An Open Letter to My Fellow Educators
I remember the first time my rabbi took me to the mikvah.
It was the early 1970s, and I was ten years old, living in a small town in Massachusetts. Our small, homey synagogue had recently hired a new rabbi before the holidays. It’s customary for Jewish men to immerse in a mikvah (ritual bath) before Rosh Hashanah. The rabbi, who often drove me to prayer services during the week and to other Jewish events to help me learn more about Jewish practices, asked me if I want to go with him to the mikvah. I was ten and didn’t know what a mikvah was, and I trusted the rabbi. Also, the rabbi was a really fast driver, which was so cool. So I said yes.
There was no mikvah in our town, so the rabbi drove us to the nearest large city. Along the way, he explained what a mikvah was, and what it was for. My ADHD was in high gear, so I don’t remember much of what he said. What I remember was that he drove really, really fast. Somewhere at around 80mph he said that you get undressed, and dunk three times completely under the water. Now I was listening. That seemed strange, the whole “naked” thing.
The mikvah was in an old house. To me it looked creepy and even haunted. There was a dimly-lit waiting room with a few people and a washing machine. It was very quiet.
When it was our turn to use the mikvah, the rabbi said “I’m going into this room here to get undressed. You wait here, and I’ll call you.”
The specific moment that he called me to join him in the doorway of the “preparation room” is seared into my memory, because up until now I had only ever seen my rabbi in a suit and tie. He wore a suit in school, when we played kickball, even when he mowed the lawn. And now he was covered only in robe and a towel. It was a shock.
I know what you might be thinking and fearing – that the rabbi took off the towel and molested me. But that’s not what happened. Instead, he showed me another door to the mikvah room, explained the dunking procedure, and made it very clear that I was not to enter the mikvah until he himself had finished dunking and had left the room. “Only come into this room when I am finished,” he said. I remember those words. They meant that we were not going into the mikvah together. It was crystal clear. I was not, under any circumstances, to enter the mikvah at the same time as the rabbi.
The rest of my story is memorable not because of what the rabbi did next, but because of what I did next: I started following all the “Mikvah Preparation Guidelines” written and affixed to the wall. “If you have any questions, call the attendant,” it said. But the instructions seemed straightforward enough, so I cut and filed my nails, combed my hair, flossed and brushed my teeth . . . how was I supposed to know the instructions were only for women? Around the time that I was on the floor giving myself a breast exam, the rabbi knocked on the door and asked me what was taking so long, and said I should just “get in the mikvah and let’s go.”
As a rabbi and educator, I think often of this incident, which happened nearly 45 years ago, because it taught me something about setting boundaries. And over the last 45 years, it has also taught me about how boundaries can change.
At the time, when sexual abuse by rabbis was more hidden and my parents, and I, and all of us had the luxury of naivete, my rabbi did everything exactly right: he took me to the mikvah, set a line that, at least according to that time, was a healthy one – that his student should not see the rabbi in any state of undress – and stuck to it. I had been afraid of the mikvah building, but at no time was I afraid of the rabbi. And I knew – everyone in our community knew – and everyone throughout his illustrious rabbinic career knew, that this rabbi understood and respected boundaries. No one could ever suspect him of inappropriately touching a child, because his standard was uncompromising, and the boundaries he set were clear, and have remained clear to all.
Today that standard is impossibly low, so low it seems quaint at best and dangerous at worst. But just as my rabbi knew how, according to 70s culture, to draw lines, we too must draw lines – though now the lines have shifted. For the sake of both our students and ourselves, it is crucial for rabbis, teachers, youth group leaders, and anyone for that matter, not just to not-abuse, but to never put themselves into situations wherein anyone could think or suspect that they could have been inappropriate.
In 1993 I was appointed Regional Director of New England Region of NCSY. My wife (who is a therapist) and I immediately implemented a mandatory training program for all staff. Our college-age volunteer counselors learned lots of fun things: educational techniques, halachic Q & A, issues around group dynamics.
We also talked about boundaries – how to create them, and how to maintain them, to create a safe environment. Never be alone with any child, not even a child of the same gender. If you must meet with a child individually, leave a door open. Don’t talk with kids about your own emotional baggage. And more, much more, rules that now seem obvious but in 1993 were novel, or even considered absurd. We told them that if they ever crossed the protective boundaries defined by Halacha (Jewish Law) or by our written guidelines they could not remain on our staff.
I wasn’t talking only about the safety of the children. I was also talking about the safety of the counselors themselves. Of course, our highest priority were the teens in our charge. My second-highest priority was making sure our staff never put themselves into a situation that could be misinterpreted. I urge you, my rabbinical colleagues and friends, to do the same.
We have all heard of rabbis wave away warnings about their dangerous behavior because “of course I would never abuse anyone.” It’s true, they would not. It is also true that we live in an age when perception becomes reality. We live in an age when clergy are often accused of molesting children. We live in an age when, unfortunately, many rabbis who abuse remain un-accused. And, equally unfortunately, many rabbis who have not abused are nevertheless accused.
To be a good rabbi or mentor, it’s not enough to inspire children and take care of them. We also need to take care of ourselves. Part of being a mature, responsible person is showing good judgment by creating boundaries, and sticking to them consistently. Part of being a brave leader is accepting that we live in a time when people are afraid of what their clergy might do – and never, ever giving anyone a reason to even suspect that we might be among the bad apples. Ultimately, if a rabbi isn’t able to protect himself, why would anyone believe he can protect others?
The boundaries have moved over the last 50 years, and the times have changed as well. Accept that. Embrace it. Behave consistently on the right side of the new boundaries.
And, I might also add, try to drive within the speed limit.
With best wishes for success in all your holy work,
Ari M. Solomont