Elchanan Poupko

Kyle Deschanel: Who By Forgiveness, Who By Excommunication

illustrative: ‘Tinder Swindler,’ a true-crime documentary about Israeli con man Shimon Hayut, was released on Netflix, on February 2, 2022. (Courtesy: Netflix)

If the Kyle Deschanel tragic fiasco did not happen, someone would have to write it as a thought experiment. 

What happens when a rabbi with all the right connections in the Yeshiva world, from the “right” Yeshiva, the “right” Kippa, “one of us,” goes on to cheat on his wife and family while wearing a cross and presenting himself as Catholic in non-Kosher restaurants in New York publicly, on Shabbat, with a dash of financial scheming to top it off, while lying to as many people as possible about who he is? 

Add to the thought experiment the fact that he is a relative of a Lakewood Rosh Yeshiva, who even carries his name, going around Manhattan lying to young women about who he is while cheating on his wife. To take this thought experiment to the extreme, ask yourself what would happen if this person also changed the color of his eyes to an Arayan blue and made flattering references to Hitler’s youth?

You need not go far with this experiment because, according to recent reports, this story has taken place and has been exposed extensively by several of the women Kyle took advantage of in several TikTok videos they had made, sharing their experiences of being taken advantage of by someone pretending to be someone else. 

An article in the Daily Beast shared: “NYC-based actor and dancer Tracy Sokat, who shared her own experiences with Deschanel in a TikTok video, was left similarly jarred by him…. Sokat said. “Basically, this man lied about his entire identity… We used to make jokes about growing up Catholic and what that was like, and he is literally a rabbi. He’s not Catholic at all. He used to wear a cross around his neck!”

Gemma, too, said Deschanel told her he was Catholic: “I feel like he definitely has some kind of self-hating antisemitic thing because he actively said that he was Catholic,” she told The Daily Beast. “One of my friends is very blond and has blue eyes. Deschanel wouldn’t stop complimenting this guy and saying how good-looking he was, and then he was like, ‘Oh, he looks a little like a Hitler Youth, in a good way.'”

To add to this thought experiment, ask yourself what would happen if these same actions would be taken by a rabbi ordained by Yeshiva University or Chovevei Torah. Judging by past presidents, which dwarf in comparison to the severity of this case, I would say it is fair to assume there would be widespread condemnation, a demand the YU revoke Kyle’s rabbinic ordination; perhaps we would see another volume of great literary works like “Why Open Orthodoxy is Not Orthodox” in honor of this individual, or maybe we would see widespread declarations that this is the end and ultimate refutation of modern orthodoxy. If you have followed events in the Lakewood and Yeshivish world over the twenty years, you might be thinking of excommunication, a letter of condemnation, or some other kind of public statement. 

You need not be an expert in Jewish law to note that for someone leading a life as an orthodox Jew, much more so a rabbi and scholar on Jewish law, these actions would be a violation of two of the three cardinal sins, not to mention countless other severe prohibitions involved in the choices “Kyle” has made. Above and beyond any technical prohibition here, the immeasurable pain and damage inflicted on other women, including and most of all, his own wife, cannot be overstated. 

As the Daily Beast reports: 

So what were the public consequences for Rabbi Kyle going out and doing what he did in a way that has become known to almost every person in a town that prides itself as the ultimate upholder of the golden standard for Jewish observance? So far, nothing. Absolutely nothing. 

As the Daily Beast reports: “The Lakewood resident told The Daily Beast that Deschanel has been the main topic of conversation among Lakewood Orthodox Jews since TikTok took up the mystery of his identity. “Many people have been talking about it,” they said. “To see someone at such heights stoop to such lows is pretty crazy and unheard of.”

Neither Kyle nor any members of his extended family responded to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.” I am not aware of any public statements that were made about this case.

Why does this matter?

Many have taken the approach saying this is a private individual who strayed and went on to do countless things he should never have done, causing huge pain to his own family and should not be anyone else’s business. An individual’s private mistakes should not go on to characterize an entire community or way of life. 

Yet anyone familiar with the way much of the Lakewood community, which “Kyle” came from, knows that this is a feature, not a bug. Whether it is the case of Chaim Walder, the Yated Ne’eman writer who committed suicide after 25 women accused him of sexually abusing them, who got a hero’s obituary in many Haredi circles and whose books are still widely sold in many orthodox communities, or in this case, the right people get away with the wrong things. 

If New York is the city that never sleeps, in many ways, Lakewood is the town that never forgives–especially the young and innocent. 

The countless stories that occasionally surface publicly of children and teenagers being expelled from school for the smallest of infractions, the all too many stories of children who do not get into any high school and have to stay home agonizing about their exclusion, and the pain of those who cannot find someone to marry because of something in their background that doesn’t fit perfectly in, do not portray a forgiving image.  

I cannot forget the case of Malkie Klein from Brooklyn, who died at a young age, and how Judge Ruchie Frier shared the following about her personally intervening when Malkie was rejected from high school: 

“I pleaded with the principal, a kindhearted and righteous person who was opening a new high school to accept Malky. She was reluctant because there was negative information out there. 

I advocated, and ultimately, the principal acquiesced. But, it was only after she quietly told me that several mothers were calling her, exclaiming that if Malky Klein is accepted, they will take their daughters out of the school.”

I have personally heard the same when trying to get kids into high schools they should not have been rejected from. The Kyle Deschanel and Chaim Walder episode and their lack of internal communal consequences are a knife in the back of all those kids, or adults, who know how unforgiving their communities can be. They are a cold awakening to anyone whose child was expelled from school for saying hello to a girl in the pizza shop, for having a smartphone, or who was given grief for asking for their college transcripts so they can apply to college after high school. If a town that is unforgiving enough to expel 50 boys from their Yeshiva because they attended the funeral of a Hasidic Rebbe they admired can forgive someone running around as a Catholic, publically violating Shabbat and cheating on their wife, perhaps that town can find room to forgive a middle school girl for a small social infraction that landed her home alone, ostracized from being able to go to high school with her friend. Last week I spent the day lobbying for an important cause in the U.S. Senate. It was easy and like child play in comparison to the time I attempted to convince a well-known Lakewood rabbi, who I believe knew well and respected “Kyle,” to have an 8th-grade girl accepted into high school. This young child did once something wrong, which barred her from being accepted to the high school her friends were going to, and there was no forgiveness. I begged, I pled, and reasoned, but it was just unforgivable.  

Not long ago, I spoke with a rabbi from one of America’s most prominent rabbinic families who told me he had to make a few phone calls to get his grandchild into first grade in Lakewood. While it is understandable to have such a situation in a community that is growing fast and does not have enough schools for everyone, I shudder to think about how the lives of those who do not have a prominent grandfather to make those phone calls are like. 

But this is more than just space. Not long ago, Rabbi Dovid Abenson shared: “I was recently asked to help a girl who applied to a seminary in Lakewood. She is a baalos middos (good character) with straight A’s in both limudei kodesh and chol(religious and secular studies. After a 2-minute meeting, they put her on a waiting list. Her principal was dumbfounded. Several people have tried to get her into the institution but to no avail. She was simply told she was not up to their standard. Even when openings became available – classmates were offered places that they turned down – they still did not accept her. No clear reason was given. Sometimes an institution will tell me that they have asked their Rav. All my years in teaching, I could never find out who the “Rav” was.”

Just like Chaim Walder, this story of Kyle Deschanel is not about an immoral individual who succumbed to the worst in themselves; it is about a society that finds a way to forgive some for everything and forgives others for nothing. I am not here to say the community should call the man known as Kyle for what he has done in a public and shaming way; I am here to say that perhaps a fraction of the forgiveness and opportunity that was shown to this well-connected man, can be shown to others as well. 

Another important point the Kyle Deschanel affair highlights is the enabling silence of men’s extramarital affairs enjoy in too many parts of the orthodox community. From social workers to teachers to ordinary members of the Orthodox community, the prevalence of this phenomenon becomes increasingly apparent from day to day. As one man told me: “They simply do not view it as cheating.” I do not know what the proper format for addressing this matter is, but it surely needs to be addressed. 

Much has been written about the low rates of the HPV vaccine and other health measures taken to prevent STDs among women in the Orthodox community. The argument against taking such measures is based on the understanding that, in accordance with Jewish law, orthodox Jews do not engage in pre-marital or extramarital intercourse and therefore have no need to take extensive preventative measures. An important generalizable lesson from the Kyle Deschanel Affair is that while it is easy to have full faith in orthodox Jewish women, it is hard to say the same about all men. If physicians recommend a lifesaving measure that can save women from cervical cancer or any other measure that could save lives, we should not be making communal excuses to avoid that. 

Finally, to the mobs of mostly men who go online every day, looking for a victim to clobber and bombard, using religion as a tool to attack them– take a moment to look in the mirror. Almost each and every one of you learned with the man who violated almost every tenant of our faith in Yeshiva. Almost each and every one of you have met him at some point in your life or know someone who knows him. Not one of you spoke out on this issue, the dozens of online accounts who made sure to take a civil ceremony between two women from Stern College, which was not intended to be made public, and decided to parade it online and weaponize it as “proof” against the modern orthodox community, or to attack those women, are conspicuously silent when it comes to speaking about people a little bit closer to you. The same people who think there is something holy about shaming and attacking every person who does not practice orthodoxy exactly like you are awfully quiet when it comes to tackling real and grave issues inside your own community. There are close friends of “Kyle” who are going on the internet day in and day out for not thinking or practicing exactly like them who should take this opportunity as a time to reflect on what has become of internet culture. 

If you are one of the people who think attacking someone online for not believing in traveling to Uman, for not lighting a bonfire on Lag Ba’Omer, not observing in Shilsel Challah, or attacking someone for saying Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut but cannot bring yourself to call out a member of your own community for being a Kyle, or for Ponzi scheme after Ponzi scheme after Ponzi scheme in your own community, perhaps restrict your diet of cyber-shaming in the future. Perhaps. 

Finally, on a personal note and for full disclosure, I remember Kyle from my own days in Lakewood. I remember him telling me of his wish to go to Yeshiva University, something I ended up doing, and he did not. I did not know why he didn’t pursue his passion. But perhaps he was right, and I was wrong. He knew Lakewood better than me. He knew that the social consequences for going to YU would be worse than literally going around Manhattan cheating on his wife, lying to countless women, with a cross around his neck. And he was right. He knew that tribalism would ultimately prevail. 

Next time American orthodoxy has communal conversations about what flavor or orthodoxy is better, perhaps we should talk about how much of it is substance and how much of it is tribal. How much of our judgment is based on merit, and how much is based on the zip code we live in or the shul we go to and that way, perhaps we can extend a bit more forgiveness to the Malkie Kleins of the world who actually deserve it and less to the Kyle Deschanel’s who do not. Next time your community would like to exclude, single out, or show its wrath punishing a teenager, someone vulnerable— someone who does not have someone to stand up for them—  gently remind them of the curious case of Kyle Deschanel and how forgiveness can be found for absolutely anything, much more so a small infraction of a child in your neighborhood who just wants to go to school with everyone else.    

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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