Rabbi's Sex Abuse Talk to 9-Year-Old Girls Sends Savannah Into Turmoil

Image: Paul Berger

The 9-year-old girl was unusually quiet that Sunday evening at supper. Her parents thought that maybe she was tired. After all, she had worked all afternoon in the family’s booth at The Shalom Y’all Food Festival in Forsyth Park.

Finally, the girl told her parents that she wanted to talk about that morning’s class at the Shalom School. She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children.

At this point, the girl ran out of words. She wanted to write the rest down:

“Sex with children.”

“Steal me from my bed.”

“Sex trafficking.”

“Old men want to have sex with me.”

“Bad men will kill my parents if I don’t do what they say.”

“What is prostitution?”

The Forward obtained this account from a letter sent by one couple to the board of directors of Barkan’s synagogue. The family verified the document but did not wish to be identified. There were about 10 fourth graders in the classroom that morning, most of them girls. That evening, many parents heard similar stories.

Initially these parents were not sure how much to believe of what their children were telling them. Children sometimes conflate events; they forget important details. But as the parents called and texted each other that evening and through the next day, their concern grew. The stories matched.

Some of the children appeared unfazed, but most were scared and confused. They couldn’t sleep. They didn’t feel safe in their own beds.

The fallout from “the incident,” as they refer to it, has divided congregants and friends, and strained families in this small, vibrant community of about 3,000 Jews.

In a large Jewish community, the situation might have died down as families switched synagogues and moved their children to another preschool. But Savannah has only three congregations and just one supplementary Jewish school.

In short, it’s been a nightmare for Barkan, for parents, for congregants and for the school.

Barkan and his defenders acknowledge that he made a serious error of judgment. But they see it as an innocent mistake made by a man whose career and reputation are threatened by a group of hysterical parents.

Barkan’s detractors argue that he destroyed their trust and that there are no second chances as far as their children are concerned. They point to other examples — all of them ambiguous — that they believe illustrate a pattern of poor judgement by Barkan in discussing issues relating to sex.

Barkan, the spiritual leader of Savannah’s only Conservative congregation, has apologized and has pledged to improve as an educator. The board of directors of his synagogue, Agudath Achim, says it has fully investigated the matter and found that Barkan does not pose a threat to children.

The board considers the matter closed and wishes to move on. But its cautious handling of the incident has only exacerbated the sitution. Some parents are not willing to let it lie.

Since the incident on October 27 last year, at least half a dozen families have stopped attending services at Barkan’s synagogue and several families have resigned their membership.

Shalom School, a partnership between the city’s Reform and Conservative congregations, has suffered too. Classes are held twice a week, once at each synagogue. Some families have refused to send their children to the school on days that classes are held at Agudath Achim.

During the past academic year, Barkan was asked to stay out of his synagogue between 3:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. on Wednesdays, the day of the Shalom School’s after-school Hebrew program for grades three through six. In a recent survey conducted by the school, almost 30% of parents who responded said they would not re-enroll their child if Barkan is in the building at the same time classes take place.

But Agudath Achim’s board is determined that this coming school year, their rabbi will be allowed to remain in his synagogue during Wednesday classes. No one knows how many parents will enroll their children when the new school year begins on August 17. Steven Roth, president of the board, said it was a mistake to have excluded Barkan from the building in the first place.

“That was giving in to parental fears,” Roth said. “It’s one thing to keep him out of school. It’s another thing that he shouldn’t be allowed into his own office.”

Savannah has three congregations, one for each of the major Jewish denominations. The largest congregation, the Orthodox Bnai Brith Jacob, has had the same rabbi, Avigdor Slatus, for more than 30 years. The next largest congregation, the Reform Mickve Israel, bid farewell to its last rabbi, Arnold Belzer, in 2011 after a 21-year tenure.

By comparison, Agudath Achim, the smallest of Savannah’s congregations, with about 230 families, has a spotty record with rabbis. The rabbi before Barkan, Kenneth Leitner, was let go after just three years. The rabbi before him, Robert Wolkoff, served for 12 years, but he was seen as a divisive figure who was equally loved and loathed by congregants. Wolkoff’s predecessor, Jerry Potack, served for two years until he committed suicide in 1994.

Barkan was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona. Before he arrived in Savannah, he served for 11 years as rabbi-in-residence at Chicagoland Jewish High School, in Illinois. He taught about three subjects per year and ran the school’s prayer and social justice programs.

Although Agudath Achim was to be Barkan’s first pulpit role, his experience as an educator was seen as a boon to the congregation’s young families. Lynn Reeves, who led Agudath Achim’s rabbinical search committee, said her team interviewed about eight candidates via Skype. “When [Barkan] came on the screen, everyone just sat down,” Reeves said. “That didn’t happen for anyone else we interviewed.”

Barkan quickly showed himself to be a compassionate, thoughtful rabbi. He walked in 95-degree heat on the Sabbath to visit people in hospital. Once, when a congregant died while Barkan was on vacation, he drove back through several states so that he could perform the funeral. Reeves said Barkan provided a level of pastoral care that was sorely lacking at Agudath Achim. “He’s just a mensch,” she said.

The same year that Barkan arrived at Agudath Achim, Savannah’s Reform congregation, Mickve Israel, also hired a new rabbi. Like Barkan, Rabbi Robert Haas was young and energetic and serving in his first pulpit as a senior rabbi. The two new rabbis hit it off immediately and began working together in ways not seen in Savannah for many years. They arranged joint programs and played off each other’s personalities. “If you went to a program they were putting on, it was fun,” Reeves said. “You could tell that they liked each other.”

That new spirit and energy spilled over into the Shalom School, which was founded jointly by the two congregations 21 years ago. In 2012, the school surpassed 100 students for the first time. At the beginning of the last school year, before the incident with Barkan, the school had almost 120 students.

I met Barkan in his office at Agudath Achim one recent weekday. He is 40, slightly shorter than average height, with soft, boyish features — several congregants described him as “good looking” — and hair that is thinning at the front. Like the rest of the synagogue, Barkan’s wood-paneled office looks as though it has not been upgraded since the building opened in 1971. Each time Barkan leaned forward to discuss something, his chair creaked.

Barkan said his first year at Agudath Achim was “exuberant.” To describe how it changed after the incident, he made a swooping motion with his hand, like a plane falling from the sky.

Barkan is used to telling the story of that morning. He arrived at Mickve Israel in Savannah’s Downtown Historic district at around 10:15 and rode the elevator to the synagogue’s third floor. Barkan said that when he looked in at the window of the fourth-grade classroom, he saw the children jumping about. He asked their teacher, Jessica Polk, if he could lead a prayer lesson. Barkan walked into the room and started to put on a tallit and tefillin. Once he had the children’s attention, he turned off the lights and asked them to prepare for the lesson.

Barkan said his teaching method is to make prayers relevant to students’ life. After leading the children through several prayers he arrived at Mi Chamocha. He told the children the prayer was about the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Barkan said that slavery, even child slavery, exists today. “I chose to be explicit,” Barkan said. “I said, ‘There are bad men who want to have sex with children.’ I explicitly said that.”

Polk, a final-year student at Savannah College of Art and Design, was the only other adult in the room that morning. Initially she agreed to speak to the Forward about the incident, but she failed to return several subsequent telephone calls. According to an account compiled by an outside mediator, Polk stated that Barkan “started to talk about 10-year-old girls all around the world who have been taken from their homes and forced to have sex with adults. He went on to explain how this is called child prostitution and said it was disgusting that people would do this to these young girls. Then he continued to explain that the kidnappers would threaten the lives of the girls’ families and that is why they would do whatever the kidnappers told them to do. At this point, one of my students asked if it is something that happens in America, to which [the] rabbi replied that yes it does and the most common place that it occurs in Georgia is in Atlanta. Finally, the rabbi explained that a fellow rabbi in a nearby town has an organization that helps prevent child prostitution, and encouraged the children to speak to their parents about it. The conversation ended with the rabbi telling the kids to not talk to strangers and to be aware of their surroundings.”

Polk said that she tried to redirect Barkan twice, but he did not pick up on her efforts or on the children’s fear.

Barkan disputes some elements of what has become the generally accepted version of events. He told me that he did not tell the children they could be taken from their homes. He also said that he did not use the phrase “child prostitution.”

Barkan said that after the children left the classroom, he spoke to Eva Locker, the Shalom School principal, about the lesson. “She was quite concerned,” Barkan said. “I said I thought it was a good conversation but very serious.”

Barkan has a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Rabbi William Lebeau, a former dean of JTS who has known Barkan for more than 20 years, said students there learn how to discuss sexual and age appropriate material.

Lebeau described Barkan as “one of the kindest, most sensitive, caring people among all the students I met.” He could not understand how Barkan made such an error in judgment. Nor could he understand how the situation had become such a source of contention in Savannah. He was particularly worried about the damage it could do to Barkan personally. “This is a man’s life and a man’s reputation,” Lebeau said.

Barkan did not realize how much of an error he had made until parents began to complain the next day. When we spoke, nine months after the episode, Barkan told me that he had made a “serious pedagogical error.”

“I understand the harm that I caused, and I feel very badly about it,” he said.

Barkan believes that his biggest mistake was choosing to explain child sex slavery “honestly.” He told me that, based on his experience as an educator, “in that moment I thought it was appropriate.” In hindsight, he added, he was wrong.

A visitor to Savannah could be forgiven for mistaking Mickve Israel for a church. The 130-year old neo-Gothic synagogue, one of the few of its kind in America, has a transept and a nave. Its stucco tower rises over Monterey Square, in the heart of downtown Savannah, flanked by antebellum homes and majestic oak trees.

On the evening of Wednesday, October 30, concerned parents of nine children from the Shalom School’s fourth-grade class trickled into the synagogue’s side entrance. They turned left into the function room, usually used for the synagogue’s Sabbath Kiddush, and sat down at a group of tables that had been arranged in a square.

Several parents told me that Barkan looked ashen that evening. Some felt sorry for him until they remembered why they were there.

The meeting was organized by Locker in response to angry phone calls and emails from fourth-grade parents. First, Barkan explained, with a sense of deep remorse, what happened just four days earlier. Then, parents took turns asking Barkan questions and describing the effect his lesson had had on their daughters.

Several parents began to cry as they described their daughters’ fears. Some of the girls had trouble falling asleep or suffered from nightmares. The girls needed reassurance that they would not be stolen from their beds by old men in the night. One of the parents said that an older daughter, age 11, had complained of two uncomfortable experiences with Barkan previously that the family had shrugged off at the time. The parent said that during a teaching of Friday night prayers, Barkan got down on his knees and asked the children to place their hands on his head and bless him. Barkan was so moved by the experience that he cried, the parent said. On another occasion Barkan was teaching about women’s rights, and somehow the conversation turned to child sex abuse. The couple said their daughter asked her parents why they were discussing abuse when she was supposed to be learning Hebrew.

I asked Barkan about these complaints. He said the prayer incident came about after his students asked if they could bless him. He said that he was sitting in a chair at the time, not kneeling, and that he did not cry. Instead, he said he told the class it had been a really special moment. Barkan did not recall the second incident.

On November 4, Lisa Elkin, president of the Shalom School board, sent an email to parents stating that because the rabbi had conducted a discussion with fourth-grade students that was “inappropriate for the maturity level of” the class he would not take part in the school “until further notice.”

Now that the fourth-graders’ parents were clear on the facts of what happened in the classroom that day, they wanted the Shalom School community and Agudath Achim’s congregation to know all the details of the incident.

On November 11, the board of Agudath Achim sent an email to its congregation to “clarify” the situation regarding Barkan. “During his explanation of the prayers, the topic of slavery came up,” the email explained. “The Rabbi made the point that slavery still exists and in particular child slavery. From there the discussion moved on to topics that were inappropriate for children of that age.”

The same day, the Shalom School sent a letter to parents from Barkan. In the letter, the rabbi said that he had “a frank conversation about the threat of child slavery and kidnapping in our society.”

Nowhere in either letter was there a mention of the word “sex.” Deganit Ruben, a Shalom School teacher and a member of the Shalom School board, was incensed. Ruben believed that based on the two emails, an uninformed parent or congregant would have no idea why Barkan’s behavior led to him being suspended. She wrote Locker: “It is starting to feel and sound like a cover-up.”

Locker did not respond to requests for an interview. Elkin said she was “unable to comment on this matter.”

Neither of Ruben’s daughters was in the Shalom School’s fourth-grade class. But Ruben became one of the leaders of a small, vocal group of Shalom School parents who wanted the synagogue board to explain explicitly what Barkan told the children that day. They were convinced that had Barkan been a teacher and not a rabbi, he would have been fired from the school.

In Georgia’s public schools, any material related to sex education must be reviewed by a local Sex Education Materials Review Committee and approved by a school board before it can be presented to children. I asked Matt Cardoza, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education, what would happen to a teacher who gave a class on a topic related to sex without approval. Cardoza responded via email that the local school board would decide how to deal with such a teacher. He added, “It would also generate quite a media uproar.”

But there was no media uproar in Savannah, just a group of increasingly frustrated parents who felt that their concerns were not being heard. Parents told me that their issues with Barkan went beyond him simply scaring their children.

One parent told me that because Barkan was wearing tefillin when he gave the lesson, her daughter now felt uncomfortable if she saw a man wearing tefillin in synagogue. Another couple said Barkan’s lesson distorted their 9-year-old daughter’s frame of reference for sex into something negative and related to force.

Several parents emphasized that this would have been bad enough coming from any teacher. But the fact that their children had this terrible experience with their rabbi only made things worse. One parent said, “The very person that we teach our kids to trust the most — their spiritual leader, their rabbi — is the one that has taught our daughter the worst information she has ever been given in her life.”

Parents also learned of other incidents when Barkan’s behavior, at least in retrospect, troubled them.

One parent complained that Barkan discussed sex during a sermon at her son’s bar mitzvah. Barkan told me that the bar mitzvah fell around Valentine’s Day, and his sermon referenced the “holiness in love and sexual expression between two partners.”

Another parent said her 11-year-old daughter felt uncomfortable in a Hebrew school class when Barkan went from talking about women’s rights to discussing menstruation. Barkan told me he did not recall such a lesson.

A medical student who taught at the Shalom School said Barkan approached him in the men’s locker room of the Jewish community center wearing only a towel. Barkan wanted to discuss the circumcision of a young African man and suggested they view a video of the circumcision together, which the student felt was inappropriate.

Barkan told me the video was of a young man he met while visiting the Abayudaya tribe in Uganda who had sent the video of himself being circumcised. The rabbi said he just wanted to share this “really crazy, fascinating ritual from Africa” with someone who he thought would find it interesting.

Activist families from the Conservative synagogue argued that if Barkan was unfit to teach at the Shalom School, he was unfit to remain in his pulpit. They did not want to be led in prayer services or to be guided spiritually by a man who had shown what they saw as a string of poor judgments and whom they could not trust.

Through November, December and January, parents peppered the Agudath Achim board with demands that the board explicitly inform congregants about the content of Barkan’s lesson. They felt twice betrayed, first by Barkan and then by their trustees. In December, Deganit Ruben’s husband, Jesse Ruben, resigned from the Agudath Achim board. That same month, Deganit and another parent, Amy Pine, resigned from the Shalom School board.

In January the Shalom School finally organized a town hall meeting for parents at Savannah’s Jewish community center, the Jewish Educational Alliance.

The JEA is less than a mile from Agudath Achim in midtown Savannah, a bland residential district bisected by the Abercorn Expressway and sprinkled with generic strip malls. About 100 people filled the JEA function room. The meeting lasted more than two hours. Barkan was not invited to attend.

Wendy Williamson, a mediator, led the meeting. Williamson read a detailed statement summarizing the events in Barkan’s classroom using the clear language about sex that parents had demanded for so long.

Though most activist parents opposed Barkan because of his lack of judgment, some worried that his behavior was an indicator of a deeper problem. Nobody accused Barkan of molesting a child. But some were reminded of the warning signs that they read about in media accounts of abusive priests and youth leaders.

The Shalom School brought in Donna Evans, a pediatrician who specializes in child abuse, to take questions from parents and reassure them that although Barkan’s behavior was inappropriate, it was not indicative of a molester.

Reeves, who had led the hiring of Barkan, explained the lengths Agudath Achim had gone to investigate the incident and to make sure Barkan was not a threat to children. She and her fellow board members spoke to more than a dozen families. They consulted with Barkan’s personal therapist. They spoke to medical and child abuse specialists. They consulted with the Rabbinical Assembly and with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. They rechecked Barkan’s references and conducted state and national background checks. There was nothing to suggest that Barkan’s behavior was anything other than a lapse of judgment.

Most parents felt that they were finally being taken seriously. Even so, they demanded that Barkan continue to be kept out of his synagogue during Shalom School hours through the end of the academic year. Agudath Achim’s board members agreed, but only because they felt it was the only way to prevent the Shalom School from collapsing.

The following month, February, was Agudath Achim’s regularly scheduled biannual congregational meeting. In a normal year, about 40 people attend the meeting. This time about 200 congregants showed up. An overwhelming majority came to voice their support for Barkan.

In any large Jewish community, the controversy might have ended there. Aggrieved congregants would have moved on to another Conservative synagogue. Concerned parents would have transferred their children to another Jewish school. But families have no alternatives in Savannah. Some parents told me they were glad they had the option of moving to the Reform synagogue. But most wished they could return to their Conservative synagogue.

Many parents did not want to be identified for this story because they wanted to protect their daughters’ privacy. But others were worried about what it would do to relationships with friends and family, clients and colleagues.

Congregation Mickve Israel, Agudath Achim’s Reform congregational partner in the school, has remained publicly silent on the issue. Toby Hollenberg, the congregation’s president, declined to speak to the Forward. “It’s a very internal issue,” she said. Mickve Israel’s spiritual leader, Haas, said he was unavailable.

That has frustrated some parents who feel that because Shalom School is a joint program between the two synagogues, Mickve Israel ought to take a public stance. David Nash, the elementary school teacher and a member of Congregation Mickve Israel, said of his synagogue, “If they really feel Rabbi Barkan has not done something wrong, they should say so.”

In March, a dozen families sent the school a petition stating that they would not re-enroll their children in the forthcoming academic year if Barkan would be involved in its programming.

A couple of months later, the Shalom School sent a letter to parents informing them that Barkan would not participate in the forthcoming school year. But, the letter added, Barkan would have access to his synagogue office during Wednesday Hebrew school hours.

Some parents told me they would not send their children on Wednesdays if there is a chance they will come into contact with Barkan.

Roth, who took over as president of Agudath Achim in June believes parents have an irrational fear of Barkan. He said that it is his goal to get Barkan back in the classroom as soon as possible, even if “that requires somebody else in the room, like a parent or Rabbi Haas.”

Barkan emphasizes that he has cooperated fully with his board since the October incident. During our two-hour discussion he took several long pauses and, at times, chose his words very carefully.

It was, he said, “absolutely appropriate” that he was held accountable for his actions and that the board did its “due diligence to make sure that I am not a sexual predator.” But he wishes that he had been integrated back into the community sooner.

He worries that being kept out of the school for another academic year signals to parents that his problems run deeper than just a pedagogical error. “I understand why our synagogue has done that in order to try to keep peace in the community, and I have cooperated with that as a result,” Barkan said. “But I think in many ways it sends a very negative message.”

Parents have become much more cautious about their children in the wake of sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and at Pennsylvania State and Yeshiva universities. They are also less trusting of authority figures and institutions to deal adequately with allegations of abuse.

The parents I spoke to told me they can see why Agudath Achim wants to keep Barkan. They say that he is a great rabbi in many respects. But they also believe that his lack of judgment was too egregious for them to trust him with their children again. They don’t worry so much about what he might do, but about what he might say. As one parent put it to me: “If he does something the first time, then shame on him. But if he does something a second time, then shame on me.” Ruben told me, “He can apologize and we can forgive him, but that doesn’t mean that we have to feel comfortable with him being involved in our kids’ education.”

The disagreements in Savannah have been particularly wrenching not because each side detests the other, but because in many cases the sides have such mutual respect. Amy Kaminsky, who resigned from the Shalom School board toward the end of the school year and whose family left Agudath Achim, told me: “There isn’t a person in the community who is a bad person and who did a wrong thing. I think in their hearts, they are just trying to do the best for the community. I just don’t agree with them.”

Reeves, who is 64 and has been involved in organized Jewish life in Savannah for decades, said the dispute over Barkan is the most difficult situation she has faced. “These are people I love and care about and respect,” Reeves told me. “I just don’t agree with them. I don’t know how to get past that.”

Reeves is chairwoman of Agudath Achim’s rabbinical review committee. Barkan’s contract expires in the fall of 2015, and Agudath Achim must decide before November 1 of this year whether to offer him a new contract.

On July 17, the synagogue sent a survey to congregants, asking for feedback about how well they felt the rabbi has performed over the past two years. The survey asked how congregants felt about Barkan’s leadership, his spiritual guidance, his adult education and his pastoral care. There was no question about whether parents trust Barkan with their children. Nor was there a question about whether congregants want Barkan to continue as their rabbi.

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter, @pdberger

Written by

Paul Berger

Paul Berger

Paul Berger has been a staff writer at the Forward since 2011, covering crime and healthcare issues, such as sex abuse, circumcision, and fraud. He is a fluent Russian speaker and has reported from Russia and Ukraine. He also likes digging into historicalmysteries .

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Rabbi's Sex Abuse Talk to 9-Year-Old Girls Sends Savannah Into Turmoil

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