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How abusive rabbis prey on their own congregants: ‘No one is safe’

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Michal was 21 when she went for help with infertility to Rabbi Ezra Sheinberg — an Israeli kabbalist who had a massive following of people seeking blessings and supernatural healings. After a year of counseling, the rabbi began hitting on Michal. “You are not holy enough,” he said, when she refused his advances. “Maybe I made a mistake trying to help you. I thought you were on a higher level.” In 2018 he was convicted of sexually molesting eight women, but gained early release in 2021.

Michal’s story is one of more than 80 anecdotes of abuse and harassment in the new book by Dr. Elana Sztokman, “When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture”  (Lioness Press).

Sztokman never set out to write a book about sexually abusive rabbis. But when the anthropologist, who grew up Modern Orthodox in Flatbush, Brooklyn, started researching general abuse in the Jewish community, she says she was “startled to discover how many of the abusers described by interviewees were rabbis.”

Reform Rabbi Sheldom ZImmerman stepped down from his role as president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2000 in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against him.
Sheldon Zimmerman/Facebook

Long before the #MeToo movement outed high-profile celebrities and clergy in American society, the Jewish community had suffered sexual abusers and predators of their own, many of them making newspaper headlines: A ritual-bath peeping rabbi, Bronx rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, who had naked sauna chats, a predatory top Reform rabbi, and two Yeshiva University rabbis accused of molesting boys in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. 

“A rabbi in my high school molested schoolmates, and he was simply removed from my all-girls school and placed in the boys’ school,” says Shlomit, who told Sztokman she had witnessed several rabbis abusing her classmates when she was in school. “He then went on to become my community rabbi and had sexually inappropriate relationships with congregants.” He was only removed a decade ago after a synagogue investigation. As an Orthodox Jewish educator in her 40s, Shlomit now witnesses this same sort of abuse happening to her peers.

Bronx Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt had naked sauna chats with 12-year-old boys.
Bronx Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt had naked sauna chats with 12-year-old boys.
AP

Ironically, many of the 84 victims interviewed were themselves studying to be rabbis. “I have been sexually harassed and sexually assaulted, attempted date rape, all the things the women experience in their lives,” said Daliah, now a rabbi.  

Of course, not all victims are women — and not all abusers are men. Daniel, also a rabbi, offered a car ride to a director at his rabbinical school. “But he wanted sex with me, and he argued back after I declined his multiple sexual advances. Finally, he asked for a hug — I thought it was to say goodbye.” The next thing he remembers is being sexually assaulted by him. 

Jay Goldberg (left) and Barry Singer (right) say they were sexually abused while they were students at Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy (MTA) — also known as Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan.
Jay Goldberg (left) and Barry Singer (right) say they were sexually abused while they were students at Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy (MTA) — also known as Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan.
AP

Rabbis who abuse have “many tactics at their disposal,” Sztokman writes, such as using “spiritual and religious language to lure their victims and get them to do their bidding.” She notes that they have “retaliatory weapons,” in synagogue “that can deprive victims of things that are important to them.”

After years of teenage involvement in her Conservative Jewish community, Leanne worked as a camp counselor in a Jewish summer camp when she was 19. That’s where she encountered an Orthodox rabbi who kept asking her out, cornering her alone, following her around camp, and writing sexually explicit songs for her. When she told the head of camp, to her surprise, everyone knew about him. The director told her, “As a rabbi, he has a lot to offer,” and suggested she just avoid him. “I was so frustrated and fed up with that experience and with the tolerance for him that when I left camp that day, I essentially left any serious Jewish life.” 

Reporting abuse can be difficult in religious settings, especially when any kind of gossip is frowned upon.
Reporting abuse can be difficult in religious settings, especially when any kind of gossip is frowned upon.
Shutterstock

In Hannah’s first week in rabbinical school, she was invited to the apartment of an influential rabbi more than twice her age. When she walked in, the rabbi took his hand, put it on his crotch and said, “See what you do to me?”

Reporting abuse can be brutal in religious settings, given the prohibition against gossip and fear of anti-Semitism. “Reactions of disbelief, blame-shifting, silencing, and sweeping under the rug seem quite consistent among Jewish settings,” Sztokman writes. Case in point: half the Bronx “naked sauna” rabbi’s synagogue community supported him before he stepped down.

When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture by Elana Sztokman
The book explores more than 80 anecdotes of abuse and harassment.

“Many Jewish communal organizations seem to not have any reporting or training mechanisms whatsoever,” she adds, though some believe this is changing and the systems are getting better with organizations combating abuse in the Jewish world. Still, safe reporting, protecting victims, and holding abusers responsible needs to be the norm, she writes. 

As abusers make their comebacks in Jewish life despite allegations against them, Sztokman also includes recommendations for a better Jewish community.

“As long as sexual abuse takes place in our community spaces, nothing in our culture can be trusted. And no place is truly safe. This should alarm anyone who cares about Jewish life, not just those who have been abused.”

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