Letters Fall 2015

When Leaders Fail

I am almost finished with your most recent issue, and I hate for it to end. The articles are timely and beautifully written. You handled the topic of leaders who “slip” (“When Leaders Fail: Healing from Rabbinic Scandal,” summer 2015) with sensitivity and with Torah at the center of the discussion. Visually, the magazine is creative and inviting, drawing the reader in. I look forward to and enjoy each issue of Jewish Action. Though this letter is long overdue, thank you for publishing this wonderful magazine.

Renah (Mescheloff) Bell
Long Island, New York

I first would like to commend the Jewish Action editorial board for tackling this difficult but vital issue, and for choosing an individual of the calibre of Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz to write such a comprehensive, erudite article. As a clinician who has worked with victims of abuse, I was especially gratified by his spirited defense of the need for these individuals to be able to speak their truth openly, and the responsibility of our community to support their right to do so, without blame or recrimination. Too often, victims who step forward are re-victimized by the community or their families, which often leads to religious alienation and psychopathology. Further, his words regarding the need to accept the possibility of sincere teshuvah of perpetrators were enlightening. For those of us who, on a daily basis, deal with the devastation that abuse causes, it is a perspective that we need to seriously consider.

However, one point that should be added to the discussion is the role of sociopathy, which is characterized by a complete lack of moral conscience or remorse in exploiting those who are vulnerable. Also crucial is the differentiation between those who have traits of a sociopath as opposed to those who are hard-core sociopaths. Those who have sociopathic facets to their personality, which may only be manifest within the context of this type of behavior, can indeed be empathic and remorseful. For these types of individuals, it is quite possible that teshuvah can be achieved. In such cases, these individuals should be fully embraced and reintegrated into their families and communities.

However, it is critical to also identify the true sociopath, for whom exploitation, manipulation and lack of remorse is pervasive and defines who he is as a person. Most clinicians would agree that these individuals cannot and do not change, and rarely demonstrate any real ability to modify their character or behavior. They represent true rishus (evil), and as such, should not be placed in the position to strike again. In order to honor the pain of their victims, and to prevent future victimization, these individuals should be placed “chutz lemachaneh” (outside of the community) indefinitely. Accordingly, whether or not these individuals are incarcerated, communities should be notified that they are predators, and they should not be allowed access to potential victims. Certain crimes are so heinous and reprehensible that they should result in the removal of the perpetrator’s individual rights or the ability for the individual to reintegrate into the community. In such cases, the safety of the klal should always supersede individual rights.

Dr. Norman Goldwasser
Miami Beach, Florida

The articles concerning the problematic behaviors of some rabbis served to further open discussion of this sensitive topic. Several points, however, should be included:

  • The efforts to promote compassion and understanding of the rabbis in question certainly have a place in any collective discussion, but not to the extent that they gloss over the true character of these sexual activities. The violations here are profound and must be the core issues that warrant our attention.
  • To the best of my knowledge, none of these rabbis has been diagnosed as psychotic or functioning with diminished mental capacity. They are, therefore, fully responsible for their actions, no matter their level of stress, burnout, isolation or other factors offered to mitigate their offenses.
  • Rabbis who struggle with sexual challenges need much more than peer support or some generic counseling. These are complex, often uncomfortable issues and they need the intervention of experienced sexual health professionals. In the articles, these professionals are notable by their absence.
  • Congregations, or at least boards, who decide to retain these rabbis, have a right to know that therapy is being handled competently. In some cases, a level of therapeutic monitoring may need to last a lifetime.
  • As a religious community, we continue to make the mistake of confusing modesty with secrecy. With the rather recent exception of sexual abuse, we continue to avoid open discussions of sexual issues in print, through other media or in public forums. We most assuredly possess the verbal and written tools to confront human sexuality openly while maintaining a tone of discourse consistent with our traditional values. Regrettably we have yet to demonstrate the courage to unashamedly look at the place of physical intimacy in the lives of religious Jews. As long as this topic lurks in the darkness, we are more likely to fall victim to further unacceptable behaviors from some of our mentors.


David S. Ribner, DSW
Chairman, Sex Therapy Training Program
Bar-Ilan University
Ramat Gan, Israel

“When Leaders Fail” is an article that fails. It is too late, cold and clinical and is filled with error.

The author states, “In some ways, this cynicism and loss of faith may be a greater tragedy than even the very real pain suffered by innocent victims (a pain that I certainly do not want to minimize in any way).” This is wrong. Child abuse kills. It damages the brain. MRIs and other diagnostic tools prove this. Victims have shortened lives.

The author writes, “There is an element of collective guilt in the fact that we as a community allowed these abuses to occur, did not respond to the problems that were brought to our attention, ignored them, swept them under the rug.” Wrong again. There is now a well-populated community of outspoken abuse survivors and advocates, whom the author neglects to thank and we do not bear this “collective guilt.”

The author writes, “There are, of course, laws of lashon hara, and I am not necessarily envisioning full public exposure in the media (though this happens anyway), but at least within the limited community of responsible leadership, those who were harmed must be able to speak.” Wrong again. The author first told us that leadership bears the blame, and now recommends that victims should consult only with this failed leadership. He writes this while reminding us, in the vaguest way, of hilchos lashon hara, planting the seeds of doubt that true negative information about a misbehaving rabbi should not be reported.

Finally, he states, “In the superheated atmosphere of the Internet, everyone is guilty until proven innocent and indeed quite often, is guilty even after being proven innocent. In this world of hyperbole, gossip, unsubstantiated rumors and personal vendettas, a casual reader might conclude that the rabbinate, and indeed the entire Torah community, has run amok, is utterly devoid of any semblance of morality and is nothing less than the modern incarnation of Sodom and Gomorrah. This does not reflect reality, and it is important that our children know this.” This sentence is not only wrong, it is an insult and smear upon every abuse survivor and advocate who taps words onto the Internet complaining about his or her abuse. Additionally, the implication that the survivors and advocates are guilty of many false accusations is an outright falsehood.

This article does not deserve the OU haskamah.

Elliot B. Pasik
Long Beach, New York

In-reach or Outreach?
Mr. Marty Nachimson writes about the need to reach out to youth who are dropping out of religious life, and cites an alarming statistic: nearly 20 percent of American Orthodox Jews are abandoning observance (“In-reach or Outreach: The Perennial Dilemma,” summer 2015).

He explains that this presents a dilemma for the OU, because its limited funding cannot substantially help both the unaffiliated and affiliated. So the question becomes, which group does the OU primarily assist?

Many of the youth who attend NCSY programs are from Orthodox homes. This demonstrates that our children are not getting sufficient inspiration from home, school and shul. Serious solutions are needed.

Furthermore, Mr. Nachimson mentions that significant numbers of our youth are educated on secular college campuses where often they are religiously challenged. This is a common occurrence despite the fact that their parents sacrificed for so many years
to provide them with an environment conducive to Torah values and observance. Perhaps Orthodox high schools and community leaders should attempt to keep our college-age youth closer to home, or encourage them to attend colleges under Orthodox auspices.

I attended a prestigious Modern Orthodox high school, and I recall the pride the administration had for those students who were accepted into Ivy League universities. Yeshiva University was looked upon as a less exciting fall-back option. Why was this so? The religious risk factors of the secular college campus are real. Our youth should not be encouraged to go there. Directing our youth to Jewish campuses would not only save them from potential spiritual harm, but would also leave more funds for those who have never tasted the beauty of Torah and who legitimately warrant our outreach.

I commend the OU for its efforts, but perhaps the emphasis should be placed on providing the ounce of prevention, instead of the pound of cure for a problem that, for the most part, does not really need to exist.

Chava Gordimer
New York, New York

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