Rabbi accused of molesting child may withdraw his not-guilty plea

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Rabbi Sidney Goldenberg, the Petaluma spiritual leader who allegedly molested a 12-year-old girl, is expected to withdraw his not-guilty plea later this month.

"There is a reasonable possibility that [Goldenberg] will enter a plea of guilty or no contest on Feb. 18" to charges of lewd and lascivious conduct with a minor, said Stephen Gallenson, Goldenberg's attorney, on Tuesday.

If the plea is to be changed, that will take place Tuesday, Feb. 18.

"He [Goldenberg] has no desire to put the [alleged] victim through a trial, and he has no desire to put himself through a trial," added Gallenson.

A change of plea means Goldenberg would avoid going to trial, and would face sentencing. He could receive a maximum eight years in prison or a minimum of probation.

Goldenberg's attorney spoke after Tuesday's postponement of a preliminary hearing on the charges at Santa Rosa Municipal Court. Such a hearing is held to determine if there's sufficient evidence for a trial.

Goldenberg, 58, accompanied by his adult son, attended the hearing, as did the alleged victim — a 12-year-old bat mitzvah student of the rabbi's — and members of her family. Members of Congregation B'nai Israel, where Goldenberg had a pulpit until resigning recently in the wake of the charges, also attended.

Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Gary Medvigy was scheduled to deliver testimony from the alleged victim and the rabbi's arresting officer but, at the request of Goldenberg's attorney, the hearing was continued to Thursday, Feb. 20.

Goldenberg was charged in December with one count of lewd acts with a child, and two counts of annoying a child. The girl, who was being tutored by the rabbi, alleged the incidents took place between September and until his arrest Dec. 16 .

B'nai Israel, a 100-family synagogue in Petaluma, hired Goldenberg from New York to take on his first pulpit last September.

There are no other known victims at B'nai Israel, prosecutors said, but they have alleged that four women who were students of Goldenberg's in New York were victimized by him in similar acts of misconduct.

Prosecutors said those women contacted the Petaluma Police Department after learning of the Petaluma case.

Although Goldenberg was ordained by Tifereth Yisrael Rabbinic Yeshiva of Long Island only four years ago, he was a cantor and Hebrew teacher for years before, and began his career as a public school teacher in Levittown, N.Y.

Medvigy declined to say whether he knew of any prior criminal or disciplinary action against Goldenberg in connection with past allegations.

Although California lacks jurisdiction to prosecute the New York cases, the women's testimony could be introduced to prove a pattern of misconduct by the defendant.

Medvigy said New York authorities were investigating these cases but he didn't know whether they would lead to any formal charges. Since the cases date back many years, he added, the statute of limitations may have expired on them.

The earlier alleged incidents, which date from the early 1970s through 1985, involved inappropriate statements by Goldenberg, but none allege any actual physical contact, Gallenson said.

In the Petaluma case, Goldenberg was alleged to have taken the girl into his office, made lewd remarks, touched her breasts, and asked that she put her hands in his pockets.

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

The case has shaken the congregation, but Medvigy said members had "rallied behind the victim and her family."

B'nai Israel's board president, Regina Wilson Seppa, added that "we're pulling together. We have a strong congregation with people who are very committed to the congregation and to each other."

If Goldenberg does not change his not-guilty plea, Medvigy said, he would like to try the case soon so the alleged victim can put the incident behind her.

According to Gallenson, resolving the case quickly is in Goldenberg's best interests.

The case is taking a tremendous emotional toll on Goldenberg and his family as well, Gallenson said. Goldenberg's wife, Selma, had been taken to the hospital with chest pains, he added, and it's believed the condition was stress-related.