Rabbis Gone Bad

Jewsweek/April 7, 2003
By Steven I. Weiss

Richard Marcovitz, Matis Weinberg, Baruch Lanner. The names of those rabbis recently accused or convicted of sexually abusing their students are, for some, an obsession, for others, barely worth noting. What rabbinic abuse means for the Jewish community is, at present, largely an open question. In recent years, the explosion of the Catholic clergy scandal alongside a number of well-reported instances of criminally abusive behavior by rabbis has focused a new attention on how the Jewish community should deal with its problem.

Exactly what is driving this period of discovery is hard to say. Whether abuse has actually increased in recent years, whether victims have become less wary of reporting violations, or whether a more concerted investigative effort is responsible, what is very clear is that the issue has become more prominent than at perhaps any other point in history. In a series of articles, this space will discuss all of these and many other possibilities and their consequences. It will introduce some specific cases, the major responses to abuse, a breakdown of how the various movements deal with abuse, and analysis of how the community -- and media in specific -- interact with the problem.

Cases of rabbinic abuse that have surfaced fall into three primary categories: those that have been dealt with exclusively by the community, those that have involved law enforcement in the matter, and those that have involved both. Each case is, in many ways, a test for each method of dealing with the problem, and each offers an understanding of how these situations may pan out in the future.

Jewsweek readers will be familiar with the case of Rabbi Baruch Lanner. Nearly three years ago, a local New York Jewish newspaper detailed accusations made against Baruch Lanner, declaring that he had abused teens throughout his three-decade involvement in the Orthodox youth group, NCSY. What followed was an intense investigation of the cover-ups and failures on the part of the Orthodox Union, NCSY's parent organization, as well as criminal charges that resulted in a seven-year sentence. The failure of the Orthodox Union, as well as the Jewish community generally, to respond to repeated allegations, was a primary focus of those involved with the case.

This summer, following Lanner's conviction, Jewsweek detailed several aspects of the case, including conflicts over how Lanner should be treated, as well as a revealing look at those who have continued to support Lanner even after his conviction. Lanner's case is unique because it involved efforts at enforcement both from the communal side and from law enforcement -- begging the question "Is the Lanner situation over?" This series of articles will find answers to that question.

Another recent case is that of Richard Marcovitz, who pleaded guilty last week to charges that he "groped two female employees of a religious school and two girls who attended classes," according to news reports. Marcovitz, 66, will be serving a twenty-year sentence. Marcovitz is one of a number of rabbis whose abusive behavior was dealt with directly and exclusively by law enforcement. What members of the community think of this approach and its effectiveness will be a part of upcoming articles.

Then there is Matis Weinberg, who is the most prominent case of communal self-enforcement. According to news reports, Weinberg was at Yeshivat Kerem in Santa Clara, California in the early 1980s when he was run out of town by Jewish authority Rabbi Elya Svei, following allegations of abuse. Also according to news reports, Svei ordered Weinberg to sign a letter guaranteeing that he would never again teach children.

Then this winter, a group of rabbis withdrew certification for an Israeli yeshiva where Weinberg had taught, following an investigation into his behavior. But the credibility of that investigation is already being challenged. Some stories about the case have served as little more than rebuttals from leaders at the yeshiva, or those representing Weinberg. Jewsweek has spoken with sources who have challenged outright the veracity of the investigation's findings, as well as some individuals involved with the actual investigation. The next article in this series will reveal the arguments and allegations on both sides, and examine how Weinberg's case affects the communal enforcement option.

At some level, of course, communal enforcement is the only option. Even when Megan's Law is applicable, the community is still responsible for deciding whether and how to let a convicted pedophile rejoin the community and possibly retain a clergy position. And what of rabbinic misconduct generally? Can a convicted embezzler return to a position of authority? What about someone convicted of possessing child pornography, as Rabbi Juda Mintz was last week in New Jersey? Or someone who contracts a murder, like Rabbi Fred Neulander, who was convicted this summer? What about someone against whom there have been serious allegations, but no conviction? All of these choices have to be made by the community, as American law is neutral on the matter.

Moving forward, the possibility that communal self-enforcement can go too far, excluding people for conduct that is not objectively criminal or harmful, but is judged to be so by those empowered to make the decision. This, allege Weinberg's defenders, is what happened to their friend and teacher when he utilized unorthodox methods of teaching. Can a policy of communal enforcement allow, rather ironically, those with the power to make such decision capable of abusing it? What kind of checks can be made to ensure that individuals are not blacklisted for the wrong reasons?

Beyond the questions of who, how, and why in dealing with abusive rabbis, is the question of how the laity can involve itself. Lanner's case, for example, would not even have seen daylight had it not been for the reporting of Gary Rosenblatt in New York's Jewish Week, and it is an absolute fact that almost all of the names of rabbis already mentioned, as well as those names to come, would simply not be part of this article if they hadn't been reported. Media ethics questions necessarily follow if media is going to serve not just to ring the alarm bells, but as enforcers as well. Just as important, though, is for the media to pursue stories aggressively. Later on in this series will come a presentation on how long it usually takes for allegations to surface in the media or elsewhere, and a discussion of whether the media can be more pro-active in these matters.

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