This time of the year, Rabbis everywhere can be heard lecturing and preaching about teshuva, repentance. They are likely invoking the famous formula of the Rambam, Maimonides, who instructs us that authentic, genuine self reflection and introspection are made up of three crucial elements: we must verbally confess the error of our ways, we must be regretful and remorseful for what we did and lastly, we must commit never to behave the mistaken way again.
This year, I believe, Rabbis would be terribly remiss if we didn’t broadly and loudly model and exemplify the formula for teshuva ourselves before we lecture about it. We, the Rabbinic community and the leadership of the Modern Orthodox establishment, are in profound need of collective teshuva. Allow me to explain.
The beginning of the new millennium saw the shocking revelation of widespread sex abuse among Catholic priests and the apparent cover-up by the Church itself. There was a public outcry stemming from the inability to comprehend how those responsible for the safety, well-being and protection of children could themselves be complicit in such devastating behavior.
Sadly, as we have entered the second decade of the millennium, it has become clear that the Jewish community is not immune to such behavior. Though the latest revelations of abuse at Yeshiva University 30 years ago are officially only allegations at this time, it is clear from the anecdotal evidence that has emerged, as well as the direct statements of dozens of victims, that our collective community is in need of a profound and difficult teshuva process.
Abuse has not only allegedly taken place at Yeshiva University and previously under NCSY’s watch, but over the last few years, sex abuse scandals have shocked Orthodox communities all over North America and beyond. Our own Boca Raton community has found itself the focus of much attention of late, not because of allegations of abuse in our community, but because of serious allegations surrounding a Boca resident prior to his relocating here. (I once again invite anyone in our community with questions or seeking clarification regarding this issue to meet with me and I know Rabbi Brander extends the same invitation to community members seeking clarification from him as well)
A common theme in many of the cases is the knowledge among community members that something was suspicious about the person and their behavior long before a newspaper story was published, a scandal broke or an arrest occurred. Yet, the discomfort with the perpetrator felt by community members and leaders alike, rarely led to action.
Who is accountable for the pain, trauma and in some cases irreversible damage done to those who were hurt after the community was already suspicious? Is it previous victims? On average it takes a victim of abuse 20 years to tell anyone, including those closest to him or her. They are not to blame for failing to speak up and any attempt at blaming them is deepening their pain while failing to understand their plight.
Is it parents of those abused? In many cases the abused or their parents desperately don’t want the attention or consequences resulting from being the person or people who “brought the perpetrator down.” They prefer to suffer silently rather than enter the fray. I don’t believe we can judge them or their decision, certainly not if we have never been in their shoes.
What about fellow community members who were aware of the suspicious behavior? What is their accountability? After a perpetrator is identified in the newspapers or by being arrested, you will often hear community members say, “I am not surprised; I had heard that he has an abusive past.” Some even have the audacity to call out community leaders for failing to act when, in fact, the community leader may not have known what these community members knew or as much as they knew, and they are the ones whose silence was inexcusable. It is easy after the fact to boast how much one knew about the perpetrator and their nefarious behavior all along. Doing so, however, reveals in retrospect that the boaster was a passive enabler to the abuse, as he failed to intercede earlier.
I admire and applaud Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky and others who have penned an apology for not having done more to speak up on their classmates’ behalf. Perhaps similar statements by those who “knew” and didn’t want to get involved in other cases would go a long way to alleviate the pain and suffering of victims of abuse, who in addition to the pain suffered from their perpetrator, have felt isolated and abandoned by those who should have done more.
What about Rabbis and community leaders? What is our accountability? As we reflect back on the scandal of silence, a harsh and painful observation emerges. In too many cases, Rabbis were at best alerted to, and at worst directly called upon to intervene to stop perpetrators of abuse. Tragically, not only did too many fail to act to report offenders to the authorities, but in many cases, some Rabbis shielded and even embraced the perpetrators, instead of the victims. Laws of lashon harah (gossip) and judging others favorably were misapplied, often at victims’ expense.
As we reflect back, it is becoming clear that too many Rabbis turned away victims, rather than rushing to embrace them, believe in them and support them. Too many Rabbis justified and excused the behavior of perpetrators maintaining their friendships, rather than protecting their communities. Too many Rabbis, who no longer could tolerate the offender’s presence in their communities, shipped them to other communities in an effort to move on and hope the problem would go away. Most egregiously, they failed to even notify their colleagues of the offenders past so that his new community could vigilantly watch over him. Too many institutional leaders and heads have failed to speak with moral clarity in addressing our collective past, present and future regarding these issues.
The Rambam’s formula begins with verbal confession. It isn’t enough to know in one’s heart that he or she did something wrong. It doesn’t suffice for behavior to be so egregious that an apology need not be verbalized. No, the Rambam says, unless one undergoes the exercise of articulating what went wrong, we cannot assume he or she understands the severity of their misdeeds or the impact it had on others.
Now is the time to articulate our collective failings and where we have been deficient. As the distrust in Rabbis and modern orthodox institutions grows by the day, and the cynicism and skepticism for our mission and messages increases with it, we absolutely cannot afford to be silent and mute.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. Many speeches were given that day, but his is by far the most famous and the most remembered. But there was a Rabbi who spoke that day on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Council, and a rabbi from Berlin who experienced the wrath of Hitler, warned: “Bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems.” He continued, “The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most tragic problem is silence.” Remembering the rise of Hitler, he added: “A great people, which had created a great civilization, had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality, in the face of mass murder. America must not become a nation of silent onlookers.”
We cannot and must not be silent and thereby fail to address what happened, what went wrong, who was involved and how can we prevent it from happening again. If Rabbis are to retain the respect of our congregants and if Jewish institutions and organizations are to retain the trust of the community, rather than be silent onlookers, we must speak loudly and clearly about where we stand on these issues.
We must ensure that our synagogues, schools, camps and campuses be free of abusers, pedophiles and perpetrators. Aside from the continued risk their participation presents, their mere presence can trigger past trauma and pain of victims of abuse who are in the same room. I recognize and empathize that when there is suspicion with no clear proof, it is complicated to know what to do. However, while due process is owed to the alleged offender, a process itself is owed to those who raise the suspicion and to the community in which the accused resides.
The bottom line is this: There is a right side and wrong side to this issue and now is the time to be clear which side we are on. It is difficult, and perhaps even unfair, to evaluate the response thirty years ago to accusations of abuse, with the knowledge and understanding we have now. But, what in my mind is not difficult at all and what is necessary now that we know so much more, is to be on the correct side of these issues today.
When a leading Rabbi in Israel invites a convicted abuser to give a Shiur to his Yeshiva, he is on the wrong side of this issue. When a Yeshiva High School principal who wants the trust of his students and parents maintains a visible relationship, even if understated, with a registered sex offender, he is on the wrong side of this issue. When a major Jewish organization retains a Rabbi who continues to defend a pedophile who pled guilty in court, and continues to defend a letter he wrote stating that the victim who reported the pedophile is a moseir who has no portion in the world to come, it is on the wrong side of this issue.
It pains me that my beloved Yeshiva University is currently embroiled in controversy of its own, so let me be clear. YU and my many Rebbeim there have shaped my identity, my thinking and my Rabbinate. I am YU through and through and believe the world would be a much worse place if YU didn’t exist. The Orthodox Union is a center of great chesed, youth work, outreach and education. I am proud of our Shul’s affiliation with the OU and my personal involvement in their activities and programs.
I turn now to YU and the OU, not to alienate, criticize or condemn. I turn to them as a loyal and loving ally, not as an adversary. I turn to YU and the OU because that is what I have always done and because I, like so many of you, yearn for their leadership at this critical time. I respect and admire Dr. Lamm’s courage in addressing his role in the YU case, but more is desperately needed, and it is needed right now.
History will evaluate how the Modern Orthodox world, its leadership and its institutions reacted to these revelations. I, for one, don’t want to be accused of being a silent onlooker to the pain and plight of victims who were failed by the community and the Rabbis who were entrusted with the sacred duty of protecting them. We owe victims of abuse an apology and a comprehensive plan of how we will make sure that what happened to them never happens again.
To their credit, Yeshiva University has commissioned an investigation and has promised to share the results publicly. I trust them and eagerly await their showing us how to take responsibility, display empathy, and put in place a process to prevent and address these kinds of abuses.
The final stage of the Rambam’s formula for teshuva is a commitment to the future. Here is my pledge to our Boca Raton Synagogue community:
As your Rabbi…
I will always put the safety, security and protection of our children first.
I will take seriously and immediately address any report of abusive behavior or inappropriate conduct.
I will not hesitate or delay to report abusive behavior to the authorities to investigate, while staying cognizant of the fact that a person is not guilty just because they have been accused.
I will be transparent with you regarding what I know and how and why I did or didn’t act, to the greatest extent possible without violating confidentiality.
I will do all that I can to ensure that our campus is off limits to established pedophiles, convicted sex offenders, and abusers.
I will be proactive in communicating with the leadership of other communities should a perpetrator of abuse move from my community to theirs.
I have no doubt that the Orthodox community will overcome this issue and position itself once again as a voice of moral clarity and a principal spokesperson of Torah’s timeless values. We will have to take courageous steps, make difficult decisions and have uncomfortable conversations. But when we do, we will have not only lectured about teshuva, we will have demonstrated it.