Rabbis At Risk: What Can Be Done?

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“This is a tough time to be a rabbi,” lamented Rabbi Shaul Robinson of Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue in a recent derashah following the latest rabbinic scandal. “All rabbinic reputations have been diminished.”

Any unsavory incident that involves rabbis or community leaders is one too many. Rabbis are the people we look to as models of spirituality. When they fail, their victims include not only those who were directly violated, but entire communities whose trust in religion and humanity may be permanently shaken. Furthermore, they besmirch the reputations of their colleagues, the vast majority of whom are exemplary individuals who work tirelessly for the community, often at great personal sacrifice. “The impact is terrible; it creates such cynicism,” says Rabbi Elazar Muskin of the Young Israel of Century City in Los Angeles. “We feel all eyes upon us even more than usual, and we have to work harder to gain faith.”

Moral outrage and hand-wringing are natural first reactions when we find scandals splayed across the morning’s headlines. But stewing in indignation isn’t productive. We must recognize that all people—even spiritual leaders—can falter, and as a community, we must rally together to identify the factors that contribute to failure, and put the best possible preventive measures and boundaries in place.

Some factors, obviously, are beyond our control. Today we live in a wider social climate that incites behaviors once kept firmly behind closed doors. Dr. David Pelcovitz, a psychologist and instructor in pastoral counseling at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, notes that in earlier generations, a person who wanted access to racy literature had to drive to a seedier side of town and bring it home in a paper wrapper. Today, such material—infinitely more available, inventive and graphic—is accessible through the phone in one’s pocket. Those same phones and other Internet-connected devices allow for a secrecy of communication and range of contact unheard of even twenty years ago (such as texting, e-mail and social media). On the other hand, as Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, OU executive vice president, emeritus, points out, “The technology that makes it easier for people to get into trouble also makes it easier for them to get caught.”Moral outrage and hand-wringing are natural first reactions when we find scandals splayed across the morning’s headlines. But stewing in indignation isn’t productive. We must recognize that all people—even spiritual leaders—can falter, and as a community, we must rally together to identify the factors that contribute to failure, and put the best possible preventive measures and boundaries in place.

Our collective tolerance for bad behavior has also risen. CUNY sociologist Dr. William Helmreich, author of numerous books that include What Was I Thinking? The Dumb Things We Do and How to Avoid Them, points to examples like the infidelities of Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton, both of whom continue to command large fees for appearances, as well as steroid use among professional athletes, many of whom enjoy continued success and popularity. In the Orthodox world, we are often quick to condemn breaches of ritual observance, like eating in a McDonald’s, but are more forgiving of lapses in less public areas like business ethics or marital fidelity. “Perhaps that’s because most religions profess some version of mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro, whereas our mitzvot bein adam l’Makom distinguish us as Jews [kashrut, Shabbat, et cetera],” Dr. Helmreich speculates. “So the guy who eats in a nonkosher restaurant isn’t going to get Maftir in shul, whereas the guy who cheated in business will.”

A couple of generations ago, Dr. Helmreich notes, Jews felt less comfortable in broader society. They were recent immigrants or children of immigrants; the anti-Semitism of their countries of origin created a fear of persecution that kept bad behavior in check. “Jews used to feel they had two strikes against them,” he says. Several generations later, we are both more comfortable with and more assimilated into non-Jewish culture.

“The technology that makes it easier for people to get into trouble also makes it easier for them to get caught,” points out Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, OU executive vice president, emeritus.

“The technology that makes it easier for people to get into trouble also makes it easier for them to get caught,” points out Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, OU executive vice president, emeritus.

But despite the challenges of modern times, says New York psychologist Dr. Michael J. Salamon, scandals are endemic to every society. “Abuse was always prevalent, and the research shows it. In my practice, I see people in their eighties who were abused as teens, and women who suffered abuse in seminaries in the 1960s,” says Dr. Salamon, who is the author of Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors. “In yeshivah dorms, there were always some situations. My father went to yeshivot in Europe, and he told me there were issues there too.” In earlier times, however, unpleasant incidents were covered up and confined to the private sphere. Rabbi Weinreb relates that when Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, the founder and former rosh yeshivah of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, was asked how domestic abuse was handled in the Old Country, he replied, “I am ashamed to say it, but we dealt with domestic violence by closing our shutters so that we wouldn’t hear it.”

While no trouble is good trouble, Debbie Fox, LCSW, the founder of Magen Yeladim Child Safety Institute in Los Angeles, which seeks to prevent abuse of children, draws a distinction between offenders who are morally reprehensible but not criminal, such as men who are unfaithful or suffer from a related addiction, and offenders like pedophiles or others who face criminal prosecution if caught. Being unfaithful, she says, “is morally wrong and against halachah, but not illegal.”

Whenever there is an imbalance of power—for example, a rabbi getting involved with a vulnerable congregant—the potential for abuse is created. “The congregant who wants to seduce the rabbi sees him as the star; she wants a piece of his power, of what he represents,” Dr. Salamon says. But that star-struck congregant is easily taken advantage of.

ABUSERS AMONG US
Are there ways to identify rabbis who are likely to get in trouble, before the trouble starts?

Unfortunately, many psychologically vulnerable people are drawn to professions they shouldn’t be in, like a moth to a flame. Dr. Yisrael Levitz, founding director of the Family Institute of Neve Yerushalayim in Jerusalem, points out that many people with perversions are often particularly attracted to chinuch, youth work or outreach specifically because of the opportunity to work closely with children and young people. Dr. Helmreich gives another example: “The head of the New Jersey Suicide Prevention Bureau committed suicide. The very people who call for strict enforcement sometimes use that strictness as an attempt to deal with their own urges or cover them up.”

Perpetrators of abuse are often hard to pick out in a crowd. “We think of abusers as creeps,” says Dr. Shira Berkovits, a psychologist who has specialized in abuse and serves as a WINGS youth consultant for the Karasick Department of Synagogue Services at the OU, a program developed to help guide synagogues. “But that’s misguided—they look and act like everyone else.”

“We Jews have no doctrine of papal infallibility. While we expect a lot, and should expect a lot, from our rabbis, even Moshe Rabbeinu made mistakes.”

“There’s no one defining character flaw for abusers,” Dr. Salamon says. “That would certainly make it easier! But there are some warning signals: difficulty making friends, a hot temper, difficult marriages. About twenty percent of people who are child abusers were abused themselves as children. Once a pedophile is active, there’s really no treatment; you might be able to help if you catch them before they begin the abuse. But the person has to be man enough to admit to his weakness.”

Although Dr. Levitz has been directing a rabbinic counseling program at YU’s Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute in Jerusalem for many years, he’s not sure it’s possible to fully weed out problematic students before they receive semichah. “I’m not sure we know enough to be able to screen future abusers,” he says. “Unless a person has a flagrant character or personality disorder, it’s hard to identify a future abuser. Nor is Torah scholarship alone a guarantee against future abuse. There are learned rabbanim who were excellent yeshivah students, yet years after receiving semichah they became involved in the most shocking acts of abuse!”

“A rabbi has to be more than somebody who can learn,” Dr. Salamon emphasizes. “He has to have compassion and awareness for his position and his congregants.”

Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), believes that despite the difficulties of identifying every possible offender, rabbinical schools should attempt to conduct psychological screenings of candidates. “The Catholic Church is doing it,” he remarks, “and many rabbinical schools are beginning to as well. There are tests which raise red flags, and we’re better off not setting up people for failure—or congregations for abuse.”

“Many effective rabbis are charismatic people,” says Dr. Pelcovitz. “They may be idolized in their community . . . but too much of that may lead a rabbi to start believing too much in his own abilities and developing a distorted [view of] self-importance.” Courtesy of Yeshiva University

“Many effective rabbis are charismatic people,” says Dr. Pelcovitz. “They may be idolized in their community . . . but too much of that may lead a rabbi to start believing too much in his own abilities and developing a distorted [view of] self-importance.” Courtesy of Yeshiva University

Shuls may also wish to look carefully at the references of their rabbinical candidates, although it’s obviously harder to learn much if the person doesn’t have experience yet. Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg, the director of rabbinic placement at RIETS, says his office is “a vehicle to help the search committee do a professional job in searching and vetting candidates. We provide them with many tools to do this with as much accuracy and professionalism as possible.” He adds that candidates need to research the congregation as well. “The rabbi and congregation is a shidduch and must be treated with the same sensitivity.”

Fox took a workshop with a human relations group about interviewing job candidates, where participants learned how to ask questions about boundary-related issues. She suggests applicants for rabbinic positions be shown the shul’s policies in the interview process, so that interviewers can observe the reaction. “There are also comprehensive evaluations available,” she says, although they may not be practical for every congregation: “They involve fifty hours of testing that includes interviews, a full history and physiological measures such as lie detector tests.”

LONELY AT THE TOP
Rabbi Muskin, however, reminds us that “rabbis are human! We Jews have no doctrine of papal infallibility. While we expect a lot, and should expect a lot, from our rabbis, even Moshe Rabbeinu made mistakes.” To understand why a rabbi might fail, it’s important to look at two aspects which often interconnect: the rabbi’s own personality and inclinations, and the rabbi’s job within the community.

By definition, the leader of a community occupies a privileged place. “Many effective rabbis are charismatic people,” says Dr. Pelcovitz. “They may be idolized in their community and receive a lot of positive feedback, but too much of that may lead a rabbi to start believing too much in his own abilities and developing a distorted [view of] self-importance. If he connects closely with a congregant who is vulnerable or insecure, and there’s nothing to keep him in line, it can be a lethal mix.” A rabbi or leader who has become too taken with his own charms may develop an arrogance or a sense of omnipotence that tells him he won’t get caught (or prosecuted), or which prevents him from seeing his own tragic flaws and seeking help.

Dr. Michelle Friedman, an associate professor of psychiatry at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital and director of pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York, says rabbinic slip-ups are not necessarily predatory; they can come about because of the intimate nature of rabbi-congregant interactions. “The job requires rabbis to be up close and personal with people,” she says. “There’s an intimacy that can become established even without physical contact.” Counseling congregants in need, helping people through a loss, assisting with a conversion, working late to prepare food packages for Tomchei Shabbos—all these activities create close ties. Dr. Levitz notes the dangers when a rabbi begins to see himself as the “savior” of a vulnerable female congregant with a problem; he may become overly involved and flattered by her idealization of him, while she may be drawn to the knight in the shining kippah. “Though it is important for a rabbi to be warm and empathetic, he needs also to be very cognizant of the requisite boundaries between himself and a vulnerable congregant who turns to him for help. In the event that he finds himself becoming too emotionally involved with one of his congregants, he should get supervision from either a competent mental health professional [outside of his congregation] or a seasoned colleague,” Dr. Levitz says.

The lure of a close relationship with a congregant may hold particular appeal because a rabbi’s job can be a lonely one. Given the loneliness and stress of rabbinic work, “rabbis often experience periods of fatigue and burnout. This affects their judgment and makes them more vulnerable to the lure of close relationships with congregants.” One might expect rabbis in small communities to be particularly vulnerable to loneliness, but Dr. Levitz says big-city rabbis are equally at risk.

To this end, Rabbi Schwarzberg says that standard rabbinical contracts should include provisions for rabbinic downtime, with one day off a week, occasional “off-Shabbatot” and four weeks of vacation. “I am a proponent of encouraging our rabbis to use their vacation time and to take breaks,” he says. “Rabbis are on twenty-four/seven, and this takes its toll on their mental health. It’s a very grueling profession, and is most rewarding when we are physically and mentally healthy.”

TRAINING FOR THE TRIGGERS
Dr. Pelcovitz teaches three classes in pastoral counseling at YU, helping rabbinical students understand the kinds of situations they may be confronted with. “The eye sees what the mind knows,” says Dr. Pelcovitz; a person can only recognize a phenomenon he’s been prepped in advance to see. “Hence,” he continues, “rabbis need training in self-awareness, in learning to recognize their own hooks and triggers. A rabbi can begin helping a congregant, and his motivation is pure, but then he finds it’s invading his mind—it has triggered something in his psychological makeup.” The result, he says, is that the rabbi may either begin avoiding the congregant, giving too little help, or become over-involved in helping.

Dr. Friedman believes it’s not enough to simply tell rabbinical students about psychological dynamics like transference and countertransference; they need educational encounters that, as she puts it, “allow you to find out where your own kishkes are, to learn your own red flags.” Rabbinical students also need training in emotional learning. Hence, she promotes her students’ participation in process groups with a mental health professional from outside the faculty. “You can’t just read about these things; you have to feel them,” she says. “We want our rabbis to be special and holy—their wives as well—but semichah training in general doesn’t prepare them for the moments of darkness that they will inevitably experience.

“Rabbis have a demanding job that can be stressful, and we want them to get emotionally close to congregants and their kids. But when that happens, there can be crushes, even just moments of tenderness, and rabbis need to be prepared for that wobbliness. They have to be prepared to remain the grown-up in the room, and hold on to the appropriate boundaries.”

At YU's rabbinical training program, students role-play while learning about physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Courtesy of Yeshiva University

At YU’s rabbinical training program, students role-play while learning about physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Courtesy of Yeshiva University

Similarly, Dr. Levitz teaches a rabbinic counseling course to semichah students at YU’s Gruss Kollel in Jerusalem. The course not only deals with counseling skills, but also with the importance of maintaining professional boundaries and the potential consequences of not doing so. An important component of the course focuses on physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Students are exposed to material which allows them to strongly empathize with the pain of the victims. “These are gut-wrenching sessions,” he admits. “But I don’t want the topic to be abstract. I want these future rabbis to understand the tragic consequences of abuse and empathize with the pain of the victims.” Then he challenges them with such dilemmas as, “What do you do if the accused abuser is an honored member of your shul?”

While dealing with the challenges of their work, rabbis need support and supervision just like other professionals who work in mental health. “A rabbi needs peers and mentors to speak with,” Dr. Levitz says. “It can help to prevent him from making tragic judgment errors, getting overly involved or crossing a red line. It’s helpful to have someone who is in the know about the rabbi’s struggles, because secrecy allows for easier boundary crossing.”

“Rabbis need better peer-to-peer networks and mentoring for dealing with personal, professional and communal challenges,” says Rabbi Dratch. “There are support groups for rebbetzins today as well, to help them deal with the frustrations and challenges.” He advises that rabbis learn to create balance and share in their leadership role; while different rabbis will have different styles of leadership, the congregation should have ways to challenge the rabbi without undermining his authority.

GOOD FENCES CREATE GOOD RABBIS
In addition to the psychological training and support our rabbis need, halachic and actual physical boundaries do much to avoid slippage.

“Basic hilchot yichud [the prohibition against being alone with members of the opposite sex] create important boundaries,” Dr. Pelcovitz notes. Respecting halachic guidelines in avoiding familiarity between men and women who are not related helps avoid a slippery slope—for example, a rabbi should avoid inappropriate remarks to a woman, such as, “You look great in that dress.”

Dr. Pelcovitz knows rabbis whose office doors include a window; one rabbi installed a video camera with no audio. “There’s a rabbi I’ve met with professionally several times, and he always checks [to make sure there are others] in the building when we meet,” Fox says. “Another told me he will make appointments through texting, but that’s all—no jokes, no ‘how-are-you’s’ to women. Issues like whether it’s appropriate for a man to text a woman at 11:00 at night are still under discussion in many circles.” (Rabbi Weinreb notes that NCSY and Yachad staff receive explicit training by social workers about these sorts of boundaries.)

Rabbis need better peer-to-peer networks and mentoring for dealing with personal, professional and communal challenges,” says Rabbi Mark Dratch. Courtesy of the Rabbinical Council of America

Rabbis need better peer-to-peer networks and mentoring for dealing with personal, professional and communal challenges,” says Rabbi Mark Dratch. Courtesy of the Rabbinical Council of America

Bnot Torah Institute—better known as Sharfman’s—in Jerusalem has led the way in ensuring the safety of its students by creating explicit policy guidelines on its web site. Similarly, more and more shuls are putting protocols and committees in place to prevent and deal with situations that might arise. “Shuls must have a process in place for how to handle allegations, and a committee to follow through,” Fox says. “That committee must include an outside professional, because our rabbis and community members are not trained to determine if someone accused of sexual misconduct is innocent or guilty. Someone from outside the community should assist in following protocol and the law. A shul can be destroyed when allegations tear apart the kehillah.”

To this end, Dr. Berkovits, a lawyer and psychologist, has taken the initiative to work on a manual for synagogue professionals and lay leaders, a guide for preventing abuse in shuls and how to respond if it does occur. So far, thirteen organizations have committed to endorsing and distributing it when it’s completed. “Less than twenty-five percent of Orthodox shuls have a policy on this, and of those that do, in many cases they’re collecting dust on the shelf,” Dr. Berkovits says. “There is the need for a manual to deal with everything from hiring and reference checks to security and policies about youth events, security, the mikvah and so on. People need guidelines on reporting if they see someone engaged in risky behaviors, and for how to get help for the abuser and the abused.” She says organizations such as GRACE, a Christian organization, are developing similar protocols, and shuls need to stop trying to deal with abuse cases internally. “No matter how well-intentioned, congregants and rabbis are not experts in abuse,” she says.

Some of the recent scandals in our community have so concerned our communal leadership that the OU, RCA and YU have joined together to create a committee to better define the standards and roles for rabbis, with guidelines for contracts, controls, reporting misbehavior and interventions to nip potential problems in the bud. “We had a meeting with about eight people, but we would like to include other organizations as well,” says Rabbi Weinreb, who has participated in the preliminary discussions of the group and has been one address to which suggestions have been directed. The committee will focus not only on the rabbi’s responsibilities to the congregation, but on the congregation’s obligations toward the rabbi.

“One avenue is to create ombudsmen to receive and investigate complaints and act as an early warning system. Since we started, we’ve received lengthy e-mails with all sorts of suggestions from balabatim, rabbis and—to our surprise—many rebbetzins.” While still in its formative stages, the committee hopes to formulate proposals that will translate into constructive action.

“We’re much more aware today,” Rabbi Dratch says. “We are learning from our mistakes, and trying to implement the best practices for the good of all.”

Barbara Bensoussan, M.A., is a contributing editor of Mishpacha magazine. She is the author of the young adult novel A New Song (New York, 2006) and the cooking memoir The Well-Spiced Life (Lakewood, New Jersey, 2014), has worked as a university instructor and social worker, and currently writes for Jewish newspapers and magazines.

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This article was featured in the Summer 2015 issue of Jewish Action.
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