Ever since the Forward began publishing stories in December detailing allegations by former students that they were abused by rabbis at Yeshiva University High School for Boys, a certain trope has been voiced by Y.U.’s defenders. It goes something like this: The alleged incidents occurred as long as three decades ago. They are, if not ancient history, then certainly from another time when behaviorial mores were different, when religious authority was more absolute, when acts that are deemed offensive now were more acceptable.
As Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of the New York Jewish Week, asked in a recent column, “is it fair to apply many current standards of behavior, at a time when a teacher touching a student can be grounds for disciplinary action, to an era when it was not unusual for European-born yeshiva high school rebbes to slap or even hit boys, who tended to take such actions in stride?”
But the Y.U. rabbis weren’t accused of Jewish-style corporal punishment, loathsome though that might be. George Finkelstein was accused of repeatedly wrestling with students in his home and office, pinning them down so tightly that many reported feeling his erect penis on their bodies. Macy Gordon was accused of sodomizing two students in their dorm rooms. This doesn’t amount to a slap to the cheek; it’s an assault to the body. To minimize these allegations is both inaccurate and hugely unfair to those who say they were victimized.
The 20 or so men who have told their stories to our Paul Berger have done so at great personal effort. Many have spoken of the deep psychological and emotional pain it has caused them and the effect that such an abuse of power and trust has had on their relationship with their families and their relationship to Judaism. This is the consequence of child abuse — the pain can stay dormant for years, unnamed and unrecognized but still real and damaging, and often not expressed until decades later.
That very act of denial — by both the victims and, it seems, by the Y.U. authorities — has led to more pain. As the Forward reports, because Finkelstein was allowed to quietly leave Y.U., he appears to have continued his inappropriate behavior when he was a dean at a Jewish day school in Florida and then a director of a prominent synagogue in Jerusalem. The last documented allegation dates back only to 2009. Hardly another era.
This is why it is so necessary to extend or eliminate the restrictive statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. Margaret Markey, a member of the New York State Assembly, has tried for eight years to reform the legal system and is trying again. Her bill to eliminate the statute altogether and allow a one-year window for old civil cases will be the subject of a March 8 public hearing. “We are particularly interested in hearing about research that clearly demonstrates why so many victims of abuse do not come to grips with the abuse they have suffered until later in life, long after the current law permits them to come forward, and long after their abusers and those who hide them can be identified and punished,” she said in a statement.
Only by bravely and honestly confronting the past can victims achieve some sense of justice and the accused have the opportunity to clear their good names. Finkelstein and Gordon have denied the charges levied against them; only a thoroughly independent investigation can arrive at the truth. The university promised in December that a law firm it has retained is pursuing such a probe, though now, more than two months later, there is still no word on when the work will finish or if it will ever be made public.
To dismiss this story because it began decades ago is to ignore the brutal fact that it continues today. It continues to haunt the victims, to trail the accused and to muddy the reputation of a respected Jewish institution that was supposed to prioritize care for its students above all else.