Reclaiming the power of our goodness after clergy abuse

For many of us victimized by clergy, one of the most difficult aspects of our healing is to believe that our goodness still matters in this world.

The clergy people who abused us, by nature of their positions, were the representatives of an ethical life. In public, they spoke of sacrificing for the common good, of fighting injustice, of doing right for its own sake. They taught us to defend the vulnerable. They preached about healing a broken world.

And we believed what they taught us, to the core of our beings. But behind the scenes, unbeknownst to so many, they did not follow the principles they preached.

They taught that we are all sacred beings made in the image of God while, in private, they sexually exploited vulnerable people.

They taught that we must stand up for those unjustly accused, but when their abuses came to light, they protected themselves and stood idly by while we were scapegoated for their transgressions.

They talked about the importance of Jewish community and continuity while they silently watched us being shunned and discarded.

And those victims who went to ethics committees for help often found the ethics process re-traumatizing rather than healing.

What are we to feel when the people to whom we look for moral guidance are willing to throw their ethics into the garbage? Was the joke on us that we believed them in the first place? Were we wrong to feel that ethics and goodness and responsibility matter?

What are we to feel when we go other rabbis for help, only to find that the ethics process is so broken that it adds to the harm we have suffered? Who do we trust to help us if not the people whose job it is to do so?

What are we to feel about our belonging to the Jewish people when our communities leave us behind? In the face of scapegoating, shunning, and indifference, are we wrong to believe that there is a people to whom we truly belong? Can we still find a way back in? If so, where is it? And who will open the door?

These are the kinds of questions that are symptomatic of a profound crisis of faith. These are the questions that plague us when the people we trust — our rabbis, our synagogue leaders, our community members — fail to practice what they preach.

I could tell any number of people who know the offending rabbi about the grievous harm he did to me, and they would not respond with the empathy I seek. My fellow Jews shunned and scapegoated me for over a decade rather than give up their illusions about their rabbi. Anywhere he goes, people become fully invested in him. As long as they are getting what they need from him, and their story about him being a wise and blameless leader stays intact, the truth does not matter.

For much of my ordeal with the rabbi, I rebelled against his abuse and against the abuses leveled at me by his community. His response was that my expectations of people were too high. He told me that I was being unrealistic in expecting them to treat me with kindness and respect. Over time, that response beat me down — emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. I saw him as an authority figure and doubted my own moral compass.

Of course, I now understand that he was doing everything possible to avoid holding himself and others accountable. If he could get me to accept that my expectations were too high, then the problem was in me and not in the failures of those around me.

It’s been an essential part of my healing to understand that he was thoroughly wrong.

I am not unreasonable in holding a rabbi to a high moral standard. I am not unreasonable in expecting religious people to follow their own religious precepts. I am not unreasonable in expecting that my fellow Jews might refrain from the kind of hypocrisy that drives people away from God, from Judaism, and from a spiritual life.

None of us are asking for too much when we ask for accountability and ethical behavior. None of us are asking for too much when we expect our rabbis and congregations to walk their talk. We are asking that they follow the ethical imperatives that they purport to hold so dear — nothing more and nothing less. If they fail to do so, the failure is theirs, not ours.

Those of us who have been victimized and still believe in Judaism’s ethical imperatives must never give up the fight. Living an ethical life matters. Our goodness matters. Our love for God and our fellow human beings matters. Accountability matters. Justice matters.

In a world of hypocrisy and moral failure, we must not despair. We must hold fiercely to the moral high ground. We must join together. And we must never give up.

About the Author
Rachel Cohen is a survivor of clergy abuse in the Jewish community and the founder of Shema Koleinu (, an organization dedicated to providing support and healing to Jewish adults abused by clergy. She is currently enrolled in the Jewish Studies program at Gratz College, where she is working toward her third Master's degree.
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