JTA, which bills itself as “The Global Jewish News Source,” first neglected the Meisels story and then blew it. Their August headline, “Orthodox educator Rabbi Elimelech Meisels sued for sexual assault” is wrong. None of the plaintiffs is claiming they or their daughters were sexually assaulted by Meisels. Yet the JTA article starts: “Rabbi Elimelech Meisels, who runs four religious seminaries in Israel for young Orthodox women, is being sued for sexual assault.” The Forward piled on with a subhead, “Lured Teenage Girls to Late-Night Coffee Meetings”
This is a lawsuit by five American families who enrolled their daughters in the ultra-orthodox, post-HS, Jerusalem schools operated by Meisels for the upcoming 2014-1015 academic year. They want to withdraw their daughters and get their tuition payments back. They are acting on the July 10, 2014 ruling of the Chicago rabbinical court which wrote:
Students in these seminaries are at risk of harm and it does not recommend that students attend these seminaries at this time.
This is not an important story because a prominent rabbi preyed on young woman. Alas, such stories are a dime a dozen in every religious community.
The news is that groups of ultra-orthodox rabbis are taking the gloves off instead of using the old, ineffective, discrete methods. This is the second such case this year. Early in 2014, Rabbi Dovid Weinberger was publicly denounced from almost every orthodox pulpit in his area for similar misconduct. He was forced out of the rabbinate. Rabbi Yisroel Belsky tried to intervene on behalf of Weinberger. He was thrashed by the local rabbis who proceeded to block fundraising for his institution, Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. It is estimated this cost them $200,000. If Belsky doesn’t retract it will again cost them next year. This much-talked-about event was completely ignored by the Jewish media.
Weinberger was primarily a pulpit rabbi. Shaaray Tefilla, his synagogue in Lawrence, NY, got rid of him and he had no legal recourse. The synagogue completely disavowed him and that was that.
Meisels controlled the board of his schools and dislodging him was more difficult. A Chicago rabbinical court announced that following an investigation of allegations of ‘unwanted physical touch of a sexual nature’ they concluded that parents should not send their daughters to them. The seminaries under his control tried to obfuscate the issue by claiming he resigned because of long-term plans. An ad hoc Israeli rabbinical court was contrived which declared the schools were safe thus giving implicit sanction to the seminaries to refuse to refund tuition payments to parents who wanted to follow the Chicago advisory to withdraw their students. The Chicago rabbinical court shot back with a public statement.
We… note, based on evidence including testimony by victims and staff and admissions by Elimelech Meisels, our conclusion that certain senior staff members failed in their responsibilities toward students.
The lawsuit is a byproduct of the larger dispute about whether to give primacy to student safety or the financial viability of the seminaries. Ultimately this is a story about a gradual shift in the ultra orthodox approach to sex abuse from cover-ups to exposure and institutional responsibility. The Chicago approach is still the exception but it is an important development which may foreshadow substantial change.
The Israeli court response is a story about a preference for protecting institutions from the fallout of abuse scandals. It is the Catholic Church mentality written in Hebrew and rationalized with halacha (Jewish religious law). It boils down to “trust us.” Trust us even though we are not transparent. Trust us even though we simultaneously say, everything is now hunky dory, but we will further investigate allegations of staff enabling. Trust us even though we will not disclose the names of the new officers of the controlling entities or the exact terms of the transfer of control.
Blogs played a very important part in this story. The ultra orthodox media almost always censor such stories and the secular press just ignores them. But for blogs, this story would only have gotten around the orthodox world by word of mouth and without most of the critical documents. My blog, Frum Follies, and several others including Tzedek-Tzedek (Israel), Failed Messiah (Minnesota), Emet Ve-Emunah (Chicago), Kol B’Isha Erva (Chicago), A Mother in Israel (Petah Tikva, Israel), and Rare View: Dus Iz Nies brought this scandal to public attention within the orthodox world through a mixture of articles, leaked documents and reports on developments. In the corner of the Israeli court, the Daas Torah blog of Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn (Jerusalem) also leaked documents from the Israeli Beis Din (IBD) and pumped out arguments supporting the IBD. Never before has such a dispute been publicized with so many leaks and documents from both sides.
Rabbi Eidensohn declared the lawsuit a blood libel because its language and the reporting about it could lead the inattentive reader to conclude that Meisels’ co-defendants, Mrs. Slanger, Mr Yarmush, and Rabbi Gartner were involved in trying to feed Meisel’s lust. As I pointed out in rejoinder, the controversial RICO claim in the lawsuit does not allege sexual misconduct by Meisels’ co-defendants. There is no claim that the daughters of the plaintiffs were so much as touched by Meisels. The crime alleged is fraud in selling the seminaries as safe and orthodox while Meisels was inappropriately sexual with students. Only Meisels himself is accused of deliberately misleading marketing. However, the other three are accused of assisting in rebuffing requests for tuition deposits. You can become a RICO co-defendant for helping to handle or retain the proceeds of fraud.
That’s it for my accounts of the bad press coverage. I expect mainstream media to start reporting on this story and I am optimistic that they will do a better job at seeing the big picture.