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An Open Letter To Frank Bruni
Mon, 07/29/2013 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Erica Brown
Erica Brown

Dear Mr. Bruni,

I hope this finds you well. Thank you for your memoir, “Born Round: A Story of Food, Family and a Ferocious Appetite.” I was not born round but have been successfully making my way to that shape for years. I admire your honesty and your discipline in discussing your weight struggles. On the food and family front, Jews and Italians have a lot in common. You do pasta. We do challah. It’s all carbs.

Let me be “Frank” with you. I read your July 23 column in The Times, “The Faithful’s Failings,” comparing abuse within the Orthodox Jewish community and the Catholic Church, and I was upset. You see, while you were fighting a battle with food as an adolescent, I was actually involved in an abuse case. A group of us came forward in this very newspaper. The abuser I helped to “out” was a rabbi. He went to jail, and I learned a lot about perpetrators and protectors. It was painful to see children hurt because of irresponsible adults who turned the other way. It hurt then. It hurts now.

So you wouldn’t exactly call me complacent. But I was deeply disturbed by your piece. I instinctively protect my people and would expect the same from you when an outsider takes them to task.

Putting aside that natural defensive impulse, I didn’t appreciate the too easy way you compared what happened in the Catholic Church with isolated cases in Orthodox schools and families. The distinction between broad-based institutional cover-ups that have impacted thousands cannot be compared to scattered cases within families and several disconnected institutions. There are not “patterns of criminality” here. There are crimes.

Thomas Plante, the psychiatrist who wrote “A Perspective On Clergy Sexual Abuse,” estimated that approximately 4 percent of priests in the past half century had a sexual encounter with a minor. That’s not a problem. That’s close to an epidemic.

Mr. Bruni, I would not call ours an “aloof patriarchy.” Although we have institutional heads, we do not have a centralized office to determine policy and hush-up problems. Most Jewish leaders I know could hardly be called aloof. If anything, we have an inclination to neurotic over-involvement.

But I must acknowledge that within the ultra-Orthodox community, a strong patriarchy rather than an aloof one, does preside. And this patriarchy can go unquestioned, sadly leading — at times — to the scurrilous behaviors you’ve described. If it appears I am making a distinction between types of Orthodoxies, you’re right. I am. Increasingly, there is a universe of difference between Modern and ultra-Orthodox Jews, and journalists who pay attention will note the not-so-subtle differences.

Jews have no doctrine of infallibility. We are a highly contentious and critical lot. God called us stiff-necked quite a while ago; it has stuck for centuries. We are tough on our leaders. Too tough sometimes. Most Orthodox communities boast multiple scholars and rabbis with similar educational backgrounds to the pulpit rabbi. This creates a more even-playing field; while it may diminish the influence of a synagogue rabbi, it helps keep leaders in check. Many rabbis — even on better days — have a flock of leaders, and few followers to manage.

In the recent Yeshiva University case you cited, the plaintiffs are not going after the perpetrators. We’ve heard almost nothing about them. Yet Rabbi Norman Lamm, a protector, issued a meaningful apology expressing total accountability. I have not heard any formal apology from anyone that senior in the Church with the kind of vulnerability and anguish he expressed.

This does not mean, Mr. Bruni, that I am absolving our people of any crimes. Thank you for singling out rabbis who speak without filters and say terribly damaging things without censure. It’s plain wrong. I am simply requesting a more nuanced approach in a journalistic world that is quick to create moral equivalences.

There is another fallout from all of the abuse coverage that few journalists take seriously enough: the cost this has had for religion generally. It’s too easy to dismiss the impact and worth of religious life because of the taint of abuse associated with some of its leadership. Take away religion and you take away a language of spirituality, moral grandeur, charity, aspiration and inspiration

So please be careful, Mr. Bruni, not only with my faith but with all faiths.

When it comes to religion, it is time for a media approach with greater subtlety and objectivity. When it comes to tradition, we must practice it with greater sincerity: “without being undone by it, without being tyrannized by it, without overdoing it.” These aren’t my words. They are yours. You said them about food. I say them about faith.

Thanks for listening.

Erica Brown is the scholar-in-residence for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her column appears the first week of the month.

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Dear Ms. Brown, your letter to Mr. Bruni expresses everything that I felt upon reading his op-ed. Thank you so much for taking the time to express yourself so thoughtfully and with such kindness. Your way of expression is one that many of us could learn from. Too often, particularly around contentious issues, people with reason speak in ways that are bombastic and impolite. It is impossible to hear the point of such ideas because the messenger is so uninviting. So thank you for not only speaking for me, but also for teaching me that even when upset, it is possible to speak in ways that keep doors open, and give benefit of the doubt. With gratitude,

But I must acknowledge that within the ultra-Orthodox community, a strong patriarchy rather than an aloof one, does preside. And this patriarchy can go unquestioned, sadly leading — at times — to the scurrilous behaviors you’ve described. If it appears I am making a distinction between types of Orthodoxies, you’re right. I am. Increasingly, there is a universe of difference between Modern and ultra-Orthodox Jews, and journalists who pay attention will note the not-so-subtle differences.

Jews have no doctrine of infallibility.


Charedim. a/k/a ultra-Orthodox unfortunately do practice a latter day version of the doctrine of infallibility and therein lies the cause of a child sex abuse problem that may well exceed (in proportion) anything the catholic church has seen.

I submitted this as a letter to the Jewish Week and am following up as an online comment:

I read with dismay Dr. Erica Brown’s open letter to Frank Bruni.

In his July 23 column, “The Faithful’s Failings,” Mr. Bruni unflinchingly discussed sexual abuse among Orthodox Jews. The hurt and shame we feel as Jews when reading his column is compounded because it was written by someone outside our faith. But for that Mr. Bruni deserves our thanks, not our criticism.

Dr. Brown tries to argue that when orthodox Rabbis sexually and physically abuse children their actions are less worrisome than the abusive acts by Catholic priests because Jews do not have a “centralized office.” In what meaningful sense does she see a difference? In both cases a group of empowered men abuse children and attempted to frighten and silence their victims. It is also no secret that the “strong patriarchy” in some Orthodox communities believes that victims - - even victims of sexual abuse - - who turn to secular authorities have betrayed their faith. In what meaningful sense is this any different from the Catholic Church’s abysmal record of hindering investigations by secular authorities?

Dr. Brown’s fawning praise for Norman Lamm’s purported apology upon his retirement at the age of 85 is mind-boggling. She is doubtlessly referring to the three vaguely worded paragraphs (buried within a 20-paragraph essay) in which Lamm excuses his failure to protect children at his school as “ill-conceived” and praises himself for his “good” intentions. Nonsense. Lamm’s efforts were not “ill-conceived” - - he knew exactly what he was doing and he succeeded. Lamm decided that he, his colleagues, and their power and prestige were more important than abused children. That is how one maintains a “strong patriarchy.” If he feels otherwise now, let him make amends.

At the end of her letter Dr. Brown asks that Mr. Bruni be “more subtle.” That is a strange request. Subtlety is precisely the wrong response. When the insular and patriarchal world of any religious community endangers children and violates secular law, we need to expose it. Mr. Bruni’s article was an important step in the right direction.

Yours truly,

Daniel A. Edelson

Excellent. Really good.Thanks!

There is one respect in which the child abuse scandals in the orthodox world were worse than the scandals in the Cathlic Church. I'm referring to the communities that rallied around the accused abusers and gave them monetary and moral support. This often also involved ostracizing the accusers which at times even led to having the accusers' children being thrown out of their religious schools. The fact that in almost every case (even YU's) the cover up and lack of response compounded the scandal hardly reflects a community that in any way knows how to deal in a responsible way to cases of abuse in their midst.

This is a thoughtful piece, saying some things that need to be said, and I agree here, while disagree there. I'm sorry to say, after looking into this, to say the least, for 10 years now, that I do see parallels with the situation in the Catholic Church. I add that some senior Catholic officials, Bishops, Cardinals, Popes, have made some very serious apologies. And many Catholic Archdioceses in America and elsewhere have totally turned themselves around, going forward, and they now have safe churches, safe schools. They have also paid out substantial money to abuse survivors, both in insurance money, and private Catholic money, for which assets had to be sold. Our Jewish world can learn some lessons. I sent an email to Frank Bruni saying that I wish he, or some other Timesperson, would make some mention about the good work being done by so many Jewish advocates who do not accept the patriarchy failure, and insist upon safe yeshivas, safe synagogues, safe homes, and fair compensation for survivors - that was missing from his column. I did not receive a response.

ms. brown- were you present at the beit din to "out the perpetrator "that you mention? If not.. why not? What role did you actually play in outing this person?


Ms. Brown: Shmarya Rosenberg has been covering the scandals of the Ultra Orthodox (Haredi) communities in the US and Israel for several years. You can read about them at
He even covered the E-rate scandal, first reported by Jewish Week, in which Haredi educators defrauded a Federal program of millions of dollars which should have gone to improve Internet access at schools. Read the full story here:

I don't know whether Haredi abuse against young children is proportionately equal to that committed by Catholic priests, but when one adds in all of the other scandals covered by Rosenberg, it speaks very poorly of the Haredi. Read about the education that Chaim Levin (and many thousands of other Haredi youngsters) did not receive at their Haredi schools:

Complete libel. You are speaking about "Orthodox" Jews she is speaking about clergy. Apples and oranges.

Readers can do their own research and arrive at their own conclusions. If you have time, you can also research the role of Rabbi David Twersky, the Grand Rabbi of New Square, NY and his role in Bill Clinton's pardoning of four Hasidic residents of New Square. The four men had swindled the government out of $40 million in various grants. For some background information on the pardon, read here:

Masterfully written! You are both insightful and eloquent.

Dear Ms. Brown:
I have rarely (only three or four times total) commented on-line, but although I read your Open Letter the old fashioned way, I came here just to say that I thought it was beautfully written and beautifully said. Did you not submit it to the NY Times?
David Fields
ps I would have emailed you, but I couldn't find an address.

Well said.

Top to bottom, in tone and substance, an excellent reply.

Kol Hakavod