How violent rabbis prey on their own followers

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Michal was 21 when she sought help for infertility from Rabbi Ezra Sheinberg – an Israeli Kabbalist who had a massive following of people seeking supernatural blessings and healings. After a year of counseling, the rabbi began flirting with Michal. “You are not holy enough,” he told her, when she refused his advances. “Maybe I made a mistake trying to help you. I thought you were on the next level. In 2018, he was convicted of sexually assaulting eight women, but was granted an early release in 2021.

Michal’s story is one of more than 80 anecdotes of abuse and harassment in Dr. Elana Sztokman’s new book, “When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture.” (Lioness Press).

Sztokman never set out to write a book about sexually abusive rabbis. But when the anthropologist, who grew up in the Modern Orthodox Church in Flatbush, Brooklyn, began researching general abuse in the Jewish community, she says she was “surprised to find out how many abusers described by the interviewees were rabbis”.

Reform Rabbi Sheldom ZImmerman resigned as president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2000 following allegations of sexual misconduct against him.
Sheldon Zimmerman/Facebook

Long before the #MeToo movement unmasked prominent celebrities and clergy in American society, the Jewish community had itself suffered sexual abuse and predatory behavior, many of which made headlines: a rabbi peeping at the ritual bath, Bronx Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, who had naked sauna conversations, a top predator Reform RabbiAnd two Yeshiva University rabbis accused of molesting boys in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

“A rabbi from my high school abused some classmates, and he was just taken out of my girls’ school and put into the boys’ school,” says Shlomit, who told Sztokman she saw multiple rabbis abuse of her classmates when she was in school. “He then became the rabbi of my community and had sexually inappropriate relationships with congregants.” He was only fired a decade ago after a synagogue investigation. As an Orthodox Jewish educator in her 40s, Shlomit now witnesses this same kind of abuse happening to her peers.

Bronx Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt Had Naked Sauna Talks With 12-Year-Old Boys.
Bronx Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt Had Naked Sauna Talks With 12-Year-Old Boys.
PA

Ironically, many of the 84 victims interviewed were themselves studying to become rabbis. “I’ve been harassed and sexually assaulted, tried to rape a date, all the things women go through in their lives,” said Daliah, now a rabbi.

Of course, not all victims are women – and not all abusers are men. Daniel, also a rabbi, offered a car ride to a director of his rabbinical school. “But he wanted to sleep with me, and he had a fight after I refused his multiple sexual advances. Eventually he asked for a hug – I thought it was to say goodbye. The next thing he remembers is being sexually assaulted by him.

Jay Goldberg (left) and Barry Singer (right) say they were sexually abused while students at Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy (MTA) - also known as Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan.
Jay Goldberg (left) and Barry Singer (right) say they were sexually abused while students at Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy (MTA) – also known as Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan.
PA

Rabbis who abuse have “many tactics at their disposal,” Sztokman writes, such as using “spiritual and religious language to lure their victims into doing what they want.” She notes that they have “weapons of retaliation” in the synagogue “that can deprive victims of things that are important to them.”

After years of teenage involvement in her conservative Jewish community, Leanne worked as a camp counselor at a Jewish summer camp when she was 19. It was there that she met an Orthodox rabbi who kept asking her out, cornering her alone, following her around the camp and writing sexually explicit songs for her. When she told the camp leader, to his surprise, everyone knew about him. The director told him, “As a rabbi, he has a lot to offer,” and suggested that he avoid it. “I was so frustrated and fed up with this experience and the tolerance towards him that when I left camp that day, I basically left all serious Jewish life.”

Reporting abuse can be difficult in a religious context, especially when any kind of gossip is frowned upon.
Reporting abuse can be difficult in a religious context, especially when any kind of gossip is frowned upon.
Shutterstock

During Hannah’s first week in rabbinical school, she was invited to the apartment of an influential rabbi more than twice her age. When she walked in, the rabbi took her hand, put it on her crotch, and said, “See what you’re doing to me?

Reporting abuse can be harsh in a religious context, given the ban on gossip and the fear of anti-Semitism. “Reactions of disbelief, blaming, silence, and sweeping under the rug seem fairly consistent in Jewish contexts,” Sztokman writes. Case in point: Half of the Bronx “naked sauna” rabbi’s synagogue community supported him before he resigned.

When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture by Elana Sztokman
The book explores over 80 anecdotes of abuse and harassment.

“Many Jewish community organizations appear to have no reporting or training mechanisms,” she adds, though some believe that is changing and systems are improving with organizations tackling the issue. abuses in the Jewish world. Still, safe reporting, protecting victims and holding perpetrators accountable must be the norm, she writes.

Like abusers do their feedback in Jewish life despite the allegations against them, Sztokman also includes recommendations for a better Jewish community.

“As long as sexual abuse takes place in our community spaces, nothing in our culture can be trusted. And no place is really safe. This should alarm anyone who cares about Jewish life, not just those who have been abused. »

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