At a time when touching a student can trigger disciplinary action, is it fair to retroactively apply current standards of behavior to teachers?
Two weeks after The Jewish Week broke the story of Rabbi Baruch Lanner’s abuse — sexual, physical and psychological — of scores of teens in his charge over a period of three decades within the Orthodox Union’s NCSY youth group, I wrote a column about some of the people who contacted me in response. They urged me to investigate other Orthodox rabbis or teachers said to be abusers, naming names and offering me details.
I was overwhelmed. It was as if a floodgate of pent-up anger and frustration had been released, and these people felt that now, finally, their persecutors could be brought to justice.
I questioned whether it was the role of The Jewish Week to “become the central communal clearinghouse for dealing with and outing Orthodox Jewish officials with various sexual deviancies.” I thought not, calling on the community to do a better job of policing itself because, as the Lanner case showed, going to a rabbi with evidence was not enough and the beit din, or rabbinic court, system was ineffectual or, in some cases, corrupt.
(I’ve come to believe that rather than forming our own tribunals or well-intentioned monitoring efforts we’d do better to simply encourage victims to go to the police.)
Of the hundreds of letters and e-mails we received at the time, praising or criticizing The Jewish Week for its reporting on the Lanner case, the message of one reader from Brooklyn stayed with me and strengthened my resolve.
“Failing to act because of fear you may be labeled anti-Orthodox is capitulation unbecoming” a serious newspaper, he wrote, reminding me that our role is less to be liked than to be respected for doing our job.
Still, I felt we were not the only ones with a responsibility to act.
“It is clear the instinct to ignore, dismiss or cover up potentially embarrassing problems in our community must be sublimated to the need to address and confront them,” I argued. “They won’t go away on their own, and by pretending they don’t exist, we only erode our values and endanger our children.”
Signs Of Progress
That was 12-and-a-half years ago. Are we any further along today in addressing and dealing with the problem of sexual abuse of young people in our own backyard?
Certainly there has been real progress.
The Lanner case prompted a number of schools, camps and youth groups across the religious streams to train staff and adopt standards about identifying and dealing with inappropriate behavior, and to incorporate more parental supervision into the process. The Orthodox Union, the parent organization of NCSY, undertook a painful but thorough investigation, made some personnel changes and has restored the good name of its youth group. Lanner was forced out of his post, and ultimately convicted of sexual assault crimes, serving nearly three years in prison.
In addition, our culture became educated in the language associated with child abuse, and more attuned to recognizing it and speaking out about it. Even in parts of the haredi community, where pressing charges against abusers is cause for ostracism, there are courageous victims and family members stepping up, as the recent Nechemya Weberman case in Williamsburg showed. And The Jewish Week, along with other Jewish media, has not shied away from reporting on specific cases, despite considerable resistance in parts of the community.
Last month’s Forward exposé on the alleged abuse of students at Yeshiva University’s high school for boys, still known as MTA, in the 1970s and ‘80s, underscores how different our attitudes are today from those of three or four decades ago in defining, assessing and responding to such charges. Clearly it is — and was always — beyond unacceptable for educators to make sexual advances toward students. But is it fair to apply many current standards of behavior, at a time when a teacher touching a student can be grounds for disciplinary action, to an era when it was not unusual for European-born yeshiva high school rebbes to slap or even hit boys, who tended to take such actions in stride?
The fact is that when, in his painfully candid comments, Yeshiva University’s chancellor and former president, Norman Lamm, acknowledged to The Forward that he responded to reports of sexual misconduct on the part of the two high school faculty members by quietly dismissing them, he was reflecting the conventional wisdom of that period.
That is not to excuse such action, or inaction. It is dangerously wrong to act in ways that allow abusers to continue their behavior in new venues. But it was common practice for schools and synagogues faced with an allegedly abusive employee. Unfortunately, such decisions are still made all too frequently, a case of protecting the reputation of an individual and institution rather than protecting vulnerable children.
‘Gray Area’ Cases Emerge
The report on YU has prompted a new outburst of activity in our community, with accusations now being raised, or sought, regarding rebbes or others from the recent and distant past, whose inappropriate behavior takes on a harsher tone in light of 21st-century standards. Each case presents its own challenge.
Here are a few situations that have come my way of late:
♦ There are reports now surfacing about a single man, then in his 30s, who would hang out in the evenings at the YU High School dorm and at NCSY events for young teens, and who allegedly molested boys. He is said to be a family man and pillar of his Orthodox community today, three decades later, in another part of the country. What can, or should, be done?
♦ The word has gone out on Facebook from a former day school student, now an adult, saying he had been verbally abused by his principal, whom he names, and urging other past victims of “sexual, physical or emotional abuse,” by the principal or any other member of the school’s staff, to contact him “to have justice done.” Is that a healthy sign of exposing past wrongs or a moral fishing expedition?
♦ What, if anything, should be done about a synagogue rabbi who has a long history of inviting teenage boys and young men in their 20s to go to the gym with him, shower together, and share intimate talk in the sauna, making at least some of them feel deeply uncomfortable? No allegations have come to light about the rabbi crossing the line, but is this normal socializing or inappropriate behavior?
♦ What action should a congregation take, if any, about a fellow member who has a history making inappropriate advances to boys, although no one has pressed charges against him?
I don’t think there are easy answers to these and many other such “gray area” cases, and I struggle with a response, not only as a journalist but simply as a member of the Jewish community.
We’ve come a long way in the last dozen years in terms of awareness of abuse. But we still have a long way to go in thinking first of the victims and potential future victims, and in being a confident and responsible community rather than one fearful and insecure.
In the end it’s not about “airing our dirty laundry in public.” It’s about cleaning it, and keeping it clean.
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