Rabbis Misbehaving: Lessons From Sex Abuse Scandals in the Jewish Community

We rabbis have the responsibility to stand up for what is right when no one else does.

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In Pireki Avot 2:6 Hillel says, “In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person.” In this short, but crucial, text of Jewish wisdom, we are reminded of our responsibility to stand up for what is right when no one else does. In a world where it is easy to claim we are innocent bystanders, to skate by fulfilling our minimum obligations, we are required by our tradition to rise up and be the voice of humanity.

This is particularly true when the situations involved are about the vulnerable, and those who witness suffering are authority figures, particularly rabbis. Our schools, camps, yeshivot and their leaderships are meant to cultivate the highest level of spiritual, religious and ethical behavior in our children. Yet, for the last several years we have witnessed the uncovering of just the opposite, as scandals of sexual and physical abuse in the Jewish community made headlines regularly.

In the last couple of weeks we have again been confronted with the uncovering of yet another case of sexual abuse. A scandal within the Jewish world and involving lack of reporting at the very least and perhaps an attempt by authorities to hide the abuse. The most recent story, reported in the Forward on December 13, tells of a series of boys who made claims against at least two rabbis and teachers regarding inappropriate behavior in the 1970s and ‘80s at Yeshiva University. Norman Lamm, who was president of YU from 1976 to 2003 and is now chancellor, told the Forward that no law enforcement officials were ever notified of the abuse, despite that “charges of improper sexual activity” were made against staff “not only at [YU’s] high school and college, but also in [the] graduate school.” Lamm also told the Forward, “If it was an open-and-shut case, I just let [the staff member] go quietly. It was not our intention or position to destroy a person without further inquiry.” According to the Forward, when Lamm was asked whether abuse of minors by staff should have been reported to police, he said, “My question was not whether to report to police but to ask the person to leave the job.”

According to The Forward, attorney Kevin Mulhearn (who has tried other abuse cases) has been hired by Mordechai Twersky, the first of almost two dozen students to come forward claiming they were abused decades ago while studying at Yeshiva University’s high school for boys in Manhattan.

This statistic - nearly two-dozen students claiming abuse – is shocking, and what is equally as disturbing is that no rabbi or authority figure thought reporting it was necessary. Children claim abuse at a religious institution and no one thinks to alert authorities to the possibility that there might be a repeat offender. Who was standing up for these children? Who was protecting them?

The most troubling issue here is that these are not isolated incidents; schools, youth groups, and other Jewish institutions have all been plagued with abuse that was swept under the rug, as authority figures ignore the victims, attempt to cover up the claims, and shun those who report the abusers to secular authorities. I can't help but wonder how this could happen to the Jewish community.

The New York Times reported on the damaging practice within ultra-Orthodox communities of spurning those who report suspected cases of abuse. Lamm, who is considered by many to be a moderate voice in the Orthodox community, clearly articulates that he felt it was unnecessary to report the rabbis and educators to the authorities, and that in his opinion dismissing them would suffice. By not reporting claims of abuse to authorities, and thereby avoiding doing everything in one’s power to protect innocent children, “leaders” like Lamm – at Yeshiva University, within Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox community, in Australia, and, no doubt, in numerous other yeshivot, day schools, Jewish summer camps and religious institutions – have turned their backs on Jewish values and ideals.

Over and over again in the Torah we are reminded of our responsibility to protect those whoa are victimized or vulnerable. The Torah teaches, “And if any one sin, in that he heareth the voice of adjuration, he being a witness, whether he hath seen or known, if he do not utter it, then he shall bear his iniquity” (Leviticus 5:1). How guilty then are those who allowed abusers to stay in places of Torah and community, which are supposed to be safe havens? “Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14). This includes the obligation to warn someone from a danger that we are aware of. How many stumbling blocks were placed before these innocent children? Leviticus 19:16 teaches further that “neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbour: I am the LORD.” If we are aware of a sin – an act so utterly against everything our tradition teaches us – and we don’t speak up, we don’t act, then we, too, are complicit in the sin.

The Jewish community is not immune to rampant abuse, cover-ups and ensuing scandals. It is up to us, as Jewish leaders, to be vigilant in creating communities that are safe havens where children and their families can learn and grow. Our responsibility lies with the children, not with their abusers. In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person Judaism demands of you.

Rabbi Elianna Yolkut works throughout N.Y.C. and beyond teaching, speaking and writing Torah. You can find her at www.rabbielianna.com

Sexual abuse of children by their brothers has doubled in a year, 2015 study finds. Credit: Ilan Asayag

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