They Prey Amongst Us: Predators and Pedophiles [1]

FACE IT, WE HAVE A PROBLEM

“You are a self-hating Jew!!!” my brother in law screamed in a paroxysmal rage during Shabbat Dinner.

That Shabbat was a reunion of siblings of sorts.  My younger sister and her husband were shortly making Aliyah, and she, along with my older sister and her spouse and I decided to spend Shabbat together.  It was years since we celebrated together in this manner.

And then Sam’s apoplectic fit. During that very week, the Catholic Archdiocese in Milwaukee settled a landmark case with the victims of sexual abuse. Sam’s comment was, “this case shows that Catholicism is morally bankrupt because of the conduct of its priests.”

My response in my typical low-keyed manner was, “do you not think this also happens in the Jewish community? Doesn’t that mean we too are morally bankrupt?”

With him claiming ignorance, I brought up the Baruch Lanner case, plus the reports about dozens of men who finally, after decades, spoke up about the incidences at Yeshiva University High School concerning their Principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, his friend, Richard Andron and teacher, Rabbi Macy Gordon in addition to the alleged accusations concerning Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

“Why didn’t I read about it?”

“It made the news, just not the front pages.”

He reflexively insisted those stories were entirely false and claimed that all the accusers were liars.  I responded that I knew two of the victims, and for many it takes years, if not decades to gather the courage and tell their story.

With substantiating every story, Sam’s anger continued unbounded that entire Shabbat, in spite of the fact that the issue was raised and dropped that very first evening. That Shabbat of Peace and Reunion became a Shabbat of Dysfunction for all.

THE COMMUNITY’S DYSFUNCTIONAL RESPONSE

Sam’s strong inappropriate reaction is similar to that of today’s Jewish community and its institutions.[2]  The greater community is more concerned about the continuity and the sanctity of its institutions rather than addressing the problem of providing sanctuary to its sexual predators.

Yes, sanctuary is what the community provides.  For example, I have known friends and associates who have aspired for the priesthood but dropped out of seminary in disgust because of the prevalence of pedophiles in the student body.  They explained that pedophiles knew that they could find a safe haven within the walls of the church.  They knew the church’s weakness and that their priority was protecting itself as an institution.  In other words, word got out to this group about these so-called safe zones.

The Jewish community’s experience was and still is very similar.  Rabbis, teachers, youth group leaders found a way to find sanctuary in the Yeshivas, synagogues, and youth groups and prey on young children.  The community permitted it, trusted them, and then looked the other way.

The community knew about Baruch Lanner and did nothing.  During the 90’s when a young woman (whom I knew personally at the time) came out and accused him, it was she, not Lanner who was ostracized.  The Union of Orthodox Rabbis dragged their feet on this case, and the accuser, not the accused, was singled out.

Baruch Lanner was eventually thrown in jail. When he was released, it was reported that the synagogues he attended welcomed him and called him to the Torah.  A few families spoke out in protest, but to no avail.  Lanner was not shunned, he was not put in cherem (excommunication), unlike the way his accusers were treated.

Almost ten years ago, The Forward was issuing a series of reports describing over three decades of sick behaviors that the Rabbis and staff at Yeshiva University High School performed.  Dozens of students, decades later, came out.  “You do not have to tell your parents,” the Rebbes reportedly used to say, “they suffered enough during the Holocaust.”

Yeshiva University also dragged its feet.  Unlike the Penn State golden example, which occurred right before YU made the news, YU’S inquiry was suspect.  Instead, YU fought bringing the case to court and won because, at the time, New York State had a statute of limitations for victims of sexual abuse.[3]

More than that, when the judge threw out the case, there were unsubstantiated reports from watchdog websites of kiddushes and celebrations in many synagogues across the New York region. Rabbi Finkelstein and Rabbi Gordon ultimately did not have to leave their sanctuary in Israel to face their accusers overseas and never issued any statement.

Looking back, I was thankful and grateful I left yeshiva after ninth grade.  Years later, during the 70’s, when I attended SUNY Stony Brook, some of my former yeshiva classmates, who also attended Stony Brook, recanted their horrific experiences about spending Shabbat with their rebbes.  A fellow counselor at Camp Ramah was so traumatically affected from his Yeshiva experience, that he went to that Conservative Jewish camp hoping to find a different, positive, kind of Judaism. I always felt till this day that young man could have been me.

THE SOLUTION

It is high time for the Jewish community to look deeply within itself.  Absolute denial in the form of anger will only make and emboldened the pedophiles and predators among us. It will also provide cause célèbre for our institutions to strengthen their defenses.

I know a therapist who works with adult and child victims of these types of abuse in our community.  She wrote a powerful column years ago.  She and I, in our conversations, agreed that the only way to solve this continuing problem is “to hit them where it hurts,” the pocketbook.   Only then will these institutions listen and begin investigations, truly apologizing to the victims, compensating the victims, and offering them mental health support services.  A true Chesbon HaNefesh, a mea culpa.

I have stopped contributing to Yeshiva University years ago where I was a proud alumnus of Wurzweiler.  I wrote a letter indicating my reasons.  I was hardy a large contributor, but the message was delivered.

Be angry but direct your anger constructively.  We, as a community, will be all the better for it.

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[1] Rabbi Aryeh Goodman, who ran a religious learning center, has recently been sentenced to 18 months behind bars for having sex with a minor.  This blog will discuss this problem plaguing the Jewish community.

[2] Although, as a former licensed clinician, I always wondered about a person’s overreaction and whether that person was hiding something.

[3] In 2019, New York State passed The Child Victims Act, thus possibly resulting in 30 former YU students seeking to refile their lawsuit.

About the Author
For over twenty-five years, Saul passionately devoted and immersed himself studying Jewish life in interwar Europe. Overnight, not only did this 1000-year-old community vanish, but so did its complex communal infrastructure. What piqued Saul Chapnick’s interest and curiosity was finding out exactly what it is that disappeared. In talking to politicians, survivors, scholars, Jewish communal leaders from Eastern Europe, and making trips there, Saul Chapnick was able to uncover the richness and the tragedy of interwar Jewish life in Europe. At the same time, Mr. Chapnick has discovered a rebirth of Jewish life in his parents’ and ancestors’ native land, Poland. Saul Chapnick has talked in various venues such as Limmud whether Yiddish still has relevance today, and has also spoke about the contemporary themes of the 19th and 20th century Yiddish writers and musicians. He also prepares the adult participants of The March for the Living about modern day Jewish Poland
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