The report of a new public statement by seven (seemingly random) Chabad rabbis calling for the immediate reporting to state authorities of reasonable suspicions of abuse is welcome news, especially their unequivocal announcement that prior rabbinic advice is unnecessary. The statement covers all kinds of abuse but focused on the community’s responsibility to properly address the issue of child sexual abuse. At the same time, this statement also indicates just how low our communal standards have been.
To their credit, the group also placed the onus on individual institutions to ensure that they address this issue adequately at the local level. Essentially, every institution has a role to play in child protection. However, in concrete terms, this is just a restatement of the most basic, minimum standards of child protection and does not add anything new. Nor is it accompanied by much-needed action from this segment of the Jewish community in which child sexual abuse seems to be disproportionately rife and which has been repeatedly called out for its appalling attacks against past victims, their families and supporters. While children in other communities have tragically been affected by child sexual abuse, attacks against victims have been a prominent feature of Chabad’s response. This is ironic, given Chabad’s preaching about love for every Jew.
The community might well ask why yet another rabbinic proclamation is necessary. Just last year there was a similar proclamation by 300 Orthodox rabbis (not just of Chabad). There have been many such statements by rabbis and rabbinic bodies around the world (including by Chabad in 2011). In 2013, one of the signatories to the present statement made a world-first, intensely meaningful, broad rabbinic public apology. Chabad World Headquarters issued a similar apology in February 2015, right after Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse public hearing into Chabad schools in Australia.
So, what is this latest proclamation’s purpose and why does it have only seven signatories in all, and only four from the entire United States? Did others decline to sign, or were they not offered the opportunity to do so?
Of course, public statements of this nature, especially by community leaders and rabbis, are better than nothing. But the danger of such an approach is that the parties to such a document can come to regard the act of signing it as the discharge of their responsibility to really tackle the issue of child sexual abuse. This danger is even greater where the document represents only its signatories’ public positions on the matter but not their innermost, personal views. They, their congregants and supporters, will then rely on that document as the be-all and end-all of their community’s response to the issue of child sexual abuse, while in reality the document is often nothing but window dressing.
The Australian Royal Commission showed that although rabbinic groups had published several statements on the subject of child sexual abuse, their own conduct and that of their fellow rabbis and their community was often inconsistent with those public statements and the issues went unaddressed. As the old saying goes, words are cheap. And while some rabbis have been prepared to make statements, they have often failed to follow through with action against those who have blatantly disregarded their directives.
Chabad has demonstrated significant progress in addressing this issue – more so than other ultra-Orthodox groups. Nevertheless, it remains well behind the broader community – a lag which should not fill anyone with confidence. Cases involving the responses to child sexual abuse in Chabad institutions and communities around the world continue to grow. They include not only the rampant sexual abuse of children in those communities, but also the intimidation and harassment of past victims and their families and supporters. This points to an ongoing cultural problem within Chabad, which is not being taken seriously enough. More must be done than just issuing statements. Leadership must be accountable and must hold to account those who have failed to protect children or who have attacked past victims. It is palpable and conspicuous action that will change culture, not mere words.
It is therefore difficult to see how, in the absence of such a proactive approach, this latest proclamation of Chabad rabbis will be any more effective than previous ones.
Here are some actions that I would expect Chabad rabbis to put into practice in parallel with such statements, if they are to be taken seriously and effect genuine change.
Action by Chabad headquarters:
In 2015 I met senior Chabad officials at its 770 headquarters in Crown Heights, New York. While walking back into 770 after decades was confronting for me, to their credit, they made me feel as comfortable as they could. In our closed-meeting discussions, I presented two proposals to them.
- That education about child sexual abuse should be provided to each of the thousands of Chabad Houses around the world. I told them, respectfully, that most Chabad emissaries did not have a clue about how to deal with child sexual abuse. They were typically young and recently married with very poor secular education and virtually no sexual education. They had probably never discussed sex (except in a brief lesson prior to marriage) and may not have even uttered the word “sex.” Statistically, many would have been abused themselves, while others may have abused. I suggested a campaign to roll out an education program.
- That Chabad headquarters employ someone to oversee this issue and address it from the top down throughout the global Chabad network. This would demonstrate a serious approach to tackling the problem and ensure a professional and comprehensive approach to child safety across the organisation.
Regrettably, the eagerness with which my approach was initially received has not been translated into action and Chabad headquarters has not responded to my subsequent enquiries and follow-ups.
Action towards known child abusers in their communities:
Velvel Serebryanski (Zev Sero), the son of one of Australia’s most senior Chabad emissaries, has admitted to sexually abusing me and is accused of abusing other children (which he has not denied). He is currently roaming freely within the Chabad community in New York. What is the Chabad movement and its rabbis who put their hand to this latest document doing to protect children in the community from this predator? How many other predators are known to the Chabad leadership but are being protected for one reason or another?
Action towards Chabad emissaries that have failed children in their care or attacked victims:
In Australia’s Chabad community, several ‘leaders’ have been publicly disgraced for their actions in contributing to a culture that enables the abuse of children, directly through cover-up or indirectly through attacks on past victims. Melbourne’s Rabbi Zvi Telsner is a prominent example. We have not seen a single statement addressing his conduct or seeking to hold him to account. He and others continue to serve as honoured Chabad emissaries as they always have. The silence of Chabad headquarters and its rabbis, including the signatories to this statement, who sit on rabbinic bodies alongside these disgraced rabbis, lends legitimacy to such behaviour and undermines the effectiveness of their own statements. If Chabad is serious about protecting children, it needs to hold to account those who contribute to their endangerment.
To be clear, it is not my desire to direct criticism towards any of the seven signatories of this latest proclamation. It is preferable that they do something rather than nothing. Rather, I am critical of the system and culture in which these rabbis operate.
And this is the problem – it is not individual rabbis so much as it is the institution that is Chabad. The way it continues to avoid properly addressing the issue of child sexual abuse in its ranks – in Israel, Australia, the US, Europe and elsewhere – is simply unacceptable. It continues to wreak havoc with the many thousands of victims and survivors who have been sexually abused as children in their many institutions. It also continues to endanger the children presently in their care. If it campaigned to eradicate the abuse of children in its ranks with a fraction of the fervour with which it reaches out and preaches to outsiders to do “good deeds” (often religious practices), then, to put it in terms they can relate to, I would suggest that it would hasten the advent of the Messiah.
To be sure, children in Chabad institutions are safer today than they were a few years ago. This, by the way, is in large measure due to past victims and a few others exposing the issues to public scrutiny – often at great personal cost. But until such time as statements are accompanied by action, children will not be as safe as they can or should be.
It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a village to protect a child. Sadly, too many of the Chabad villagers – and village elders – are just not equipped or interested.