Curbing Rabbinic Abuse

Jewish Week forum at Makor focuses on countering stigma of shame and secrecy among victims.

The Jewish Week/December 19, 2003

During the question-and-answer session of a forum last week on rabbinic abuse, several female health-care professionals in the audience spoke with passion and frustration about a well-known rabbi in their local community whose affairs with women in his office, they said, have gone on for years.

The speakers said they felt stymied as to how to take action against the unnamed rabbi, who is highly respected, and help the women involved, who are too embarrassed to speak out.

Their remarks underscored a central theme of the evening sponsored by The Jewish Week and Makor: that rabbinic abuse - sexual, emotional and psychological - is an ongoing problem, whether or not individual cases make the headlines. For all the increased public awareness and reforms made in recent years, the stigma of shame and secrecy among victims, particularly in the Orthodox community, still prevents many abusers from being identified and punished.

Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani (spiritual adviser) at Yeshiva University and one of the program's three panelists, encouraged the women who spoke out not to lose hope and urged them to keep up their efforts to resolve the situation, even if it takes years.

Rabbi Blau, who has sought to focus communal attention on the problem of rabbinic abuse for years, was joined on the panel by Dr. Michelle Friedman, a psychiatrist and director of pastoral counseling for rabbinical students at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Manhattan, and Arthur Magida, a journalist and author of "The Rabbi and the Hit Man," an account of a New Jersey rabbi convicted in the murder of his wife in 1994.

Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, served as moderator of the discussion, held at Makor, the West Side branch of the 92nd Street Y.

Rosenblatt explained at the outset that the purpose of the program was "not to rehash" recent highly publicized scandals involving sexual abuse by clergy "but to look at what can be done to prevent future cases."

Newspapers are not the ideal medium for the exposure of abuse cases, he said, but serve that purpose now because there is "a vacuum" in the community.

The consensus of the panel was that that rabbinical schools need to reconsider how rabbis are trained and treated, and that the community needs to find a vehicle from within for dealing with abuse cases in a fair and effective manner.

Too often, Rosenblatt said (and the panelists agreed) when abuse is discovered in a congregation or school, the matter is handled quietly and the perpetrator, after being terminated, is free to go to another unsuspecting community and abuse again.

Friedman said rabbis need to understand themselves and the power transferred on to them by congregants. Since there is little separation between rabbis' personal and professional lives, "it's not a question of if they'll be provoked but how, and how often," she said. "The first thing you do is take your own & emotional pulse."

Rabbi Blau pointed out that while rabbinical students are trained and evaluated on the basis of their knowledge of Jewish law, there is no halachic requirement that rabbis act more morally than any other Jew. He asserted that cases of abuse always trump prohibitions against lashon hara (gossip) or mesirah (testifying against a fellow Jew).

"It's not a gray area at all," he said in response to a question from Rosenblatt. The rabbi said there is "tremendous denial" in the community and too often people want to believe that the abuser did teshuvah (repented), when in fact he or she "is still a danger to others."

Rabbi Blau cautioned against weighing the positive qualities a rabbi might have against his abusive behavior and rationalizing that the good outweighs the bad. He called it "a Faustian deal" and said the community should not hesitate to contact the police or other authorities outside the Jewish community in cases of abuse.

Magida spoke of the inherent power a rabbi has over congregants, so that in the New Jersey case, even when the rabbi was accused of being responsible for the murder of his wife, many who knew him could not believe he was guilty.

A rabbi in the audience commented on the positive strides being taken now to guard against abuse in congregations and schools, including policies to not leave congregants seeking counseling alone in a closed room with a clergy member.

But Friedman responded with some skepticism about the scope of improvement of communal guidelines and attitudes, noting that psychological training programs for rabbis have "withered more than grown."

She and the other panelists encouraged the audience members, and the community in general, to keep the issue of abuse in the public eye, suggesting that open discussion is a safeguard against the secrecy that benefits abusers.

The third in a series of four Jewish Week forums at Makor will be held at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 11, with staff writer Debra Nussbaum Cohen moderating a discussion on "The New, And Future, Jewish Family."

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