Book on rabbinic abuse hits home


“When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture” by Elana Sztokman. 442 pages $36.99.

This book lifts the curtain on an all-too familiar horror show. The predator with the power — sometimes political, at other times economic, in the case of rabbis, often spiritual and/or charismatic — forces himself or herself on the the victim without the person’s consent.


The abuse can be sexual, physical or verbal; the abusers are usually male, but a few female predators also make their marks. Victims include adults and children, mostly girls and women but some boys and men.


Whether it’s the yeshivah teacher or the local congregational rabbi, celebrities like Harvey Weinstein or other alleged big-name predators like philanthropist Michael Steinhart, sociologist Steven Cohen, journalist and author Ari Shavit and Shlomo Carlebach, the iconic “singing rabbi” whose songs can often be heard in synagogues and other Jewish venues, the story is much the same.


Within the Jewish world, author Elana Sztokman, herself a victim of abuse, notes the phenomenon extends across all the movements — Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform. 


There has been some research into abuse in the Orthodox community but not much across the full Jewish spectrum, where more study is needed, the author notes.  While Sztokman points out a few peculiarities, notably, the exaggerated faith in all Jewish communities that “it can’t happen here,” she concludes that “societal structures and hierarchies built into faith communities — and behaviors for protecting those power hierarchies — enable abuse and protect abusers.” 


It’s probable then that abuse by rabbis and machers is not much different than that by their counterparts in the Muslim or Christian worlds,


The author means this book to be a serious social-science study. It is, and it gets a little convoluted sometimes.


But the research here consists of interviews with abuse victims whose stories while sad, are often interesting. 


One of the most incredible storylines is the fate of those women who speak up about their abuser. Those who complained were often disregarded or blamed themselves for the incidents. 


One woman related that at a conference, mega-donor Michael Steinhardt said he wanted a vote as to whether the executive director should have a baby. A Jewish professional woman said publicly that he had crossed the line with that comment. “For months after, I was getting calls about this,” the woman said. “They were all angry at me. They said that I would never work in the Jewish community again. [The woman I defended] was angry with me. She said he’s her biggest donor.” 


Rarely, is the abuser punished even after his actions become known. Sometimes, he is removed from his job, but often moved to another position in the same organization.


An interviewee was asked to speak at a conference where the main speaker was a rabbi who had been fired by his synagogue for abuse.


When her protest about that rabbi to the conference organizers was in effect ignored, she concluded that “alienating or turning away a rabbi doesn’t seem like something they were willing to do.” 


One woman reported that her congregational rabbi had raped her while counseling her for depression. He said she — “a virgin Bais Yaakov girl who never talked to boys,” in her words — had seduced him. He got a promotion to head a large Orthodox congregation; she was ostracized and left the community. 


It’s no wonder that the author recommends creating a safe environment in which woman can report their abuse and punishing those guilty of that crime.


I agree — no ands, ifs or buts.


But. I know one of the abusers, Rabbi Barry Freundel. (I also had a nodding acquaintance with Rabbi Carlebach during the time I lived in Jerusalem.) I interviewed him on several occasions when I was a reporter for Washington Jewish Week newspaper.


Freundel was a pillar of the Jewish community, rabbi at Kesher Israel Congregation in the District, where one of his congregants was Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the Democratic candidate for vice president in the 2000 presidential election. He was a well-respected scholar of halachah, Jewish law.


I am not claiming to know the rabbi well, and it is possible that his image as a frum Orthodox man was a fraud. But I don’t think that is the case.


I believe he knew that by secretly making videos of the women in the synagogue’s mikveh, he was breaking man’s law and, more important, God’s law. He also knew that if he were caught, he would lose his life — his family, his friends, his rabbinical position, his teaching positions, everything. Despite all that, he set up his secret camera.


Let me be clear, what he did was reprehensible, horrific. His actions need to be condemned. His prison sentence was well-earned.


What I am suggesting is that maybe Freundel — and possibly some of the other predators in the book — are dealing with compulsions that are extremely difficult for them to resist. (I am neither an attorney nor a psychiatrist, but am sure that if it would have been determined that those urges were impossible for him to control, that he would have been sentenced to a psychiatric hospital, not prison.)


In the same way that some of the abused women whose stories were told in the book report benefiting from therapy, I hope that Rabbi Freundel got (is getting) help that I believe he may need.


It is easy to have compassion for the victims of abuse; it’s more difficult to understand what may have caused the abusers to transgress.


But if we are to deal with this social plague, we need to make the effort.


Aaron Leibel’s memoir, “Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrants’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s” (Chickadee Prince Books), is available for purchase online and at bookstores.

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