David Benkof

Sex abuse exists in all Jewish movements

The recent revelation that prominent Conservative Rabbi Barry Starr of Sharon, Massachusetts had sexual encounters with a 16-year-old boy is not an isolated incident. Sex abuse is a problem for all Jewish movements – including liberal ones – and it’s time to discuss the challenge openly, explore its roots, and find ways to address it.

Coverage of this problem in the Jewish and general press has pretty much focused only on molestation within Orthodoxy as a systemic problem, with non-Orthodox examples treated as unfortunate but quirky outliers. While Google shows 2,500 references to a sex abuse crisis in Orthodox Judaism, I could find no such claims on the Internet about Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist Judaism.

But children are victimized by pedophiles in all movements, and one child’s suffering is not reduced when people believe the problem is more diffuse in his stream of Judaism. When the Jewish community overwhelmingly centers attention on Orthodox incidents, non-Orthodox perpetrators can operate more freely. And aspects of the culture of non-Orthodox movements that may foster episodes of abuse escape the attention they deserve.

As I was a Conservative Jew for the first 30 years of my life and since that’s the movement I know most thoroughly, the bulk of this essay will address on sex abuse in Conservative Judaism. But I have no doubt that research into molestation in other movements would uncover similar problems.

Conservative camps and youth groups played a powerful role in helping me grow into an observant Jewish lifestyle, and there are many wonderful things the movement does for its youth. I would never want to discourage youth and their parents from considering these programs. Still, some little-discussed features of Conservative Judaism prevent the movement from doing all it can to protect its children.

In my opinion, the lack of stigma in the Conservative movement regarding sexual encounters between unmarried Jews sets a tone that enables many of the cases of sex abuse. A setting in which non-marital sex, even among teenagers, is treated casually can be a boon for predators since young people can’t always be expected to follow exactly which traditional boundaries their religious movement still honors.

Well beyond Rabbi Starr, the list of Conservative Jewish leaders who have sexually abused children they were supposed to protect is so long, it’s scary.

Here are ten examples among many in the last two decades. Each case involves a conviction, not just an allegation:

  • A Maryland rabbi and frequent United Synagogue Youth (USY) staffer who was caught in a Dateline NBC sting sending naked pictures of himself to a 13-year old boy and going to a private home (on Shabbat!) to meet him for oral sex;
  • An Oklahoma rabbi who inappropriately touched two Solomon Schechter girls aged 9 and 12;
  • A teacher at both Camp Ramah and a Solomon Schechter school who abused four 11- and 12-year old boys studying for bar mitzvah, whom he blamed for “enticing” him;
  • A counselor with USY on Wheels who fondled three boys – including two who were asleep – and performed a sex act on another;
  • A Hebrew school teacher at a Conservative synagogue in California who used the Internet to arrange a meeting with a 13-year-old girl he had taught, telling her he was going to show her how becoming bat mitzvah was about “entering womanhood.” He brought a box of condoms and a long-stemmed rose to the encounter;
  • A New York chazzan (cantor) and religious school principal who molested an 11-year-old bat mitzvah student;
  • A New Jersey rabbi who fondled a 10-year-old boy’s genitals while applying tanning lotion, though he told a judge he thought such lotion was supposed to cover a child’s whole body;
  • A Rhode Island chazzan and Hebrew school principal who repeatedly molested a bar mitzvah student;
  • A rabbi at a boarding school in North Carolina who had sex with a 16-year-old male student on eight separate occasions; and
  • A Pennsylvania chazzan who sexually abused two girls preparing for bat mitzvah. He excused some of his inappropriate touching by saying he was showing his student how to use her diaphragm properly when signing.
  • One of the victims in these cases tried to kill himself, and was checked into a mental hospital for treatment. Another told a court he feared the abuse would make it hard for him to ever have a relationship with a woman. Similarly, a girl said she continued to face trouble trusting men years after she was molested. And one sixth-grade girl said she did not fully understand what had happened to her when she was 11 until she took a sex education class, at which point she told an adult.

How many victims does it take for “isolated incidents” to become a movement-wide problem?

I’m very familiar with this predicament – too familiar. On two occasions, one at age 11 and one at age 18, I was the victim of gross sexual misconduct on the part of leaders in organizations for Conservative Jewish youth.

The first took place in 1982 at the overwhelmingly (but not officially) Conservative Herzl Camp in Webster, Wisconsin. My counselor that summer pressured the pre-pubescent boys in our cabin into a late-night naked shaving cream fight.

The other incident happened in 1989, when I was USY’s International President. A prominent USY staffer who was highly regarded told me to sleep in his bed with him and even tried to shame me into undressing while he watched, saying “I’ve never known an International President to be shy.” Having heard rumors this man had molested USY boys, and struggling with my own sexuality, I reluctantly changed my clothes and got into bed with him. I did not sleep well that night.

Three years later, a USY alumnus from the man’s home state whom I met through Koach, the Conservative organization for college students, disclosed to me that he had also been invited into the man’s bed as a young USY’er. The youth leader soon asked him, “Do you like massages?” They took turns giving each other massages until the contact eventually became sexual. The perpetrator is still affiliated with Conservative Judaism and continues to work with young people, though no longer with USY’ers.

I later learned he wasn’t the only beloved adult leader in USY who used his influence in the group to access victims. Northern California regional director Sheldon Mitchell was a legendary figure within the organization for his charisma, energy, and love of Judaism. Yet two years ago, four former USY’ers – including Mitchell’s own son – began publicly disclosing how the man had molested them on several occasions.

The abuse of trust by youth leaders who were supposed to help us grow into Jewish men is inexcusable. It is never OK for a man to compel a boy to run around naked with him or share his bed for his own sexual gratification. And I had it easy – neither of USY’s rock-star pedophiles ever touched me sexually, as they clearly did to their other victims.

There is a hook-up culture within USY and Camp Ramah that sexualizes the entire atmosphere at summer sessions, retreats, and conventions. The lure of possible erotic experiences attracts many Jewish adolescents in the first place. I respect the impulse to help young Jews find each other and I honor the many marriages that have resulted from USY and Camp Ramah, but the culture of those organizations discourages serious exploration of the problems associated with teenage sexual activity.

USY’s semi-humorous “point system” is the worst example of this problem. Several years after I graduated, USY’ers across the regions began competing against each other on an informal basis to see who could have the largest number of flings with different USY’ers who held important leadership posts. Making out (and often doing more) with a regional vice president earned more points than doing so with a chapter president. A liaison with the international president usually scored the most points of all, although the system sometimes awarded extra points for same-sex encounters and hook-ups on Shabbat.

Any custom – no matter how unofficial – that rewards teenagers who pursue promiscuous encounters with people with higher and higher levels of authority over them is an invitation for adult predators to take advantage. Once USY’s adult and youth leadership became aware of the point system, they should have used the group’s educational setting to explain how it betrays Jewish values and deserves enough stigma to make it fade away.

USY does have policies against “inappropriate sexual behavior,” sometimes labeled “inappropriate sexual relations” – as if there are some times when Jewish children can have sexual relations “appropriately.” Sexuality is a periodic subject for classes and discussions in the youth group, but sometimes the education focuses more on “values clarification” than anything else. For example, USY’s Web site contains a lesson regarding pre-marital sex that involves asking USY’ers, “What do you think Judaism says about pre-marital sex?” as well as for their “personal views on the subject.” Inexcusably, the boys and girls are never informed of what Judaism actually says about sex outside marriage.

The hyper-sexualized environment at USY events and Camp Ramah is utterly uncontroversial within the Conservative movement, as far as I could tell in extensive Web searching. That can make it easier for predatory counselors to bring up sexual topics in a way that can lead to molestation. At the 1990 International USY convention in Tampa, a youth worker who was also a closeted gay Conservative rabbi disclosed to me he had privately asked a male freshman USY’er whether he knew how to masturbate. When the youth said no, his rabbi replied, “I’ll teach you. Whip it out.” I told the rabbi that was wrong, but he defended his abuse by saying he was helping the boy become comfortable with his own body.

To USY’s credit, there were constant and noble (though often ineffective) attempts to restrict the access boys had to the bunks and hotel floors of girls and vice versa. But I never witnessed anyone telling young people or staff members that there was something dangerous or, God forbid, immoral about sexual contact between USY’ers – or any other unmarried Jews for that matter.

I do not point the finger at all or even most leaders of non-Orthodox programs for young people. Awareness of sex abuse is much more widespread in 2014 than it was in past decades – and witnesses, victims, even perpetrators were not always as clear on which activities “cross the line” as people are today. And Jews who grew up with loose attitudes toward sex and youth cannot all be expected to “connect the dots” between their movement’s culture and its incidents of abuse.

As an alumnus of USY and someone who was hurt and confused by the reprehensible actions of Conservative-identified youth workers, I hope that movement – and all the others – can find ways to change the culture and policies of their youth programs in ways that protect all our children.

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About the Author
David Benkof is a St. Louis-based writer and former faculty member at Yeshivat Darche Noam/Shapell’s in Jerusalem. He has a master's degree in modern Jewish history from Stanford. Follow him on Facebook or E-mail him at