*BREAKING NEWS* Day school music teacher denies accusation of lewd

Sexual misconduct charges filed against popular music teacher Achi Ben Shalom have left El Cerrito’s Tehiyah Day School reeling and the 52-year-old musician adamantly denying any wrongdoing.

El Cerrito police arrested Ben Shalom and searched his home on Thursday, Nov. 16 after the parents of a female student filed a report earlier that week.

According to Ben Shalom, the police confiscated baby photos of his two teenaged children and all of his family’s computers. Commander Mike Regan of the El Cerrito Police Department confirmed that Ben Shalom’s computers had been taken.

Ben Shalom was arrested and charged with committing lewd and lascivious acts with a child; a release put out by the El Cerrito Police states the charges stem from an alleged “series of events” over a one-month period during after-school hours in Ben Shalom’s Tehiyah office.

Ben Shalom was booked into the Martinez Detention Facility and left the next night after posting $100,000 bail. As of press time, El Cerrito police had not yet filed the case with the district attorney’s office, which will ultimately determine if the case will be prosecuted.

An emotional Ben Shalom told j. the charges were “unusual and imaginary” and “completely manufactured.”

“People should know I am innocent. I intend to prove that in court,” he said.

Regan said there is no “physiological evidence” connecting Ben Shalom to the alleged crime, although he believes there “is the potential” for tangible evidence to surface beyond the accuser’s claims.

Because of Tehiyah’s small size — around 300 kindergarten through eighth-grade children — Regan was intentionally vague, describing the accuser solely as a female student. Regan would only say the alleged acts were of a “lewd and lascivious nature.”

Steve Tabak, Tehiyah’s head of school, issued a press release in which he stated, “Obviously our first concern is the well-being and safety of our children and families. In the coming weeks our focus will be on doing all we can to ensure normalcy for the students, providing resources to the school’s parents and faculty, and working with the police.”

School representatives said they're doing "everything possible to allay the concerns of the students, their parents and the faculty."

The Israeli-born Ben Shalom, who is currently suspended indefinitely from the teaching position at Tehiyah he’s held since 1985, is a ubiquitous figure in the Jewish community, playing alone or with his band, Adama, at synagogues, lifecycle events or any venue that calls for Jewish music. He also has cut a number of albums and played and sung backup for other musicians.

He described his arrest as a painful and humiliating experience for his entire family. He said he returned home in the midst of the police search of his El Cerrito house, was handcuffed and arrested on the spot, then left standing in his driveway in full view of the entire neighborhood for roughly 20 minutes before being put into a squad car.

The arrest, Ben Shalom continued, came a week before his daughter’s bat mitzvah. Also, one of the computers seized by police had his son’s college application essays on the hard drive, with deadlines looming.

Ben Shalom’s friends and colleagues have registered shock and disbelief at the charges.

“I’ve known him for many years and he’s well-known and respected in the community. And he’s worked closely with children for many years,” said Daniel Matt, a professor and kabbalistic scholar. He said Ben Shalom is an “effusive Israeli” who often tussles a child’s hair, pats them on the back or hugs them, which could have led to confusion.

“Our kids grew up together and we’ve been friends for years and this is unbelievable — not believable,” said longtime friend Ezra Hendon.

“You know, these charges are easily made. I don’t know the details of it, but I can’t believe he’d be involved in anything like this. A charge like this, it’s already screwed up his life.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.