The most surprising part of the story about Rav Aharon Bina’s alleged emotional abuse of his students at Netiv Aryeh comes from the reactions: It is astounding to see how many people apparently knew this has been going on but continue to sing his praises. This entire episode raises some difficult questions about what is really going on in the yeshiva world.
The Jewish Week article, written by Jewish media veteran Gary Rosenblatt in collaboration with courageous young Yeshiva University journalist Yedidya Gorsetman, catalogues a series of abusive behaviors that Bina allegedly carried out for decades against his students at Netiv Aryeh and before that at Yeshivat Hakotel. (Bina left Hakotel when he was fired by his successor — none other than Rabbi Motti Elon, who was recently indicted for indecent acts against his male students).
Bina reportedly yelled, mocked and systematically disparaged students — some students more than others — as part of his approach of psychological manipulation to gain obedience. Parents, students, and former students describe traumas incurred, and even violence at his hands, which in some cases turned the boys away from Judaism altogether.
Reading the comments on the story and blog posts about it this week, I have found that Bina’s defenders fall into one of two categories: those who deny that this happened, and those who knew but claim that it is part of Bina’s special “methodology” that is based on his love.
Facebook this week has been inundated with conversations about how this has been a barely guarded secret in Orthodoxy. My husband was a student at Bina’s Hakotel in 1988, and witnessed Bina’s mood swings, erratic behavior, and constant verbal jabs at certain students. He also watched how two groups of students received different treatment: kids with status and kids without. One of Bina’s favorite pastimes, he related to me, was to play “who’s who” with students. The ones from “well-known” families received different treatment from those who were deemed nobodys, he said.
This division of students may also explain Bina’s second group of supporters, the ones who claim there was no wrongdoing. They were the “good” ones, the “beloved” ones, the ones who were greatly rewarded for being in the “right” group. (It would be interesting to compare this with fact that his litany of supporters includes those, according to Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who flew him in to New York to officiate at their weddings. There is likely an underlying money dynamic at work here, too.)
One of the emerging questions is what happens to people who witness the abuse of others and are taught not to sympathize. One effect of abusing some and showing “love” to others is to instill a callousness for the other. Some who defended Bina in the comments section of the article continue to blame the victims, calling them “spoiled” and “deserving” of punishment.
Another deeply troubling question is about why, if this was so openly known, why Orthodox day schools continue to send their kids to him. Personally, I think it speaks to an overall weakness in Modern Orthodox day schools. Schools count on the year in Israel to “straighten” kids out, and to put kids on a perceived path towards committed observance — in short to do in one year what they themselves fail to do in twelve. Superficially, it works. Lots of kids “frum out” in Israel, and that is the schools’ measure of success. If Bina returns kids home strict, fearful, and obedient — regardless of the means — parents often count that as a success.
Some of the most chilling comments have been from those who say his behavior was all for “love.” Some describe themselves as having been “problems” and even thank Bina for doing this to them, for “straightening them out.”
When I stop to think about how many victims of emotional abuse are walking around the Orthodox community today, how many are educating their own children according to these misguided practices, thinking that deference to the leader is top priority and justifies all kinds of mockery, put-downs, and humiliation, I tremble. When I think about the ongoing dysfunction in the Orthodox community today, a community that is so bizarrely obsessed with obedience, conformity, and the absence of the female presence, it all starts to make sense. This is a community that has come to value submission to authority, that places these warped values on a pedestal, and makes deviation from the crowd all but impossible.
Perhaps most worrisome are the way people quoted in the article, such as Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Rabbi Herschel Billet, and Scott Goldberg continue to ignore this. If the accounts of Bina’s behavior are accurate, they are all enablers — and on the wrong side of this story.
This story is yet another indication that Orthodoxy today is very, very ill.