The Silence of the Rabbis (…and The Community)

In the last several months two reports have been issued by prominent yeshiva day schools serving the Modern Orthodox community in New York (a third report is expected from another New York area school). The reports outline sexual abuse committed by Stanley Rosenfeld, a faculty member employed by all three institutions, at different times, from the early 1970s through the late 1980s. The investigation found that he had groped, fondled, molested, sodomized and forced oral sex on, by his own accounting, hundreds of children.  Both reports outlined abuse by other teachers as well. In both institutions leadership had been made aware of allegations, there is no evidence that any action was undertaken.

Stanley was a frequent Shabbat guest in my home growing up.  Aside from groping, I was spared the worst of his predations. I spoke with the investigators.

The reports have attracted the attention of a few journalists and many articles have appeared in The Forward and by the JTA.  One would expect that abuse on this scale, involving three premier educational institutions, would engender public soul-searching by the Orthodox community and especially by its rabbis. There has been no community outcry, no editorials, no op-eds. Notably, all is quiet on the rabbinic front. Silence.

I struggle to understand the quiet. I suspect many factors and concerns are at play:

The victims are invisible, the vast majority have not come forward publicly or privately. In contrast, the leadership of the schools at that time, including rabbinic icons of the community and their families, remain prominent in the community. The rabbis must be very uncomfortable raising an issue, where their mentors so significantly erred, and then have to face them after. The schools involved are sources of tremendous group pride, the rabbis and lay leadership must bristle at any thought of what may be construed as public criticism of beloved institutions.

Theologically, that God does not (or cannot) protect the young and innocent is difficult to reconcile with the concept of a good, benevolent and involved deity.  The Orthodox community, in general, and Orthodox rabbis specifically, tend to avoid open discussion of theologic struggles, especially from the pulpit. This must be particularly difficult for them to discuss.

Orthodox rabbis prefer to limit pulpit discussions to that which will increase observance, Torah learning, and community unity.  No rabbi, rightfully, would think of not speaking out after the murder of Jews in a terrorist attack. Speaking about abuse within our community, of Jews by Jews, will not on its face increase community solidarity.  I suspect rabbis are at a loss to engage a topic where there is no specific Jewish learning to draw upon, there is no talmudic tractate that addresses child sexual abuse. Ironically, Jewish sexual predators use the mechanics of observance to gain access to their victims.  Abuse, on the scale that occurred, required the systemic blindness of not only of Rabbis and educators but lay leadership, psychologists and not least of all, parents. It is indeed a tall order to confront that!

Lastly, the Jewish sexual predator is the real-life incarnation of the classic anti-Semitic trope.  Just like a Nazi propaganda poster with a hook-nosed demon lurking in the shadows ready to pounce on an Aryan child, our monsters are there to feed anti-Semitic fantasies.

However, our tradition and Torah are clear about the sins and failures of our patriarchs and matriarchs. When our children fail we expect them to learn from their mistakes and improve the next time. Certainly, if we can acknowledge the mistakes of our fathers and mothers of old, we can do so of our rabbis and leaders in the present.  What a great lesson to our children that learning from our errors is not just an endeavor for the young, but for the older as well. Our schools are weakened by silence, they will only be strengthened by an open and honest discussion about abuse.

Eighty years after Kristallnacht, it is safe to speak of God’s role in the face of evil. How do we understand youngsters abused by those observant of Torah and mitzvot? My experience has been that people crave discussion of theological crises, virtue, and ethics especially in the setting of the topsy-turvy world in which we live. That is what Jews need from their rabbis.  The sexual abuse of children is very much a Jewish problem, however, there needs to be an acknowledgment that rabbinic Judaism does not have answers to the problem of Jewish sexual predators. Accumulating knowledge gleaned from secular and gentile sources is vital to keeping our children safe.  Engaging organizations, such as Sacred Spaces, which seeks to establish best practices to prevent abuse in Jewish institutions and lobbying for effective legislative reform that will hold organizations and individuals accountable are clear immediate paths that can be taken to diminish the risk to our young.

Sexual abuse of our children occurs in schools, but as we have seen in the case of Stanley Rosenfeld, also in synagogues, camps, and in the home. Predators embed themselves in our community. Shabbat, because of our culture of hospitality and the lack of instant communication, is unfortunately when predators can take advantage of our lowered guard.  That is why we need rabbis to openly discuss these issues in the synagogue and on Shabbat.

Jews are not evil, but there are evil Jews. Orthodoxy, in particular, places great import on Jewish exceptionalism. In the case of sexual predators, we are decidedly unexceptional. We must admit that in this case, we are no different than other communities. Humility will make us better able to tackle the issue at hand. There is no “Jewish” agenda here, but rather the pure need to provide the best for those that are our future.

No, silence is unacceptable, the response needs to be public, loud and real, in the shuls, schools and camps. That is how we communicate the gravity of the problem to our children, to the community and place predators on notice. That is how we connect and reach out to those who have been abused in the past and in the present, those that have shared their experiences and to the vast majority who have not. Investigations are essential for us to learn from past mistakes, but we must move on from just assessing and limiting our financial and legal liabilities. It is about protecting and nurturing our only precious asset, our children.

About the Author
Steven M. Kubersky is an Internist who has been in practice in Westchester County for the last 25 years. He is married to his wife, Carmella, also a physician and a graduate of Yeshivat Maharat. They have three wonderful children, Rani, Refael and Keren.