and that he was an imposter.  Probably, his only true credential was that he was an Orthodox Rabbi.

The conclusion was rapidly reached that the orthodox Aaron Katz and his partner Kevin Gleason were planning to get rid of the liberal Rabbi Burt Schuman, of the senior staff, and to put their hands on the funds and assets of the only progressive Jewish community in Poland. Aaron Katz and Kevin Gleason were immediately fired.

Inventing Charitable Causes

During our investigation, we reached a German woman by the name of Sarah Engelbrecht who converted to Judaism in 1999 with the assistance of Rabbi Katz. "He presented himself as a modern orthodox and was very charismatic, personable and elegant," she says today. "Until then I had studied for 12 years and I finally found a rabbi with whom I could study in order to perform my conversion. From the first moment I had a feeling that there was something wrong with him, but he was the only rabbi who performed conversions in Berlin. My ex, Frank, lent him money to buy an airline ticket and I had to nag Katz a lot until he returned a portion of it."

Engelbrecht studied with Katz for three more years and, according to what she says, paid him 50 Marks (25 Euros), per hour. "Back then I still had the money for it," she says. When Diners Club, the credit card company, sued Katz for making purchases with his card for 18,000 Marks (approximately 9,000 Euros) without having sufficient credit for it, Katz asked Engelbrecht to accompany him to the trial. "He told the judge that he was a rabbi, a father of five children and unemployed and he convinced the judge he was a victim. Katz has the talent to put the blame on others - and as a rabbi in Germany he had a special status. As far as I know he has not returned the money."

For years Engelbrecht maintained friendly relations with Rabbi Katz. "I went to both his oldest daughter's and son's weddings in Israel. I felt a lot of respect towards him and that’s why I did not pay attention to his sexuality and the financial issues" she goes on to say. Yet she had her doubts too. Katz invited her for a visit to Los Angeles and in 2006 she decided to travel with a friend, among other things to get the money he owed her ex-partner. "Katz knew that I was living on a 700 Euros a month pension but that did not prevent him from letting me pay $120 for cocktails and a cheese plate in an expensive restaurant in Beverly Hills. When I said something about it, he reacted with anger and said that this was no money and that I was living with him. As if he did not stay at my place in Germany after Joachim left the city."

But what really made Engelbrecht angry was the time that Katz invited her for a visit to a gay club, on a Shabbat night. "I would have no problem with it any other day, but when you see your pious orthodox rabbi disrespecting Shabbat, this is difficult."

Engelbrecht claims that she knows two other women who underwent the expensive conversion process with Katz yet did not get the official conversion documents. "It is deplorable that such a charismatic rabbi, who can fascinate his listeners with words from the Torah, would behave in such manner" she says. "I would not expect him to deceive people. We make enormous efforts in the community to fight Anti-Semitism and Katz with one blow ruins everything and strengthens the stereotype image of the unreliable Jew." 

 

Lena Posner-Korosi, Belgium: "He and his wife opened their home to everybody. It is impossible that Rabbi Katz had issues with Kashrut. His ex wife is very pious, and I do not believe that she approved of improper Kashrut."

Sarah Engelbrecht, Berlin: "Rabbi Aaron Katz invited me to visit a gay club on Shabbat. I would have no problem with it any other day, but when you see your pious orthodox rabbi paying no respect to the Shabbat, this is difficult."
 
 
Engelbrecht and others say that Katz raised donations under various claims: Frank, Engelbrecht's ex, donated approximately 2,000 Marks to a school in a town in the occupied territories and received a receipt on letterhead of the "Jewish National Fund" with a signature of the "Benefit Society for the Brides of Jerusalem." In another document the rabbi presents himself as a stomach cancer patient and raises donations for surgery and chemotherapy, while to others he claims that he had a brain tumor. Many of the individuals who lent him money saw the sociable rabbi disappear and would be happy to testify against him today as they are waiting to get their money back.

Menachem Edelstein, an Israeli who has been living in Berlin for many years met Rabbi Katz during a wedding he officiated. "During the wedding he approached our table and told my wife that he had cancer and needed a loan to undergo an urgent surgical procedure," says Edelstein. "We decided to give him 20,000 Marks which he promised to return in a short while. Until today, many years later, we are still waiting to get our money back. I managed to speak to him a few times since then and he promised me to return the money and disappeared again."

Roman Skoblo, a real estate businessman and an activist in the Jewish community in Berlin, met Katz 15 years ago. "He did a good job at the youth center and he knew how to motivate them," he says. "He had a new approach to Judaism. He had liberal attitude yet he presented himself as an orthodox rabbi and it bothered me. One day he called and said he had a problem. His brother was gravely ill, an urgent humanitarian case. He knew I had a good heart and gave me the feeling that I was the only one who could help him. I gave him 3,000 Marks. I never heard from him again. I did not expect him to return the money because we never discussed that issue but then I heard that others lent him money as well."

Deceiving the Partner

Joachim Diederich is neither an Israeli nor Jewish, but he is one who suffered gravely from Rabbi Katz's deeds. "I met Katz in the winter of 1995 at the Vagabond Nightclub in Berlin," he writes. "I did not know that he was married and a father of five! For seven years we had a catastrophic relationship, a kind of hide-and-seek since he could not nor wanted to come out of the closet."

Diederich canceled his life insurance policy and received a check for it. According to Diederich, Katz convinced him to invest this money in a life insurance policy in Israel. "He changed the check so that it could be deposited under his name and flew to Israel" says Diederich. "Later on he handed me a document written in Hebrew handwriting - an application for life insurance."

Sarah Engelbrecht, a mutual friend, confirms that she has a translation of the document dated May 12, 2002 for life insurance in the sum of 69,396 NIS. "Yet it turned out that I never had life insurance in Israel" the agitated Diederich continues. "I could use this document as toilet paper. Katz cashed in the check for himself."

Meanwhile the ground started burning under Katz's feet. "He created this snowball in which he borrowed money from one person to return his debt to the other person" says Diederich. "Because of all the notices and legal procedures against him he had to leave Germany."

Katz left for Los Angeles and Diederich remained in Berlin with many of Katz's bills such as his cellular phone bill that, alone, was over 2,000 Euros. In a phone call, Diederich admits that Katz had positive aspects "If he had not had positive aspects I would not have stayed with him for seven years" he says. "Katz has the talent to fascinate people, he seems to listen to their problems and comfort them."

- And how did you feel when you found out about his family?

"It happened six months after we were together. I met his children and his ex-wife at a wedding. He introduced me to his parents as 'a good friend' but his wife and oldest daughter knew about our relationship. The younger children did not want to know or simply did not know."

- And when, to your own knowledge, did Katz come out of the closet?

“Only in Los Angeles he saw the light, maybe because his new acquaintances were more liberal than the friends in Berlin."

Split in the Community

Only after returning from her visit with Katz did Engelbrecht decide to take action so that others would not fall under the rabbi's spell. When Diederich departed Berlin, he left with Engelbrecht many folders containing various documents that belonged to Katz. She kept one folder containing details about the rabbi’s debts, among them information about a travel agency that almost went bankrupt after Katz obtained dozens of airline tickets without paying for them.

Some of the documents contain information about the loans, while in other documents companies ask for their money back. In one of the documents, submitted in April 2000 by Eli Oknin, the owner of a travel agency in Berlin, there is a foreclosure claim against Rabbi Katz. "He owes me about 2,500 Euros" exclaims Oknin in a phone call this week. "He bought airline tickets to the United States at my agency, he said he did not have all the money and asked to pay in three installments using a credit card. When I submitted the bill to the credit card company they told me that the card was blocked. I tried to attach Katz's bank account in court but failed and I never got the money."

Sarah Singer, one of the former leaders of the Jewish community in Berlin, met Rabbi Katz too. "I was a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish community when we decided to hire Rabbi Katz," she says. "After a brief period we started noticing that the rabbi was behaving in a strange manner. He used to disappear for a few days, claiming to have visited a certain place which we would then discover he had never visited.  We then started to hear rumors that he borrowed money from people throughout the world, and then disappear without returning it. When we started receiving reports and began to realize that Katz defrauded these people we decided to end his job immediately."

Since the Warsaw affair surfaced and Rabbi Katz ended his work there, the community has become split. Some of Katz's sympathizers refuse to believe that he acted in such a manner, yet another part never wants to hear the rabbi's name again. The leaders of the community say that they are contacting other Jewish communities around the world to ensure that Katz will never be employed as a rabbi again. "No one can ever compensate us for the damage to our image or return the money he borrowed," says one of the community’s leaders. "He tarnished the name of Jews in many places throughout the world. Now we have to do whatever we can in order to stop him.  We think that this is just the tip of the iceberg and we are looking into other cases as well."

Rabbi Katz refused to answer our questions even though he had considerable time to respond to the allegations leveled against him.

His ex-wife in Israel has moved on

Katz's ex-wife and five children now live in Israel, some in rural communities and some in cities. Neighbors speak of a warm, charming and united family that keeps in touch with their father since he came out of the closet. Nevertheless, they say that Katz coming out was "the hottest gossip item in the community for a long time." Katz's ex-wife, Yehudit Katz, does not want to be part of the story. "I ended this affair," she said in a conversation with The Magazine yesterday. "I moved on, I remarried."
 

- Does the rabbi owe you money?

"I prefer not to get involved in this."

- How do your children accept their father?

"I moved on, I am a grown up. Our children are still our children. We're doing fine and we have nothing to do with this affair."
 
 
 
 

Some of Rabbi Katz’s debts

65,000 Marks - to the Bank of Berlin

43,820 Euros - to the DID collection company

13,164 Marks - to Diners Club

3,683 Euros - to the Miton Company

27,030 Marks - To attorney Klaus Moisel