Tonight’s post hits very close to home for multiple reasons I’ll explain. The Jewish Forward (whose assistant editor is a friend, Larry Cohler Esses) published a deeply troubling, but brilliant expose of a Reform rabbi whom the movement permitted to prey on women in at least three separate Jewish communities. While he was active, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Reform Judaism’s rabbinic professional association did far too little to protect communities from his depredations. Nor did it do much to police or monitor his behavior. His current home is right here in Seattle (my first reason this story hit close to home). Almost as soon as he got here, he attempted to seduce at least one vulnerable young woman who sought his counsel.
Among the jobs he took when he arrived here was teaching at a communal Hebrew High School. I know children of friends who attend it, including precisely the sort of young girls he’s preyed on in the past. The thought that authorities at this Jewish school did so little due diligence before hiring this man and putting local children in his charge is deeply disturbing.
The damage this scandal has caused is two-fold: of course there are the women whom he’s sexually abused. This is a profound evil. Suffering from which some may never recover. But just as disturbing is the damage it has caused to the credibility of CCAR and the Reform movement. Read this article, paying close attention to the interviews and statements made by the rabbinic peers who were tasked with maintaining ethical standards for the movement. Read the response by the congregation rabbi at the temple where Rabbi Siroka is a congregant:
Rabbi David Lipper, senior rabbi of Temple B’nai Torah…called the allegations “hearsay.”
Lipper said he is aware that Siroka was expelled from the CCAR. But Lipper added that because Siroka is not engaged in a rabbinic capacity at the synagogue, he is “not concerned” about the circumstances surrounding Siroka’s expulsion.
Lipper said that Siroka’s occasional teaching at his synagogue was a “personnel decision and not for public consumption.”
“I’m not a judge of other rabbis,” Lipper said. “I don’t live my life in judgment of other people.”
He added, “I’m not sure what your endgame is in doing this story.”
Given the multiple scandals over similar incidents during the past few years at synagogues in New York and Washington, Rabbi Lipper better come up with a better, more transparent response than the obtuse one he’s adopted here. If I belonged to this synagogue I wouldn’t permit any child I knew to be alone in the same room with him or to teach any child I knew anything. How can a spiritual leader who is a sexual predator be permitted to teach Torah or Talmud?
Clearly, this man needs very serious psychological counseling and behavior therapy to change his patterns of thought and conduct. And as a Jew, if he underwent such treatment and emerged a “reformed” individual, I might argue that his teshuvah, if documented by professional authorities, deserved consideration. But he’s been expelled by the CCAR. He’s clearly refused such offers of help from his colleagues. Thus he deserves no consideration from anyone in any position of authority in any Jewish community. He must be shunned until he changes. He must not be allowed to harm more women, as he surely will.
The institutions of the American Jewish community are declining in strength and popularity. Jews here are becoming increasingly secular. They are turning away from organized religious expression, including synagogues. Though Reform Judaism is by far the most popular movement in this country, scandals like this should and will rock it’s crediblity. And they should.
Any institution must earn ongoing respect from those it serves. If it betrays their trust then it no longer serves a useful purpose. I’m not saying the Reform movement will fall due to this single incident. But if it failed so badly regarding this particular tragic situation, there are scores of others in which it either has or will fail in future. That is, of course, unless proper lessons are learned. Unless women who are abused are believed and their testimony is encouraged. Based on what I read here, that has not happened in the CCAR. They have a big problem and better fix it.
As in all religions, Jews place their spiritual leaders on a pedestal. Some exploit the privileges they’re given. In doing so, they betray themselves, their own families, those to whom they’re ministering, and most of all the entire Jewish community.
But today’s era is different than the past. We can no longer afford to accord rabbis and other communal leaders with the deference they automatically earned by dint of their titles alone. We must do due diligence before hiring anyone serving in such a sensitive position. In fact, if your synagogue has hired an educational director or rabbi in the recent past and you didn’t examine more than his or her references, you’ve opened yourself to moral and legal liability.
As someone who grew up in the Conservative movement, I never personally experienced such a profound betrayal and what follows does not reach to the profound low depths of the actions of Rabbi Siroka. But I have encountered rabbis and educators who displayed warning signs that no one took seriously.
I attended Camp Ramah in the late 1960s and there met some of the most extraordinary Jewish teachers I’ve ever had the privilege to study with: Rabbi Joe Lukinsky, Professors Alan Mintz and Joseph Riemer. Some of the counselors too played extraordinary roles in supporting the development of a child from a troubled family.
But there were others who didn’t play such a constructive role. Rabbi David Mogilner once publicly shamed me in front of a room full of campers by shouting at me for forgetting to wear my kippah at dinner. He never apologized, never said a word to me afterward. This Jewish educator had a similar experience to mine and went on to have a close relationship with Mogilner. But that wasn’t my experience. I considered leaving camp, which is probably what he wanted me to do. But unfortunately, at 16, you sometimes don’t realize you have alternatives. You suck it up when you should move on.
This is a Jewish educator revered by many who knew and worked with him. But if he emotionally abused me in public do you think there are no other children he similarly abused? Do you think any colleague would’ve cared to hear such a story about him or done anything about it? Mogilner died some years ago, which is why I’m using his real name in this account.
During one summer, I was befriended by a teacher at the Camp, who became a sort of mentor. I was a young, shy, inquisitive, searching child. Home life was filled with emotional turmoil and abuse. The teacher was a charismatic, slightly mysterious man who offered warmth, caring and unconditional affection. I remember one Shabbat I sat in his study. As he was beaming at me, he said something which should have made me run from the room and out his front door. Though this incident is nearly fifty years old, I can remember him saying: “What a shame that we can only express our love for each other spiritually.” Those may not have been the precise words, but they are very close to them.
I was probably 16 at the time. I didn’t know what this meant. I didn’t know anything about sexual predators or pedophilia. I was a young, impressionable boy basking in the attention and admiration of an older man. Think Socrates and his young disciples.
Luckily, nothing did happen. He maintained boundaries and didn’t attempt to cross them. Perhaps unconsciously I didn’t want, or permit them to be crossed.
This man went on to become a distinguished Jewish communal leader in a field I won’t disclose. He has educated and trained Jewish youth for decades. Do I know how he’s behaved with others? No. That’s why I’ve protected his identity. I only know what happened to me. Luckily, I wasn’t damaged. Perhaps I didn’t permit myself to be. But there are others needier or more inclined who may have been.
Finally, the Los Angeles Jewish community permitted a known sexual predator who’d moved there from Australia to educate children in the Orthodox community. As part of the revelations in the case of Manny Wax, leading Australian Chabad rabbis and this individual were exposed as either sexual predators or facilitators of, and apologists for abuse. When the accusations first began there one of the abusers, Daniel “Gug” Hayman, moved with his family to Los Angeles. Jewish Family Service and psychologists from the Orthodox community were tasked with monitoring him and determining whether he could work with children. Astonishingly, they approved him working among the same sorts of young people he’d serially abused at home in Australia.
Two of the local psychologists who served Orthodox Jewish clients who suffered sex abuse were Debbie Fox and Michael Held. Fox, in particular, shielded Hayman when she served in this liaison role between the perpetrator and the community.
Held and I were roommates in graduate school in Los Angeles, before he became frum. We have had no contact for decades. In researching this post, I discovered another case in which one of Michael’s patients was murdered, in part because he didn’t report abuse at the hands of her husband to proper authorities. When you’ve known someone and felt as close to someone as I did to Michael at one time (even long ago) and you hear such a story, you feel a sense of betrayal. You wonder how the person you knew could behave in such an unprofessional and reckless fashion.
I have always held Rabbi Elliot Dorff in the greatest admiration. He is former Rector the American Jewish University and a leading rabbinic ethicist. When I first began blogging, I wrote a long confessional essay about Judaism and child abuse. Rabbi Dorff was the only rabbi to whom I sent the essay who responded. When I sent the essay to the magazine published by the Reform rabbinate the reader assigned to evaluate it had a visceral, angry response. He refused to concede that rabbis had an affirmative obligation to detect or monitor child abuse among their youth. I suppose in light of the above scandal, that’s unsurprising. But Dorff’s comments were both sympathetic and learned.
I knew he had served as a past president of L.A. Jewish Family Service. I wrote to him and asked for his response to this troubling episode. Even this most sensitive and caring Jewish ethicist closed ranks in communal solidarity. He told me that the current president had assured him that there had been no ethical lapses in the case of Gug Hayman. It never sheltered him, he was never one of its clients, Family Service had acted professionally and ethically and could not be held accountable for the actions of Debbie Fox. These are the sorts of statements written by lawyers, not people. But people are the ones who read these statements and find them wanting.
Which brings me to my final observation: there are individuals in this world who are thoughtful and sensitive; who care for the needy and vulnerable; who are learned in the ways of Jewish tradition. But when they are forced to make a choice between their own individual values and those of the community, they invariably choose to suppress their individual views. They speak on behalf of a corporate community. One that closes ranks in order to protect its own.
I can almost read Rabbi Dorff’s mind in this: Family Service does enormous good for thousands of its clients. If it failed in one instance, should we permit the entire enterprise be destroyed for the sake of this one mistake? So isn’t it better to lay that matter to rest and focus on the good that is done for so many?
My response is that if you do not do what Manny Waks did and tear up evil root and branch, then of what use is all the good that you do? How can you compromise with evil? How can you sweep it away as if it didn’t exist? This is what those Chabad rabbis tried to do for so many years. They permitted evil, turned a blind eye to it. I’m not arguing that Jewish Family Service behaved as badly, since it dealt with only this one bad apple and over a relatively short period of time. But in my view it failed morally. It exposed Orthodox Jewish children to a sexual predator. Something that should never have happened. And it did happen because good people, people who should have known better exercised too much mercy and not enough justice.