It is now 2½ years since Riverdale convulsed with the exposure of Jonathan Rosenblatt’s unacceptable behavior with teenagers and young men by the New York Times on 5/29/15. Anyone not familiar with that article, or subsequent ones, can put into Google the key words “Sauna Rabbi” to read this bizarre and tawdry story.
As one of the whistleblowers, I was anxious that this episode would finally end and the Orthodox community of Riverdale would emerge wiser and more capable of dealing with people in authority who flout standards of ethical, moral and religious behavior. Unfortunately, that seems not to be the case, not in the observant Jewish community nor in the surrounding secular society.
Since the Riverdale story broke, we have seen two parallel strands of problems highlighting the relative status of individuals in our society, children, women and men. The first is the endless numbers of articles detailing predatory behaviors in schools and other institutions where groups of children can be found. One of the more damning investigations that has not gotten much press in this country is Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses on Child Sexual Abuse. Just reading American papers, however, should disabuse one from thinking that this is a particularly Australian issue.
The second problem which was eminently obvious almost immediately in Riverdale, was the circling of the wagons to pretend that nothing had happened, if something had happened it happened a long time ago and everyone is fine anyway, why is this coming up now, no criminal charges have been filed (despite grudging awareness that the time frames for laws make it almost impossible to prosecute offenders), he has helped so many people, and so forth. I call this “the will to disbelieve your lying eyes.”
Susan Faludi wrote a brilliant piece in the New York Times on December 28, 2017 whose focus is the continuing problem of harassment of women outside their homes and particularly in the workplace and the academy (mentoring situations). It is entitled “The Patriarchs are falling. The Patriarchy is Stronger than Ever.” She makes the case more eloquently than I have been able, and the important part of her argument is:
American women’s activism has historically taken two forms. One is an expression of direct anger at the ways individual men use and abuse us. It’s righteous outrage against the unambiguous enemy with a visible face, the male predator who feeds on our vulnerability and relishes our humiliation. Mr. Weinstein’s face is the devil’s face du jour, and the #MeToo campaign fits squarely in this camp. The other form is less spectacular but as essential: It’s fighting the ways the world is structurally engineered against women. Tied to that fight is the difficult and ambiguous labor of building an equitable system within which women have the wherewithal and power to lead full lives.
While she is talking about the plight of women (#MeToo) in society simply trying to work and engage in normal lives, it is clear that there have always been frightening obstacles in their professional lives that they should not have to deal with. This is the crux of her issue and mine. It is not enough to out dangerous or inappropriate people, the system has to be revamped to prevent their advancement in the first place. The responses to Rosenblatt over the last 2½ years make a perfect test case.
Enough time has passed that we should have seen efforts on many fronts to prevent Rosenblatts from interacting with vulnerable people in the future. Sadly, this is not entirely the situation. I hope that these lapses in judgment by far too many people and institutions will serve as a warning for how difficult the path to public safety really is and keep us focused on ways to ensure that safety in the future.
In the next few days, I will chronicle several institutions, most of whom I have tried to contact personally (who will not come to the phone or respond to e-mails or letters) to explain the danger and immorality that their involvement poses to the community. They are implicitly or explicitly allowing him to further his ambitions by continued association with mainstream organizations. We all need to speak out and say “NO MORE”.