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Confronting ‘Religious Celebrities’ About Sex Abuse

It’s been an intense week for me as a parent. I’m torn between using this space to address my daughter’s experience of being verbally attacked by haredim, while she was praying at the Western Wall (and her writing about the experience on The Sisterhood) versus addressing Rabbi Mordechai Elon’s alleged sexual abuse of his students. Both stories fill me with dread at sending my children out there into the wide world, where evil lurks in the very places that goodness is meant to be. I’m confounded about how to provide my children with tools to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong. And I’m deeply troubled about raising young people to be part of a religious society that seems like it is drenched with iniquity at its very foundations.

The story of Motti Elon is at once shocking and expected. Shocking because of his squeaky-clean public image, but expected because his alleged misdeeds make for a familiar story: Powerful religious leader, vulnerable youth, sexual assault – been there, done that. There was Zeev Kopelevich of Netiv Meir, Baruch Lanner of NCSY, Chief Rabbi of Kiryat Byalik Rabbi Aminadav Krispin, Stanley Z. Levitt of the Maimonides School, and countless more. Many cases go unreported because of a “conspiracy of silence.” I can’t even count how many friends I have who have been sexually attacked by rabbis but ended up not reporting: my college flatmate was molested by a rabbi; another friend groped by her rabbi, while she was ill; a friend’s older brother raped by his Chabad teacher; a colleague harassed by her dean at rabbinical school. And on and on.

So many of the attackers are famous, with worldwide reputations, sparkling smiles and enchanting charisma, that these qualities seem to be part of the profile. As if, the more famous the man is, the more I distrust him; the more celebrity status he has, the more likely I am to assume that he’s hiding his dark side.

The Elon story has also unveiled some of the tricky dynamics involved in confronting religious celebrities about sexual abuse. “Takana,” the religious Zionist organization founded in 2003 to address growing concerns over sexual misconduct by rabbis, has dealt with the story in a complicated way, and I’m not sure if they did the right thing. On the one hand, its members are charged with taking this issue seriously, in a broad and professional forum that is completely unprecedented in its laudable mission. On the other hand, the fact that the organization dealt with Elon in “private” seemed to have made matters worse, not only by providing the alleged victims with a forum to avoid going to the police, but also by transmitting to Elon — who reportedly confessed in front of the private forum to having sex with male students — a certain peace of mind that comes with knowing he will not be criminally prosecuted, so much so that he moved up north and allegedly continued doing the same things. It is hard to tell if Takana’s “field justice” has helped or harmed the situation.

The forum seems to serve a purpose, though, for victims who don’t want to go to the police but want their attackers dealt with somehow. Actually, I understand why victims do not want to go to the police. One only has to look at “Aleph”, the woman who took on former president of Israel Moshe Katzav and went public with her story of rape, to understand how pursuing justice can ruin a victim’s life. “Aleph” has been in the public eye, subject to scrutiny, mockery, and threats, and has since relocated to the United States to escape the scrutiny. In Israel, a rape victim’s entire life is considered suitable material for the defense. Her psychotherapist can even be called to the stand, and anything the victim said during therapy can be discussed publically at length. Some rape crisis centers advise victims not to even start therapy until after the trial is done, in order to avoid the humiliation. “Women’s groups are going to hate me for saying this,” Aleph said at her last press conference, “but my advice to rape victims is, forget the police. Go get therapy and get on with your life. It’s easier.”

So ultimately, victims are forced to ask the question: Which is more important, public justice, or inner peace? Sure, there is a huge value to taking sexual predators off the street, but the process comes at the price of the victim’s life. If I were ever faced with this kind of dilemma, I’m not sure I would choose the path of justice.

As a parent, though, this issue is even more harrowing. Sending our children to educational institutions, encouraging them to trust their rabbis and their teachers, pushing them to build meaningful relationships with strong mentors — these were never meant to be such scary prospects.

I cannot help but wonder if the excessive obsession with gender segregation, body cover and repressed sexuality that are increasingly endemic to the religious community have contributed to the spread of this problem. It seems like the more religious society screams at its members to cover up tight, the more some men will seek out any outlet they can find to fulfill their repressed urges.

As for my other major parenting issue of the week, i.e., my daughter’s encounter with haredi vitriol at the Kotel and afterwards, I guess I’ll have to leave that to my next Sisterhood post.


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