Decades of eyebrow-raising at male bonding methods morphed into suspicions of abuse this week as the Bronx Country District Attorney Bureau on Child Sex Abuse and Sex Crimes opened an investigation against New York Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt.
On Friday, Rosenblatt, for over 30 years the rabbi of the Riverdale Jewish Center Synagogue, was the topic of a lengthy New York Times article portraying his decades-long allegedly inappropriate behavior with young unclothed males. The article described how Rosenblatt would invite boys as young as 12 to play squash, followed by bathing and a sauna.
Some of those involved, now men, claimed the rabbi gawked at their nakedness; others weren’t bothered at all. But what is clear from the NY Times article and follow-up media pieces is that Rosenblatt’s questionable behavior over the past three decades was an open secret that left many boys and young men uncomfortable.
Now, the Bronx District Attorney is calling upon these men to describe their experiences — even anonymously — and aid in charting the rabbi’s behavior patterns.
This simple step — the on-record recounting of an uncomfortable encounter — is a key step to ending abuse, say activists. The more light is shed on irregular or abusive experiences, the greater is the deterrent for perpetrators.
There is evidence of the beginnings of change, say experts, as social media and online survivor communities provide anonymous or nonthreatening platforms for survivors to testify. And, they predict numbers of incidents in the clergy will wane as rabbinical seminaries take increased screening precautions and institute mental health formation as part of the student rabbis’ training.
There is hope that as victims are empowered to stand up and be counted, bad apples will be weeded out early — and those very human rabbis who do find themselves inclined to engage in suspect behavior will increasingly have places to turn to for help.
Something rotten in the rabbinate?
With increasing regularity, decades-old cases involving suspected clergy abuse are surfacing in the media because, according to abuse activists, it can take survivors that long to be able to recount suspicious or abusive episodes. Sometimes it involves overcoming shame, in other cases the rabbi is enshrined on such a high pedestal by the congregation that the victim fears he won’t be believed.
It was only recently that the Rosenblatt case began to be discussed somewhat openly, in an alumni message board for a Jewish foundation. However, reports from disturbed congregants and students had come before the Modern Orthodox Riverdale Jewish Center Synagogue‘s leadership as early as the 1980s, according to the NY Times article. By the 2000s, Rosenblatt’s alma mater Yeshiva University, which deploys student interns, and the Rabbinical Council of America, his umbrella organization, had asked Rosenblatt to desist.
Additionally, in an editorial Tuesday called “Riverdale’s ‘Open Secret’ Goes Public,” The Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt wrote that three years ago several prominent synagogue members offered to buy out Rosenblatt’s contract to preempt a press scandal. The rabbi declined, but did agree to leave for a sabbatical at Harvard.
No unusual activity was reported by Jewish leadership to authorities outside the Jewish community. (An email to Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America and the founder of JSafe, an organization that fights domestic violence and child abuse in the Jewish community, was not answered.)
The Rosenblatt case is just one in a rash of long-term suspected clergy abuse cases recently capturing international headlines. Others include February’s graphic testimony of child sex abuse in Chabad schools during Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and the May conviction of Rabbi Barry Freundel, sentenced to 6.5 years for 52 counts of misdemeanor voyeurism in Washington, DC.
With a shroud of shame over victims, and a history of institutionalized communal cover-ups, there are no reliable statistics that portray how prevalent abuse is in Jewish communities. Some experts estimate that it is in line with statistics in the general population, in which 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men are abused by age 18.
Jewish abuse activist Ben Hirsch, director of the Brooklyn-based Orthodox sex abuse organization Survivors for Justice, said in a 2013 Vice report exploring clergy abuse that by his estimates 50% of the ultra-Orthodox community has experienced such abuse.
“There is now sufficient evidence to indicate that there are a significant number of victims/survivors within the ultra-Orthodox community,” said Australian abuse activist and survivor Manny Waks in a phone call from his home in France.
Waks said there is anecdotal evidence suggesting numbers are higher in the ultra-Orthodox community than in more mainstream Judaism because of greater opportunity for abuse — he cites large families, an insular communal structure, sexual taboos, separate gendered spheres — though there is not direct evidence of more actual abuse.
“However, with what we’ve been exposed to thus far, it would seem fair to claim that some/many would indeed take advantage of these ‘opportunities,’” Waks added.
Seeking power, to corrupt
Dr. Michael J. Salamon is a New York psychologist affiliated with several Jewish survivor organizations, including the controversial Jewish Community Watch, which displays a Wall of Shame of alleged perpetrators. He works with victims of abuse from all faiths, and said there is no clinical evidence that there are more abuse cases in Orthodoxy. He said, however, there are fewer cases reported from insular communities than the general population.
Additionally, abusers are not statistically more likely to appear in the rabbinate than any other profession, Salamon said. However, “people who have the propensity to abuse seek positions of power,” including the clergy, education, and medicine. Some 80% of abusers were abused themselves.
In Salamon’s 2011 book, “Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims,” he writes there are four basic types of abuse: verbal, emotional, physical and sexual, or a combination. All involve psychological manipulation. “In order to be an abuser, regardless of the type of abuse that you employ, you have to create a willing victim.”
“Those with certain personality types have this need to victimize,” said Salamon in a phone conversation from his New York clinic. The perpetrator will put himself in a position where he feels in control of others and their emotions and “somehow have them feel like they were dependent upon him.”
While the details in the Rosenblatt case are still murky — most of the alleged recent activity took place with males over age 18 and there was little or no touching involved — like the Freundel case, most of the suspicions surrounding Rosenblatt allege voyeuristic behavior.
According to Salamon, “voyeuristic abuse is a form of psychopathology” that is acknowledged as a disorder by mental health experts and can cause the same psychological effects as physical abuse.
Author Elana Sztokman, the former head of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, published op-eds railing against widespread belittling of Freundel’s abuse as “just voyeurism” during his sentencing.
“When we think about clergy acting out sexual abuse, we’re looking at a pattern of men… who need to assert their power over others, be more powerful, use their subjects, our kids, as objects in their sort of need to assert power,” she said in a conversation from her Israel home this week.
“Voyeurism is a huge emotional violation, but sometimes we don’t have the language to talk about it. There is no violence, no touch, but really the essence of sexual abuse is the ultimate manipulation of power and control. The rabbi is saying, ‘I own you, I am consuming you with my eyes,’” said Sztokman.
Efforts toward prevention
Yeshivot and rabbinical schools try to weed out this personality, said abuse activist Salamon, but there are no good screening tools yet. He added that many yeshivot do a search through a private investigator firm to determine whether the individual has any questionable history of abuse.
“Some do, more need to,” qualified Salamon.
As written on RCA head Rabbi Dratch’s JSafe website, “The problems of domestic violence and child abuse in the Jewish community are difficult to address for many reasons, foremost among them are the absence of standards and organization… The problem is systemic. The Jewish community has no single hierarchy or unifying infrastructure that enables it to set standards for training or to hold professionals responsible in these areas.”
One rabbinical school that has already created an institutionalized approach toward prevention, however, is New York’s Riverdale-based Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) in its pastoral counseling and mental health program, directed by psychiatrist Dr. Michelle Friedman with the assistance of Miriam Schacter, a licensed clinical social worker.
According to YCT president Rabbi Asher Lopatin, “Sexual abuse is discussed in terms of the students’ current environment and also when they go into their professional fields.” In the pastoral counseling program, students are taught through role playing “to be aware of boundary violations and misuse of power.”
“Judaism long ago recognized the importance of modesty, valuing the human dignity of each person. Rabbis must be at the forefront of understanding and advocating for people never to be put in situations where they feel there is sexual discomfort or abuse of power,” said Lopatin.
In an early morning phone conversation from Italy, pastoral counseling chair Friedman explained in layman’s terms that “it’s pretty hard to screen out malignant sociopathy… people who have a deviance conceal it very well.” But she emphasized the school has set in place a system of gates, including group interviews for character, not academic prowess, that always include at least one woman.
Additionally, as part of the rabbinical students’ professional formation, YCT has a required weekly small group meeting with mental health professionals over the course of the four-year program.
If the goal of a program is to mold pulpit rabbis to lead Jewish congregations, “there has to be a real commitment to character clarity,” said Friedman on behalf of the institutions.
“We can only, and any institution can only, set up an atmosphere of trust and confidentiality. The goal of the process groups is for people to take it forward and trust in their band of brothers so that when they come into a dark place of their own they don’t keep it a secret and keep this nasty worm in their soul,” she said.
Many rabbis, put on a pedestal by their congregations, lose sight of what it is to be human, and being human means imperfection.
At YCT, the goal is for the rabbinic student to understand he can “still be a good rabbi and a flawed person… [to instill] some sense of trust that when you have a dark time it’s not the end of the world, and you don’t let it rot,” said Friedman.
Psychologist Salamon echoes Friedman’s statements. “I want to emphasize — as much as we respect our spiritual leaders, it is important to remember they are human beings. They don’t get a pass because they’re nice people,” said Salamon, who said he has received death threats for reporting abuse to secular authorities.
A cross-denominational epidemic
Sue Cox was raised to revere priests, and, good Catholic girl that she was, she did. She was brought up to believe that, in touching the communion bread, priests even had “sacred hands.”
But then the local parish priest began touching her with his “blessed hands” and she was repeatedly abused and raped from age 10 to 13. To get away from home and a mother who couldn’t support her, Cox married by 17 and was divorced with six children by 32.
It took Cox 50 years to overcome her guilt and shame to speak about her childhood abuse at the hands of the parish priest. Today, the British healthcare worker and addictions counselor is the founder of Survivors Voice Europe, an international organization that supports survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
She says she kept silent because she thought she was the only one to suffer such unspeakable acts. But today she know that speaking out is the only way to raise societal awareness over the issue and prevent more attacks. Now the award-winning activist educates at every opportunity.
“It’s not a nice thing to be well-known as somebody who has been raped by a fat smelly clergy member,” Cox frankly told The Times of Israel in a phone call from England this week. But she sees herself as a champion for those who have not yet been able to find their voices.
Through Survivors Voice Europe Cox has heard stories from all over the globe of abuse at the hands of priests, ministers and rabbis. The survivors — not victims — find a community within the organization, and peace of mind in knowing they are not alone.
“It largely doesn’t matter what flavor of cleric they are — rabbi, priest or Anglican vicar — the issue is all about power abuse,” she said.
But Cox is amazingly optimistic for an abuse activist. For a millennium, she said, religious hierarchy has allowed clerics who feel themselves above the law get away with these crimes. Now, however, through the amplification of social media to expose potentially abusive behaviors in real time, this is getting harder to do.
“With the world getting smaller through technology, people are more willing to stand up and be counted,” she said. “Young people are more aware of risks and “less easily duped.”
“The world is getting better. It’s a horrible thing to realize that it’s been like this forever, but the only way to change it is to shine a spotlight on these dark corners of hierarchies that have been getting away with it for years,” said Cox.