Taking Back My Religion (After Rabbinic Sex Abuse)

Part 1 – Spiritual Trauma

Leaving an abusive relationship is hard enough. But what happens when the person or people who abused you used the one thing that sustained you most — your faith — to target, exploit, and/or control you? What happens when one of the most integral aspects of your identity becomes your biggest trigger?

You die. And you grieve who you once were. And then you come back.

When one of the most integral aspects of your identity becomes your biggest trigger, life feels gone. I call it a living death. “I don’t feel like myself at all because it feels like the thing that made me me was taken away — that is, my spirituality. I’ve been feeling like a zombie… I feel like I’m the one in prison after all that’s happened.”

In waking up I seemed to have lost my mysticism. Or maybe the mysticism I had before was merely an illusion.

How Did this Come to Be?

First, the rabbi used spiritual and religious terminology, Torah portions, sermons, and kabbalah to build and perpetuate a toxic and fantastical relationship narrative that was deeply personal to me. This relationship narrative caused strong associations between those aspects of the religion, my innermost personal sense of self, and memories of the abuse.

The cognitive dissonance of waking up, seeing clearly, and reprocessing what was done is tremendous. I developed all of the symptoms of PTSD, and my own faith became a trigger. It’s like how hypersensitivity is a part of healing. Have you ever gotten into the shower with a bad cut, and the water made it sting? Imagine the emotional equivalent of that, where the pain is searing and all consuming. And religion is like water.

Second, I completely lost trust in the rabbinate, which has unfortunately become something central to the American Jewish experience. The CCAR ethics committee (100% rabbis) and his prior synagogue had covered up his earlier offenses, and let him move to a new state where he could start over in peace. Further, he had prior affairs with two other rabbis, and these rabbis were defensive and supportive of his “lifestyle.” One local rabbi minimized his actions and encouraged me to be forgiving, demonstrating complete willful ignorance. Another rabbi told me that he cannot know if I am lying and refused to be supportive. I was told by at least one rabbi that rabbinical conferences (which I cannot name for fear of litigation) are hotbeds of infidelity. He himself told me of an unsuspecting woman he was planning to target at a certain biennial conference to see if she might be interested in an affair.

Basically, what I learned is that these rabbis do not care about humanity. They only care about pleasing their genitals and protecting each other. What’s worse, is that the CCAR, when forming their ethics committee, named it “the well-oiled zipper committee.” This further attests to the Reform rabbinate’s callous disregard for the sanctity of human life and sexuality. Think of it this way — had the Reform rabbinate valued human life at all, they would have at least warned this guy’s new synagogue before sending him off where he could go on to offend again. It took him less than 24 months to find and exploit me, and I was not the only woman that he was with in that 24 month period.

You ever expect me to place trust in a rabbi again? I think not! I have learned that the pulpit attracts narcissists and sociopaths like a lamp attracts moths!

Third, I lost my community both in the process of being abused, and altogether after coming forward with my allegations. This is not abnormal. This is actually the way things usually go in organized religion, Jewish or not. The victim comes forward, and the congregation wants to minimize or ignore the “problem” and blames the victim. They are simultaneously caught up in their idealization of the rabbi perpetrator, their pragmatic concerns about the reputation of the synagogue, and more. It would seem that the just thing to do is embrace the victim and support their healing, including them in the prayer list, and bringing them food and helping them in their grief and time of distress and despair. This virtually never happens. I was swept under the rug, given no say in how my story was told, and continue to be shunned by the congregation. I tried switching congregations but the other rabbis and members of the local Jewish community were too entangled with my former rabbi or his cronies. It was toxic for my health to be around them, for a variety of reasons. And not one person had the courage to stand up to the synagogue board to demand that I not be shunned, and to admonish them for how they treated me when I came forward. This was disappointing, to say the least. It seems we are collectively lacking in chutzpah, or will sacrifice our conscience in order to have a community. But when a community requires that you diminish your own conscience and courage in order to stay “in,” that is no community at all, it is an illusion.

when a community requires that you diminish your own conscience and courage in order to stay “in,” that is no community at all, it is an illusion

Finally, the whole experience caused me to start seeing others in a different, often frightening, light. I am still adjusting to a world in which evil exists and collective denial is the status quo, for the sake of social convenience. I see a lack of courage in most young Jewish people I meet, and it really, really disturbs me. This lack of courage could be the downfall of the Jewish people if we are not careful.

We need to teach young Jewish people that courage does not consist of going to a march that someone else organized, or posting a political opinion on social media, or other passive measures. Nor does it consist of merely holding an unpopular opinion. Courage is something else entirely. I see these people fail again and again to follow their own conscience, to seize opportunities to demonstrate courage. They will go to massive holiday parties but how many have the courage to confront their synagogue board? Where is the chutzpah?

Part 2 – Taking it Back: A Personal Narrative on What it is Like to Return

Some months after I left him, I decided that I was determined to not let him and his cronies take my religious life away from me. That was the first step: making a conscious decision.

Synagogues

I started by taking myself to Friday night services at a nearby synagogue. I arrived early, and scoped out the place for an “escape room” where I could cry, throw up, or otherwise freak out. When the prayers and songs started, there were certain words that jumped out at me from the page. I felt grief rising up in me from the depths of my soul. I also felt vomit rising up in me from the depths of my stomach. I allowed myself to experience whatever manifested. At one point I became sick and had to use my “escape room.” Too many triggering words, too many triggering prayers. Too many triggering melodies. I had spent a portion of my life hearing him make those melodies. They became conflated with him. In my grief, I missed him, longed for him, but the adult in me knew that he was abusive and toxic and unhealthy and I had to stay far, far away. It was a difficult dissonance to maintain, but a healthy one. For slipping into complete denial would allow him to abuse me again, but disregarding the feelings that I had would deny me the grief that I needed to work through. And so, I took a break and returned to prayer, more fervently than ever before in my life. The prayers suddenly looked different. New words leapt out from the page. Words about war, battles, triumph…

Next, I went to another nearby synagogue, again for Friday night services to start. The dinner took place prior to the prayers. During the dinner, a man sat across from me, and began, “Did you hear about that rabbi at [offender’s congregation]?” He went on to talk about the resignation and what he knew of the story — my story. I sat still and silent, as a horrific panic attack rolled through. Another person at our table said, “It’s such a shame. He was a good rabbi.” I felt vomit coming up but I managed to keep it down. Eventually I was able to move, and I got up to go to the bathroom, where I had to contend with many small children and no privacy as I struggled to not be violently ill. Then we all went and prayed. Not one person had asked, “I wonder who the woman was and if she is doing okay. I wonder if she was Jewish and if she has any comfort this shabbat.” I contemplated never returning to any Jewish community again, but I decided that these people were not what I was going for, I was going for me. And so the next morning I returned. And I kept going, week after week after week. Until my trip to Europe.

As the CCAR was preparing to adjudicate my case, I took a two week trip to Eastern Europe. I wanted to see the part of the world where my Jewish family had come from. I did not have time to go to all of the places that I wanted to see, but I did the easy beginner’s route: Budapest, Vienna, and Prague, in that order. In each city, I emphasized Jewish tourism, visiting so many synagogues that my fear of synagogues was greatly alleviated. This was the most adventurous and fun way of doing exposure therapy that I could think of. One woman, one backpack, three countries! Countless synagogues later, I was informed that my perpetrator had been Suspended. Upon learning this, I went for a solo boat row in Prague during sunset and breathed a sigh of relief. I processed all of the emotions while eating Golem biscuits and wandering around Jewish graveyards and galleries. I was going to be okay…

Holidays

Earlier in the year, I had to contend with Passover. How was I going to cope? I lived alone, had no nearby Jewish community left, and nowhere to go — or so I thought. Then I remembered, there are branches of my Jewish family that I have never experienced a Seder with. Wouldn’t it be interesting to go to one of their Seders? I immediately contacted a cousin to see if they were interested in having me. The experience turned into a wonderful weekend trip, in which I was able to visit friends as well, and this helped to strengthen and rebuild me. Most wonderful of all was the experience of being able to light candles on the candlesticks that came with our family from Europe. And to meet family members I had heard stories about but had never met. Wow! Had I still been stuck in the abusive dynamic and a loyal part of the dysfunctional local Jewish “scene,” I would have never thought to make this adventure happen. I also ended up inadvertently wandering around a kite festival. Given the special significance of kites to the relationship, seeing hundreds of beautiful kites in the air on Pesach was really something.

For Yom Kippur… How was I going to handle Yom Kippur? Again, living alone and with no local community to speak of, where was I going to go? And with whom would I break the fast? Months before, in my determination to take my religion back, I started looking for a place to go outside of town. Life works in mysterious ways. I had just taken a trip to see a U2 concert, and needed a place to go for services that weekend. You see, just because I am out of town does not mean my healing process stops. It was imperative that I get myself into a shul as a continuation of my momentum in exposure therapy. In a wonderful coincidence, the nearest synagogue happened to be historic and worth seeing in its own right. And so I spent shabbat, and later Yom Kippur there. Now I can say that I got to experience Yom Kippur at one of the oldest synagogues in the country. Isn’t that just amazing? The L-rd provides. He really does.

That trip too, ended up being wonderful, and I got to see friends that I hadn’t visited with in a long time. But most important of all was that I made a trip to the mikveh so that my body would be my own and G-d’s again. Words cannot describe this experience. It really was a rebirth.

I want to note here that one of the toughest parts of Yom Kippur for me was that it was simultaneously the rabbi’s CCAR appeal deadline (spoiler: he did not appeal) as well as the time of year that I would expect at least an attempt at an apology. But no apology came, and I was not going to find out if he had appealed until after the holiday. And so I wandered Central Park in a fasted state, and in some degree of emotional upheaval. Despite the many challenges, including becoming unable to see or hear from the fasting, it was one of the most dynamic and experiential days of my entire life. It is also the day that I discovered why they have paramedics in synagogue on Yom Kippur!

Of all of the holidays, the one I was most worried about was Chanukah. Why? Because it was the 7th day of Chanukah that I finally had the courage and strength to just leave. That’s right: I broke up with a rabbi on Chanukah. I can look back and laugh, but at the time it was traumatic. It took every ounce of my strength to light that full menorah that evening. I cried so hard that I threw up. I wasn’t sure how I was going to go on. He had taken so much from me, and I was so confused, and I was determined to follow my conscience even if that meant “destroying” his career, as he had put it. I was at the crux of making a big, important decision about my future, the future of a congregation, the future of the lives and bodies he would have touched had he remained the rabbi, and so on. I had so much empathy for him that I had forgiven his abuse over and over again. I had to learn to not be so forgiving. I had to learn to shut my empathy off for people who abuse it. I had to learn to hold myself up in the face of the tsunami of his power and darkness.

I was at the crux of making a big, important decision about my future, the future of a congregation, the future of the lives and bodies he would have touched had he remained the rabbi, and so on.

That night was the worst night of my life in so many ways, but I screamed and wailed to G-d out loud, probably scaring my neighbors. I stayed in bed for two days in a mass of tissues, in the worst pain of my life. I was sure that I would die. I was paralyzed with conflicting values. I did not feel better until I had reported him. That day came two months later, and was a huge relief to my conscience. Unfortunately the reporting did not even result in an investigation. It took months of fighting and hard work to make the powers that be take things seriously and do the right thing. And during that time, I was busy trying to salvage what was left of my connection with my chosen religion. I had to choose it even harder, even more fervently than before. I needed to choose Judaism as passionately as a lover…

And that took me on a journey, a quest, of figuring out what Judaism even is (more on that later). Ultimately, the 7th day of Chanukah 2018 was spent snowed in, eating jelly donuts, and doing a 3 hour Torah study session via video chat. Evening came, and it was time to light the final candles. I avoided this task for a good three hours. But then finally, I just did it. And I cried. Of course I cried. I cried and I sang a song that is dear to me, a song that has been a theme of my life during this whole journey. And in that moment I realized: the song is about light. It’s so obvious and yet I had never made that connection. I left an abusive relationship, lit a full menorah, and then spent the whole year listening to and singing a song about light. Amazing. Wow. And then I went on to read the final Torah portion that he had almost stolen from me, and now…

Now I suppose I live happily ever after. What else is there to do?

Poetry

During my profound grief and trauma, I needed poetry. I devoured the book of poems that one of my best friends gave to me, and started looking around for something else to read to sustain my soul. I grabbed a book off of my shelf that was written by my great-uncle, a Jewish poet whose books fill a small section of shelf in my school’s library. I had looked through these books before, but the poems seemed beyond me, too mature, as if I lacked the life experience to understand them. I prayed that one day I would be able to understand them. Now it was with new eyes that I looked upon these poems. Suddenly, I could be reached by them, and reach back. I began taking his books with me on long strolls through the woods,  sometimes engaging with them by talking to their author out loud, looking to the sky. This enriched me greatly. My abuser had fed me poetry, and this was one way of hooking me, of hooking my soul. After I made the choice to leave and woke up to the fact that he had never actually loved me, it was as if all of the poetry in me had died. I was thrilled to find that I hadn’t lost my poetry at all, it had just matured, ripened. It was absolutely divine to get my poetry back in this way.

Judaism as a Journey

Because of the challenge of working through the warped teachings of my former rabbi, I’ve gone deeper, read books I hadn’t even heard of before, and crossed an ocean to a strange new shore. I didn’t die, but almost did, from this experience. Some non-physical person that I was definitely did die and is never coming back. I had to grieve that woman. She was naive, innocent. I feel strengthened in the long run. That does not make what he did okay by any means, but it means that I will be okay. Better than okay, actually. Better than okay…

I had to grieve that woman. She was naive, innocent.

All of this has been exposure therapy, and exposure therapy is hard work. The good — no great — thing about our religion is how it repeats itself every day, week, month, and year. This means I can step into a flow and use that annual journey to reclaim each parshah, each prayer, each holiday, and make it even more deeply my own, in service to G-d. This is hard work. This is Judaism.

Part 3 – When the Waters Were Changed

Even if I have to have no Jewish community, I will light my candles, say my prayers, keep the sabbath, fast on fast days, cry on Tisha B’Av, study Torah, study Hebrew, study Talmud, and surround myself with courageous G-d fearing, albeit not Jewish, people and continue to hold both solo and all comer Seders for Tu B’Shevat and Pesach.

I once made the mistake of assuming that Jewish company was inherently preferable. This is a fallacy, as the people I was involved with turned out to be toxic. I see clearly that they are in the wrong even though they seemingly outnumber me, and take a lesson from Nazi Germany or “When the Waters Were Changed” (a Sufi story) — that it is possible for everyone around you to be evil or just plain meshugenah, and it is better to stay clear headed even if it is the difficult path. I had the wisdom to continue drinking from my own well, even when that water was scarce. I decided that Jewish companionship is important, but not at this price.

And yes, even Jews can become collectively evil. I know I may be reviled for pointing that out, but being chosen is not the same thing as being super human or an exception to the reality of a slippery free will. “Chosen” does not mean “always right.” Shema Yisrael: We must stop idealizing our own and always seeing ourselves as the victim. Otherwise we become just like the ones who tried to annihilate us. Let us not become the oppressor.

Spiritual Solitude

Even if one is the last Jew in the world they would still be Jewish. It is an immutable essence of the soul. It doesn’t matter if the other Jews, misguided, alienate you. Nothing changes just because some guy used his rabbinate to abuse me. And he is that — just some guy. Nothing changes in my eternal essence. You cannot get to my soul through my body’s various openings. Or even through my mind. It doesn’t work that way.

Besides, the man who abused me was a terrible person. Upon leaving him, I wrote in my diary, “It’s not that I don’t love you, as much as it is that you are a terrible person.” Just because someone is Jewish, or even a popular rabbi, does not mean that they have courage, conscience, empathy, or wisdom. I’ve got plenty of friends of other faiths who possess those qualities, and that is the sort of company I prefer. In other words, his using his rabbinate and my religion to abuse others and maintain a horrific level of duplicity is anathema to the religion. So are the harmful reactions of the synagogue and related power structures. Just because they call it Judaism doesn’t make everything they do and say correctly Jewish. I’m sorry.

Let me put it to you this way, the Jewish establishment is not Judaism. This warrants repetition, so make it your mantra: the Jewish establishment is not Judaism. The Jewish establishment is not Judaism. They have as much access to G’d as any random person on the street. For them, this is a job — a profession. For many of the rest of us, it is a religion, a deeply personal experience not at all related to power or paycheck. There is a difference. I do believe that there are dangers to the professionalization of religion, and that those dangers manifest quite clearly in cases of clergy misconduct and cover up.

The Jewish establishment is not Judaism. They have as much access to G’d as any random person on the street.

To the collective Jewish establishment, I would like to congratulate you for failing so fantastically that you have driven away even the strongest, most committed of us. Your consistent, pervasive mishandling of rabbinic misconduct cases, including outright cover ups, and primary concern with protecting your reputation and business over actual human life, has ensured that my children will be taught their religion at home, not in a Jewish school, summer camp, or synagogue. I have no desire to be around your kind, the kind that prostrates to money and image and self preservation before anything else. Is this not idolotry?

The Great Art of a Jewish Inner Life

We have struggled with idolatry all the way back to Sinai. My story, my struggle against a massive establishment to hold an evil doer accountable, is as timeless as the Torah. And it is deeply, universally human. I just completed an annual cycle of Torah readings through the lens of this experience, and took great measures to relate my experience to our broader story, so that it is as if I too have once again come out of Egypt. In this way, I am flipping the proverbial table, using the same spirituality that was used to exploit me, to reclaim my power.

I am flipping the proverbial table, using the same spirituality that was used to exploit me, to reclaim my power.

I am writing my own story. In the end, the protagonist rediscovers the meaning of Judaism and what it is to be Jewish.

There is no Temple, no priest, not even a direct verbal command from the L-rd. It is just like Tisha B’Av. Note how the writer of Lamentations does not stop believing, he only grows stronger in his faith, strong enough to speak to G-d directly, and to beg. Even if there is no answer. Even when everything has been destroyed all around him. Is that not the most beautiful thing you have ever read? I have no synagogue, no rabbi, and the days of prophets are long gone. And yet… Perhaps those things are not truly necessary for a thriving Jewish inner life.

About the Author
Sarah Ruth Hoffman is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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