The Grey Area of Rape Culture in the Black and White World of Jewish Orthodoxy

by Esther Tova Stanley*

Esther Tova Stanley

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.

Click here for more about Elimelech Meisels and the Chicago Beis Din.

UPDATE 4/29/15- See Esther Tovah Stanley’s The Backlash for Being Honest About Child Molestation.


61 thoughts on “The Grey Area of Rape Culture in the Black and White World of Jewish Orthodoxy

  1. How is this different from its equivalents in other patriarchal religions? When so-called clergy become stand-ins for the deity in the minds of their indoctrinated followers this is the result: a willing suspension of disbelief, a circling of the wagons, defensiveness. To challenge such an abuser is to challenge the ingrained belief system of the sect (?cult) members, something they refuse to tolerate – and the beat goes on. Keeping teenaged girls unworldly facilitates the process – they think this is the way it’s supposed to be even if it feels wrong to them.

    • I wouldn’t blame abuse on either patriarchy or religion. Women abuse, though at lower rates. Atheists abuse. athletes abuse. It is so widespread. It might look like it is about religion because this blog focuses on the orthodox Jewish community. But the reality is that abuse happens everywhere. We are now at the beginning of a revolution is revealing it and fighting it Each community has its own methods and culture of denial. I don’t much care if the rationalizations are in Yiddish, Yinglish, Hebrew, English or Chinese. I don’t care it they use radical leftist rationalizations or Torah talk. Each setting has it’s own rationalizations. This blog happens to focus on just one such set of accents and logics.

      • Institutionalized abuse, or institutionally-sanctioned abuse, is very different from individuals abusing others without an institution to back them up.

        • Until fairly recently, athletic institutions almost always backed their abusers as did the culture surrounding these institutions. Who can forget the near riots that broke out at Penn State when Joe Paterno was fired for allowing the cover up of Sandusky’sex abuse. To Paterno’s credit, he did partially redeem himself by saying things to dampen that fervor.

  2. It takes being in a religious context for a ‘leader’ to be able wrap himself (and it’s almost always a male) in the the cloak of the deity and thus to claim divine right/guidance/whatever as the basis for whatever he’s doing. I was speaking of religions – that certainly doesn’t take away from any other context in which abuse occurs. It’s a power thing – an athletic coach and his young protege, a rich man, a politician, a military officer, a psychiatrist – however it’s far worse when an ostensible man of God – rabbi, priest, minister – engages in sexual abuse of those to whom he’s supposed to be ministering in the name of that same God or when a physician whose first obligation is to do no harm does the same.

    There are even similar responses to be had from the followers of, say, a football team where the coach is an abuser or is ignoring abuses committed on his watch. Think Penn State or the Sayreville, NJ football team incidents. The communities rallied behind their teams and their coaches and not behind the abused kids. What a fine guy the coach is! So many victories on the field! Look what it’ll do to the image of the team/town/school/alumni! A shonda! Never mind that kids were sodomized or beaten or both.

    This is what happens when people voluntarily suspend both disbelief and any sense of fundamental decency they may ever have had in favor of maintaining an illusory status quo.

    • Claiming the moral high ground makes you more of hypocrite when you are downright evil. Abusing the trust evoked by being role model makes you more harmful. Because the act of abuse also becomes an act of betrayal. Nobody should ever suspend their moral judgement to the point where they ignore elementary clues of abuse of power. That is why I so dislike the doctrine of daas torah.

    • I find that in almost all cases of sexual abuse that I’ve encountered supporters of the perpetrator say the same types of things in the perp’s defense, “believe me, I KNOW him, he’s the NICEST guy… “, “but he’s a talmud chachum, he’d never do THAT”, “He’s a man, he made a mistake… “, “I’m not one to judge him, I believe he can do teshuvah… ” All these comments and excuses facilitate the sexual predator (as well as unknown predators) to continue abusing without much consequence. And yes, this happens across the board, in every culture… not only in the Jewish orthodox one. I speak of the Jewish orthodox one because it is MY world and I feel obligated to be part of fixing this aspect of it, even if only in the smallest of ways.

  3. “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.”

    This paragraph is a bunch of baloney. Name ONE posek who encourages this type of behavior. When Meisels was caught doing these things, I cannot recall anyone saying that he had done the right thing. Just the opposite. Take a look at the rules of conduct posted publicly by Sharfman’s (otherwise known at BTI) here:
    BTI is extremely careful about interactions between male authority figures and students.

    It is clear that NOBODY agrees that any concessions are in order for kiruv. The author of the article made it up out of nowhere.

    • You are confusing official psak or written policies with how unusual practices are treated. People obviously notice something is off but formally correctly deny they knew what actually happened. But the micro, but obvious differences are accepted because “he has his own ways of reaching girls.” That and similar statements were made by staff to girls who complained. Not baloney, but fact.

      • Not my point. The author says outright that such practices are l’chatchila. But the truth is exactly the opposite. I can tell you that going forward you will find approximately zero rabbonim anywhere that will tolerate even questionable yichud. Moreover, some rabbonim are now going overboard to ensure that they always comply with every aspect of hilchos yichud (installing windows in doors, cameras of the non-Frundell type, etc) to remove any doubts.

        • Oh, well, Triangle says, “problem solved,” so let’s all move on, nothing to see here. Everyone instantly changed and realized how wrong they were. Except they won’t even admit it or that there’s a problem.
          Like this hasn’t happened 100 times before with the same type of claims of “this will never be allowed to happen again, the rabannim are on it” – but no evidence to back those claims. Just blind trust and faith in the very people who failed us the first time.

          But according to Triangle, we shouldn’t worry because this was bdiavad. Doesn’t every manipulator and abuser say that the rules are different for him because he’s special? Doesn’t every enabler say sure, lchathila, there shouldn’t be midnight rides in cars, but this is how he reaches the girls…. He is saving lives, so on and so forth.

      • It is not only the Rabbis that condone it by NOT coming out forcefully against any type of behavior that can be considered abuse, they also write letters to the court system on behalf of the abusers. YL has documented that a couple of times. BUT also teh community members don’t stand up against abusers. Not the in shuls not by simchas. They even write letters on behalf of teh abuser. In Toronto a trial just took place and the abuser pleaded guilty. But the sentencing was not harsh at all and one of the factors were that community y members and friends sent letters to the judge.
        Please see the link and read the shocking testimony and information.
        I wish there was a way to get those letters and publish them. Both to embarrass the ones that wrote them and as a deterrent for anyone else wanting to defend an abuser.\

      • Yes, I too heard from staff members statements such as “he has his own way of reaching girls,” and I too agree that such a “culture” has to end. The only question is how.
        Some posters to this list have manifested a distaste — at best — for Halachah. I believe that everything has to start and end with Halachah. Beis din determines that EM broke halachah in his methods of chinuch? Then regardless of how “successful” those methods were he has to be banned from chinuch for life. There was a “culture” of acceptance of questionable methods? That culture has to be changed through re-education (Zarret), setting up a strict code of conduct for the staff, and providing outside oversight (the Rabbinical board). Those are halachically acceptable methods of dealing with a serious problem.
        Closing down every seminary that was owned by him or choosing a scapegoat against whom there is no clear halachic evidence? That might also be an effective way of dealing with the problem — but it is against halachah.
        Right now, there is virtually no chance of any repetition of the situation in any of the four seminaries, because of all the safeguards built in. Many other seminaries “have seen the light” and, as Triangle says, have adopted strict codes of conduct and are sensitized to improper behavior. I can sympathize with blog-writers, Rabbis, ordinary Jews and even batei din that are disgusted with past misbehaviors and want to end it once and for all — but if there are halachic ways to deal with it that seem to be working, why do we have to go outside the realm of halachah?

        • You are getting halachicly huffy about whether brand x gets the customers over brand y or z Rabbonim favor meat x over meat y or yeshiva x over yeshiva y all the time for all sorts of reasons. If all 4 Meisels seminaries closed now, rest assured four to eight equivalent competitors would spring up to replace them. The question of whether the Meisels seminaries deserve customers is not something that divides the halachic from the non-halachic readers of this blog or orthodox vs non-orthodox rabbis. Plenty of non-orthodox Jews and non-Jews protect molesters and their organizations. Plenty of orthodox Jews support removing specific rabbis or enablers from access to their victims of choice. When the rot is too deep or the remorse too phony, they also boycott specific institutions.

          • You’re the one who wrote: “correctly deny they knew what actually happened… because “he has his own ways of reaching girls.” The simple meaning of what you wrote is that they did not knowingly “enable” anyone or victimize anyone — something clearly stated in the JBD psak. Certainly, no one”protected” Meisels, and no one from beis din claims that there is phony remorse about not understanding what was happening. The measures taken IN THIS CASE are thus adequate to protect the girls and reeducate the staff. Any of the four or eight competitiors who spring up to replace them will not have all the protective measures in place and will certainly be no safer that the original — who do have such measures.
            Find actual EVIDENCE — halachic or otherwise — that there were enablers and victimizers (other than the one who was indeed removed), or that the rot is any deeper than any other seminary and that the remorse is phony, and then we can talk about whether boycotts are justified — halachically or otherwise. Until then it sounds more like a lynch mob than halachic justice.

            • I am astounded that you deem the problems at the Meisels seminaries “halachically or otherwise acceptable” if there is any other seminary just as bad. Talk about a “race to the bottom.”

    • Triangle, I hate to tell you, but I was amazed to find out you are wrong. In fact, on July 31, I posted the following on my facebook page:

      The seminary world is shocked – SHOCKED – upon being informed that it might not be such a good idea for male staffers to take female students on hour-long one-on-one coffee dates…..
      And in other news, the forest is shocked upon being informed that it contains trees.

      I was sent some pretty mean private messages, because I was “hurting” the Rebbeim’s chance to work with girls. NOT because people were denying it. In fact, I also posted the following:

      I actually never thought about it, until I read girl after girl (supporters of his!!) write how he was so wonderful, how “I spent HOURS with him, we had a GREAT relationship”, how he “saved their lives”, etc. etc.
      And I tried to picture how the Yeshiva world would react if a guy spoke about a woman that way “I spent HOURS with her, we had a GREAT relationship”….
      The Yeshiva world would NEVER accept it!!

      Triangle, I can tell you that I saw post after post of supporters of his, and attendees of other seminaries talk about “special relationships” with their rebbeim.

      • That will never happen again. It’s over and done with. Bet on it. The defenders were pathetic, and they were wrong. Sadly, they fell under an evil man’s spell. But the model going forward will be that of BTI (Sharfman’s) where the male staff aren’t even allowed to text the students.

          • The daatTorah blog crowd is a good example of how deeply rooted the problem is within the culture. They believe everything was a-OK at the sem’s, he just did some bad hugging and no one is at fault and look! we cleaned it up and got rid of him! it shows what good policemen we are. Ignore the fact that complaints were ignored initially, halachic violations (which led to the actual abuse) allowed and encouraged, attempted scamming of parents by refusing to refund tuitions, (We must stay in operation at all cost! The miniscule lav of Theft will not stand in our way) – people who failed to protect young women in an educational capacity, “Meh, let them keep their jobs, they were overwhelmed by the suave cult personality, and they can’t do a menial job instead, they must remain in this prestigious field where lives and souls are at stake because a different field is not befitting their yichus” Oh and don’t forget “Most of the accusers were bad apples and crazies, Only 1 or 2 Women Got Hugged, nothing to see, move along.

    • I was not saying that a posek says that this behavior is OK. I’m referring to the orthodox CULTURE that condones this. And as far as it being baloney let me tell you an exact conversation that I had with the son-in-law (let’s call him “Sir”) of another seminary “rabbi” here in Har Nof. We were at a Shul Kiddush shortly after the story about Meisels broke.
      – Me: Are you comfortable with Meisels being at this kiddush? You’re a father of a young girl after all….
      – Sir: I am absolutely fine with him being here … I know this case well. My sister-in-law works at the school and she can confirm that the girl was a “case”.
      – Me: So her being a “case” makes Meisels actions OK?
      – Sir: He was trying to help her. She’s a troubled girl.
      – Me: Troubled or not, do you not AT LEAST find his behavior to be inappropriate, considering that taking her for a car ride late at night on a dark road breaks the law of yichud?
      – Sir: You don’t understand the way seminary rabbayim need to reach out to these troubled girls. Sometimes these things are necessary.
      – Me: It’s necessary to break a halachah to do kiruv?
      – Sir: (eyerole) you simply don’t understand the way of seminary kiruv. I understand it. My father-in-law is a seminary rabbi and my sister-in-law works in Paninim. She can confirm that the girl was nuts.
      – Me: First of all, “troubled girls” are more vulnerable and therefor need more protection from men like Meisels. As far as your sister-in-law backing Meisels, that only shows me that she too is guilty of something here if she had knowledge of the relationship and Meisels behavior, yet blames the girl instead of standing up for her.
      – Sir: (eye roll) you Ba’al teshuva’s just don’t understand this world

      (FYI: I grew up orthodox in Lakewood NJ… but I guess he needed to think I was not raised in an orthodox home to justify something in himself… )

      This man, “Sir” is not the only one who said things like this to me. I can give you at least 4 more examples of conversations like this that I had with other Meisel supporters. My husband, who champions for the safety of girls and women, can give you many more examples as well. If you want to be in touch I’d be happy to speak with you directly. Let me know and we can figure out how to exchange contact information.

  4. I find it ‘interesting’ that no one is the chareidi world or by now probably the modern orthodox world (with perhaps some exceptions) would countenance a female instructor for boys in Torah studies, and certainly not private meetings with female faculty and teenage or young adult males, yet somehow the reverse concern do not apply.

    There is an inherent danger when men are involved in kiruv of young ladies, and vice versa. Anyone who denies this denies human nature.

    Yichud = danger and almost certainly leads to further aveiros.

    (for that matter, I do not understand how bochrim are permitted to take young ladies on dates late at night in cars, on highways, but that’s for another discussion.)

    • Ein apitropus l’arayos. No excuse whatsoever for violating basic halachos. Meisels will burn in hell.

      Regarding dating, how do you think meeting in a hotel lobby came to be a normal way to date? Public place, out in the open. As to being in a car together, there’s room to ask a local orthodox rabbi. Seems there are opinions both ways.

  5. I spend all of my life in Chareidi society and never came across such an attitude. Any breach of halacha is immediately censured. I’m not denying that this happened with Meisels but it’s definitely not prevalent.

    • Dream on. Many cases of rebbes actually molesting children were covered up and definitely not cesnsured. Kal v’chomer, lesser violations. What you may mean is that most offenders do things in ways that give them plausible deniability and others look the other way and insist it does not happen.

    • Humble Jew, if you have yet to see this and/or yet to experience it then consider yourself lucky and I honestly hope you remain one of the lucky ones. Unfortunately this IS prevalent and there are hundreds of cases to back up that, for the most part, the orthodox world covers up sexual abuse (an obvious breach of halacha).

  6. Although “modesty” codes CAN be consistent with gender-neutral principles of personal dignity, in practice the codes established by patriarchal religions have all tended to stigmatize women as walking sources of sexual temptation, while the same logic tends to extenuate any sexual offense committed by a man. In Jewish tradition, you can see such tendencies in extreme form even in quite respectable places: Maimonides requires the execution of a non-Jewish woman raped by a Jewish man; Samson Raphael Hirsch rationalizes the rape of a female captive as the act of a man who has merely “yielded to his passion.” The male, at worst, “yields” — woman-as-temptress is always subject to punishment, whether she’s guilty or not.

    I do see signs that this sort of teaching is being challenged from within Orthodoxy, which (of course) is all to the good. However, as Ms. Stanley points out, the old line isn’t dead, and it has particularly poisonous effects where the nature of the rabbi-woman relationship is inherently one that emphasizes the rabbi’s dominance and his “right” to emotional intrusiveness. The conversion process is perhaps the most obvious example; proselytism of non-Orthodox Jewish women is another. Certainly most rabbis do not abuse these relationships, and few would ever intend to. But a quick survey of rabbinic reactions when something DOES go very wrong suggests that our religious culture still blames women, primarily, for whatever sexual abuse they suffer, while minimizing the consequences for the abuser even when its representatives cannot avoid admitting his guilt. Not a surprising conclusion to draw here, no doubt — but one that I think calls for reexamining a lot about the religious culture, including not only the meaning and purpose of “modesty” but the proper priorities of religious education. In my view, the very notion that a rabbi should be rewarded for “making a B.T.” or for “reaching” a vulnerable young female student sanctions a relationship between rabbi and a youth that, on an emotional level at least, is inherently intrusive and dangerous. Teaching people should be, at its core, about respecting them as human beings, and that principle is inconsistent with treating them as a means to an end — one more Orthodox Jew, one more enthusiastic wife-to-be, etc.

    I’ve argued this point about Baruch Lanner, who (in my view) should have been barred from teaching long before the sex abuse allegations caught up with him. And he was far from unique: what Ms. Stanley writes here sounds all too familiar to me. The point to be stressed is not so much about the individual abusers but about the reason more “responsible” community members are prepared to look the other way, and then to minimize the offense when it can no longer be denied. It’s not enough to ask, Why didn’t they stop Lanner — or Meisels — earlier? We need to question the priorities that drove these people, who consistently fail to put the dignity of the vulnerable student before the “accomplishments” of the rabbi. This is one more face of the patriarchal ethic that has so far kept us from solving some pretty obvious problems.

    • First of all, there’s nothing “patriarchal” about Yiddishkeit. That’s a modern feminist construct that has nothing to do with us. Nobody values women more than our religion does. Don’t believe me? Look at the entire masseches k’suvos. There are many times where a woman has the upper hand.

      As to your point about why people didn’t stop abusers sooner, how about naming someone who is abusing right now. Name someone who should be reasonably stopped and if there’s any abuse going on, I can assure you that legions of people will be on it immediately. Nobody can know everything with perfect knowledge right away. But you are accusing good people of ignoring abuse. So why not give those same good people a chance to stand up? My guess is that you’re just complaining after the fact, and the good people that you’re criticizing for allegedly doing nothing know not one bit more than you do about any alleged abuse happening right now.

    • Thanks for your support of the issue, Michael. I was hoping that the message I intended, which was that there is a problem within our culture, would come across as this issue is one that is repeated time and time again.

      In fact, I was a member of NCSY when Lanner was a directer there and friends of mine attended Hillel High School when he was still principal there. Girls spoke among themselves of his abusive behavior and as a young girl he certainly scared me. I remember bringing it up with an NCSY counselor and receiving a response all to similar to the ones I’ve heard in many other predator’s defense.

      My own seminary rabbi did some very questionable things with students (including myself) as well… to my knowledge he is NOT a sexual predator but certainly felt he could “trump” basic laws of yichud in the name of “guiding” girls in our seminary. As a thinking person, I asked him once if it was OK that he was meeting with me late at night in his office, after all wasn’t that breaking the laws of yichud? His response was a creepy smile asking “Why? Does it make you uncomfortable? (wink, wink)” I felt to small back then to reply with a, “yes, your behavior is creepy!”

      If this is the responses I got for simply “creepy” behavior, you can imagine what wrath came down on me when I started outing my grandfather and uncle who sexually abused me for 7 years of my life … the amount of support my abusers get and the amount of backlash I still endure for speaking of the threat they represent is unfortunately not uncommon….

  7. I know Yerachmiel would disagree with me on this, but I think it’s hopeless to try to change the problematic “patriarchal ethic”. To me, the solution is fairly simple. Get men out of our girl’s schools, just the same as women are banned from teaching in boys’ yeshivas (past a certain age in English). There are many competent women who could do the same job more safely and comfortably.

    • This is happening already. All those sem graduates from years past are more than capable of providing the education. I couldn’t agree more about getting the men out of female chinuch. And even when a male is there, it needs to be under the most careful of circumstances.
      Honestly, I’m not sure where Mrs. Stanley gets her information (a conversation at a kiddush, are you kidding us here?) but responsible voices such as ANY posek of any stature will tell you that just about everything Meisels did fell into a range from being frowned upon to downright ossur and reprehensible. Yet another reason to get men out of chinuch habanos, for the most part

      • “responsible voices such as ANY posek of any stature will tell you that just about everything Meisels did fell into a range from being frowned upon to downright ossur and reprehensible. ”

        No, not really. A group of poskim called “the Joint Beis Din” said that the staff and teachers did nothing wrong by ignoring his behavior. If it was downright ossur and reprehensible, how can they be innocent of any wrongdoing by ignoring it, allowing it, condoning it, and/or encouraging it as part of his role in the seminary?

  8. ML:

    Comments that attack the Rambam’s interpretation of halacha and Rav Hirsch’s peirush on Chumash risk taking this discussion away from its proper focus and, perhaps worse, may lead some of us to suspect that the direction of where this is going is not one in which we would care to participate.

    The Rambam and Rav Hirsch were not anti-women.

    If you want to attack the Torah itself, that’s one thing, but to suggest that these major authorities were anti-women is at best an extremely ignorant view of how Torah authorities arrive at their conclusions.

  9. Exploitative situations occur when adults can take kids/young adults under their wing with no supervision or check on their power, even when no sexual abuse is involved. I am familiar with this in the context of graduate school, where the authority of the advisor is usually unchecked. While sexual abuse still occurs all too often (although less than it used to, I think) in these situations, what is far more common, although fortunately much less serious, is for students to be prevented from graduating in a timely fashion so they can continue to provide cheap labor for the advisor.

    Anyone who runs any sort of educational institution should set it up so the young person has someone, not subject to the authority of the mentor, to turn to with problems. That won’t eliminate all the exploitation and abuse, but it does reduce it. One has to set up appropriate institutional checks, not just rely on the character of the individuals.

    Also every adult should have learned that some people treat those they believe to be under their authority very differently than they treat peers and superiors; just because someone treats his peers well, doesn’t mean he isn’t an abusive such-and-such to his subordinates. It seems many haven’t learned that.

  10. It’s not just baal teshuva seminaries with this problem. I was in a Bais Yaakov highschool years ago, and having some difficulties, and the vice principal had me in his office with the door closed practically every day for “counseling” sessions. He would come around his desk and sit right next to me so that our legs touched. He never did anything out right inappropriate, but he spoke in intimate ways that made me uncomfortable and confused, and I’m sure that I was not the only “problem” kid who experienced that with him. The bottom line is that he had the power, and there was no way that I was going to tell anyone about it, because I was already the kid with problems. Who would believe me, especially when I wasn’t even sure what was wrong with the situation.

  11. Shoshana, I experienced the same with my seminary rabbi too (inappropriate, but not in the “sexual abuse” category), and I know for sure I was not the only girl he did that with. It’s a problem at all these institutions. To tell you the truth I saw it in college as well (at a very liberal school in NYC. Even there some of my friends found our male teachers to use their positions inappropriately (like what Mike S. was referring to). It’s a problem across the board. The only reason I focus on the orthodox world is because it’s the one I live in and think that maybe, just maybe, my voice can protect future victims – if only one, then it’s worth it, too!

  12. Esther Tovah, you are not only courageous, but a good writer. I don’t want to denigrate the substance of your piece in any way, but “Are you gagging yet?” was perfect, and perfectly placed. May you find readers in the Orthodox community who read and respond, and thank you, YL, for sharing this.

  13. Michael Lesher – You made some good points in your comment above. Here is one in particular where I believe you are onto something important:

    “In my view, the very notion that a rabbi should be rewarded for “making a B.T.” or for “reaching” a vulnerable young female student sanctions a relationship between rabbi and a youth that, on an emotional level at least, is inherently intrusive and dangerous. Teaching people should be, at its core, about respecting them as human beings, and that principle is inconsistent with treating them as a means to an end — one more Orthodox Jew, one more enthusiastic wife-to-be, etc.”

    “Kiruv” – bringing unaffiliated Jews into Orthodoxy – has an extremely high value within Orthodox culture. We tell ourselves that it is about saving their souls, but perhaps it is more about our need to validate our way of life as being “true.” After all, if someone leaves all the comforts and freedoms of contemporary society and takes on all the restrictions we live with on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly basis, it’s a great validation to us that Frumkeit is indeed “true.”

    “Kiruv” has become so important a value to Frum life, that there is now a whole field of work for those who engage in this missionary work and they even go by the titles now of “Kiruv Professionals.” There are schools and camps exclusively for this purpose which we support with our tzedakah dollars. And there are volunteer opportunities with Aish HaTorah and other programs where adults and high school kids can volunteer to teach unaffiliated Jews about the beauty and grandeur of our way of life.

    Threatening all this is kids who stray. Kids who grow up Frum, for whom a Shabbos meal is not a novelty but familiar, for whom the learning is not beautiful but tedious, and who has no interest in sticking with the Frum way of life. This is the biggest slap in the face to our sense of Frumkeit being the truth, and to those egos of ours that are filled with nachas when unaffiliated Jews choose Orthodoxy. Not to mention how much it hurts parents that their children are not valuing that which they hold so very dear, and how it can wreak havoc in a family unit.

    Here is where Kiruv Seminaries step in. And Michael Lesher’s point is an excellent one. In pursuit of being mekarev girls who may be leaving Frumkeit, more value is inadvertently placed upon their becoming Frum, above all other values, including the respect they are due simply as human beings. To the extent that it is acceptable to excuse breaches and bends in Halachah, because the end product, a Frum girl, is worth it, and “you just don’t understand how it works.”

    I think we take for granted the value we as Orthodox Jews place on Kiruv. I never thought about it until someone pointed it out to me and asked me to look at it objectively. Are we really so worried about all these “souls?” Or is it more about validating our own reality and beliefs? If we are worried about the “souls” of unaffiliated Jews, we have been told time and time again by Sefarim going back 1.5 millennia, that we need to focus on our own souls, and when we are all perfect, we can start working on others’ souls. A modern way of saying this goes something like (and I’m going to ruin the delivery on this, so feel free to correct me) “We need only be concerned with improving our own Olam Habbah, and our concern for others should be only for improving their Olam Hazeh.” On a practical level, this would mean that we should be more concerned with feeding, clothing and housing indigent Jews of any denomination and/or of no affiliation, before pouring our efforts and tzedakah funds into Kiruv work. But our group culture has become an almost frantic and obsessive need to “make them Frum.”

    Not only do we value sacrificing ourselves in numerous ways (Mesiras Nefesh) for the Klal, the greater good of the Frum world, but we extend those values to how we treat others and what we expect from others, sacrificing THEM on the mizbeach of “Making them Frum.” But perhaps respecting them as human beings should come first. And this includes not overstepping boundaries with them in any questionable way (be it yichud or similar inappropriate behavior), not abusing authority over them when they are kids or young adults, and not lying to them, even by omission (which is just as much a lie as any other). Why, and since when did the idea of “Kiruv” come before any other mitzvah in the Torah, including those Bein Adam L’Chaveiro? It shouldn’t. That our culture puts Kiruv on such a high pedestal and excuses so much questionable behavior in it’s pursuit is what I am questioning. And the many excuses heard in defense of “making them frum” all point to sacrificing what should be our core values, for the sake of “keeping them frum.” It’s a classic case of the ends justifying the means.

    • Very well said, Seriously? i just want to add an observation I’ve made about people who are “into” Kiruv. They just love having somebody to look down on, to condescend to. There’s all this talk about “growing” as if the potential BT is somehow too small as he or she is. And many BTs suck it up, they need that guru to put them in their place, they live their lives with their noses pressed up against the window, trying desperately to measure up to the ffb community, which of course they never do. This is a dangerous relationship for anybody of any age, and it’s ripe for all sorts of abuses, major and minor.

      • “i just want to add an observation I’ve made about people who are “into” Kiruv. They just love having somebody to look down on, to condescend to.”

        This is a terrible generalization to make about people who engage in kiruv.

        • I call it how I see it. I have relatives who dabble in kiruv, and I listen when they speak about it. They don’t even realize themselves how obnoxious and condescending they sound. And these are the relatively benign people! Doesn’t even include the Kiruv mongers who are out to get $ from those naive BTs, another aspect of Kiruv with which I am intimately familiar.

      • Thanks to Seriously? and Sheri for their appreciation of my comments — and in particular to Esther Tova Stanley for her personal courage as well as her insight.

        I’ve written about the “kiruv” issue — largely in a book that has yet to be published — and I’m afraid if I start on that subject here I’ll go on FAR too long, especially on a blog devoted to other topics. So I’ll resist, for the moment, the temptation to expand the analysis.

        However, one theme that emerges in my current book is the consistent correlation between patterns of abuse, as legally defined, and relationships in which the value of one person (within the hierarchical structure of the religious culture) is qualitatively lower than that of the other — the rebbe, say, or the rosh yeshiva. You can reduce that mouthful to pretty much what Sheri said, so I’ll defer to her exposition even as I second her observation.

        And the danger isn’t limited to vulnerable BTs. The more the community lauds and embraces the rabbi/guru-to-neophyte/acolyte relationship as a paradigm of Jewish “growth,” the more we tend to “grow” in the wrong direction as this sort of relationship is associated with forms of “success” the community tends to accept at face value.

        And why is “kiruv” considered such a success? Not for the reasons its mythic image ought to imply. In its most popular forms (as always, I mean to exclude from my criticism many people who take a truer, harder and sincere approach), it’s too superficially defined to reflect true concern for other people’s souls, and too unscrupulously practiced to demonstrate a real respect for Judaism. I suspect its deeper appeal to the community as a whole is that it offers a kind of cheap thrill, a reason to feel good about themselves that too few Orthodox Jews acquire from their own religious progress. It’s a kind of spiritual fast food, retailing convenient claims about the “beauty of Judaism” or “truth of Torah” (look who’s signing up!) that would be better acquired through hard-won personal experience. I think we ought to be wary about that sort of popularity.

        Just remember: if Lanner hadn’t gone too far with too many young women, if Tropper hadn’t been caught on tape talking sex with a prospective convert, these two con men — and many more like them — would still be highly praised, as both once were, for bringing so many “into the fold” even as they prostituted Torah to manipulate vulnerable young people and to build personal cults. Considering that so far our rabbinic leaders have condemned only the peccadilloes of such folk — NOT their methods — what do such careers really say about the criteria that direct our praise?

        • Baruch Lanner is still widely, widely praised in casual conversation as one “who did a lot of good”, even as those giving the praise acknowledge his criminal behavior.

          Think about it this way. Would the frum world be a better place if Baruch Lanner had never been born? The only right answer is YES.

          If you hem and haw and say “well Baruch did a lot of good, look at all these people who would never have been frum otherwise”, then you DON’T grasp the problem.

          • Exactly. As I point out in my book, even the OU’s report denouncing Lanner’s abusive behavior bought into this fundamental myth, which (as you say) means the authors never really understood what went wrong, or why. And the same goes for many Orthodox rabbis (and others) to this day.

            Sure, there are many people about whom one can talk about “mixed” traits, some good, some bad. But in Lanner’s case — I’ll quote myself for convenience — “Orthodox rabbis praised his ‘charisma’ and ‘dynamism’ while deploring his sexual manipulations — never noticing that the good and bad items in his resume were really the same, the former merely cloaked in conventions of respectability.” That’s a problem. And it isn’t just about Lanner.

        • As an aside, you remind me of a lecture I attended recently by a prominent Rabbi here in Brooklyn. He said that years ago, teenage kids had a cause to fight for, I think he meant building up Yiddishkeit in general and the yeshiva system. Now that the yeshiva system is strong, the kids need a cause to fight for. Voila! Kiruv. The guy was so slimy, he said he invited potential BTs to his house for shabbos so his kids could practice their “cause”. Sound like Kiruv is one big propaganda machine? It, and the Yiddishkeit behind it, is.

        • Michael Lesher wrote: “relationships in which the value of one person (within the hierarchical structure of the religious culture) is qualitatively lower than that of the other — the rebbe, say, or the rosh yeshiva. ”

          Sorry, but that has nothing to do specifically with Kiruv, and everything to do with Orthodox Judaism in general. In your enthusiasm to find fault with Kiruv, don’t forget to glance in the mirror now and then to acknowledge from where kiruv derives its principles. The entire societal structure of Orthodox Judaism places higher value on the rebbe/rosh yeshiva. In the general sense of placing higher value on the talmid chacham, one could make an argument that is precisely how the religion was designed by chazal. Should kiruv people not follow chazal or orthodox Judaism when they do their work? It makes sense that they would.

          • I disagree in part. Just a few generations ago some talmidei chachamim were called tzadikim as were some who were not talmidei chachamim. Nowadays the point is implicitly recognized when Rosh Yehsiva is equated with tzadik and you hear people saying he is a tzadik and a baal midos. IIRC, there was a eulogy for Isser Zalman Meltzer (the father-in-law of R. Aaron Kotler and a great talmid chacham). If I recall correctly by R. Shmuel Zalman Auerbach in which he said something like ‘Even if he was an am haaretz, he would have to be called a tzadik because he was the nicest Jew (sheinster yid) in Jerusalem. Values changed post WWII when the hierarchy of power shifted from lay leadership and communal rabbis to Roshei Yeshiva. Even halacha changed from the influence of the Aruch Hashulchan based on communal psak to the derived legalism of the Chofetz Chaim’s Mishneh Berurah. Common sense was out and book knowledge was in. Balancing practicality was out and stringency was in.

            The following story posted on the Seforim blog illustrates this point nicely:

            R. Jeffrey Woolf recorded the following story about the Kovno Rav. He heard it from an eyewitness and it is very illuminating.

            The pre-war Jewish community of Kovno (Kaunas, today) Lithuania was divided into different components, divided by the Neris River. On the one side was the general community, which was made up of every type of contemporary Jewish religious and cultural population. Indeed, the community was a bit notorious for a lackadaisical form of religiosity. On the other side of the Williampol bridge, was the famous Slabodka Yeshiva, a flagship of the Mussar Movement. As might be expected, relations between the two sectors were often tense. There was a saying attributed to the Alter of Slabodka, R. Nosson Zvi Finkel זצ”ל, that the bridge from Kovno to Slabodko only went one way.

            Coping with the myriad of challenges, modernization and secularization in Kovno was its illustrious rabbi, R. Avraham Dov-Bear Kahana-Shapira זצוק”ל, author of the classic collection of responsa and Talmudic essays דבר אברהם, and known more popularly as the ‘Kovner Rov.’ One central concern of his was the alienation of young Kovner Jews from the synagogue. Thus, when the administration of the Choral Synagogue came to him with an intriguing approach to the problem, he jumped at it.

            The idea was to have the synagogue’s cantor, the internationally renowned tenor Misha Alexandrovich, offer public concerts that would feature classical חזנות alongside renditions of serene Italian bel canto compositions. The hope was that this type of cultural evening would draw modernizing young Jewish men and women to the synagogue, where they would socialize and (perhaps) find mates.

            The first concert was a smashing success and more were planned. Everyone was thrilled, except for the heads of the Slabodka Yeshiva. They turned angrily to the Kovner Rov and demanded that he intervene to stop the concerts. They were indecent, the Rashe Yeshiva objected. The led to fraternization between men and women, and in the synagogue. Worse still, they might corrupt yeshiva students.

            The Kovner Rav listened quietly, and then firmly rejected the Yeshiva’s objection. “You are responsible only for your yeshiva,” he asserted. “I am responsible for the spiritual welfare of all of the Jews of Kovno.” The concerts, he declared, would continue.

            • Reb Lopin,

              Thank you for clarifying that for me. The anecdote was a helpful illustration. I guess the important thing to distinguish, in today’s day of glorifying the role (and person) of Rosh yeshiva, is where the line is drawn between appropriate level of respect/admiration/esteem vs. dangerous level of adulation and self-negation that could lead to inappropriate behavior or worse. But that is from the individual follower’s perspective. From the perspective of the rosh yeshiva himself or other person in place of power/prestige/esteem in this society, in what ways must they limit the scope of their authority/jurisdiction so that they maintain proper respect for the individual follower, and so that they do not venture off into questionable areas and potential inappropriate behaviors? That would require exceptional personality traits, which not everyone possesses. And the reaches of this yeshiva-centric power are in some ways absolute – Everyone wants to be accepted in society in community y, get their kid into school X, get a shidduch for their kid (which of course would be impossible if you’re viewed by all others as substandard in kashrut, hashkafa, etc) – And who legislates all of these standards? Well, the yeshiva figures of course.
              But if they cannot police themselves appropriately, who will police them? I guess with things as they were in yesteryear, the communal rav, as your anecdote illustrates clearly, could barely reign in his flock, let alone “control” his adherents (a notion he’d probably laugh at). He was trying his best to impart a positive influence with hopes that it will impact people’s lives and decisions. In a role where the level of authority and control is dictated by the followers themselves and constantly hangs in the balance, the followers are the de facto balance of power. Where does this balance exist in today’s post-ww2 reality of Yeshiva-centric power and control?

          • I actually don’t think baal teshuva baller and I disagree on this issue. In fact, his generalization is exactly the point I wanted to stress; I only argued that “kiruv” provides one example of such a potentially abusive dynamic.

            On the other hand, I am not prepared to say that Jewish education MUST proceed in such fashion. That, it seems to me, would virtually amount to an admission that Judaism cannot be taught conscientiously. And if that were true, I would have to seriously question the value of Judaism itself.

            For whatever it’s worth, while I don’t regard my own teachers as above criticism, none of them ever tried to use the cultish techniques of a Lanner or a Meisels. Those who educated me obviously and deeply regarded the Talmud, the body of halakhah and the theology behind it as matters of the utmost importance. And their attitude was contagious.

    • “Teaching people should be, at its core, about respecting them as human beings, and that principle is inconsistent with treating them as a means to an end — one more Orthodox Jew, one more enthusiastic wife-to-be, etc.”

      Worded very poorly. Teaching should be at its core imparting knowledge to people who need it. That’s it. That’s what teaching is. In addition to that, teachers, like everyone else, have to respect people, including their students, as human beings, and not use them as a means to an end. That is not something unique to teaching.

      • Among many other things teaching is about imparting knowledge, which can be factual, social or emotional. Seriously is not claiming that conveying respect is unique to teaching, or that is the only task of teaching.

        I would phrase it differently. Educating for a lifestyle should be rooted in authenticity and that includes respect, especially when the alternative end of the continuum is deception/manipulation.

  14. Sexual abuse is a terrible communal problem and occurs in many different contexts. The American seminaries in Israel are a venue where the environment makes one type of abuse a serious risk. There are no defined requirements nor supervising body for the seminaries. Often they are led by a charismatic rabbi who interviews the perspective students and can create a cult around himself. Meisels is a recent example of a head of school who had no outside control on his actions and the staff and administration worked for him. Since he was the halakhic authority his private meetings late at night would not be questioned. There are probably former students who still will justify his behavior because if he did it then it must have been halakhically correct. Despite the publicity about his case a similar scandal can happen at any time.
    Esther Malka Stanley deserves great credit for putting on the table the cultural contexts that played a major role the lack of serious outrage in much of the Orthodox community. In a parallel way there have been similar scandals in a yeshiva for troubled American students in Israel and in youth movements.

  15. I went to binas 2 years ago and still cant believe that any of the story regarding Rabbi Miesels is true. I know that many of the girls believe it but I still have trouble fathoming it.

    Does it really help to continue spreading lashon hora about him? He has a family that must be torn apart by these accusations.

    • You should have been taught to critically evaluate facts. You should also have been taught that there is no prohibition on spreading true information when necessary to protect others. I understand that a number of shuls in bayit vegan refuse Meisels aliyot. Embarrassing for him but helps to protect others from believing he is trustworthy.

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