Yeshiva University — Inspiring the Next Generation?

On Sunday, December 18, 2016 Yeshiva University will be presenting a Yom Iyun, a Day of Study, in honor of the centennial of the Yeshiva University High School for Boys, also known as MTA. The colloquium will feature multiple rabbinic and Jewish educational luminaries speaking on such important topics as “Strategies for Spirituality in the 21st Century”, “Celebrating Questions — Faith and Fortitude”, and “Special Needs Children — Inspiring Them Inspires Everyone”.

The keynote speaker will be Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, arguably the most prolific innovator of Jewish Thought in our generation. There will also be comments by outgoing YU president Richard Joel and incoming president Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman. The many other speakers include Rabbi Joshua Kahn, current Head of School of Yeshiva University School for Boys, Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz, Associate Principal of SAR High School, and Rabbi Mark Gottleib, a dear personal friend who is currently a Senior Director at the Tikvah Fund and who is himself a former Head of School at Yeshiva University High School for Boys. The speakers also include Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, the Founder and Director of Project Y.E.S., a leading advocate for child safety and anti abuse efforts in the Jewish community. And many others.

There is, however, one speaker whose presence boggles the mind and raises fundamental questions about YU’s commitment to coming to terms with its dark legacy with regard to sexual abuse, and the message is it is sending related to “Inspiring the Next Generation”.

One of the many speakers at the session will be Rabbi Mordechai Willig, a Rosh Yeshiva at REITS, Yeshiva University’s anchor institution for religious studies. While many consider Willig a prominent rabbi, he has been on the wrong side of history when it comes to sexual abuse of minors and teenagers. And this is not simply an issue of bad choices in the past. He has remained steadfast to this day in his disturbing positions.

Most people who are aware of the sordid history of the serial sexual and physical abuser Baruch Lanner know that Rabbi Willig had supported Lanner. Rabbi Willig convened a Bet Din, a rabbinic tribunal, in 1989 that reviewed allegations about Lanner. Under Willig’s leadership, the Bet Din absolved Lanner of the most serious accusations, ignoring testimony of numerous students who recited chapter and verse of the many sexual and physical atrocities committed by Lanner. Instead, the Bet Din cited the testimony of others that supported Lanner — testimony that turned out to have been false — outright lies.

Ten years later, after a marathon effort on the part of students in Yeshiva University pressuring Willig to apologize for his earlier errors, Willig ultimately issued an apology.

Now, we are all human, and we all make mistakes. That applies to all of us, even rabbis.

However, it does not end there.

This year, over the summer, a child safety advocate in the Orthodox community in the United States, working alongside respected Modern Orthodox rabbis, spearheaded a far reaching effort to issue a proclamation that acknowledged that the Orthodox community in the past has at times mishandled allegations of sexual abuse, either ignoring them or even covering them up. The proclamation, ultimately signed by more than 300 Modern Orthodox rabbis, including many leaders of YU, the Rabbinical Council of America, the Orthodox Union and others, among other things called upon victims and their families to go directly to the police in the event of allegations of sexual abuse, rejecting a long held notion that one should get a p’sak, permission, from a rabbi to go to secular authorities before raising sexual abuse allegations against another Jew. Thankfully, the position of reaching out directly to the police in such situations is becoming normative, as it reflects a modern sensibility and awareness that rabbis are not trained or qualified to deal with allegations of sexual abuse and rape, review evidence and testimony, or have an expert level understanding of the psychology of victims and perpetrators. Just as rabbis are not trained to perform cardiac surgery, they are not trained to deal with rape and molestation. And the new position also recognizes that perpetrators of sexual abuse, if not stopped, frequently go on to abuse others.

However, while many rabbis signed this proclamation, Mordechai Willig pointedly did not. He purportedly continued to cite his reasoning that a rabbi should be consulted before a sexual abuse victim goes to the police. He continued to cite reasoning that has been discredited, as a generation of victims of sexual abuse in the Jewish community have spoken out about their being victimized by rabbis and others, and how many in the community, including rabbis, engaged in cover ups.

Furthermore, subsequent efforts within Yeshiva University to issue a similar proclamation ultimately broke down because Willig and several of his colleagues remained steadfast in their resistance to modernizing the approach to dealing with sexual abuse — relying instead on “rabbis as mediators” even though history has proven that rabbis are unqualified and ill suited to address such issues, especially when such allegations are raised against other rabbis. (Let’s remember: Baruch Lanner, who had been supported by Willig, was a prominent rabbi engaged in Jewish education, a position which ensured access to hundreds or perhaps thousands of victims.)

Now, juxtaposing Willig’s disturbing position with the sordid legacy that Yeshiva University High School for Boys has faced in recent years regarding sexual abuses of students under its own roof in the 1970s and 1980s, it would be fair to wonder whether indeed Yeshiva University and its high school have in fact adequately shifted their mindset on the handling of sexual abuse as they seek to “Inspire the Next Generation”.

How is it possible that Yeshiva University and its high school, which escaped a class action lawsuit filed by many former students related to their sexual victimization and subsequent lifelong trauma by hiding behind Statute of Limitation laws, will celebrate its centennial and focus on “Inspiring the Next Generation” by having Mordechai Willig as one of its featured speakers? Has YU and its high school, after the atrocities committed by former principal George Finkelstein and others under its roof have come to light, failed to learn from its own sordid past? Is YU indeed committed to “Inspiring the Next Generation,” or will it remain the same “Vatican of Washington Heights,” engaging in double speak — condemning abuses of the past, but failing to clearly demonstrate that it puts the well being of students — physical and emotional — as its primary objective?

It is indeed tremendously disconcerting that at this time in its history, as YU celebrates the centennial of its high school and passes the presidential torch to a new generation, it is featuring Mordechai Willig, one of its leaders notorious for his poor judgement on issues of child safety and sexual abuse, as one of its key speakers.

If Yeshiva University is indeed committed to “Inspiring the Next Generation,” it needs to do so it without pomp and circumstance and words in the ether of public opinion, but with concrete deeds and good judgement.

About the Author
David Cheifetz has spent 20 years in the private sector, focusing on high tech and marketing. Before attending business school, David had a 6-year career in government public relations for the State of Israel working in the Consulate General of Israel in New York and at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem. He is an activist of issues related to sexual abuse in the Jewish Community, and is the founder and president of a non profit - Mi Li - Who Is For Me - dedicated to the topic. David is also a member of the American Board of Directors of Gesher, an Israel based organization focused on dialogue and collaboration between religious and secular Jews in Israel.
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