Former Bay Area Jewish leader accused of molesting boys in ’60s and ’70s

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Sheldon Mitchell was a revered youth leader in the Bay Area Jewish community in the 1970s. An energetic, charismatic man with a broad smile, Mitchell co-founded the regional arm of the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth program, and was a founder of Camp Arazim, a Conservative summer camp. He held leadership positions in both organizations for years.

Married with five children, he opened his Sacramento home to troubled boys from the local Jewish community, giving them the guidance and stability their parents felt they needed. Widely admired and hugely popular in Conservative Jewish circles throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Sheldon Mitchell is credited by many with setting them on their Jewish path and inspiring their love for Judaism and communal activism.

But to his son Tom he was a monster, a man who molested him and several other boys Tom knew when they were young teens under Sheldon’s care and tutelage in the 1960s and ’70s.

Earlier this month, Tom Mitchell broke nearly 40 years of silence by posting his story on Camp Arazim’s Facebook page, writing, in part, “Sheldon Mitchell, my father, was a child molester of young boys. He was a prolific predator. He did evil things. I was one of his many victims.”

Officials at USY headquarters in New York say they don’t know anything about these allegations, or why Sheldon Mitchell left USY and Arazim a few years before he died in 1980 at age 50. Camp Arazim, which moved among several locations in the Bay Area,  closed down in Oakdale (Stanislaus County) in 2000, and there is no one to speak on its behalf.

In a phone interview with J., Tom said he decided to go public this month to encourage other victims to come forward and, hopefully, begin to heal from the damage stemming from what he said was his father’s predatory behavior.

The Mitchell family in early 1980; Tom is on far left, Inga and Sheldon are seated in front. photo/courtesy tom mitchell

“I was made to feel that I didn’t have any value as a person,” said Tom, now 55 and living in Las Vegas. “That has followed me throughout my life. People kept my father up on that pedestal and he kept his value while I lost mine.”

Tom said his father began molesting him when he was 11 or 12, and continued doing so for several years. His father abused him at home, at camp and on USY outings, he said. In 1980, when he was in his early 20s, Tom found five other young men who also said they had been sexually molested by Sheldon Mitchell. None have spoken publicly about their experience, until now.

J. talked to three of those men and the sister of a fourth; their stories are in this report.

“Tom is telling the truth,” one of the men told J. “The first time I [ejaculated] was in his father’s hands. It was at camp. I was 12 or 13. It went from there to his camper. He’d invite me there and would perform oral sex.”

Another one of those men, now 56 and living on the East Coast, told J. that Sheldon began performing oral sex on him when he was 12 or 13. The abuse continued for about three years, he said. Like the other victims who spoke to J., this man said Sheldon did not use physical force on him. “There are other kinds of force,” he noted. He spoke on condition of anonymity, to protect his family, he said.

Since Tom’s Oct. 7 Facebook post, two more men have come forward to say they were also targeted by Sheldon Mitchell when they were boys.

Sheldon Mitchell left USY in 1973 and Camp Arazim in 1976 — whether he was fired or left of his own will is unclear. He moved to Cleveland soon after, where he had business, but he came back and forth to visit his family — and attend USY events — until his death. The Bay Area Jewish community turned out in force for his funeral in Sacramento.

Tom’s Facebook post hit those who knew him and his family hard. Camp alumni flooded the website with comments, all of them supportive of Tom. “My heart goes out to you,” wrote one. “Thank you for your courage and bravery,” wrote another.

Local Jewish lay leaders and rabbis who knew and worked with Sheldon and were contacted by J. reacted with shock and sorrow when they heard Tom’s story. Each of them said they weren’t aware at the time of anything inappropriate going on.

Tom Mitchell today photo/courtesy tom mitchell

“If you knew me, my family, USYers or Arazim campers in the 1960s-70s, I guarantee you also know other victims,” Tom wrote in his post. “You just don’t know you know them.”

How did this happen? If the allegations are true — and no one interviewed for this article suggests they were not — then how was Sheldon Mitchell able to keep working with boys under the auspices of Bay Area Jewish organizations for so many years? Why did he abruptly leave his position as Arazim’s administrative director in the summer of 1976? Why did he continue to show up at USY events for years afterward?

And if the sexual molestation did happen, who knew what and when, and why is this only coming to light now?

It was different in the 1970s, said some of those interviewed. It was the height of the sexual revolution, and for many in that generation, personal boundaries were becoming blurry. Sheldon Mitchell was part of that generation. Born in 1930 in Los Angeles, in 1951 he married Inga Brock, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria. The couple settled in Oakland, where Inga gave birth to a daughter and four sons. Tom, born in 1958, was the youngest. In 1961, the family moved to Sacramento and joined the Mosaic Law Congregation, where Sheldon was a youth director.

In 1970, Sheldon was a driving force in establishing the “New Frontiers” region of USY, covering Reno and Northern California. Two years later he helped create Camp Arazim, which held its first session in Soquel (Santa Cruz County) in the summer of 1972. Sheldon served as its administrative director, a position he held for five summers.

It was during this time that Tom Mitchell says his father began abusing him. “I was 11 or 12,” he told J. by phone. Most of the abuse involved his father performing oral sex on him, he says. Sheldon wanted the boy to reciprocate, and to permit anal intercourse, but Tom says he “didn’t want to” and his father “didn’t force it.”

In the mid-’70s, Sheldon bought a condo at Incline Village near Lake Tahoe and would take groups there from Kadima, the USY group for middle school students he worked with in Sacramento. Tom went along on some of those outings, and says his father abused him at the condo, as well.

“If he did it to me there, he did it to other boys there, too,” Tom said in an interview. He said he doesn’t remember exactly when his father stopped molesting him — it went on for a few years, he thinks. “It stopped when I was able to stop it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sheldon’s popularity and influence continued to grow.

Rabbi Nat Ezray of Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City was a Kadima kid in Sacramento and a camper at Arazim its first few years. Until this month, he had only good memories of Sheldon.

“Now I don’t know what I remember and what is part of the mythology,” he said. “He was this kind of icon who established amazing programs and Jewish experiences for kids. For many of us, USY built our Jewish identity. And for many of us, he was the icon that created these things. [Tom’s revelations] dashed all that.”

In 1973, Palo Alto resident Ellen Bob was 16 and regional vice president of USY at Congregation Kol Emeth. Sheldon was regional director. She said he was let go that spring on orders from national USY in New York. “We [USY kids] were told he wasn’t following USY rules,” she recalled. “We thought that was bogus. We were so angry at national USY. We had no idea there was any inappropriate behavior.

“If United Synagogue knew he was molesting kids and didn’t say anything …” she said, her voice petering out. (USY is a program of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.)

Jules Gutin, longtime international director of USY until becoming the group’s senior educational adviser last year, told J. by email that he came on after Sheldon Mitchell’s time and never knew the man. “I wish I could help, but I was not even aware that he was dismissed,” Gutin wrote in response to a J. inquiry. “I don’t know of anyone employed by USCJ who could provide any info, since there has obviously been significant staff turnover since those days.”

Whatever happened with USY, Sheldon Mitchell remained at Camp Arazim for three more years. Rabbi Marvin Goodman, now executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, was director of the camp in 1975. He also served as regional director of USY, and said he saw Sheldon at USY events as late as 1978. That didn’t seem odd, Goodman added, as Sheldon was the regional founder of the organization. Goodman said he was absolutely unaware of any sexual misconduct by Sheldon.

Tom was working as a junior counselor in 1976 when the camp had moved from Soquel to the Stanford campus for a year. All of a sudden, one day his father wasn’t working there anymore, Tom recalled.

At some point that summer, Sheldon started spending more time in Cleveland, where he and his wife had business, and eventually took an apartment there, coming home to Sacramento only infrequently. He died of a heart attack in Cleveland on April 30, 1980.

Was Sheldon fired because someone discovered he was abusing campers? Tom said yes, that a former staff member told him this month that a camp official discovered Sheldon with a boy at camp and Sheldon was let go that same day. The staff member did not want to be interviewed by J.

Jack Gruenberg was Arazim’s director the summer of 1976. Now living in New York, Gruenberg told J. he has “no recollection” of why Sheldon Mitchell left the camp that summer.

“I just remember him leaving suddenly,” Gruenberg said. “I had nothing to do with his dismissal. But I do know the summer he left, there were suspicions of him behaving inappropriately and molesting boys. My recollection is that it was only boys, not girls. As far as I know, it was never pursued then.”

Palo Alto resident Jerry Bentkowsky, who helped found Arazim and was chair of its board of directors, said Sheldon was not fired from camp, but rather told Bentkowsky he needed to leave. Sheldon came to him some time in 1976, he said, “and told me that his business in Cleveland had gotten very big and he could no longer conduct it by commuting. I had no reason to doubt his story.”

Whatever might have been Sheldon Mitchell’s real reasons for leaving, said Bentkowsky, “the community did not know.”

Camp Arazim group photo from 1974 photo/facebook

Sandy Stadtler, now a CPA in San Francisco, did a couple of stints as Arazim camp director in the 1970s, and stayed with the Mitchell family during his first stint in 1973.

“I lived at their house, and I never had any inkling,” said Stadtler, who was 24 at the time and in business school in New York during the academic year. “He and I were friends. The kids adored him. He’d do anything for anybody.”

Stadtler and Bentkowsky, both of whom worked with Sheldon Mitchell on a daily basis at the camp, said they were stunned to read Tom Mitchell’s Facebook posting.

“This revelation was just an enormous shock for me,” said Bentkowsky. “I had absolutely zero indication of any problem.

“He had done so much for the community. Sheldon was one of the most effective promoters of Conservative Judaism in Northern California.” Camp Arazim’s board included most of the Conservative congregations in Northern California, though the camp had no formal affiliation with the movement.

When Stadtler returned to Arazim as camp director in 1977, Sheldon was no longer there, but Stadtler didn’t think that unusual. “He moved to Cleveland. That’s all I knew. It didn’t strike me as weird … I never heard a word about him at camp. And I was the director!

“Now I keep churning it in my mind. What clues did I miss? I was young, it was a different time — who was thinking of pedophilia?”

Public awareness of child sexual abuse was just beginning to grow in the 1970s. In 1974, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, authorizing federal funds to improve government response to physical and sexual abuse. According to “A Short History of Child Protection in America” by John E.B. Myers, published in the fall 2008 issue of Family Law Quarterly, CAPTA focused particular attention on improved investigation and reporting.  By 1976, Myers wrote, every state had laws requiring professionals to report sexual abuse of children.

But awareness of those laws, and social acceptance of the need to report inappropriate touching and fondling, took longer to develop.

“People touched each other, but it was normal. It was the ’60s and ’70s,” said Ellen Bob. “Sure, [Sheldon] would walk by and rub my shoulders,” she said, noting that impromptu shoulder massages were common in those days. “Did he seem more touchy than the others? No. There weren’t those clear lines between children and adults that we have today.”

Sexual abuse affects more than the victim; it can damage entire families. Faye Backer LaGanga, 48, was at Arazim for 13 years, from 1975 when she was a camper to 1988 when she was 21 and worked as a counselor. Her two brothers also worked at the camp, and she said her family was very close to the Mitchells.

A few years after Sheldon’s death, LaGanga found out from her sister that he had sexually molested one of their brothers for years. “In that era, you didn’t talk about things,” she told J. by phone. “You didn’t go to a psychiatrist. My parents never spoke to me of what happened.”

Once she found out, LaGanga said, “It explained a lot of what went on in my childhood. My brother was 11 years older than me. When he was young he was molested. And his attitude and his life changed. I have to wonder if the guilt my mother felt at not being able to protect her first-born son might have helped her demise.” (J. was unable to speak to the brother.)

In 2003, Inga Mitchell, Sheldon’s wife, attended the Sacramento funeral of LaGanga’s mother, and LaGanga thanked her for coming. “My sister couldn’t believe I spoke to her,” LaGanga says. “I said, ‘Come on. It’s time to heal.’ ”

Another man who said Sheldon Mitchell molested him years ago spoke to J. on condition that his name not be used. Now 54 and living outside California, he was one of the five who told Tom Mitchell about the abuse in the early ’80s.

This man lived with the Mitchells in Sacramento during his sophomore year in high school when he was 15 — one of the “troubled” boys Sheldon and Inga took in over the years. “I didn’t get along with my parents. I was in trouble in school,” the man said. “Sometimes my parents let me go off on weekends with [Sheldon]. I stayed with him in a motel in San Francisco one time. It was always oral sex.”

Also during that year, the Mitchells would sometimes visit Tom’s grandparents in Oakland. Inga would drive, Tom would sit in the front next to her and Sheldon would be in the back seat with the 15-year-old. “Sheldon would perform oral or hand sex on me in the back seat,” he said. “I’d think: Doesn’t anyone know what’s going on?”

The molestation continued all that year, he said, in various locations. “It scared the hell out of me. When Sheldon died, I told my mom, ‘You know, he molested me.’ She said, ‘I thought something was going on.’ I thought to myself, ‘Wow.’ ”

In the 1980s, Tom told his own mother about the molestation. Until her death in 2012, Inga Mitchell professed not to have known about it when it was occurring, he said.

Many years have passed since these events allegedly took place. Those who say they were molested by Sheldon Mitchell as boys are now in their 50s. So why rehash old memories? What will it help?

Tom Mitchell, the boy who kept his pain inside for so many years, said he decided to tell his story on the Camp Arazim Facebook page to help himself heal, and to encourage others to seek healing, too.

“Everything in my life has been affected by this,” Tom said.

Last month, before his Facebook posting, Tom told his children, now 21 and 23, about the abuse he suffered at the hands of the grandfather they never knew. When they were little, he was hyperaware of his behavior with them because of what his father did to him, he said — “being conscious of having them on my lap, lying in bed with them and making sure the door was open,” he related.

“I went public hoping other victims would come forward and find the strength to publicly corroborate my story,” he told J. “In cases like this, nobody talks about it until one person comes forward. Molesters have that power, and kids don’t come forward until years later.”

One of the two men who have stepped forward since Tom posted the story on Arazim’s Facebook page, David Lieb, sent Tom copies of letters Sheldon wrote to him in 1979 and early 1980, when the boy was 14 and 15 years old.

“Dear David, I miss you, I love you, I wish I was with you. I think of you a whole lot,”  Tom read from one of the letters, which he described as typed on his father’s letterhead. Asking the boy to visit him in Cleveland, Sheldon implored: “Write me a long, long letter, 1,000 pages, so I can read it over and over again.”

“I was never molested by Sheldon, thank goodness, at least not in any explicitly sexual way,” Lieb wrote in an email to J. He is allowing his name to be used in this article “to encourage victims to feel less shame.”

Today there are numerous laws and practices in place aimed at protecting children from sexual abuse. One Jewish lay leader interviewed noted that at his synagogue, the rabbi never meets with children behind closed doors, and every office has windows. At camps and in youth groups, rules govern what is and is not appropriate touching. Some say it’s gone too far, noting that teachers have been prosecuted for hugging children or patting them on the arm. But awareness is high.

Still, abuse happens, with prominent stories emerging from the Catholic Church and, recently, the New York Orthodox Jewish community. “It’s not uncommon, unfortunately,” said Anita Friedman, longtime director of S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services. “But today there is greater awareness and support. There is a system of recourse, a body of law that didn’t exist in those days. And because there’s more awareness, we hope there’s less stigma attached to coming forward and asking for help. It’s important that they don’t feel their problems are due to their own individual inadequacies.”

Although it wasn’t in his mind when he posted his story,  Tom said now he’s looking for answers. Who knew about his father’s sexual transgressions, and why weren’t they brought to light at the time?

“I want the public to know, and I want some outcry,” he said.

Because Sheldon Mitchell was never caught, Tom said, he was free to continue his molestations until his death in 1980. If he had gone to jail, Tom suggested, other boys might have been spared.

In his Oct. 7 posting, Tom wrote:

“I don’t want you to change your happy memories of USY or Arazim, you can’t. You have to reconcile that there were good things that came out of your experiences with Arazim and USY with the fact that they were the result of a child molester’s dreams… His known and unknown victims, and their families, have suffered greatly. We owe our empathy to them to take the memory of Sheldon Mitchell off his pedestal and put it where it belongs.

“Some might find comfort in praying for his soul.”

A rabbi’s view: Turning to our tradition for guidance

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].