Becoming a Light Unto Ourselves

Reprehensible behavior of a prominent man, a Rabbi in the Orthodox community, brought to the public, after concerns were voiced and complaints were made. Sadly, this is a pattern we are too familiar with. We have many broken people within our community as a result of many systems that need fixing. Why is it that we are moved to action and discourse AFTER a scandal erupts, despite the warning signs within our midst? How will our polarized community tackle these grave issues, with both women and men in professional and leadership roles being respected to facilitate this effort? Can we change the way we educate and talk about difficult topics in the home and in our schools? Can we do all of this at a quick enough pace to prevent more victims from suffering? We would be terribly remiss if we did not use the Freundel scandal as a springboard to look within and do everything we can to create a more engaged, connected, and healthy Jewish community.

Looking within can be uncomfortable. Confronting ugliness is not appealing and it carries an inevitable and significant risk, so we tend to avoid it altogether. One could argue that this is a fact of human nature. However, such avoidance in the Orthodox community in this day and age, is no longer realistic and should be unequivocally unacceptable. Avoidance increases the suffering of loved ones, highlights discord within our communities and greatly diminishes our ability to be a “light unto the nations.” Obviously, not all Rabbis are guilty of disingenuous behaviors. There is good reason why other helping and counseling professions require professional support and supervision. The ethical requirements are designed for the benefit and safety of every professional and every client. These structures are implemented not because of the assumption or expectation of inappropriate behavior, but because of the intensity and potential challenges that come along with the nature of the work. In the case of the Jewish community, having appropriate checks and balances and systems in place that are reflective and respectful of the intersection of our traditions and the times we currently live in, should be greeted by our predominant male leadership with appreciation for helping them do their job ethically and most effectively.

Eradicating taboo

As a global Jewish community, we clearly have a long journey ahead of us. Discussions of institutional and communal change thus far have sparked enormous debate. While those issues are incredibly important, I want to address another area that needs some serious overhaul so that we can continue to create fewer platforms for those who abuse their power to succeed, in tandem with the organizational changes needed. We must do everything we can to decrease the potential for people of any age to fall prey to those who use their power in an abusive way.

I believe a critical path we must take to enable the Jewish community to heal from this horror and work on prevention, is to face important issues that make us uncomfortable when it comes to personal relationships. It is something we can all facilitate in our day-to-day interactions and it has enormous potential to change the vicious cycle our community is currently in. As a start, we need to create a culture that practices open and honest communication about all of the body, including the “private parts,” along with an understanding of body boundaries and safety, personal values of modesty for both boys and girls and men and women equally. We can no longer ignore the reality of needing to allow space for this type of dialogue across the spectrum of the Orthodox community. These conversations do not over-sexualize us; they provide necessary opportunities for healthy engagement and are good preventative care. It is therefore essential that parents have matter-of-fact conversations with their children about these topics, just as they talk about hygiene, pedestrian and driving rules, sharing, and using manners. Such dialogue and education can no longer be pushed off to the side. It should occur with children, as young as toddlers, and continue as children age, and as we develop into mature adults.

We must also do more to provide an ongoing, engaging, formal and respectful space within preschools, yeshivot and day schools, to approach relationship topics openly, where bodies are discussed beyond the “comfortable” basics and communication skills are fostered. Unfortunately, body talk and matters of a sexual nature still have a large degree of discomfort, dirtiness and taboo associated with them. As a result, we tend to not talk about them with our children regularly, if at all, and we tend to do so even less as they age. This creates many barriers for developing a healthy relationship with one’s body and the ability to talk transparently about the “private areas” without discomfort or fear. It also decreases the likelihood that someone will recognize inappropriate behavior or speak up when trust is violated.

Removing barriers

Only when these barriers are removed, can we most effectively teach about acceptable boundaries regarding physical contact and the physical and psychological limitations required in order to maintain personal respect, self-esteem, and comfort. We live in a complicated world and Torah principles can only guide us part of the way if we don’t encourage respectful and honest discourse.  We need a culture of openness and acceptance for such conversations to occur and we must encourage those is need to reach out to appropriate professionals for support, without experiencing isolation and judgment.

Approaching uncomfortable topics matter-of-factly, and on a regular basis can actually help create less discomfort, so that they simply become part of our daily conversations. This is how we can begin to truly empower people of all ages with the tools needed to recognize “red flags.” We must create greater opportunities for individuals to learn how to effectively deal with difficult encounters or discomfort that may occur in personal relationships within families, schools, local and larger community institutions. This proactive direction requires better education across the board for improving emotional intelligence, healthy relationship development skills, permission to discuss things related to the body and sexuality, as well as recognizing various forms of sexual harassment, bullying and abuses of power. It also requires that we tap into the vast professional expertise from within, as well as from outside of our community.

We must also talk about areas of personal accountability and what we expect of ourselves, from our family, friends, neighbors and leaders alike. We must candidly discuss the dangers of various types of bullying,  and what abuses of power look like, whether the perpetrator is a child or adult, well-respected or disliked, and the awfulness that can ensue as a result. We must not dismiss concerns regarding another’s behavior, so victims can feel confident in speaking up and out loud when trust is violated and boundaries have been breached.

A Proactive people

Our vernacular needs to change to communicate that we have created a safe environment to talk about anything related to the body, while also providing our loved ones with skills to recognize and report inappropriate behavior of even a well-respected individual. With this type of role modeling and education, we are providing valuable tools for our community to quickly recognize personal discomfort while also giving permission to victims to speak out loud when something inappropriate occurs, instead of remaining silent. We must continue to utilize all avenues to prevent more victims from suffering such deep anguish, provide fewer opportunities for those to abuse their power, and pave the way for more fluid and swift change to occur for our community.  We cannot afford to wait for another perpetrator to make the news and for more victims to come forward or continue to suffer in silence.

The reality is clear. If we do not give permission and provide healthy guidance to bring uncomfortable topics to the table to benefit our Rabbis, leaders, as well as the rest of us across our communities, then we will all be complicit in the ongoing suffering of more victims. It is time for us to become proactive and become a light unto ourselves. That must be our priority before another scandal hits the news and we start the vicious cycle all over again.

About the Author
Randi is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, consultant, and published author. She has worked as an Oncology Social Worker and maintained a private psychotherapy practice. With the launch of Zak& Nat™, Randi provides guidance to children and adults to work together to build stronger, healthier relationships. She’s created the Keep Calm Kit™, which offers very user-friendly fun solutions to managing common tantrum behaviors for home and early childhood settings.