Agudath Israel Sort of Addresses Meisels and Other Sex Scandals

David Zweibel of Agudah and Cardinal Dolan "Our rabbis are as bad as your priests"

Dovid Zweibel of Agudah and Cardinal Dolan lobbying together

Agudath Israel of America (aka Agudah) held its annual convention over the weekend of November 13-16. Executive Vice President Rabbi David Zwiebel delivered a keynote speech in which he bemoaned the way scandals undercut Agudah’s ability to be an “eight-hundred-pound gorilla” with politicians and government agencies.

This was slight progress. He did not scream “Innocent until proven guilty.” Nor did he complain that the media were unfairly focusing on orthodox Jews.

Avrohom Nesanel Zucker

Avrohom Nesanel Zucker

There was a more substantial response in their session, “Surrounded by Scandal.” The topic was assigned to the time slot with the lowest attendance, Friday morning (11/14/14). There were no stars on the panel. All of the panelists discussed chillul hashem (desecration of G-d’s name). Only one speaker talked about necessary changes other than greater awareness and dedication to Torah principles. He too avoided naming the culprits or specifying their acts. Yet, any astute observer could discern his references to scandals involving Rabbi Dovid Weinberger, Rabbi Elimelech Meisels and Rabbi Barry Freundel. Instead, in his talk about chilul hashem he devoted almost five minutes to highly specific recommendations. It was a breath of fresh air.

Below is a transcript of that portion of Rabbi Avrohom Nesanel Zucker’s talk (14:49-19:20):

Elimelech Meisels

Elimelech Meisels

Vilo lidey nisayon [not by test/temptation].” In the field of chinuch habonos [education of girls] it seems to me that in this day and age we are so fortunate to have so many talented mechanchos [female educators] to teach and guide our bnos Yisroel [Jewish daughters]. Although men have a role in teaching some courses in seminary or high school, there should be clear defined limits put in place. Men having deep meaningful conversations with impressionable, vulnerable young ladies is a recipe for disaster. No seminary student should relate to her rebbie as Tattie [Daddy] or friend. There should be no contact between rebeim [teaching rabbis] and girls outside the classroom including phone, email, or texting. Even in the classroom, girls should not be addressed by first name. Rather, “Miss so and so.” No student can meet privately with any male faculty member. These rules should be sent to the girls’ homes in their acceptance and registration packets. Signs should be posted in offices to this effect. And staff members of these institutions should be mandated reporters of any impropriety they might witness. The posuk [biblical verse] says Avrohom [the patriach Abraham] took “vi-eis hanefesh asher osoh bichoron [the souls that he made in Choron]” and Rashi comments, al pi chazal “Avrohom migayer es ha-anashim visoroh migayeres es hanashim [Abraham converts the men and Sarah converts the women].” There is no excuse for Avrohom to be migayer [convert] hanashim [women]. “Vilo lidey nisayon [not by temptation].”

Barry Freundel 1

Barry Freundel- DC Mikvah Voyeur

No man should have access to a mikvah nashim [women’s ritual bath]. If a shaila

comes up, the rav Hamachshir [rabbi who certifies], accompanied by others should be let in by a woman who is entrusted with the keys to the mikvah. (16:39) “Velo lidey nisayon [and not by temptation].”

Vacums of leadership: We as a klal cannot ignore areas of concern and crisis to the klal [Jewish public]. Un-vetted, maybe even well-meaning, but self-proclaimed experts, have and will fill the void. This is a chilul hashem waiting to happen, and it has. Further, those seeking out the help of these self-proclaimed experts are in a very vulnerable position and can easily be taken advantage of in many ways.

Nechemya Weberman in Kings County Supreme Court on 3-25-11 (photo credit Joseph Diangello)

Nechemya Weberman in Kings County Supreme Court on 3-25-11 (photo credit Joseph Diangello)

A vaad [committee] to deal with abuse of all types, especially of children, is necessary. Parents need an independent body that can investigate accusations and concerns and shouldn’t be shamed into silence or shunned by the community.

And perhaps cameras should be mandatory in our elementary school classrooms. This would not only protect the students. It would protect the rebbie or teacher from false accusations as it did in a yeshiva a few months ago.

Rabbi Dovid Weinberger

Rabbi Dovid Weinberger

Velo lidey nisayon [not by temptation]. The bakashah [prayer request] following velo lidey nisayon in the ultimate birchas hashachar [morning blessing] is velo lidey bizayon [and not by disgrace]. For if we come lidey nisayon [temptation] we definitely put ourselves in grave jeopardy lidey bizayon [disgrace]. 18:10

In the field of rabbanus, rabbonim have their plates full. They are poskim [Jewish law decisors], darshonim [explainers of torah], guidance counselors, and often marriage counselors. Having expertise in halacha and or chinuch [education] does not make someone an expert in interpersonal relationships. Of course chochmas hatorah [Torah wisdom] and life experience gives insight in the human condition. But that might have its limits. Perhaps a rolodex of vetted, very good, educated therapists that are bnai Torah [Torah adherents] can sometimes be a better choice for this role.

Ephraim Becker image 2As a klal we should have policies on how rabbonim should counsel couples and women. Although it might seem unnecessary as it is simple halachah, it should be made clear and communicated to the lay population that under no circumstances can a woman be alone with her rov. It is unacceptable for a rov to counsel a woman in an unsupervised setting. A sign to this effect should be posted at the entrance to the rov’s office in clear view.

In sum, Rabbi Zucker is addressing the major sex scandals of Elimelech Meisels in his seminaries, Barry Freundel in his ritual baths, Dovid Weinberger and Ephraim Becker in counseling couples and young women, and various “torah therapists” including Nechemya Weberman.

I applaud what I consider a sincere desire to curb these problems, but they all focus on prevention and skirt the issue of reporting offenders to the criminal justice authorities. In fact, the proposed vaad to investigate abuse allegations, sounds like a deliberate parallel alternative to the criminal justice system.

The style of never naming offenders is also consistent with something that hobbles the orthodox response; the attempt to protect the reputation of offenders even when they remove them from official positions. In most cases this leaves them free to find new positions and ways of abusing.

I am also distressed by Rabbi Zucker’s exclusive focus on heterosexual misconduct. Most sexually abused students in the Haredi world are males assaulted by male staff. Many girls are victims of abuse but that usually happens in a neighborhood or family context. All the proposed barriers between females and males do nothing to prevent male-on-male abuse. The Haredi world has already gone overboard in restricting male-female interaction and obsessing about tznius [modesty] almost exclusively understanding that as something for which females are primary responsible. I fear the lack of normal female-male interactions is counterproductive. It sends out the message that men cannot control themselves. It helps men let themselves off the hook by blaming their misconduct on uncontrollable impulses.

Rabbi Zucker’s recommendations are unlikely to be adopted as an official community standard. It is not even clear if Agudah really supports them. It is possible that Agudah just wants to be able to say, we are confronting the issue while allowing the problem to fester.

Notwithstanding all my reservations, I consider it progress that Agudah realizes that the scandals are real and harmful to the reputation and political power of orthodox Jews. Maybe, just maybe, they will finally start addressing these problems to protect their financial interests.


31 thoughts on “Agudath Israel Sort of Addresses Meisels and Other Sex Scandals

  1. the longest journey starts with the smallest first step. These crystal clear statements once made can not be retracted and will serve as a good starting point

      • So perhaps a sign to watch will be whether this brings Rabbi Zucker kavod and advances his career, or the opposite.

      • Except he was introduced and supported by R’ Labish Becker, who is a muckety-muck. But I would like to see an official Moetzes proclamation.

  2. I guess you didnt promote r’ shmuel glucks speech which addressed this issue and provided solutions to girls who feel betrayed..however, he did address ppl like you and this girl who cant help themselves but bash meisels over and over again…spreading awareness of the subject is one thing, but this constant bashing is not necessary..

    • He did not address sex abuse specifically. He did speak quite well about the need to realize rabbonim are human, and neither to automatically assume they are right or to be unable to believe that someone good in some ways is bad in others. The story about the “girl” in shidduchim was a story about not expecting rabbis to be perfect in giving advice. There was not a hint in his telling that implied sex abuse.

      He did criticize most reports of negative conduct in the frum world as driven by people with agendas who just want to bring down as many people as possible. He cited his refusal to take sides about Maran Elizer Shach’s denunciation of Chabad and their Rebbe.

      It was an interesting talk about expecting less of rabbonim. But he evaded either being specific about what “bad” conduct might entail let alone what can/should be done other than expecting less of leaders and laity alike.

      She followed his advice, praised the seminaries for the good things she got out of it including things she learned from the people she is criticizing. It is the Israeli Beis Din which erred in describing all of the faculty of the seminaries as good educators and religious role models when the reality is more mixed.

      You can see the video of his talk here:

      PS- they did a poor job of merging audio and video so be prepared for sound to be fine and see his images needlessly speeded up. At the end he walks away in the images but is still talking in the audio track.

      See also:

    • FYI- continue bashing Meisles?

      I still cannot believe there are ppl like u in the world. I will bash that animal predator until the end of time. You, on the other hand, can put down those who try to stop them from abusing again (like u are doing right now).

    • And just like YL said…I have openly stated and shared how the seminaries/ teachers changed my life. I’m a sensible and fair person and I state the truth from both sides of the coin. That’s means stating both the good and ugly sides of things.

  3. Progress is progress. And yes, the points raised in this modest presentation were valid, and the mere mention of the issues at an Agudah convention represents an important step forward.

    I think we should be proud of their criticism as well. What it really means, in plain English, is something like, “We can’t help but say something about these issues now because these pesky truth-tellers have forced our hand.” Of course, they’d prefer to have us believe that they’re the ones addressing the problems and that we’re just troublemakers. To anyone paying attention, the exact reverse is much closer to the truth. Agudah will only address these problems when they’re forced to… and that’s the real point of their griping about “bashing,” “agendas” and so on. They understand the political dynamic perfectly well. We mustn’t forget it either.

    • “Of course, they’d prefer to have us believe that they’re the ones addressing the problems and that we’re just troublemakers.”

      This made me laugh, but is oh so true. Sad. I started quite the controversy with my petition and I was fully aware of it. But someone needed to say something. Someone needed to take the first step.

      I agree with all you wrote. I think this video was def progress and will hopefully be the beginning of facing these issues properly. I think it was too focused on chillul Hashem and not on the actual abuse, though. But perhaps this will lead to more…

      • Quite right — I agree with you. I remain the optimist, but my beliefs don’t center on the “leadership.” They’ll move forward as long as the rest of us demand it.

        In the end, real progress belongs to the people. Whatever rabbis say, however much they hear or don’t hear. We try to sweeten each other’s lives — as you’ve already done — one act at a time.

        • Someone blamed me for not having Daas Torah when it came to the petition. He said “the proper way u should have done this was to ask the Gedolim.”

          I said- “if we wait for the Gedolim, we’ll be be having sex abuse unfortunately continue to effect our children and future generations and letting the abusers. get away with it. We cannot wait for the Gedolim. No more waiting. Time to take action.”

        • Sorry I just want to comment on my last post to Michael- I wanted Daas Torah for my petition. But I did not want to wait for someone to approve.

          Also, the Gedolim certainly have much for daas in general than I will ever have. I would love for them to encourage the handling of sex abuse once and for all and have them be the leaders. That would be my ideal and my preferred way if doing things.

          Unfortunately, this has been going on since the beginning on time. No one has openly and boldly taken a stand against abusers, no matter where their family comes from etc…

    • He didn’t say that. Last year I think there was lot of anti-blog stuff. This time he was saying this is the reality and its a ll khilul hashem and covering it up is worse khilul hashem. He did not seem the least bit irritated by bloggers G-d forbid. adaraba, he wants to protect our children.

  4. Whether there is such a thing as “da’ath torah” — and if there is, just what it means — is a topic I think we can address another time. For the moment, I want to respond to the critic who told her she ought to have asked “the Gedolim” before distributing her petition.

    To ask a question is to presume that the answer is in some doubt. Was there a reasonable doubt in this case? Is there one now? Is there any reason to suppose that seminary administrators who have lied, slandered young students entrusted to their care, knowingly protected a sexual predator, and exposed their charges to abuse should not be asked to apologize for such conduct? If there is, why haven’t the critics asserted one?

    Given the complete failure of the seminary, the critics and the “Gedolim” to articulate any objection to the substance of the petition that might be cognizable under Jewish law, it’s late in the day to blame her for not soliciting rabbinic advice in advance. In fact, I think the suggestion that one should ask rabbinic permission to do what’s clearly right ought to be insulting to the rabbis — if they really are what their defenders claim they are.

    The real thrust of the criticism is essentially political: the rabbis (in the critics’ view) should be the final arbiters of what can and can’t be discussed. That is, the critics extend to the rabbinate the totalitarian authority to determine even the questions that can be asked (let alone the answers to the questions). Not only that — the critics want this to be true even when the rabbis themselves, and their policies, are ostensibly the topics of discussion.

    I admit it’s possible to hold such a belief. But I think two things ought to be stressed about it. First, such a position has never been mandated by Jewish law. Second, if you insist on it, you must accept the consequence that questions of right and wrong cannot really exist for you (or for most of us); under the terms of such a view, every moral problem simply means a question to be referred to someone else for decision. It also means that the rabbis’ decision on the matter is unreviewable; by definition, it cannot be challenged under any standard.

    I stress this point because it has a significant corollary. If you take the “first ask the Gedolim” position (again, I’m thinking of cases in which the morality of the action isn’t seriously in doubt), you are necessarily also saying that you, personally, take no moral position on the questions you are referring to them — even when those questions directly involve child rape, lying, slander, criminal conspiracies, obstructions of justice, etc., etc. You are saying, in other words, that for you there is no right or wrong about any of these things; effectively, there’s no Torah; no Jewish law; on private conscience; no God. There is a rabbinic ruling — and that’s all. Next to the ruling, everything else dwindles to nothing.

    No doubt there are some people who are willing to accept such a position. But anyone who does cannot simultaneously claim to hold any MORAL position with respect to the issues we’re discussing here. So when the Rabbi Zwiebels of the Orthodox world insist that only the upper echelons of the rabbinate can make the decision, for instance, to report a case of sex abuse to police, or (let’s assume) to petition Meisels’ seminaries for an apology, they may sincerely mean what they say. But if they do, it follows that every OTHER word they say, everything that deplores sex abuse, that speaks of their outrage over these crimes, or expresses sympathy for the victims, should be seen as pure and utter nonsense — or as lying. It can’t logically be anything else.

    • U have said a lot of what I have been thinking for months now (mostly abt “there is no morality in ppl’s thinking…only a rabbinic psak”). Thanks.

    • Michael: Usually, taking logic to its extreme is a means of parody, but not a valid criticism. Here, it is the daas torah true believers who themselves are necessarily taking their position to the logical extreme. There is nothing left for the rest of us to do but stare with our mouths agape. If they really believe no opinion can be stated without pre approval by the gedolim, then yes, we should ignore most of what they say.

      • I willing to bet that most of the critics who post hostile comments about my blog did not bother to get daas torah approval for their various vile slanders about the victims and their advocates.

        But I agree. The Jewish ideal is an ethically-conscious person. How can it be that we have an orthodox population with unprecedented levels of Jewish education who are being told to use less of their judgment than any previous generation?

  5. I agree this a good sign that the Agudah is at least beginning to acknowledge our internal problems. Sure, when the camera panned the room it looked empty and the audience looked mostly disengaged. But it, taken with R. Zwiebel’s elephant in the room, is a good first step.

    I found it interesting that Rabbi Zucker started with the specter of frum people not acting frum on business trips, and then moved on to Meisels, Webberman, Freundel, Weinberger/Becker/Tendler jr.,/Halpern of London, etc. He focused on procedures which could mitigate many of these miscreants actions, using the old standby of complete separation of the sexes. Judging by the chareidi bona fides of some offenders, those rules dont help much.

    He managed to avoid delving into the more fundamental problem many exhibit: the feeling that unless I see it in Shulchan Aruch, the rules need not be followed. Money laundering, tax evasion, mortgage fraud, yichud and all that follows (I guess they shipped that siman), abusing welfare programs, etc., imho, all stem from that feeling. How to prevent it, I do not know – but until they address it I am only guardedly optimistic.

    • I absolutely agree. It is not more stringencies and more sex segregation that is needed. What difference does it make if the skirt that is lifted is a mini skirt or mid-calf length?

    • Agreed, agreed. This is another shibboleth of the rabbinic mindset: whatever goes wrong stems from either the violation of existing haredi standards or the fact that the standards — in ritual or sexual matters — need to be tightened yet another notch. The idea that the rules themselves may be inadequate to address the problem, or that some rules may even exacerbate it, is still unmentionable.

      I also think, behind the organization of Rabbi Zucker’s talk, lies another basic shortcoming, which is the matter of perspective. The rabbinate still tends to treat an issue like sex abuse as if it reflected only a lapse in the perpetrator’s self-control — as if he’d eaten too much, or eaten something without kosher certification, or turned down the heat on the Sabbath. So we can think of sex abuse, and sex abuse cover-ups, the same way we think about someone’s lax kashruth on a business trip: less peer pressure, lowering of “standards,” lack of self-control. This in turn encourages us to think of solutions simply as matters of religious discipline — convenient, because that’s exactly the sort of solution rabbis are eager to apply.

      What it misses is the perspective of the victim of abuse. And in these matters, that perspective, far from being marginalized (as it always is in conventional rabbinic presentations), ought to be central. This point has many ramifications — but let’s keep it short. Just to start with, a victim is far less interested in why the perpetrator lacks self-control (if that’s even the issue; with sex abuse, psychologically speaking, it generally isn’t) than in what can be done about the crime, how the victim is to find justice and how others are to be protected, society vindicated. Even as obvious a reality as that entails a way of looking at the issue that diverges sharply from the approach taken by Rabbi Zucker.

      A more extreme example (and one discussed in my book) is the opinion of Rabbi Sternbuch (as reported and evidently approved by Rabbi Eidensohn) that no act of child sex abuse should be reported to police if the perpetrator is deemed unlikely to repeat the offense. Apart from the obvious (and unacknowledged) fact that no one can ever really know whether a perpetrator will re-offend, and the likelihood that these rabbis judge that risk on the basis of the perpetrator’s expressed remorse, etc. — another big mistake — what’s really shocking about this view is that it defines the criminality of an act solely in terms of the perpetrator’s future. No one who took the victim’s violation as the starting point of the discussion would be willing to say to a child who was raped, for instance, that he or she will just have to forget about it — no crime, no foul — because the attacker isn’t likely to rape anyone else. Yes, a criminal’s punishment should depend in part on any extenuating circumstances that exist; but when that extenuation turns a crime into a not-crime, something fundamental has gone seriously awry. Not even the most radical claims for the power of repentance — which, we are told, can erase the sin between the sinner and God — has ever suggested that the victim can be ignored in the process, or that a criminal’s repentance can diminish by one iota the debt he owes the victim for the wrong done. Every time we talk about abuse and confine our concern to the perpetrator, forgetting the victims’ perspective, we’re moving in exactly the wrong direction.

      That said, I do think what happened at the convention, with all its shortcomings, marks a step forward. No radical progress was made. But the most important thing is that Agudah had to acknowledge the issue — a radical thing in itself. All in all, I’m less impressed with what Rabbi Zucker said — though I feel sure his intentions were good — than with the change in community consciousness that made such a talk necessary. THAT, to me, is the real news here. And if we keep the consciousness rising and the pressure on, it won’t be the last of its kind.

  6. It blows me away that the audience was “disengaged” when hearing a speech on this topic. But it really shouldn’t, since most of the people I know are disengaged from thid discussion, for one reason or another.

  7. I find it amazing that talmidei chachamim and learned laymen spoke about kiddush hashem and chillul hashem as if it is primarily a PR issue. Dina dimalchusa dinah (the civil law of the land is obligatory as a matter of halacha) never appeared in any of the five speeches I heard about chilul hashem. It is almost as if they believe G-d is only offended if a scandal makes it to the tabloid. Apparently, they believe G-d tracks scandals by reading the secular press and the blogs. I say secular press, because if G-d depends on the Haredi media he won’t learn about scandals.

    • I suppose they think that is all their audience can take. I hate to say it, but maybe their audience (and the audience’s kollel sons in law) will relate more to “אוי לרבו שלמדו תורה” than to accepting money by means of written lies = fraud. (Didn’t the Chazon Ish write that corporations and democratic governments don’t count?)

  8. Periodically, Agudah makes a show about scandals and chilul hashem but then nothing changes. When it comes to financial scandals, denial sets in for big givers. After all, how can a big baal tzedakah be a gonif. Nobody even stops to think, maybe they were donating stolen money.

    Consider for example an old case of the Mahir Reiss and others who were convicted of laundering millions of dollars for Columbian drug dealers. In return, they got to keep 15-18% as money laundering fees. The vehicles they used included the Bobov NFPs.

    This happened a little over 15 years ago. At the sentencing hearing:

    “Mahir Reiss’ attorney, Nathan Lewin, paraded witnesses onto the stand to testify about his client’s charitable and financial support of the Orthodox community in New York and Israel……

    Perhaps the most stunning testimony came from Rabbi Perlow, also known as the Novominsker rebbe, who is a member of the influential seven-member Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel of America, the ultra-Orthodox advocacy group. Rabbi Perlow revealed that he was sitting shiva or in mourning — his wife had died several days ago — but he left his house because of the importance of pleading for leniency in Mahir Reiss’s case. Wearing a torn black coat, symbolizing his grief, Rabbi Perlow noted this was his first appearance in a courtroom in his life. Rabbi Perlow said he was “stunned and absolutely flabbergasted” when he learned of the charges against Reiss last year. Nevertheless, Rabbi Perlow argued that Weinstein should not use Reiss to send a message to the Orthodox community that criminal acts will not be tolerated. He said Reiss could do more good works out of prison. He also assured the judge that the Council of Torah Sages are taking steps to educate their community about lawlessness. “In light of instances in the media, the rabbis have discussed this,” he said, referring to a spate of embarrassing criminal cases over the last two years involving Jews from the chasidic or yeshiva world.

    “This is a concept of chillul hashem [desecration of God] we are very much concerned about,” he said.”

    Pardon my skepticism about promises by Agudah to promote more honest and ethical conduct. Fifteen years ago, the Novominsker Rebbe (Yaakov Perlow) “assured the judge that the Council of Torah Sages are taking steps to educate their community about lawlessness.” Now they are recycling the same rhetoric.

    • I forgot to say this in my post, but he may also have been addressing the Chaim Halpern case in London where is is alleged to have had sexual involvement with women who came to him for counseling. It became known as TowelGate because his MO involved promising stress reduction through massage which initially was done with a towel seperating his hands from the skin of the women.

  9. On a very minor point–I have to laugh because I thought that if only women teach women, there’s the added benefit of lowering the cost of seminaries (because the women teachers will inevitably be paid less). Win win in the haredi world!

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