Sexual abuse is not acceptable, anywhere. Sexual assault involving religious leaders is an incredibly harsh betrayal.
The victims are often children, whose word might not be believed against 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 claiming that a daughter was abused.
Over and over, secular and observant 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 continue to occur. Too often, the silence and denial showed in the video permits sexual abusers to continue their destructive behavior while victims suffer in silence.
Some of those cases are now publicly revealed in lawsuits like the August 2019 New York case 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 eighteen other places have changed. Victims can now fully vindicate their rights even years later after they have come to accept what happened.
A Rabbi Abuse Injury Attorney Can Help
The personal injury attorneys at Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers LLC prosecute cases involving Rabbis and synagogues to the fullest extent of the law.
Are you or a loved one a victim of sexual abuse perpetrated by a Rabbi or staff member of a synagogue? If so, contact our law firm for a complimentary consultation.
Rabbi Sexual Abuse FAQs
Is a Sexual Contact Between a Religious Leader and Me Ever Okay?
Consensual sexual activity occurs when two individuals have relative equality in the relationship that does not involve manipulation, coercion, or fear. Clergy members and rabbis seeking romantic relationships should look outside the congregation.
A religious leader with romantic inclinations toward a congregational member should remove themselves from the ministry before pursuing an ethical relationship.
How Do Some Religious Leaders Justify Their Sexual Abuse?
Many religious leaders, including rabbis and clergy members, have crossed the boundaries through inappropriate behavior toward others by sexually molesting innocent victims. Often, the religious leader will state that God created the relationship and that loving others can never be wrong.
Others state that the relationship was consensual and based on a mutual agreement, even though coercion, fear, or manipulation was involved.
How Do I Know If My Boundaries Have Been Crossed?
Rabbis and other clergy members can cross the boundaries of acceptable behavior if the victim is:
- Confused by the rabbi’s attention, flattery, or actions
- Uncomfortable with the religious leader’s unusual attention and time
- Perplexed by the religious leader giving the victim personal gifts
- Mystified that the religious leader is inviting the victim to a social, intimate occasion
- Puzzled that the rabbi talks about his personal problems when counseling the victim
What Should I Do If I Am Sexually Attracted to My Religious Leader?
Many religious leaders, including rabbis, priests, reverends, and clergymen, have attractive, charismatic personalities and express their caring or sensitive nature. Developing feelings of attraction toward the rabbi might be inappropriate if the religious leader should not reciprocate your feelings and develop an intimate relationship.
Instead of acting on your sexual attraction with the rabbi, talk to a trusted friend, and share your confusion about what to do.
What Should I Do If I Believe I Am a Victim of Sexual Abuse by a Religious Leader?
If you believe that you, or a loved one, are the victim of sexual molestation involving a rabbi, priest, or clergy member, protect yourself from further assault. Getting away from the situation is essential to your health and well-being. You can:
- Share your feelings of anxiety, fear, and confusion with a trusted friend or mental health care professional
- Do not accept blame for the intimate relationship that was likely started by the religious leader’s actions of fear, manipulation, or coercion
- Trust yourself and your feelings
- Speak to an advocacy group that understands the Synagogue system and rely on their support and guidance
- Recognize that the rabbi might have sexually assaulted other victims who also need help in moving forward beyond an abusive life
- File a report with local law enforcement immediately if the sexually abused victim is a child or underage adolescent
- Seek information about your synod, congregation, or conference’s policies on filing reports and complaints involving clergy misconduct
How Can I Help My Church or Synagogue Prepare for the Possibility of Sexual Abuse by Clergy?
More than likely, your church or synod has developed policies and procedures in handling ministerial relationships involving sexual assault. Posing questions could help religious leaders help the congregation with compassion in dealing with potential abuse issues by clergy members.
Some questions could include:
- Does my Synagogue have policies and procedures for responding to sexual molestation or other sexual violations that infringe on affectional ethics?
- Do the congregation and clergy members have access to sexual ethics training?
- Will Synagogue leaders widely disseminate sexual molestation policies to the congregation members and the clergy?
The Roles of Rabbis
At the most basic, a rabbi is a person who is learned about Jewish texts and Jewish law. After studying Jewish texts and law, a rabbi is ordained and might or might not lead a congregation.
Rabbis might 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 the role of leading prayers and 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 Ultra-Orthodox Jews or otherwise religiously observant communities.
The Talmud says it is a mitzvah (a blessing or good deed) to honor a rabbi or Torah scholar; this honor might also extend to the rabbi’s wife or husband. Rabbis might 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 might think nothing of leaving their children alone with one. Parents might even go to a rabbi to help a child they believe is going down the wrong path.
Vulnerable young women might bring personal problems to rabbis they trust. Most rabbis deserve that trust, but those who cannot do substantial damage.
Some 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 authority over teenage boys for decades, despite multiple accusations of sexual misconduct.
One case involved a man publically announcing that Rabbi George Finkelstein groped him 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 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.
Finkelstein was promoted to principal in 1991 but was forced to leave the school four years later. Despite complaints, Finkelstein 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 Chlora-septic because the victim showed signs of puberty.
Sadly, there are plenty of such stories involving abuse survivors. One case involves Satmar leader Nechemya Weberman, who was convicted in 2012 of sexually abusing a woman fifty-nine times, starting when she was twelve.
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 twenty years earlier. According to the Jerusalem Post, the victim lived 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.
In 2019, in New Haven, Connecticut, jurors sentenced Rabbi Daniel Greer to A twelve-year prison sentence for repeatedly sexually assaulting an underage boy over ten years earlier. The Yeshiva of New Haven founder was accused of molesting the teenage boy at school, at motels, and in his bedroom.
According to the New York Times, the criminal case was resolved with the jurors finding Greer guilty of four counts of injury risk to a minor. The judge ordered the rabbi to start serving his prison sentence immediately, while his case was on appeal instead of remaining free on bond.
Following Connecticut’s statute of limitation laws, the victim filed a civil lawsuit that provides a one-year window to seek compensation. The case was resolved by a jury award of $15 million.
What is the Effect of Sexual Abuse by Rabbis on Victims?
All sexual abuse victims are different, and there is a range of responses.
Jewish Community Watch, an organization founded to help Jewish victims of child sexual abuse, says the damage to the child 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.
The victim says that he also has trouble with crowds because he can’t stand being touched. Another alleged victim, 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 ten 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 the religious leader.
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 child sex abuse victims from coming forward. (For example, the prosecutors in Weberman’s case believed more victims were afraid to come forward.) That is not only a Jewish problem.
Communities of all kinds reject reports of sexual assault by influential people. Even survivors whose assailant was not prominent might not be believed because of a persistent but mistaken belief that victims are willing to make up accusations that shatter their world.
Children’s words are easy to dismiss because of their age.
As expressly Orthodox Jewish anti-abuse organization ZA’AKAH observes, the problem can worsen in specific insular Orthodox Jewish communities. When the rabbi is both the highest authority in the community and the problem’s source, people might not know where to turn.
Since these communities tend to be visible as religious minorities, they might 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 might also resist anything that makes their community look bad.
For the same reasons, those communities might 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 forbidding Jews from reporting sexual abuse allegations against other Jews to secular authorities.
Hammerman writes that mesira 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 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 might still be useful to people who prefer to quash reports of sexual assault.
All these cover-up 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 abusers 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 might allow some deep, long-lasting wounds to start healing.
Speak with an Attorney Today About a Sexual Abuse Case Involving a Rabbi or Synagogue
Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers LLC is experienced with prosecuting cases involving sexual abuse and assault in religious organizations, including Judaism and the Roman Catholic Church.
Were you or a family member sexually exploited by a Rabbi or synagogue employee? If so, let’s discuss your legal rights and options for financial recovery under the applicable civil laws.
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