Not Enough Progress By Rabbis, Leaders On Dealing With Sexual Abuse
Fri, 08/23/2013
Special To The Jewish Week

The time for serious vigilance of child abuse in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community is long overdue. It is time that lay and religious communal leaders have zero tolerance for child abusers and cease to cover up, enable, or protect them.

In recent years, both in Israel and in America, our community has learned many painful lessons on this topic, and institutions that have owned up to mistakes made in the past and seek ways to create policies that would avoid repeating these mistakes have made some progress. But we have not done enough. The progress made has been insufficient.

The most severe consequence of sexual abuse of children (and of enabling abuse by protecting offenders) is suicide. Tragically this has occurred in the Orthodox Jewish community. That makes it a form of murder. It is time that parents learn to overcome the taboo of reporting abusers to the authorities. Therapists tell me that it is in the best mental health interest of their children to do so. Parents who don’t report abuse often say they are trying to protect their children by allowing the incident to quietly blow over, lest their children become publicly shamed or stigmatized. But in fact the opposite is true. Children are harmed much more when incidents are not reported and dealt with.

There can be no mercy for abusers. If they are not stopped they will abuse other people’s children. In a sense, a failure to report (or to enable) makes one an indirect accessory to future crimes. And far worse than those who fail to report are those communal leaders who use their authority (or their synagogues, schools, or organizations) in ways that either directly or indirectly promote further abuse. This is done by refusing to take abuse seriously and maintaining abusers in settings where they have continued access to children, such that further abuse will surely occur.

Abuse is also indirectly promoted by leaders who discourage or disparage parents or others who are doing the right thing by reporting abuse to the authorities. I offer here one example of each type of promotion of abuse, not from the past, but now – one in Israel and one in America.

The religious Zionist community in Israel established the Takanah Forum about a decade ago as a reaction to tragic incidents of sexual abuse that occurred in both boys' and girls' schools. A large panel of leading roshei yeshiva [rabbinic heads of yeshivas], male and female educators, rabbis, therapists, and jurists was formed to respond to complaints of sexual abuse not subject to the jurisdiction of the criminal legal system in Israel. Wherever possible, complainants are encouraged to go to the authorities.  

Their most famous and tragic case related to allegations that Rabbi Mordechai Elon, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat HaKotel and charismatic rabbi to many young men and families, who was found guilty of inappropriate physical behavior with a number of boys/young men (http://takana.org.il/en/the-alon-case/). The charges were made public in February 2010, after Rabbi Elon refused to cease his educational activities and refused to stop meeting young men privately, as Takanah had urged him to do.  

The panel reviewing the Rabbi Elon case included such prominent figures as Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel and Bar Ilan law professor Yedidia Stern.  

Since then, Rabbi Elon has refused to comply and has relocated to Migdal in the north where he has a Beit Midrash, and he still lectures around the country. Many of his followers remain staunch believers in him despite the prestigious ethical members of the Takanah panel and despite his conviction in court earlier this month on two charges of sexually assaulting a minor. He is due to be sentenced in October.

The Takanah Forum declared that the charges for which Rabbi Elon was tried pale before the allegations presented to the Forum which were not subject to criminal prosecution. But Rabbi Elon continues to claim innocence, teach and lecture, and lash out against the Takanah Forum, which he publicly called a kangaroo court. 

In defiance of Takanah's warnings, Rabbi Chaim Druckman, head of Yeshivot Bnei Akiva (YBA), the network of Bnei Akiva yeshivas in Israel, engaged Rabbi Elon to teach in his boys' yeshiva, Ohr Etzion, and rehired him after Rabbi Elon's conviction.  

Psychologist and others have observed that this case highlights the danger of charismatic figures, and a failure of the Israeli rabbinate. Followers caught in the allure of such individuals surrender their freedom of choice. We call groups like this a cult. Furthermore, besides the broader Takanah panel, most of the Israeli rabbinate has chosen to remain silent on this case. Rabbi Druckman has gone a step further by enabling Rabbi Elon to teach in a boys’ school, which could potentially have tragic consequences.

Rabbi Druckman did the same thing in the 1990s, allowing Rabbi Ze'ev Kopolovich, rosh yeshiva of YBA's flagship high school, Netiv Meir, to continue teaching there even after Rabbi Kopolovich had been alleged to have sexually assaulted 10 students. This went on until the rabbi was arrested and jailed.

YBA must insist that Rabbi Druckman retract the Rav Elon appointment. If he refuses, the organization must override his decision.

In the U.S., parents of a boy in Lakewood, NJ pressed charges of sexual molestation against Rabbi Yosef Kolko. Rabbi Yisrael Belsky, the Orthodox Union’s halachic authority for kashrut, publicly accused those parents of “mesirah,” the crime of turning a Jew over to secular authorities. As a result, the complainants were driven out of Lakewood. A few months ago Rabbi Kolko confessed to his crimes. Nevertheless, Rabbi Belsky continues to condemn the complainants as “mosrim.” His position is contrary to the OU's position and that of its rabbinic arm, the Rabbinical Council of America, that child abuse must be reported to the secular authorities.

The OU has refused to publicly rebuke or take any action against Rabbi Belsky. It is time that the OU publicly condemn his defiance of the rules of the RCA and the OU. Principles must trump kashrut revenues in a major Orthodox organization’s order of priorities. The existence of the Takanah Forum in Israel is refreshing. Nothing like it exists yet in the United States, though still our community has made some progress in recent years.

But the fact that communal leaders in these two cases are protecting and enabling abusers, or condemning legitimate accusers, underscores that our community still has a long way to go. And given the high stakes of life and death and mental health of our children, we can’t afford to wait.  Things will only change if our community loudly and articulately demands it.

Rabbi Heshie Billet, a former president of the Rabbinical Council of America, is spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Woodmere. 

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Comments

Rabbi Billet, I applaud your clear and concise article but I don't understand one item. Not that I blame you but this Rabbi Elon in Israel that was "found guilty" and then this other Rabbi up north hired him to teach kids and clearly put more children in danger. My question is this. Why isn't Rabbi Elon in jail? Doesn't the Israeli legal system arrest try and convict people like this?

he was found guilty by the court just last week or the week before. The sentencing will be in a few more weeks. The wheels of justice grind slowly here in the Holy land (which is one of the reasons Hazal say that we lose sovereignty. interesting, no?)

Rav Bina has emotionally AND physically abused his students. See this piece from last summer http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/israel-news/has-tough-love-rebbe-gone-too-far
If Rabbi Billet is sincere, he needs to stand behind his words and either address Bina privately about his actions and consider not sending more students to Hakotel and/ or addressing his statements of support on Bina. If not, it's hard to believe these words are genuine.

it takes a lot of chutzpa to criticize the Rabbinate in Israel. He who lives out of Israel is like a worshiper of idols. see Rambam Melachim and Bavli Ktubot.

WRONG.

Saving a life is a Torah Obligation - what you are insinuating is by comparison a totally irrelevant (to this topic) Rabbinical comment.

Any PERSON, let alone RAV, who lives anywhere in the world has an obligation to fight sexual abuse anywhere it is found.

Why aren't YOU banging on the door to change attitudes in order to protect VICTIMS? (Yes we know why - because you made your comment anonymously.)

This article is a refreshing blast of truth and common sense. Yasher koach, Rabbi Billet

Kudos to Rabbi Billet, for taking a stand against child abusers and the rabbis who protect them (and thus facilitate the abuse of other children), and sanction the vilification, shunning and threats by the community of those victims and families who report the crime to police.

Anecdotally, the incidence of child sexual abuse with segments of the haredi community is higher than in other segments, and within the non-haredi Jewish community. Why is this the case, and what is it about the cultural norms within these communities that causes this to be so? The safety of our children trumps any cultural norm, and the cultural norms that facilitate this abuse need to be changed. Not doing so is a gross violation of Jewish values. Shame on them.

Your statement that incidents of this nature are more prevalent in the haredi communities is a serious one. I will assume for the moment that you have hard evidence to back up such a serious accusation against so broad a community. I would say that all communities that are "more religious" are generally easier sometimes for evil to hide out in the open - as they say the best playground for evil is among the good! I am not saying that the haredi are the "good" where evil has a field day among the innocent - but I would caution to think through a little before we throw comments out about which communities have a "bigger" problem.

In my opinion, it is clear is that when incidents like this are exposed in the domain of the more traditional religious verticals, it is often the case that due to the nature of the environment such as a Church or a very religious school as with the haredim, where there is a significant trust vested in the lay leaders and the clergy the story is far more dramatic and the offender often had a much longer run than might be the case in the more secular areas of society. as they say the higher they are the harder they fall - and a Rabbi or Priest is assumed to be much higher than a typical phys-ed or math teacher at some public school.

It is sort of like murder - in Chicago it barely makes the local paper - in cities presumed to be safe it is national news! someone that does not know better might think cities like Detroit and Chicago much safer than they really are if you catch my drift.

At the end of the day - this is an important subject and one that needs more attention - children being molested by anyone cannot be tolerated! the Torah tells us Shoftim V'Shotrim! Shoftim alone gets us a misguided application of certain aspects of the law even by the most well intentioned and greatest among us.

Rabbi Billet, your friend Rabbi Aharon Bina abuses boys every day.
True, he does not sexually molest them but he emotionally abuses them. He humiliates them and embarrasses them. The Talmud says embarrassing someone is akin to killing them. Do you disagree?
If you are serious about protecting our children why don't start with condemning your own friend.
http://binaabuse.wordpress.com/
Some of the things Rabbi Bina has said to boys in front of the classmates during shiur.

"The Skokie Yeshiva has killed more Jewish souls than the Holocaust!”

“The only good homosexual is a dead homosexual”

“Your behavior made God give me cancer.”

“You are going to hell you shvartze.”

“God hates you!”

“You are so fat you are going to have a heart attack and die!”

“You are going to marry five shiksas.”

“Aish Hatorah brainwashes everyone. But brainwashing is good. We need to brainwash our talmidim.”

“Mevaseret [yeshiva] is a joke. The rabbis there don’t know how to learn Torah.”

On May 19, 2013, I wrote the following letter to Rav Belsky. He has not responded.

Rav Yisroel Belsky
c/o Yeshiva Torah Vodaas
425 East 9th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11218

Re: Yosef Kolko

Dear Rav Belsky,

I am a former talmid of Mesivta Torah Vodaas and remember you as a rebbe in the Mesivta when I was in the Beis Medrash almost 50 years ago. I write this letter as a poshete yid, without any connection to Kolko or his victim.

I was very disturbed to read about the proclamation that you authored and disseminated to the Lakewood community prior to Yosef Kolko’s guilty plea to child molestation. Your actions caused great harm to the victim and to his family. Your statements were false and defamatory as confirmed by Kolko’s guilt.

My rabbeim in Torah Vodaas always told us that if we wronged another human being we had to apologize to him, citing the famous chazal that Yom Kippur does not atone for wrongs done bain adam l”chaveiro. I trust that you will agree that rabbanim should be held to at least the standard of their talmidim and hopefully to a higher standard.

I was always told that the way to counteract a chilul Hashem is with a kiddush Hashem. I respectfully submit that you should be mochel on your kovod and publically ask the victim and his family for mechila.

Respectfully yours,
Solomon Liss

rabbi belsky is a posek.You have the right to hold like a posek who disagrees with him(if there is)but "you" dont have the right to open your mouth.You talk about chilul hashem and asking for mechila? Your letter alone forget about your posting it online is a lack of kovod hatorah and a big chilull hashem.If you would know what the gemorrah and seforim say what happens to people who defame a talmid chochom let alone a godol, you would run and beg mechila.I hope you do teshuva. A ksiva vachasima tova.

Oh, well. He's a 'posek'. I guess anyone who holds himself out to be a posek can operate with impunity, since no one can ever call them out on what is so obviously wrong.

I don't care how much Gemara or hilchot Shabbat Belsky knows- it is worthless- WORTHLESS- in the face of his behavior on this issue. Derech Eretz KADMA l'Torah, my friend.

Belsky will have to answer in Shomayim for what he said and did, and didn't say and didn't do.

The very best article on this topic (enabling sex abuse in the jewish community) that I ever read can be found at ariweisbrot.com It went viral and everyone is talking about it.

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