Sexual abuse is not acceptable anywhere. But in a religious context, it’s an especially harsh betrayal. The victims are often children, whose word may not be believed against that of a respected community leader. Amudim, an organization that supports Jewish people in crisis, portrayed some of the predictable responses in a video depicting Jewish families of all backgrounds confronting community leaders with claims that a daughter was abused. Over and over, secular and observant, they hear “She must be mistaken.” “He has a family!” “That sort of thing just doesn’t happen here.”
But it happens in every community, and not just to girls. And when rabbis, school officials, and others close ranks rather than addressing the problem, it can happen even more. Too often, the kind of silence and denial shown in the video permits sexual abusers to continue their destructive behavior, while victims suffer in silence. Some of those cases are now being made public in lawsuits like the August 2019 case in New York filed by dozens of former students from Yeshiva University High School for Boys.
Although the statute of limitations on sexual abuse limited those plaintiffs’ recovery, laws in New York, California, and at least 18 other places have changed. Victims may now be able to fully vindicate their rights even years later, after they've come to accept what happened.
The sexual abuse attorneys at Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers LLC are committed to prosecuting cases involving Rabbis and synagogues to the fullest extent of the law. If you or a loved one was a victim of sexual abuse perpetrated by a Rabbi or staff member at a synagogue, we invite you to contact our law firm for a complimentary consultation.
The Roles of Rabbis
At the most basic, a rabbi is a person who is learned about Jewish texts and Jewish law. A rabbi is ordained after studying Jewish texts and law, and may or may not go on to lead a congregation. Rabbis may also teach and lead schools, judge legal cases brought under Jewish law, or lead organizations that offer essentially religious services, such as ensuring that food is kosher. Rabbis who minister to synagogues often take on a role of not only leading prayers, but also reaching out to people in need, speaking for their communities in the larger world, and acting as counselors to community members.
Judaism values knowledge and learning, and rabbis have a great deal of authority in Jewish life, particularly in Orthodox Jewish or otherwise religiously observant communities. The Talmud says it’s a mitzvah (a blessing or good deed) to honor a rabbi or Torah scholar; this honor may also extend to the rabbi’s wife or husband. Rabbis may even discipline adults from their communities for improper behavior.
Rabbi Sexual Abuse Cases
Unfortunately, some rabbis have taken advantage of this powerful position in the community. Since parents trust and respect rabbis, they may think nothing of leaving their children alone with one. Parents may even go to a rabbi for help with a child who they believe is going down the wrong path. Vulnerable young women may bring personal problems to rabbis they trust. Most rabbis deserve that trust, but those who don’t can do substantial damage.
Some of that damage was outlined in an August 2019 lawsuit against the Yeshiva University High School for Boys, alleging that the school knowingly allowed two rabbis to retain positions of power over teenage boys for decades, despite multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. Harpers Magazine opens its coverage of that case with a description by one man of being publicly groped by Rabbi George Finkelstein in 1976, when he was 15, under the pretext of checking that he was wearing tzitzit (a ritual garment for Orthodox Jewish males). Another man described being forced as a teenager in the early 1980s to wrestle with other boys for Finkelstein’s sexual arousal.
In 1986, at least one boy complained about Finkelstein’s behavior to school authorities. That boy claims in the lawsuit that Finkelstein called him out of class, punched him, and threatened him with expulsion. The school took no action on the complaint other than to remove the door of Finkelstein’s office. In fact, Finkelstein was promoted to principal in 1991. He was forced to leave the school four years later, but despite the complaints, became the dean of a boys’ school in Florida.
Another rabbi, Macy Gordon, is accused in the lawsuit of sodomizing a boy with a toothbrush as a punishment for missing class. That victim says Gordon also sprayed his genitals with Chloraseptic because the victim showed signs of puberty.
Sadly, there are plenty of other such stories. One involves Satmar leader Nechemya Weberman, who was convicted in 2012 of sexually abusing a woman 59 times, starting when she was 12. Weberman was sentenced to 103 years in prison, the Times of Israel reported.
In a more recent case, Rabbi Menachem (Mendy) Weiss was sentenced to six years in prison in September of 2019, for sexually assaulting a boy 20 years earlier. According to the Jerusalem Post, the victim had been living with Weiss in 1999 while attending a school for teenaged boys with special needs. The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles says Weiss was able to work as a congregational rabbi, a youth center director, and a teacher at a Jewish school before his arrest.
What is the Effect of Sexual Abuse by Rabbis on Victims?
All sexual abuse victims are different, and there’s a range of responses. Jewish Community Watch, an organization founded to help Jewish victims of childhood sexual abuse, says the damage to the victim depends on not just what took place, but also factors like the length of the abuse, how other people reacted when they found out, the age of the child, and whether the child was otherwise happy and supported.
Some victims have spoken publicly about the long-term effects for them. David Bressler, one of the plaintiffs in the Yeshiva University High School for Boys case, told the Associated Press that his experience made him abandon Judaism, and that he also has trouble with crowds because he can’t stand being touched. Another plaintiff, the boy who was attacked by Rabbi Macy Gordon, attempted suicide the year of the attack.
Unfortunately, there are also social repercussions for people who come forward to report abuse in very observant, insular Orthodox Jewish communities. The Times of Israel reported in 2012 that Weberman’s victim’s family was harassed and spat on after she reported what happened. After the conviction, the New York Post reported that the woman was forced to leave a temple where she’d been a member for 10 years by congregants yelling “Moser,” a name for Jews who inform on other Jews.
That article also says members of the Satmar community vandalized a business belonging to the woman’s husband. Another man pleaded guilty to offering the couple $500,000 to leave the country rather than testify against Weberman. And in a different case, Satmar rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, who advocates for victims of sexual abuse, suffered chemical burns after another Satmar, whose father had been accused, threw a cup of bleach in his face. Harpers notes that only quick thinking by a nearby shopkeeper saved Rosenberg’s vision.
Why Don’t Some Jewish Communities Take Action?
Intentionally or not, these reactions discourage victims from coming forward. (For example, the prosecutors in Weberman’s case believed there were more victims who were afraid to come forward.) That’s not only a Jewish problem. Communities of all kinds reject reports of sexual assault by powerful people. Even survivors whose assailant was not prominent may not be believed, because of a persistent but mistaken belief that victims are willing to simply make up accusations that shatter their worlds. Children’s word is easy to dismiss because of their age.
But, as expressly Orthodox Jewish anti-abuse organization ZA’AKAH observes, the problem can be worse in certain insular Orthodox Jewish communities. When the rabbi is both the highest authority in the community and the source of the problem, people may not know where to turn. Since these communities tend to be visible as religious minorities, they may also see any criticism of the rabbi as a criticism of their way of life. If they feel attacked by the larger, secular world, they may also resist anything that makes their community look bad.
For the same reasons, those communities may resist going to secular authorities, even with serious crimes. As the Forward reported in 2011, Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella group of very observant Orthodox Jewish organizations, told members that even people who by law must report sexual abuse should go to a rabbi before the police.
And then there’s what Rabbi Joshua Hammerman called The Mesirah Mess in a 2012 piece for the New York Jewish Week. Mesirah is a provision of Jewish law that forbids Jews from reporting allegations against other Jews to secular authorities. Hammerman writes that mesirah doesn’t apply when there is an ongoing threat to the public—and that Jews living in the U.S. can trust secular authorities.
Survivors for Justice, a New York advocacy group for sexual assault victims of all backgrounds, maintains a list of halachic (Jewish law) responses to sexual assault, including an assertion by Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn that jailing a Jewish criminal prevents desecration of the name of God (chilul Hashem). Another such list comes from Jewish Community Watch, an organization that supports Jewish victims of childhood sexual assault. Despite these authorities, however, mesirah may still be useful to people who prefer to quash reports of sexual assault.
All of these forces conspire to keep victims silent, which is one reason it took the Yeshiva University High School for Boys victims so long to come forward. However, institutions that knowingly allow sexual assaulters to continue in positions of power, as the school did, also bear some responsibility. That’s why the new series of laws permitting lawsuits about long-ago abuse may allow some very old wounds to start healing.
Get Legal Help Today
Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers LLC is experienced with prosecuting cases involving sexual abuse and assault in religious organizations. If you or a family member was sexually exploited by a Rabbi or synagogue employee, we are interested in speaking with you regarding your legal rights and options for a recovery under the applicable civil laws.