Sexual abuse in Orthodox Jewish institutions

Recently came news that the Roman Catholic diocese of Rochester, NY became the 20th US diocese to file for bankruptcy. The reason is of course because of the large number of lawsuits that the church has faced because of the sexual abuse by priests and the cover-ups by the church. The bishops knew about the activities of the priests but instead of taking stern action and reporting them to the secular authorities, they moved the priests around to hide the crimes. It is likely that other dioceses in the state will be forced to follow because of a new state law called the Child Victims Act, “which temporarily set aside the usual statute of limitations for lawsuits to give victims of childhood sexual abuse a year to pursue even decades-old claims” that enabled victims to bring their complaints to court.

But the Catholic church is hardly alone in this kind of appalling behavior. It should not be a surprise that any institution that has an authoritarian structure and where adults have unsupervised time with children would attract pedophiles into its ranks. The Boy Scouts are another institution that has had its share of scandals and is now facing massive lawsuits. It is shocking that these organizations did not recognize this danger and put in place all manner of safeguards to prevent it, rather than focusing their energies on how to prevent news of the abuse from leaking out.

The Orthodox Jewish community is also guilty of very similar behavior, as an article by Linda Stasi in the October 2019 issue of Harpers Magazine reveals. The details she gives are depressingly familiar. In this case George Finkelstein and Macy Gordon, two rabbis at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, sexually molested boys and got away with it because the authorities, even though they knew of allegations against them, hushed things up.

In total, Finkelstein and Gordon are suspected of hundreds of acts of sexual abuse at Yeshiva, though they never faced any legal repercussions. Finkelstein was discreetly forced out of Yeshiva in 1995 but quickly found work as the dean of a Jewish day school in Florida and later as the director general of the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, although allegations of abuse followed him to each of these new positions.

Gordon, for his part, enjoyed a thirty-plus-year career at Yeshiva. He also eventually moved to Jerusalem, where, according to the New York Times, he served alongside Finkelstein on the advisory board of the National Council of Young Israel, an organization promoting Orthodox Judaism to liberal American Jews.

In 2013, thirty-four of Finkelstein’s and Gordon’s victims—including Singer, Goldberg, John Doe 14, and John Doe 2—filed a $680 million lawsuit against Yeshiva, alleging that sexual misconduct occurred for decades with the knowledge of the administration and without recourse for victims or punishment for the perpetrators. But by the time the suit was filed, the statute of limitations had expired, and the case was dismissed.

But the new Child Victims Act passed in New York state that enabled the recent lawsuits against the Boy Scouts is also going to be used to revive these cases. The Catholic church, the Boy Scouts, the Orthodox Jewish community, and others lobbied hard against this bill and managed to thwart its passage year after year but finally in 2018, voters kicked out those Democratic senators who had been siding with Republicans (a great example of shady politics that Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo used) to avoid taking any progressive stands and the bill finally passed.

As of this writing, attorneys for the former Yeshiva students—now numbering forty-one—planned to refile the lawsuit with new evidence on August 14, the day the law was scheduled to go into effect. Their hope, one of the attorneys, Michael Dowd, told me, is for Yeshiva to “finally be held accountable for their craven, repugnant, and unconscionable behavior in letting known sexual predators have unfettered access to scores of innocent and unsuspecting boys.” But even if they succeed, it’s far from certain whether the C.V.A. will be able to fundamentally change the culture of secrets and lies that has given rise to scandals such as the one at Yeshiva in the first place.

One option the authorities use to hide the offenses and avoid prosecution is to bundle off the offenders to Israel.

Seewald’s Jewish Community Watch estimates that at least sixty-five Jews suspected or convicted of sexual abuse—the vast majority of them Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox—have relocated to Israel in the past decade. “As in many other close-knit religious communities,” said Shana Aaronson, chief operating officer of J.C.W., “abusers have often taken to moving from one community to the next when things start heating up for them.”

Acting against abusive rabbis in the Orthodox Jewish community is hard because the culture of the community requires people to settle problems within the group and strongly pressures people against approaching secular authorities.

Getting the full scope of the problem, particularly among the ultra-Orthodox, is close to impossible. Part of the reason for the lack of dependable data is the concept of mesirah—a violation of rabbinical law in which one Jew reports another for a crime to nonreligious, civil authorities.

Today, the notion of mesirah persists within ultra-Orthodox sects and has been used to frighten victims of sexual assault, as well as their families, into remaining silent.

When abuse is actually reported to internal religious institutions, the allegations are frequently dismissed out of hand. According to one Hasidic rabbi I spoke with, “The attitude is, ‘minors before bar mitzvah are considered not trustworthy, so why should we believe them?’ ” Other times, making an accusation of sexual assault can result in ostracism by the community, even financial ruin. “The schools in the ultra-Orthodox world have connections to each other,” Hirsch explained. “Students can’t go from one school to another without clearances from previous schools. If the school bad-mouths a student, they will not be accepted—no high school, no higher education.”

Not only can accusers be denied the opportunity to make a living, they can be prevented from establishing their own family. “The first threat is always marriage,” said Hirsch. “The schools have tremendous power, so in a community where arranged marriages are the norm, the threat that ‘you are not going to ever get married if you open your mouth’ is very intimidating.”

Let’s hope these lawsuits bring about major reforms. Since these organizations, despite their lofty rhetoric, seem to lack any sense of morality, the only thing that will spur them to take action against abusers is the threat of lawsuits that lead to massive financial losses.


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