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Finally, a textbook about rabbinic sexual abuse

Dr. Elana Sztokman is an anthropologist-sociologist who has gifted the Jewish community with no less than 310 pages of deep and compelling examination of rabbinic sexual abuse and its many manifestations in the Jewish community in her upcoming book, “When Rabbis Abuse,” to be released this June 14.

I was granted a digital advanced review copy and have completed my reading of it. The book is a page-turner, opening with reflections on the evolution of the work, involving in-depth interviews with 84 victims, and then going into stories of abuse in different relational contexts so that the reader has examples to help them to appreciate the rest of the book. Subsequent chapters reveal the often covert tactics that abusers employ, and Chapter 4 synthesizes a variety of interviews with victims, prior published taxonomies of grooming behavior, and one of my own blog posts into a truly useful and compelling framework. This framework is condensed into a useful table, presenting several discrete stages of grooming with their corresponding tactics. I find that this table can be used as a checklist for examining past and present relationships and is useful therapeutically and personally as well as academically. The author goes on to take a deep look into the profile of an abuser, each of the Jewish settings that are ripe for abuse (from schools to summer camps to synagogues to the Jewish home itself), how survivors navigate the disclosure process or choose not to disclose, and how the whole experience affects them years after. The book ends with a description of the grave losses to the Jewish community that sexual abuse entails, with suggestions for how to tackle the problem. From start to finish, areas where more research could be done are described in detail, citing related work to date, and the overall mood of the book is that of a door wide open — a door wide open for massive improvement across denominations.

It was not at all a depressing read for me, perhaps because I have already survived it and am a bit desensitized. Actually, I found it remarkable, rich in depth and nuance, and extremely empowering. One thing that I appreciate about this text is the respectful and just tone it takes towards victims of abuse — we are neither infantilized nor put on trial; our stories are accepted and examined from a paradigm that is thoroughly described in the Introduction.

The whole book is directly useful, taking an approachable and direct tone without sacrificing intellectual rigor. Citations and footnotes are provided throughout as one would expect from an academic text, but the language is relatable and each chapter ends with a nicely formatted list of “takeaways” which allows the reader to review the material and integrate all that they have learned. It is easy to take each chapter on its own, and I can see educators easily translating standalone chapters into lesson plans, perhaps along with companion posts from this blog.

Perhaps the most crucial contribution of this book is the way that it examines abuse across Jewish denominations, comparing and contrasting between them without falling prey to the common finger-pointing and stereotypes (e.g., “Well, we are Reform and we are liberated and not like those backwards Orthodox people” or “We are Orthodox and upright and not like those backwards Reform people”). The author carefully and thoughtfully reveals both those themes that are unifying across denominations and differing between them. The insights in this book are deep and thought provoking, from hook-up culture in Jewish summer camps to spiritual narcissism to the way we let down our boundaries in the synagogue community hoping to make connections and to be able to trust those around us with some of the most vulnerable aspects of our lives.

This work is a deep, probing, and intricate look at our culture, its many subcultures, and the unanswered questions that remain regarding sexual abuse in our communities. It should be required reading for rabbinic students and their mentors, and anyone at all in a Jewish community could benefit from it. I find it to be an indispensable and enlightening addition to the Jewish bookshelf.

About the Author
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not represent the views of any organization that she is affiliated with. Sarah Ruth Hoffman was a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when an older male rabbi (now suspended by his rabbinical association) groomed, raped, and abused her. She has since completed the PhD and converted to Orthodox Judaism. She continues to write as part of her healing, and she often writes what she would have found comforting and useful to read during her lengthy exodus from the ongoing sexual violence that was inextricably linked to roles and scripts in Jewish institutions. She hopes that this blog will help the public to understand the dynamics of clergy sexual abuse, whether the victims are adults, or children. Much of what is written can apply to non-clergy relationships as well. If any one person is helped by any of what is written, then the purpose of this blog has been fulfilled.
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