Abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community: So, what else is new?

In today’s Ha’aretz, the headline reads: “US Rabbis Urge Israel to Deny Citizenship to Convicted Child Sex Abuser” and the lead continues: “Baruch Lanner’s presence in Israel is ‘a threat to public health and safety,’ a leading organization of US Orthodox rabbis says following revelation that he is being considered for Israeli citizenship.” And in today’s TOI, a similar headline reads: US Orthodox rabbis denounce Israel for granting residency to convicted sex offender and this lead continues: “Baruch Lanner, who served nearly three years in prison for sexually assaulting students, arrived in Israel as a tourist and is now applying for citizenship.” So why my sudden interest in this that inspires me to write my seventh blog?

In 2001, I posted a letter that was widely circulated on a server-list of people affected by this particular abuser. I had sent it to the New York Jewish Week, but they never published it. The letter was entitled: “Abuse in the Orthodox Jewish Community: So, what else is new?” Unfortunately what I wrote more than 20 years ago is still relevant today:

I thought that I could ignore the whole issue of the allegations against Rabbi Baruch Lanner. Considering my expertise on the attitude of the halakha to the subject of wife-beating, I have remained conspicuously silent. When I first read the article in the New York Jewish Week by the paper’s editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt, who documented many cases of abuse committed by Lanner against Orthodox teenagers in the NCSY’s programs, my inclination was to keep silent.

Denial of abuse and apologetics for it are not only associated with the Orthodox community. The attitude that “only a goy does that” has been prevalent for too long a time in the Jewish community. The attitude that the more traditional and observant the Jews are, the “better” they are vis á vis other members of the community has been around since we became the “chosen people.” Denial is a form of lying and very often everyone has to cooperate in order to maintain the lie. The person who denies that a problem exists does not have to deal with it. Denial and not dealing with the problem is what the OU did for twenty years. In the light of that institutional behavior, I felt I must break my silence. Apologetics is a close relative of denial. It is used to justify the superiority of the Jewish way of life in general, and the Orthodox way in particular. It absolves the user of the responsibility for perpetuating abuse. Examples of this abound: Jews don’t do it. When they do, it’s not as bad as when ‘other’s do it. If Jews do it, then it is because of ‘environmental influences’.

Religion neither defends us from abuse, nor causes abuse. However, it can seem to encourage community leaders (who are often rabbis) to react wrongly “for the sake of_________”! Just fill in the blanks with the word of your choice. Very often the word is related to the reputation of the Jewish people. The terms hillul hashem, and lashon ha-ra are used to protect the guilty. It is wrong to speak lashon ha-ra about a rabbi. It is hillul hashem to do so. We are God’s people (and Orthodox people think they are more so, and thus have more of an obligation to defend HIS (sic) name. We are silent when abuse is perpetuated in the name of religion among other groups: against other religious streams, gays, agunot, women’s tefillah groups, Palestinians, to name just a few. Since we are used to being silent at the abuse committed against women by our rabbis, it is not so strange when there is a cover up in the Orthodox world when abuse is committed against our children. After all, the silence is for a cause. In this case, it was for the cause of a successful, dynamic youth leader, who brought many children back to religion. So what if he abused a few individuals along the way. After all, he was upholding the collective!

I wrote a book and titled it Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating, precisely because silence is so deadly. The attitudes of sha, shtill (be quiet, keep still) for the scandal will go away, and sweeping the dirt under the rug are disquieting. However, not speaking our mind is a new attitude. Our Jewish sources recognized the fact that men were beating their wives and that it was wrong. The same texts showed awareness of the fact that reprimanding children could be overdone and that there was a line that should not be crossed.

Is it the memory of the melamed who was given great powers by the community to discipline their children, that allows us to overlook abuse, that allows us to close our eyes to the bruises on our children’s bodies, that prevents us from complaining? But there were parents who complained. They can be likened to the woman who was beaten and went to the beit din, hoping for rabbis who would release her from pain, who would force the husband to give her a get, who would do something. Instead she got short shrift. There were many parents, in many different communities who did complain–for the past twenty years–and found that their complaints were dismissed or ignored.

I did not want to write about this, because I felt that, as someone associated with the Conservative community, I would be accused of Orthodox Bashing. But this has gone too far. To blame Gary Rosenblatt for blowing the whistle was the red line for me. I, too, have been blamed for writing a book which dredges up some sources that show that wifebeating is allowed in carefully controlled situations (to educate the wife; to prevent her from sinning; when she doesn’t perform her required household duties). Those rabbis who allowed wifebeating as a means to an end, justified it as a means to obtaining domestic harmony. In those cases, the rabbis made a judgement call that the preservation of the communal unit was more important than the suffering of an individual.

I have been accused of being a self-hating Jew for bringing such sources to light, despite the fact that these unfavorable sources form a very small part of my book. This does not bother me, for I believe that to keep quiet is the real hillul hashem-the desecration of God’s name. Doesn’t the Orthodox community realize that the REAL danger is NOT that the children will leave Orthodox Judaism? The real danger is that because its religious leaders do not protect them, these children will see abusive charismatic leaders such as Rabbi Lanner getting away with it. They will see in him a role model, someone to be imitated. It is common knowledge that the children of abusers tend to abuse others when they grow up. This is the danger. This is what is scary. If your melamed beat you as a child, that will seem normal and acceptable to you. Haven’t we all heard that a potch in tuchus (a slap on the behind) can’t hurt, it may even be good. So when the melamed of today abuses a child, but is a fantastic educator, it is felt that the ends justify the means. Thus, the Orthodox Union is inadvertently perpetuating a cycle of violence.

Rabbi Riskin of Efrat chose to believe the beit din over the members of the community-dismissing their complaints about Rabbi Lanner as rumors. “When NCSY first sent Rabbi Lanner, I did contact the beit din to check on him and heard that they had found him not guilty. I didn’t go into it any further.” Once it made the press, he said that he was “surprised at the extent of the allegations. It’s a terrible thing that should not have been permitted to go on.” Much as I congratulate Rabbi Riskin for his courageous stance about some women’s issues and for opposing the actions of some ultra-Orthodox who burn Conservative synagogues, his attitude is a bit disingenuous. Why not go into it further? I agree that it’s a terrible thing that should not have been permitted to go on. But isn’t the OU, Rabbi Riskin’s union, his organization?

If the OU had only listened to their constituencies and not been blinded by the aura, by the respect due Rabbis (even when they do not deserve it), twenty years of abuse could have been prevented. He was in his twenties when he first started. He got away with it. He could have been redeemed. Now it is too late. So many souls have been abused and hurt. The cover-up is the real hillul hashem. Children should be safe when they are being educated. Parents should not have to fear that their organization looks out for the interest of their union at the expense of their children’s safety. The need for a very deep bedek ha-bayit (house cleaning) in the OU is long overdue. For the sake of Judaism, for the sake of our children, I hope the newly formed commission to investigate the allegation does it soon. Delay in issues such as these just makes things worse.

So this is what I wrote more than twenty years ago. The reactions to what I wrote were varied. One mother wrote me that although she was Conservative, her children went to NCSY (daughter) and Hillel Yeshiva (son). Her son was victimized by Lanner. She also wrote that she taught at an Orthodox day school, where 16 years ago she learned that the administration of her school knew about Lanner – and yet recommended sending their students there.” One of the males on the list wrote sarcastically that the only way to make absolutely sure that no one ever victimizes your kids is for YOU to go to every event with them and for you to shackle them to you. He pointed out that NCSY is not inherently dangerous, nor were the people who ran it innately evil. He asked whether there was something in the culture of NCSY that created an unacceptable risk. He answered that this episode demonstrated the flaws in the culture and that the people who should have recognized what was going on turned a blind-eye for reasons of their own choosing. His solution was that strong institutional oversight serves as a deterrent. If people see that no one gets away with improper conduct, it is just less likely that people will engage in such conduct. If NCSY has effective policies and procedures in place, victimizers would be less inclined to use NCSY as a hunting ground.

Another mother related how in the summer of 1967 her daughter came home from camp and was behaving strangely. When asked her daughter told her how a  married male counselor made some approaches to her and wanted to touch her, etc. She was very upset and went to the head of the camp who told her never to tell her parents about this. Nothing was done to the counselor who had made the approach…Despite the fact that she called the camping association to report this,  they never followed up.

The last response that I’ll share with you was personal:

“Graetz provides a great analysis of the problem. Because she is an “outsider” and infuses politics into her analysis, it will surely be discounted by the people who need to read it the most. She succinctly points out the most disturbing aspect of the Lanner affair, or better the OU affair: the failure of our rabbis and leaders. This is framed perfectly by the response of R. Riskin. If a worldly, professional person like him does less to investigate child molestation than he would the kashrus of paper towels, woe unto us. The failure of the beis din to convict, only means that it didn’t have the requisite quantum of evidence, or that sufficient witnesses didn’t come forward or more likely that the beis din couldn’t convict an employee of their own patron/employer. R. Riskin stopped short by not investigating further. Yet in more mundane matters we regularly look further, i.e., how many times have we been told that even though a food product has a heksher ‘it’s not recommended.’ We are afraid then to eat it. By food, we demand ‘glatt kosher pizza’ (actually observed on a product bearing the OU symbol), kosher water and paper towels. Hence our leaders have confined our religion to the kitchen. Outside the kitchen, we don’t use the same standards we would in our own business and professional lives, not even a sophisticated person like R. Riskin. …
Why are we dependent on ‘outsiders’ like a UJA paper and an Israeli, Conservative academic to point out what is so easy for us to see but which our ‘leaders’ are blind to?”

Since I am now engaged in having my book, Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating (1998) translated, I am very sorry, in revisiting my old correspondence, to see that much of what I wrote in 2001 is still relevant today. The fact that Baruch Lanner is still around and wants entry into Israel is very problematic. Many of his victims made aliyah years ago. I know a few of them personally. However, the fact that this time around, some members of the US Orthodox rabbinate are calling for an investigation into this, leaves me with a feeling of optimism, that perhaps some things have changed for the better. It remains to be seen if the Israeli rabbinate will also join with their voices to deny Israeli citizenship to a convicted child sex abuser.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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