Thursday, June 23, 2016

Learning From the Pogrow Scandal

Shayna Goldberg
Shayna Goldberg is a very wise and accomplished young woman. She is a Yoetzet Halacha and the Mashgicha Ruchanit at Bnot Chul, a Bet Midrash for women in Israel.  Shayna has written a powerful op-ed in the Times of Israel that should be read by everyone. It addresses the recent revelation of yet another sexual predator in the Orthodox world, Meir Pogrow (who I discussed a few days ago). He demonstrated what the Gemarah (Shabbos 88b) tells us. That Torah can be the ‘Sam HaMoves’ – deadly poison in the hands of those that misuse it!  

Shayna describes her memories of him while she was a student at Michlala 18 years ago. Pogrow was a charismatic and powerful presence there. The revelation about his predatory ways and warning to the public to avoid any contact with him was certainly first and foremost. That has been done. But Shayna warns us what about teachers like this whose methods are the antithesis of what we should expect from a good teacher. Which can be devastating even to students that are not sexually abused.

The title of her essay is Another Scandal: Let's Not Miss the Point This Time Around. Here is a key excerpt from her essay: 
I want to talk about teachers who use fear and guilt frequently and indiscriminately in order to motivate and inspire.  Teachers who deliberately try to alienate their students from everything they come from--their parents, families, homes, previous schools, communities, shuls, and even shul rabbis. Teachers who break students down so that they can recreate them in their own images.  Teachers who cultivate groupies and are dependent on their students for self-esteem.  Teachers who lack real relationships with their own peers because they are "so devoted" to their talmidim and talmidot.  Teachers who teach students not to trust themselves, not to rely on their instincts, and not to listen to their inner voices.
Shayna comes to warn us about teachers like this. But there’s more to be learned.

Shira Wiesenberg
Shira (Greenland) Wiesenberg is another woman that studied in Michlala at the time Pogrow was there.  She too is a very wise and accomplished young woman. She was in fact featured in a 2013 Jewish Week story (36 under 36) that touted her accomplishments in special education.

The following - sent to me by my son in law (her brother) is her reaction to this story. Which includes a  message to those in positions of influence over others.I think she hits the nail on the head. Her words follow intact in their entirety.

We do ourselves a disservice thinking of these people as depraved, sick individuals who are driven by sexual pathology. The problem doesn't start with sexual deviance. It starts with an over-inflated ego. A super-hero complex. A lack of humility. A belief that you're going to "save" people. That you're impervious to mistakes and, thus, do not need to take the same precautions as others or respect generally advised boundaries or agency policies. 

Thus, there is a lesson here for all of us. Every educator. Every coach. Every therapist. Every NCSY advisor who seeks to make a difference in people's lives. Because it is not black and white. There is no 10-foot fence separating those of us who are healthy from those of us who aren't. I believe anyone who has ever felt what it means to care about a teen, anyone who's ever been really invested, anyone who has experienced the seeming urgency, passion, and intensity of what the drama-filled teen years are all about - all of us - have crossed lines at some point. Perhaps we have resorted to some type of manipulation, intimidation or fear-tactic, believing that the ends justify the means as, after all, we're engaged in holy work. Had our moments of poor judgement and just hoped we wouldn't get called out on them. Or felt - at some point, with some kid, in some situation - an unhealthy kind of bond that blurred the lines ever so slightly. 

Those are the moments we all need to be trained to recognize. To wait for. To look for. And to know what to do with. To have mentors in place with whom we can openly discuss the issues, the dynamics, and even the feelings. To know that it's almost an inevitable pitfall of what is, indeed, avodas hakodesh. To be trained to work on ourselves - on our desire to be liked (perhaps even to be idolized), to be a fixer or a hero, our inclinations toward competitiveness and the need to "win" - to learn how easy it is to get caught up in a moment, and to understand what chazal teach that sexual urges are not in the realm of the depraved but are very, very powerful forces to which we are all susceptible. To work, and work, and work, and work on our humility. 

Yes, the principals, rabbis, and community leaders have to take heed and more quickly and effectively identify pathology. But there really are lessons here for the rest of us too. 

May we learn them well.