‘It’s a spiritual earthquake’: When rabbis become sexual abusers

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When reports first surfaced that a prominent D.C. rabbi had been secretly filming his female congregants in the synagogue’s ritual bath, Elana Sztokman says she felt physically ill.

“For about a week, I couldn’t get off the couch,” recounts the prominent feminist activist who grew up in New York and immigrated to Israel nearly 30 years ago.

Barry Freundel, an Orthodox rabbi who served as the spiritual leader of Kesher Israel Congregation, was eventually arrested in 2014 and served six-and-a-half years in prison after confessing to 52 counts of voyeurism.

What was causing Sztokman so much angst wasn’t just what the rabbi did. It was also the responses she was hearing. “A lot of people were brushing the whole thing off and saying it was nothing because he hadn’t touched the victims and there hadn’t been any physical contact,” she says. “That was really mind-bending for me.”

The exploits of the so-called “peeping rabbi” would become the trigger for her seven-year investigation into high-profile cases of sexual abuse in the Jewish community. The fruits of that endeavor, “When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture,” is set to be published next month by Lioness Books and Media, the publishing company Sztokman founded to promote women’s voices.

Elana Sztokman.
Ingrid Moller

Based on interviews with 84 victims and survivors of sexual abuse, as well as Jewish communal professionals and volunteers, Sztokman says she set out to answer one basic question: how can this be happening?

Personality traits

The 400-page book explores the personality traits that abusing rabbis share and analyzes their grooming tactics, some which are uniquely Jewish – such as using codes that identify “insiders” (words in Hebrew, for example, or Jewish ideas). It documents how Jewish communities often turn a blind eye to abusers and even support them. It explores the effects of sexual abuse on the victims – especially insofar as their connection to Judaism is concerned – and on the Jewish community as a whole.

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Sztokman, a trained anthropologist, found, for example, that the prevalence of sexual abuse in Jewish culture deters women from entering the rabbinate.

The book delves into some of the more shocking and well-known cases of sexual abuse in the Jewish community as well. These include the cases involving Rabbi Chaim Walder, the popular ultra-Orthodox author who committed suicide after he was exposed in a recent Haaretz investigation as a serial abuser; Malka Leifer, the principal of an ultra-Orthodox girls’ school in Australia who is about to stand trial on charges of sexually abusing her students; Michael Steinhardt, the prominent Jewish philanthropist who was accused in a New York Times investigation of engaging repeatedly in sexual harassment; and Baruch Lanner, the Orthodox youth movement leader from the United States who was convicted of child sexual abuse in one of the first cases of its kind to make headlines, about 20 years ago.

But Sztokman says the main reason she set out to write the book was to provide the victims – many of whom have requested anonymity for obvious reasons – with a platform to share their stories. As she writes in the introduction: “It is about bringing a megaphone to the voices of the victims who have been too long ignored.”

Author Chaim Walder. Committed suicide after being exposed last year as a sexual abuser of children.
Nir Kafri

She began her research in 2015, a few years before the #MeToo movement gained prominence. As growing numbers of victims and survivors of sexual abuse began sharing their stories, identifying subjects for her research and persuading them to open up became much easier.

Sztokman did not initially plan to focus on rabbis. Rather, she was thinking of a broader study on sexual abuse and harassment in the Jewish community as a whole. “Rabbis Who Abuse” does, indeed, look at abuse among Jewish donors, Jewish academics, Jewish institutional leaders and even in Jewish camps. But it was among rabbis that she discovered the problem was especially acute.

“I was absolutely shocked at how many rabbis I was hearing about,” Sztokman says. “Rabbis are supposed to be the ultimate safe space, we entrust our most sacred and vulnerable moments to rabbis, and we trust them to be our communal leaders, to teach us and enlighten us. And to think that some of the people who are doing that are also doing the absolute worst thing that can be done from one human being to another – ‘shocking’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s a spiritual, cultural and social earthquake.”

‘Massive problem’

Rabbis, in many ways, are no different from other clergy who engage in sexual abuse and harassment. They tend to exploit their positions of power and authority, as well as the opportunity to provide counseling during moments of vulnerability, to target and manipulate their victims. But many abusing rabbis, as Sztokman discovered, have something else in common that sets them apart from their counterparts in other faiths.

The book jacket for Elana Sztokman’s “When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture.”
Lioness Books

“Jews have a tendency to revere rabbis with charisma – the rabbi who plays guitar, the rabbi who delivers a great sermon, the rabbi who knows how to tell a joke,” she notes. “It’s a very performance-oriented sort of charisma. And this particular type of charisma has a lot of overlap with narcissism. So, what often happens in Jewish culture is that we tend to confuse charisma, and especially an ability to perform, with good character and trustworthiness – and that’s a massive problem.”

Contrary to popular belief, Sztokman also found that sexual abuse among rabbis cuts across denominations and is not limited to one particular movement.

“It’s fascinating how everyone thinks it’s happening somewhere else,” she says, noting that Orthodox Jews tend to believe it’s more prevalent among the non-Orthodox because the non-Orthodox do not adhere to the same rules of modesty and gender segregation as they do. Non-Orthodox Jews, meanwhile, tend to believe it’s more prevalent among Orthodox Jews because they see them as sexually repressed.

“They’re all wrong,” says the author. “It’s everywhere. Gender segregation and body coverings do not protect anyone, and neither does a very sexually open, hugging culture. Each one has its own dangers, but the biggest danger is thinking: No, no, it doesn’t happen by us.”

Just as her book was going to print, Sztokman, who was raised Modern Orthodox, “came out” with her own story of abuse. After nearly a decade of silence, the author went public with the abuse and harassment she had suffered while serving as executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. She named her abuser as sex therapist Bat Sheva Marcus, who had been the group’s board chairwoman. In coming forward, Sztokman wrote that she was “inspired by the courage of others who had done the same in similar situations.”

Sztokman, who is no longer Orthodox, recently completed a spiritual counseling program run by the Reform movement.

Principal Malka Leifer in an Israeli court, prior to her extradition to Australia last year on numerous counts of sexual abuse at her former school in Melbourne.
Mahmoud Illean/AP

Is sexual abuse more common in the Jewish world than elsewhere? A precise answer to that question would require a comprehensive cross-cultural study, says Sztokman, and that was not something she attempted to do in her book.

And, she adds, does it really matter?

“How the Jewish community fares on this issue compared to other faith communities may be not only irrelevant but also an effort to stymie change,” she writes. “The question itself may be a deflecting tactic, an opportunity for people to say, ‘See, we’re not so bad!'”

“When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture” is released on June 14 and published by Lioness Books and Media.

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