Another scandal. Another rabbi/educator accused of all kinds of outrageous, inappropriate behavior with female students. This time it is severe enough that rabbis who live across the world, in Israel, New York and Los Angeles, and who span the Modern Orthodox-Chareidi-Chasiddishe spectrum, have come together to sign a letter warning the public to stay away. This time the person involved is thought to have performed hundreds (!) of indecent acts and to have ruined countless lives.
And yet with all the talking, I feel that the real issue is not being spoken about at all. And therefore, despite my deep reluctance to write publicly about any person or place, I want to tell another part of this story.
I knew this rabbi. Eighteen years ago, I came to Israel for the year to study Torah in a seminary where he taught. He lived on campus with his young family in the apartment right beneath mine. From the first time I met him, my overwhelming gut instinct was to stay away. There was something creepy about the way he knew all of our SAT scores by heart, even before we arrived. The way he knew exactly who was registered for an Ivy League college. The way he pursued and initiated chavrutot (study sessions) with very specific girls. Never the weak ones. Only the “best and the brightest.” It felt like a kind of game for him. A challenge. Could he crack the toughest ones? Break them down and then rebuild them? By some, it was considered flattering if he chose you. And there were girls who were hurt and devastated because they didn’t make the cut.
Once he forged that connection, he was manipulative, he played mind games, and he fostered dependence and hero worship. He was sarcastic, biting, and cynical, and he used his sharp mind and his Torah knowledge in cunning ways. He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. He knew Torah by heart, and, of course, his way of looking at things was always “right.” You could never really challenge his read or his understanding because he was held up by everyone as the ultimate talmid chacham (scholar). He had mastered Torah. And he was only 27.
I stayed far away, and yet the experience of coming into even limited contact with him was incredibly painful. There were a couple of times that he threw out such nasty lines to me that I was left crying so hard that I couldn’t breathe. And then there were the difficult feelings of confusion and abandonment that arise when you try to raise concerns with friends and teachers and, instead of taking you seriously, they make you doubt yourself.
This is the real issue that has plagued my mind for so long. The fact that this man was never, ever fit to be an educator. The fact that knowing all the Torah in the world does not on its own make you trustworthy enough to be given a classroom’s worth of young, impressionable souls. The fact that long before anyone suspected inappropriate sexual behavior, it was glaringly clear that this person employed all kinds of unhealthy teaching methods in order to cultivate relationships with students. And the fact that no one but a few innocent teenage girls seemed to notice.
And so I want to talk about it. I want to talk about teachers who use fear and guilt frequently and indiscriminately in order to motivate and inspire. Teachers who deliberately try to alienate their students from everything they come from — their parents, families, homes, previous schools, communities, shuls, and even shul rabbis. Teachers who break students down so that they can recreate them in their own images. Teachers who cultivate groupies and are dependent on their students for self-esteem. Teachers who lack real relationships with their own peers because they are “so devoted” to their students. Teachers who teach students not to trust themselves, not to rely on their instincts, and not to listen to their inner voices.
Unfortunately, teachers like this are not uncommon, and we don’t talk enough about the damage that they do. About the fact that the rapid growth and change that they foster usually doesn’t last or, if it does, comes at a heavy price. About the fact that their students, years later, often find themselves empty and lost. About the guilty feelings that can stay with a person forever. About the relationships that are ruined in the process. And about the dependence that has been formed.
We don’t talk about it because, in the moment, the picture is so rosy. The teacher is charismatic, “his” classes are well attended, “she” is so devoted to her students, and the growth seems so exciting and real.
There are healthy and positive ways to educate and to inspire growth, whether the trajectory in mind is chareidi, “modern,” or something else. These ways are usually rooted in respect, humility, responsibility and trust.
Deeply respecting our students means wanting to understand and appreciate where they come from and who they are. It means valuing their relationships with family and friends and encouraging positive interactions as much as possible. It means wanting growth to be organic and slow, to follow a continuum and to not demand a total break with the past.
Humility includes being able to admit our own failings and limitations. It is the ability to tell our students when we don’t know something. Humility also means realizing that our way is not the only way, and that sometimes someone else might know more, or know better, or simply have a different take on things. Humility means understanding that each person is an individual; that it is important for students to cultivate and develop that individuality and not suppress it; and that the goal is not to create miniature versions of ourselves.
Responsibility is required with regard to the teaching methods that are employed. Fear and guilt work effectively for inspiring quick change, but, in the long run, they often lead to self-doubt, resentment, and depression. Responsibility means being honest about the ups and downs of life. It means describing hard moments that might arise and preparing students to deal with them. It means letting our students know that we also have challenges, questions, struggles and doubts. Teaching with responsibility means having patience, because real growth is a process that takes a long time. It means understanding that in order for something to be truly internalized, a student needs to work hard to make it that way.
Finally, we should educate our students to develop trust in themselves. Trust in their ability to think, to weigh things, and to make good decisions. Trust to pay attention to their gut and to notice when something doesn’t feel right. We should trust that our students are good at heart and want to do the right thing. And we should not betray their trust when they come forward with a concern, but should listen very, very closely to what they are telling us.
Even if we want to disagree about what exactly constitutes a healthy education, let’s at least agree on what does not.
I hope that in the wake of this scandal, we don’t just talk about one outed, sick educator and then move on as if everything were okay. Let us not get so distracted by the outrageous details that we forget what was so grossly inexcusable about his conduct as a teacher, even had he never touched anyone.
People like this are facilitated by an educational culture that celebrates and rewards brilliant and charismatic figures, despite the fact that they are often highly problematic and leave silent trails of ruin in the shadows of their successes.
As a community, we can be aware of this and do a lot to change it. Our schools, administrators, and lay leaders can think, and think again, about our educational goals and about the healthy ways in which to help our students reach them. And, in the event that there are staff members whose behavior is wholly inconsistent with our conclusions, then it’s time that we put our children’s well-being first.
Let’s talk about that.