by Gary Rosenblatt (The Jewish Week)
May 9, 2003
Rabbi Moshe Hauer of Baltimore, one of three rabbis who met in Brooklyn last week to hear testimony from alleged victims of a noted Jerusalem Torah scholar, said the information gathered will be sent on to a bet din in Israel to deal with the matter.
At least six men testified here on May 1 that they were abused by Rabbi Matis Weinberg, scion of a prominent Baltimore rabbinic family and himself a widely known and admired rebbe, lecturer and author who lives in the Old City.
Three men made their claims to the bet din in person and three by phone - one from California, one from Israel and one, who is ill, from New York. They were former yeshiva students from the recent as well as the more distant past, and they provided details, some graphic, charging that the rabbi made advances toward them, or sought to, sexually.
Rabbi Weinberg, whose father and grandfather both served as rosh yeshiva of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, was not present or represented before the rabbinic panel, which apparently does not plan to pass judgment.
The members of the panel - Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky of Philadelphia, Rabbi Feivel Cohen of Brooklyn and Rabbi Hauer - did not tell those who testified what they intend to do with the information.
But Rabbi Hauer told The Jewish Week on Monday that the purpose of the bet din was "to receive testimony with regard to the allegations" and to send that testimony "to a bet din in [Rabbi Weinberg's] jurisdiction" in Israel, "where [the religious courts] are more organized than here."
Whether such an outcome would be perceived as passing the buck or advancing the case is open to interpretation.
"It's true that religious courts here have little clout," said one leading American rabbi, "but the downside [of shifting the case to Israel] is that the community here seems more sensitized to these issues." Some Israeli observers say the procedures in Israel are far from systematic. (See story on how Israel is dealing with rabbinic sexual abuse on page 36.)
Several of the men who testified said they came with the intention of seeking an endorsement from the rabbinic panel to press criminal charges in this country, but Rabbi Hauer said "that wasn't requested of our group."
Even as the Orthodox community was shaken by the latest report of alleged sexual abuse by a well-known rabbi, a number of religious leaders were talking about various plans to create a communal mechanism for evaluating and acting on such allegations.
But "talking" is still the operative word.
Almost three years after the Baruch Lanner scandal came to light, there is still no prescribed method for reporting abuse, no recognized group to inform, no standing panel or task force to investigate charges and make recommendations, and no clear answer from rabbinic leaders about when to come forward and when to keep quiet.
Certainly there has been more awareness among parents and groups working with teens as a result of media attention given to the Lanner case. The Orthodox Union, the parent organization of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, where Rabbi Lanner worked with teens for three decades, has instituted a number of changes designed to prevent further problems. They include training programs for youth counselors, greater parental involvement and an ombudsman position to monitor complaints.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the OU, said the "major components NCSY has put in place - defined written standards, a system of investigation and due process, and disciplinary measures - are lacking" in most communal organizations.
He would like to see an overarching panel or group to deal with abuse allegations within the community, noting that the OU and its rabbinical arm, the Rabbinical Council of America, are "talking about what we should do, but we still haven't done it yet."
What has changed, he said, is that "the community as a whole is no longer surprised" when it reads stories of rabbinic abuse.
Until now, though, rabbinic leadership has been slow to act, seeking instead to ignore or downplay the problem, fearful of public attention, embarrassment or offending a colleague. Some rabbis contend the issue is being overly dramatized by the press.
Alleged victims of abuse have said their complaints to rabbinic authorities about mistreatment at the hands of rabbis have been denied, squelched, hushed up or, at best, dealt with quietly and locally, allowing the perpetrator to move on to another unsuspecting community.
Some people have turned to journalists in search of justice and communal exposure. With a vacuum in the community, it has fallen on the press to fill it, however reluctantly.
But change seems to be in the air. The Rabbinical Council of America will hold a session on sexual abuse in the rabbinate at its national convention at the end of this month. The goal is "to address the issue seriously within our ranks," said Rabbi Mark Dratch of Stamford, Conn., who is chairing the session.
"We have to find ways to protect the integrity of the congregation, the rabbi and the community," he said, adding that "there may have been resistance before but the membership is more sensitive now."
Rabbi Heshie Billet, president of the RCA, said the session was motivated by the arrest in February of Rabbi Israel Kestenbaum, who was charged with attempting to disseminate indecent material to a minor, and concerns about another member of the rabbinic group who is alleged to have abused children in previous posts.
Rabbi Billet said he realized his group has no active committee to deal with evaluating and removing members. He said he is determined to put in place professional standards and policies to rectify the situation. But as Rabbi Dratch pointed out, "there still needs to be a lot of conversation" about how best to proceed.
Another session at the convention will focus on rabbinic conduct and how rabbis should protect themselves legally and deal with the press.
Further to the right on the Orthodox spectrum, the Agudath Israel has not dealt with the issue of rabbinical sexual abuse directly at a convention and is less inclined to institute any kind of centralized body to deal with the problem, according to spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran. Complainants would be encouraged to "go to the rebbe or community rabbi" on an individual basis, he said. (Rabbi Kaminetsky, one of the three rabbis on the Rabbi Weinberg bet din, is a member of the Council of Torah Sages of Agudah, and Rabbi Cohen, also serving on the ad hoc bet din, is a member of Agudah as well.)
Torah Umesorah, the national network of yeshivas and Hebrew day schools, is holding its annual convention next week and for the first time will distribute formal guidelines for dealing with abuse, according to executive vice president Rabbi Joshua Fishman. He noted that the organization has dealt with the problem for a number of years and will include a closed-door session this year.
Dr. Aviva Weisbord, a psychologist in Baltimore and sister of Rabbi Weinberg, said she and other members of her family are working toward establishing a two-tiered mechanism to deal with sexual abuse in the Orthodox community. Allegations would be addressed to a group of distinguished rabbis, she said, who then would appoint trained professionals to investigate and make recommendations, which the rabbinic body would then act on.
As a form of "checks and balances," Weisbord said, " it would be understood that if people were not satisfied with the results, they could go to the civil courts or the press."
Weisbord acknowledged that there was "ingrained resistance" from some of the rabbis who have been approached. "They recognize the need but have been reluctant to sign on," she noted. "It will have to be done one by one."
Richard Joel, the incoming president of Yeshiva University who chaired the OU's special commission in the Lanner case, welcomed recent developments, calling it "a giant step forward for the community to engage in investigating [allegations of abuse] and showing concern for our children." He said he would welcome "an entity that would be independent enough to act with strength as well as discretion."
Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani (spiritual adviser) at Yeshiva University, has long advocated for a communal task force to deal with abuse. He asserts that such halachic concerns as chilul Hashem (embarrassment to the community) and lashon hara (spreading gossip) are trumped by the imperative - religious and moral - of putting the protection of children first.
One would hope that for all the divisions within the community, its leaders could make security for children a priority and find ways to work together to diminish the potential for future tragedies.
One of the alleged victims who testified at the bet din here last week said that while the rabbis who questioned him were "stern and autocratic" in their manner, he was not intimidated.
"I asked them, 'what if it was your children or grandchildren?'" he said, "and they were silent."