Sunday, March 03, 2013

Open Letter to Dr. Esther Shkop

Captain Daniel E. Sosnowik
It appears that the story I posted last Friday has found its way to the mainstream media and has gone viral. Although I am still reluctant to post any of the names of the individuals involved out of respect to both the institution and individuals that I know personally, it no longer serves any useful purpose.

I have just received an open letter to Dr. Esther Shkop from Captain Daniel Sosnowik of the NYPD. Captain Sosnowik is an Orthodox Jew who has been a vitcitms’ advocate for many years. (A brief bio of the author is posted below.) He asked if I would post it. 

After considering all the possible consequences of posting such a letter in the open, I have concluded that it worthwhile publishing it. 

Unless there are other issues that the public is not aware of, “Kaylie” should not be expelled for what she did and an apology by both Dr. Shkop and the school is in order. I agree with the thrust of this letter. 

I ask that all comments about – or directed to Dr. Shkop be made with the deference she is due. She has more than earned it. The letter  follows.

March 3, 2013

Esther M. Shkop, Ph.D.
Dean, Machon Torani L'Banot
Blitstein Institute of Hebrew Theological College
2606 West Touhy Avenue
Chicago, IL  60645

Dear Dr. Shkop,

As you by now know, a recent email of yours has entered the public today's terminology, 'gone viral'. Given the great debate that the email -- and the posting it addressed -- has generated, I believe we stand at the threshold of an excellent learning opportunity. And, what greater value can be gained from life's challenges, if not for us to learn from them?

First, my credentials: as a manager and executive for three-fourths of my career, and an educator for the past decade, I (like you) spend most of my days focused on the needs of my students and their learning environment. My position, like yours, imbues every action with enormous significance. There can be no flippant comment or poorly penned document; leaders know that.  As Pirkei Avos teaches, "Wise ones, be careful of your words..."

With your email now in the public sphere, this truly is, in our parlance, a 'teaching moment'.  Please allow me to focus on this moment, for the sake of our community.

First, the most obvious lesson: it's time for our generation to understand the power of social networking.  Raised in a different era, we have watched the world change unalterably before our eyes.  Many in our community continue to try and live by old rules. Hopefully, your incident shows even the most obstinate among us that the next generation is fully prepared to use the tools of their world. If we are to remain relevant educators and mechanchim -- to them, of course -- it behooves us to learn those tools as well.

More importantly, however, is the second lesson of this incident: a lesson on leadership. The Facebook posting -- and the anonymous call reporting it -- presented you with a unique challenge. As anyone in a leadership position knows, quick response to challenges is every leader's dilemma.

That your response to this challenge was lacking is likely now evident to you.  Again, I am not writing to berate you personally or to belabor that fact.  Rather, I believe your response allows for an examination of leadership in general, enabling all of us to learn in the aftermath of this incident.

Specifically, I was struck by one phrase in your email:

You no longer appear as a full human - but as 'case study'...

This remark brought to mind a Medrash in Sefer Shmos. Many of us heard this Medrash at an early age; it describes a seminal event in the life of our greatest leader.  That event, which catapulted him to leadership, animal:

Once, when Moshe was tending Yisro's flocks, a goat ran away from the flock.  He gave chase...a stream appeared, and the goat stopped to drink.  Upon catching up, Moshe said, 'I didn't know you were thirsty. You must be tired from the chase.' And with that, he hoisted the goat on his shoulders and carried it back with him.

At that point, the Holy One, Blessed be He, said, 'You will tend My flocks.'

A heartwarming lesson in compassion for children....but would you not agree that for us adults it raises some troubling questions? For one, why would a man be elevated to leadership based on an interaction with an animal?  And, what makes Moshe more compassionate here, rather than, say, when he risked his own life by killing the Egyptian?

Obviously, the Medrash contains profound lessons on leadership. As our community continues to struggle with the scourge of child abuse in our midst, I believe these lessons speak directly to the topic.  And as your email shows, we still need lessons in addressing these innocent victims, and confronting their ugly truths:

Lesson # 1: Leaders avoid pulling rank

Having just chased down the animal, and panting from exertion, Moshe might have been excused for losing himself....especially with a goat. However, he didn't play the 'man vs. animal' card, or otherwise lose himself.  Even when on the ropes -- physically or emotionally -- leaders don't lose themselves.

Lesson # 2: Even when they're wrong, be especially compassionate.

Logically, Moshe would have been fully justified in thinking that the goat's thirst was the result of the chase, and not its cause.  At the least, the goat's thirst was irrelevant, and should have been ignored.
Instead, Moshe's greatness shown by his justifying the goat's escape, even when he rightfully could have done otherwise. Cause, effect, and blame were immaterial; his sole focus was summoning compassion.

Lesson # 3: Doing nothing isn't an option. Help.

After confronting the natural inclinations to pull rank and focus on the slight to himself, Moshe went one step further. He put himself in the goat's place, and discerned how he could best help at the moment. Right or wrong, the goat probably needed some rest. And he provided it.

It's past time that we as a community follow Moshe Rabeinu's example.  Many abuse victims in our midst are in spiritual and emotional disarray.  To use their standing against them, especially vis-à-vis their tormentors, represents the height of injustice, and is an ugly stain on many of our leaders.

Even more so, it's time to redirect our misplaced compassion.  It should never be about us, our shidduchim, or our institutions. Instead, our compassion need be with the victims.  For better or for worse, their welfare is our responsibility.

And, once we acknowledge that responsibility, it's time for all of us to do the next step: Help.  If the victims are the priority, assisting them is our task. Many are broken.  Healing them will be no easy task.  Addressing the dysfunctional communal values which have enabled the abuse problem to fester will be still harder.

After a long chase, carrying that goat in the hot desert wasn't easy either.

Dr. Shkop, you have a unique opportunity. A front burner issue for our community has crossed your desk. Although you stumbled in your initial response, you can now make good for all child abuse survivors.

I urge you to publicly recant your remarks to the student you emailed. In the internet age, it behooves you to issue a public statement of compassion.

Likewise, I urge you to develop a policy for HTC that will serve as a guide for all Jewish institutions in the handling of child abuse, its victims, and its survivors.

Doing so will render this event a turning point in our community's challenge on this topic.  And, it will enable you to exercise appropriate leadership on this troubling issue. Good luck.


Daniel E. Sosnowik

Captain Sosnowik is a 29 year veteran of the NYPD, and is an advocate on behalf of all child abuse victims.  He heads leadership training at his agency's Police Academy, and is a part-time professor of management at Brooklyn College.