Rabbis' Addictions Coming To Light
04/11/03
Staff Writer
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In a Trenton, N.J., courtroom last week, Rabbi Juda Mintz, a charismatic Orthodox champion of Jewish pluralism, stood before a federal judge, his fate in the balance. He faced Federal District Court Judge Mary Cooper, charged with downloading child pornography onto his synagogue computer. The rabbi and his followers hoped the judge would allow him to serve his time at the Los Angeles residential Jewish addiction center he moved to a year ago. But while Cooper praised the rabbi for turning his life around since his arrest three years ago and ministering to other Jewish addicts, she sentenced him to one year and one day in a federal penitentiary. Rabbi Mintz, a passionately spiritual Modern Orthodox rabbi whose career was devoted to reaching all Jews, regardless of denomination or degree of assimilation, has been in treatment since he was fired from New Jersey's Mount Freedom Jewish Center in 2000. Since moving to Beit Tshuvah, he has started programs and synagogue services specifically for Jewish addicts, and was reaching out to hidden addicted rabbis. "I am devastated," Rabbi Mintz said of his sentence in an exclusive interview, in which he spoke of a desire to continue his work once released. Rabbi Mintz is one of a growing number of Jewish clergymen whose names have been in the headlines recently after being arrested for sexual, financial or substance abuse and related behavior. Reform Cantor Howard Nevison of Temple Emanu-el in Manhattan was arrested last year and charged with sexually abusing his young nephew. In February, Orthodox Rabbi Israel Kestenbaum, director of the New York Board of Rabbis' Jewish Center for Spiritual Care, was arrested in a police Internet sting operation and charged with attempted dissemination of indecent material to a minor. Rabbi Baruch Lanner last year was sentenced to seven years in prison for his abuse of two teenage students when he was the principal of a yeshiva high school in New Jersey. Their cases shine a light on the issue of addiction in the rabbinate and how the Jewish community is dealing (and mostly not dealing) with it. Sexual and other addictions among clergy are coming into public view as a result of the Catholic Church's pedophilia scandals. And in the Jewish community, the issue is beginning to emerge from the shadows as experts within the major branches of Judaism call for much more attention to be paid. Most rabbinical schools are beginning to integrate pastoral education into their curricula, but only to teach their students how to deal with congregants' problems, not their own. "I can't really say that I've seen much in terms of ërabbi heal thyself,' " said Dr. Michelle Friedman, a psychiatrist and director of pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a new Modern Orthodox rabbinical school in Manhattan. "I really hope that it's beginning but I don't think it's out there yet." At Chovevei Torah, which is taking pioneering strides on issues of rabbinic self-awareness, students are required to take instruction in pastoral issues during each of their four years. Classes are taught by experts in fields ranging from domestic violence to addiction. Students also must attend weekly "process groups" facilitated by psychologists and psychiatrists, where they work out their internal conflicts. That kind of intensive psychological supervision continues once the students are placed doing fieldwork. And nothing said in those sessions is shared with the school's administrators, said Friedman. But the new seminary is seen by observers as one bright spot in an area that should command much more attention. Clergy Are Susceptible "There is an issue of addiction in the rabbinate in all the movements," said Bonita Nathan Sussman, director of JACS: Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others, a program of the New York Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services. Clergy are especially vulnerable to addictive behavior, experts say. "Clergy are highly susceptible to the urgings of a strong shadow or yetzer harah [evil inclination], because the brighter the persona, the darker the shadow," said Harriet Rosetto, chief executive officer of Beit Tshuvah, who took the unusual step of flying across the country to be with Rabbi Mintz at his sentencing last week. Three of Beit Tshuvah's 110 current residents are rabbis, she said. Two, including Rabbi Mintz, are Orthodox and one is Conservative. While other addictions, from drugs to food, are also found, sex addiction is disproportionately common among clergymen, Rosetto said, "for the very reason that it is so taboo and forbidden." "It's because power is an aphrodisiac, because one is constantly called upon to nurture others. Of all the addictions, sex is the one that most seems to fall in the moral range, and clergy are supposed to be moral. "In their own minds, and the minds of those who revere them, they're supposed to be without blemish," she said. "And the more you feel you're supposed to be without blemish, the more blemishes appear. If you can't acknowledge your imperfections and know where to go with them, it flourishes. "And nowhere in anybody's rabbinic training or practice does anyone talk about it or tell you what to do with it." Others agree, though there is at least tacit acknowledgement that addiction among rabbis exists. For years, astute observers at rabbinical conventions have noticed a small sign tacked to the bulletin board designated for messages between attendees. It announces a meeting for "Friends of Bill W.," usually late in the evening after other activities have ended. The sign points those in the know toward a 12-step meeting, which in this setting would be attended just by rabbis. But those meetings happen just once a year, and rabbis struggle to find a place of their own the rest of the time. The movements' rabbinical arms offer no formal professional forum for addressing the issue. Representatives of the rabbis' organizations interviewed say they haven't had seminars on addiction among rabbis at their conferences. "Like many issues, addiction in the rabbinate isn't talked about within the rabbinical organizations and training institutions," said Kerry Olitzky, a Reform rabbi and author of four books about Jewish spirituality and recovery from addiction. "When it is talked about, it's talked about behind closed doors," said Rabbi Olitzky, who also heads the Jewish Outreach Institute. "Just as it took the Jewish community a long time to recognize that addiction was a problem among everyday people, it's taking them even longer to acknowledge it among caregivers, particularly rabbis." Cases ëSwept Under Rug' So what happens when it becomes known that a rabbinic colleague is staggering, or even falling, under the weight of an addiction? Though awareness of it may not reach colleagues, even when it does, little happens beyond a rabbinical organization's occasional refusal to place them in a new movement-affiliated synagogue. Addicted rabbis, when they lose their jobs, usually move from one community to another, usually to unaffiliated synagogues. For laypeople, "one form of denying the problem is just to get rid of the rabbi," said Hirsch Chinn, a fervently Orthodox rabbi who is a member of the JACS rabbinic advisory board. In the fervently Orthodox world, people don't always even go that far. "Kids are molested continually," said Rabbi Benzion Twerski, a psychotherapist in private practice in Brooklyn's haredi community. "These are not things that hit the media, and it's not a raging epidemic, but it happens within the yeshivas. These incidents happen in the finest of places. "The perpetrators are more often than not faculty. When these things happen, they get shushed up real quick and the rebbe or faculty member gets moved around to different jobs. They get shuffled around, not moved out of town, because people think it will go away," he said. "The majority of cases get swept under the rug. The people doing this have a problem of molesting, and it's an addiction, but it's seen as an aberration, as misbehavior," he said. While little is done about an addicted rabbi within most rabbinical groups, the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America hopes to include issues like this in its ethics guidelines, which it has just started revising, said Rabbi Heshie Billet, its president. The current guidelines were written decades ago. "We want to upgrade the standards so we can deal with a lot of these issues that come up today that didn't come up 30 years ago," he told The Jewish Week. Pastoral Issues On Agenda At the seminary level, aside from Chovevei Torah, pastoral issues have begun to take on a greater visibility. Addiction, however, is studied only as a problem among congregants and remains unexamined as a potential personal threat or issue. In the last few years, pastoral care classes have been made mandatory at the Reform movement's seminary but remain voluntary at the Conservative movement's. "We offer them but not every rabbi student gets takes them. They should be mandatory," said Dr. Herb Nieburg, director of the student counseling service and adjunct associate professor of professional skills at JTS. Little attention is paid to addiction issues at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, even in pastoral counseling courses, said Rabbi Linda Holtzman, director of practical rabbinics there. "We do not do enough on the subject of addiction," she said. "It doesn't feel to me as if every student who leaves here is prepared well in this area." The truth is, rabbis are not just human beings but human beings with uniquely challenging jobs. They live in the fishbowls of their communities: Nearly their every action is seen by someone they know, and at the same time they are put on psychological pedestals by their congregants. "Too often," one rabbi said, "we start to believe our own press." "The pressures on congregational rabbis in particular are extraordinary," said Rabbi Eric Lankin, a pulpit rabbi for 14 years and now director of religious and educational activities at the national organization United Jewish Communities. Rabbi Lankin, a Conservative rabbi, also has a doctorate in pastoral counseling from the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College and a special expertise in gambling addiction. "The expectations of congregants and the Jewish community and the 24/7 schedules of a rabbi are impossible, and those who have a proclivity to addiction can easily find themselves there," said Rabbi Lankin. Even when they want to start recovery, rabbis face the challenge of having no truly safe space to turn to in the 12-step world. "It's a very bold move for a rabbi to go to a meeting, for fear that someone will see you," said Rabbi Mark Borovitz, a convicted felon and recovering drug addict. After being released from prison, he attended rabbinical school at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and has since become the rabbi of Beit Tshuvah. "Even though meetings are supposed to be anonymous, people are people." Rabbi Mintz, now waiting to begin his sentence, says if a rabbi in any community comes out and declares their addiction, "by and large they are risking their job." "Who do we trust, who do we let our hair down to?" he asks. "Even among colleagues, there are so many issues of turf, competitiveness and ego. For rabbis especially, we are judged on such a high pedestal no matter what. We need to find a place of healing." To provide a safe haven for rabbis with addictions, he recently started Recovering Rabbis Anonymous, which is backed by Beit Tshuvah. The group met for the first time last week in Los Angeles. Three rabbis came. Rabbi Mintz couldn't attend. He was on his way to New Jersey for sentencing.

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