Open Letter and Petition to the RCA: Reform & Oversight Needed

Dear Rabbis Matanky and Dratch,

We have followed the Rabbi Freundel case with outrage and anger- outrage that a well-respected and powerful Orthodox Rabbi has used his religious position to abuse powerless women and anger because the RCA has not taken responsibility for protecting vulnerable people from dishonorable Rabbis.  Even when you knew, as far back as 2012, that Rabbi Freundel was acting in a questionable manner, you did nothing to ensure that the abuse stopped.  You placed individual rabbis and the institutions they represent over the people they serve.

If the only change that comes out of this terrible episode is female ombudsmen for the conversion process, there will undoubtedly be more abuse cases by Rabbis.  The ombudsmen step is a necessary one but far too narrow in scope.

As any employee in any work environment, whether corporation, university or hospital, knows, an anonymous whistleblowing process is an absolute necessity where hierarchal positions of power exist. In Orthodoxy, where control and religious decision making resides exclusively  in a male Rabbi, there is no communal balancing of force to offset non-public misdeeds. Further, there is a strong tendency among Rabbis to protect one another and trust in the good intention of one’s fellow Rabbis.  Under these circumstances, there is an even greater need for a formal program, outside of normal channels, that independently deals with allegations of abuse.  This is necessary to prevent both the appearance and reality of abuse and also protect the rights of both the accused and accuser. The major aspects of such a program would be:

  1. Creation of an independent reform program-the designation of a specific individual, preferably a woman, charged with the responsibility of leading a reform program to directly address abuse of power by rabbis.
  2. Confidential process with teeth-the development of a confidential process to review and investigate complaints in a timely manner.  There should be a well-publicized abuse hotline, email and mail addresses where all complaints would be directed.  Anonymity should be maintained so long as there is enough information to evaluate charges.  The program leader would head a committee composed of psychologists, lawyers, a Rabbi of her choosing and other experts that would review and investigate complaints and determine appropriate punishment. An open process of appeal should be enacted.  Follow-up enforcement would also be a critical aspect of this program.
  3. Funding-The RCA would publicly commit to funding a budget to cover both the new position and a serious investigation process.
  4. Transparency-public reporting of allegations and dispositions on the RCA website with no identifying personal data needs to be made so that the public is able to see the allegations being reported but not against whom the allegations were made.
  5. Redesign of religious interactions- An analysis of the interactions between Rabbis and advisees whether in synagogues or batei din needs to take place to determine how best to redesign and/or use technology to minimize the possibility of abuse.  Both a set of good practices and a set of warning signals should be developed and publicized to protect the public.

Please sign the petition below if you agree with this proposal.

You have a historic opportunity to reframe the accountability of Rabbinic conduct.  The promotion of an accomplished woman to lead this initiative would  create  a countervailing weight to address what appears to be continued neglect of this issue. These steps are critical in order for you to re-establish trust in your leadership of the Orthodox Rabbinate, the position of Orthodox Rabbis and the individual Rabbis themselves.  If you pass on your responsibility to create a meaningful reform program it will mean that the messages of the Yomim Noraim will have fallen on deaf ears at the RCA.  We, the community, will conclude that you care more about your positions than you do about us.

About the Author
Audrey Axelrod Trachtman, is the president of AMIT's board of directors and served on AMIT's board since 2009. She was the vice president of finance and strategic planning for Philip Morris and General Foods Latin America and received the YWCA Women of Achievement Award. She serves on the executive board of directors of JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) and on the board of directors of Project Gabriel Mumbai. She is a member of the Westchester Chevra Kadisha, a founding member of Kol Echad, New Rochelle’s partnership minyan, and served on the Young Israel of New Rochelle’s board. She is a CPA and has an MBA from the Wharton School. She and her husband, Chaim, are the parents of Sarah (and Josh), Rebecca and Tali (and Rafi) and grandparents of Leora, Eli, Elinor, Aliza, Noah and Annie.