by Esther Tova Stanley*
“Yeah, but he’s a man.”
That was the actual reason I was given as to why a rabbi’s sexual predatory behavior was OK. Well not , “OK,” but y’know, understandable.
In the wake of sexual assault allegations brought against Elimelech Meisels, a “rabbi” who controlled and operated numerous seminaries for post high school girls, a very unseemly side of our Jewish orthodox culture is raring its ugly head, yet again. The side that excuses men for being unable to control their sexual urges and, on occasion, even has the audacity to blame the victim for it.
“Well, what was she thinking getting into the car with him?”
“She’s troubled; she misunderstood what really happened.”
“She’s a crazy, manipulative liar.”
Yes, these are actual responses I got when I asked community members why they continued to support this sexual predator/rabbi. Was I surprised? Unfortunately, I was not.
You see, there’s an odd relationship between male authority figures (“rabbis”) and female students that is considered “normal” within post high-school year abroad programs. It not only accepts, but actively encourages a relationship in which an adult male takes young female students under his wing in the name of “kiruv” (loosely translated as bringing someone closer to G-d.)
The rabbis do this by cultivating a false sense of trust, telling the young students that they see something special in them, encouraging them to share details of their personal lives and sometimes offering (inappropriate) personal details of their own. As my seminary Rabbi once said to me in reference to “his girls” and his method of kiruv, “I like to break them and then make them.” This creepy comment was followed by an even creepier wink. (Lucky for me, I left that school almost as fast as I got there.)
The idea is for this relationship to inspire the student, spiritually. To see that living an ultra-orthodox life is the only real way to truly live. Those rabbis who engage in it are seen as possessing a gift, are considered selfless for giving up so much of their time to educate and uplift young, easily influenced souls and bring them onto the path of observance. It’s considered a mitzvah.
Are you gagging yet? If not then just wait, this next part is the real kicker. You see, in order for these Rabbis to inspire and guide the young women, they bypass their own set of ethical and behavioral rules in the name of “saving” a soul. A perfect example of this is breaking the laws of yichud, a concept in Torah law which prohibits a man and woman who are not married to each other from being in seclusion (ie: a room with the door closed, a car on a quiet road at night, basically any situation where no one could see what happens between them.) But often, seminary Rabbis host private meetings with their students under the guise of counseling them.
While the above is clearly a violation of Jewish law, there are other situations where the lines are not so clear. For example, many seminary Rabbis will meet their prey (ooops, I meant students) at a café to talk, or even at a bar. This is said to be part of their higher purpose since it shows the girls that they can be religious and cool.
Wow, how selfless of these 40+ year old men to go out late at night to a café or bar with an 18 year old girl. Tough job! *sarcasm intended*
There are numerous problems with this type of kiruv, but the one that is the most harmful, in my opinion, is the compromising position it puts young women in. These blurred lines are a very dangerous set up for a sexual predator to take advantage of his position and get away with it. If she is taken advantage of, who will believe her? And even if they do believe her, they’ll blame her, or excuse him… but either way, there’s no justice. His crime is often not taken seriously, making her pain and confusion exponentially more hurtful. And protecting future victims? That’s not even on the table. Because then the community will have to admit (and act on the fact) that this highly esteemed Rabbi is a threat, and that is too threatening to their own frail beliefs.
And on a final note, try explaining this: How is it that these seminary “Rabbis” who are considered prominent and righteous, even held up on a pedestal, so quickly revert to the status of “just a man” when it’s discovered that one of them has been acting inappropriately with his students? The juxtaposition is deafening.
Although, as a community, there is a resistance to waking up to the harm of sexual predators in black and white clothing, there are some individuals who can see. Some even try to help others gain perspective and make a change. But finding those willing to take a stand is rare; it requires both brains AND courage, a rare combination. Yet, not extinct.
For example, in the case of Meisels, there are three men in the synagogue that he attends weekly that have spoken out loudly against his actions, in spite of the negative responses they receive in return. There is also a Chicago Beit Din (Rabbinical court) that deals exclusively with cases of sexual misconduct. It’s the first of its kind. And there are now organizations that help and support victims who speak out, for example Jewish Community Watch (although they deal mostly with CSA, a sick culture of its own, the fact that they exist and have so many who support them is a major feat.)
So while the road to a new and honest way to view sexual predatory behavior in the Jewish orthodox culture is long, with many obstacles to overcome, we are on our way!
*This essay appears with the consent of Chicago Now where it first appeared (4/20/15) and the consent of the author, Esther Tova Stanley.
Esther Tova Stanley is the founder of Courage Unsilenced, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the long term effects of childhood sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish world. Speaking as both an abuse survivor and an orthodox woman, she brings a uniquely informed perspective to the inner-workings of the community. Esther Tova finds her world to be inspiring, yet in need of transparent, emotional dialogue.
Esther Tova began her journey in Lakewood, NJ, studied illustration at Pratt Institute in NYC and then relocated to Israel. She currently lives in Jerusalem with her husband and children, working as a content and social media manager.
UPDATE 4/29/15- See Esther Tovah Stanley’s The Backlash for Being Honest About Child Molestation.