After rabbinic abuse, where is God?

This Pesach, I have not attended a seder.

I remember all the sedarim I led with my clergy abuser, and it has proved impossible this year to separate the holiday from those memories. We led the seder together for many years. So, like many other things about my Jewish life, and my relationship with God, and my trust in my fellow human beings, the seder is associated with him. And like so many other things about my Jewish life, and my relationship with God, and my trust in my fellow human beings, I avoid going outside my comfort zone so that I don’t have to contend with the memories, the betrayal, and the grief.

But this avoidance means that I have lost just about every tie to the Jewish life I loved. I am stymied about how to get it back. It feels like going through fire to have a seder. It feels like going through fire to daven. It feels like going through fire to walk into a shul and sit with my fellow Jews and study Torah.

God and Judaism are my heart’s desire, but they are so far away, and I don’t know how to walk through the fire that separates us.

Just before Pesach, I had a dream about my abuser in which I saw him as he really was: cold, ungenerous, uncaring. I used to see him as just the opposite, but now I realize that I was projecting all my own goodness onto him. I could not imagine that there were people in the world without the ability to hold themselves accountable.

Perhaps seeing him as he was constitutes the beginning of my liberation from narrow places. Time will tell, I imagine.

But right now, I don’t know how to peel the memories of him away from my experience of God or my Jewish life. So on the first night of Pesach, I sat alone, grieving, missing the ritual of making charoset, missing the process of putting out the tablecloth and the dishes, missing the moment my kid and I enjoyed the Hillel sandwich as we’ve done for so many years, missing the joy of sitting together and talking and singing and eating.

Clergy abuse is a monster that swallows everything. If you’d told me so when it all began, I would never have believed it. I would have been sure you were exaggerating and falling into cynicism.

But so it is.

How do I find my way back?

Perhaps I need to begin with God, the One Who exists beyond all religious institutions, all clergy, all human constructs. Where was God in what happened? Where is God now?

The God I loved, the God who loved me: that has to be the beginning of my healing. I have to peel away the associations of the people claiming to represent God from the God I have known.

I do not recognize God in what was done to me: the rabbi who abused my trust, the congregation that shunned me, the family and community that scapegoated me, the full-scale destruction of the life I had known.

The problem is not me, nor is it God. The problem is the rabbi who used the Name of God for his own selfish purposes.

The problem is the congregation that cared more about saving its reputation than saving me from grievous harm.

The problem is the enablers who were indifferent to the destruction and hypocrisy going on in their community.

The problem is the people who know my abuser and hang onto a false narrative about him, about themselves, about all that has happened, instead of facing the truth.

They have all committed a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of the Divine Name. 

Because of their actions, I can’t go into a synagogue, any synagogue, without reliving the trauma of what was done to me. I watched an entire community turn on me in a heartbeat. One doesn’t forget such things.

It happened to me. And it has happened to so many others. I tell my story to non-Jewish survivors of clergy abuse, and they tell me their stories. Our theologies are different. Our rituals are different. We call God, our clergy people, our houses of worship by different names. But we speak the same language. Our stories are the same. Their words could have come from my mouth. My words live in them. 

I do not recognize God in what happened to me. That is all I know. Perhaps that is the place to begin to heal.

About the Author
Rachel Cohen is a survivor of clergy abuse in the Jewish community and the founder of Shema Koleinu (www.shemakoleinu.net), an organization dedicated to providing support and healing to Jewish adults abused by clergy. She is currently enrolled in the Jewish Studies program at Gratz College, where she is working toward her third Master's degree.
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