Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Rabbi Mordechai Tendler: An Article His Supporters Should Read

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At 5:57 PM, Blogger jewishwhistleblower said...

WHEN RABBIS GO ASTRAY (Part 2 of 5): Victims of rabbinic sex abuse suffer pain of communal denial
by Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Jewish Telegraphic Agency (New York)
Sep 19, 1996
pg. 5

NEW YORK, Sept. 18 (JTA) -- People do not want to think that their rabbi is capable of sexual exploitation.

The overwhelming majority of rabbis, of course, are not.

Yet when exploitation does occur, the women who come forward often find themselves ostracized by their religious community. And on the rare occasion that they turn to their rabbi's professional associations or their movement's congregational organization, they say they are made to feel unwelcome.

The result is often a conspiracy of silence that protects the perpetrators and leaves the victims feeling isolated and in pain, alienated from the very Jewish community to which they had turned for spiritual sustenance.

Members of a congregation are frequently unable to imagine that their spiritual leader, who has guided them through the most significant moments of grief and joy in their lives, could be capable of sexual misconduct.

Often compounding the difficulty is the character of the rabbi alleged to be involved.

"By and large, the people who are exploitative are charismatic and well-loved, not sleazy people on the street who we're all going to be afraid of," Debra Warwick-Sabino, an expert in clergy sexual abuse, said in an interview.

Congregants are often so deeply invested in keeping their rabbis on a pedestal that they are simply unwilling or unable to consider that they might do something which is so fundamentally offensive.

And so they often deny it.

"When you say to someone that their rabbi is capable of this, for them to suspend their disbelief would cause such a spiritual crisis in their own lives that it's easier for them to say `Boys will be boys' than face that faith crisis," said Warwick-Sabino.

At the wrenching congregational meetings that increasingly follow allegations of rabbinic sexual misconduct, synagogue members will often stand up and ostracize the accuser. In some cases, the accusers have been called, "liars" and "whores" -- and worse.

"Even in situations where the perpetrator admits all the things the women allege, congregations sometimes will line up behind the rabbi," Marie Fortune, another expert on clergy sexual abuse, said in an interview. "It blows my mind."

Fortune, a United Church of Christ minister and the founding director of the Seattle-based Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, has been involved with numerous cases in the Jewish community and has run a seminar on the topic at a regional meeting of Reform rabbis and one for students at Los Angeles' Reform rabbinical seminary.

Denial of the problem is not unique to Jews, said Warwick-Sabino. It happens "all the time, in all religions," she said.

There is also a great deal of ignorance about what rabbinic sexual exploitation is, say those involved with the issue.

Because of the anticipated reaction, victims of rabbinic sexual exploitation and harrassment rarely come forward, say these experts.

Women who have experienced rabbinic exploitation usually feel a deep and degrading sense of shame and guilt about what happened, say experts.

They often feel that they have a lot to lose if they come forward -- their place in their synagogue communities, respect and success in their professional lives, and even, in some cases, their marriages.

At Congregation Emanu-el in San Francisco, many in the congregation tried to discredit the women who had come forward publicly to charge their rabbi, Robert Kirschner, with sexual exploitation, according to congregants.

At an emotional congregational meeting soon after Kirschner resigned his position, the women who had come forward were accused of wanting to ruin the widely admired rabbi's career. They were called "harlots" and "Jezebels," said some of those women interviewed.

Two women who had been Kirschner's students when he was teaching at the Berkeley campus of the University of California complained about Kirschner's harassment of them, according to a temple board member who asked not to be named.

Another two complainants -- students from Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union -- who had obtained advance permission from the synagogue to come to the meeting and tell the congregation about their experiences, said they were forced out of the building before they had a chance to speak.

While they were waiting on the steps of the synagogue, they heard one congregant say to his wife, "`Boys will be boys. I don't see what the big deal is,'" said one of them, Debra Warwick-Sabino, who has since gone into the professional field of clergy sexual abuse.

In a letter to the dean of the Reform movement's Los Angeles rabbinical seminary, Warwick-Sabino wrote that she heard another congregant say to a friend: "If he made a pass at me, I'd be flattered, I wouldn't object."

The congregants' responses were typical for those faced with allegations of clergy sexual exploitation, say experts.

Synagogue members have been known to distance themselves from anyone accusing their rabbi of being sexually exploitative.

In one highly publicized case, Michele Samit, who has not herself claimed to have suffered from rabbinic sexual misconduct, says she was totally vilified by her former community after she wrote a book about the relationship between Anita Green and her rabbi, Steven Jacobs.

Anita Green was the president of Shir Chadash -- The New Reform Congregation in Los Angeles, when she was murdered at point-blank range in 1990.

Her husband, Mel Green, was convicted of ordering the killing and is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Although Mel and Anita Green were separated at the time of her murder, her affair with Jacobs began while she was still living with her husband, according to Samit's book, "No Sanctuary: The True Story of a Rabbi's Deadly Affair."

Mel Green was an angry, jealous and violent man who had long threatened Anita, even in public, according to the book.

At Green's funeral, Jacobs, who had first denied but later reluctantly admitted his relationship with her, eulogized her not as a rabbi talking about his temple president, but as a lover, several people who were congregants of Jacobs' at the time, said in telephone interviews.

In her book, Samit wrote of the eulogy: "The rabbi recalled `admiring or just staring at her beautiful nails and her gentle hands; those hands, her skin so very soft, so reassuring, those beautiful hands.'

"No one [in the congregation] said anything" about it, Samit said in a recent interview, referring to what she believed was Jacob's inappropriate language.

"The reaction of the congregation was nothing. Not even discussion there."

That's what convinced Samit that she had to leave the congregation which had been her second home, and the rabbi who had been her lifelong spiritual guide, she said.

She said she was the target of a smear campaign by Jacobs and was harassed by the rabbi's supporters.

"People called me from the congregation and harangued me. They said, `You egomaniacal whore, you think you're better than us. How could you destroy such a wonderful man,'" said Samit in the interview.

"This was the most painful thing," she said. "Rabbi Jacobs was my hero. I had him on such a pedestal. He Bat Mitzvahed me, married me, I baby-sat his kids. We were so close."

Jacobs denied in a recent telephone interview that his relationship with Green was an illicit affair.

"She was a dear friend, my temple president, and after the fact that she was going through a divorce and I had already been divorced, there was a romantic relationship."

He described Samit's book as "full of lies" and said some have accused him of adultery because "people are angry when you achieve a lot in rabbinic life."

"I would not be in the position and stay in the position if people didn't know who I am," he said.

Samit said she believes that she and every other member of Jacobs' congregation bear some responsibility for Anita Green's murder.

"There were signs to all of us that Anita was in danger and we ignored them because we wouldn't dare cross our beloved rabbi," she said.

Another congregant, Michael Hirsh, outraged by his rabbi's behavior and his community's response, wrote to the head of the Reform rabbinical association's ethics committee in April 1993, charging Jacobs with violating the group's ethics code and demanding that it take up Jacobs' behavior.

Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman, then the head of the committee, wrote back to Hirsch that Jacobs had agreed "to uphold all provisions of our Code of Ethics," which requires rabbis "to adhere to an exemplary moral code" and "to avoid even the appearance of sexual misconduct."

Hirsh responded to Stiffman with a letter saying that the action amounted to nothing more than "a rabbinic consent decree" for Jacobs to do it all over again.

"If there is a shanda (shame) here, it is not only in Jacobs' immoral conduct, but in your organization's complicity in covering it up," wrote Hirsch, a former investigative journalist and current television producer.

Jacobs remains the rabbi of Temple Kol Tikvah, the name adopted after it merged with another synagogue.

Experts in clergy sexual abuse say the denial among congregants can be dangerous because a rabbi can go on harassing and exploiting many congregants for decades without any of them knowing that the others exist, forcing each of them to bear the suffering alone.

And if a rabbi has sexually exploited one congregant, he almost always has exploited several, Fortune said, without referring specifically to any of the above-mentioned cases.

Fortune says she has worked with more than 3,500 cases of clergy sexual misconduct in dozens of different religious denominations during a 15-year period.

In the end, while the rabbinic perpetrators often move to another job within their movements or even stay in their pulpits after a slap on the wrist from their rabbinical organizations, it appears that the victims often go away.

They often divorce themselves from any connection to the Jewish community and, in some cases, go so far as to convert to another religion.

According to Fortune, denial of the problem is so pervasive because "none of us wants this to be happening."

"There is long-term damage being done here we're going to be living with for years,' she said, adding, "It doesn't have to be that bad if we respond better."

 
At 7:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article.

 

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