Monday, August 18, 2014

The Role of Rabbis in Confronting Abuse in the Orthodox Community

Guest Post by Rabbi Yosef Blau

Rabbi Yosef Blau
One of the strongest advocates for victims of sex abuse is  Rabbi Yosef Blau, Mashgiach Ruchani of Yeshivas Rabbenu Yitzchok  Elchanan (YU). I received the following a submission of a short post generated by the scandal in the seminaries owned and operated by sex abuser Elimelech Meisels. I am honored to do so. It follows:

Sexual abuse is criminal behavior and the police should be contacted. This does not imply that there is no role for the rabbinate and the community leaders in confronting abuse. In many cases the victims are unwilling to cooperate with the police often because of community pressures. Even when they do there is a need to remove an accused offender from a position where he is a potential danger before the slow process of a police investigation and prosecution is completed.

The recent case of the head of a seminary in Israel accused of sexual misconduct with students is an example of the need for rabbinic action. While according to Israeli law the behavior is illegal it is unlikely that American students, who have returned home and know little Hebrew, will go to the Israeli police. Only pressure from an external דין בית will cause the offender to resign his position.

Since he created the school and chose its staff a thorough investigation of the circumstances is necessary to determine if others were negligent and guilty of enabling the abuse or covering it up. This would require speaking first to all the students who were abused or witnessed any questionable behavior and to ascertain if they informed anyone on staff of their concerns.

After such an ordeal the community has to provide support for the victims. The impact of discovering that the primary religious personality of a critical year of Torah learning was an abuser often has a devastating effect on the students who attended the seminary. Rabbis should meet with any students who want to discuss their experiences.

Unfortunately the world of Israeli seminaries has no process for oversight. There is no supervising body. A change of ownership, while necessary, clearly is inadequate to ensure that the seminary is safe and that there has been a re-evaluation of the education and atmosphere created by head, who was revealed to be an abuser of his students.

There is an appropriate concern for the economic welfare of the administrators and staff of the institutions involved. However the victims deserve to be the primary concern followed by the other students who attended or who have registered for the coming year. Any attempt to pressure parents by refusing to return deposits is a manifestation of wrong priorities.

The lack of any apology to students affected, coupled by attempts to use religious arguments to prevent them from coming forward, is a telling indictment of those connected to the seminaries. The way that the present crisis is handled is the clearest indication of the amount of progress or lack of such in the response of the Orthodox rabbinate and major institutions to abuse within the community.