Our Institutions Owe Us Their Teshuva For Child Sexual Abuse

As we arrive in shul tonight and rise for the Kol Nidre prayer that marks the beginning of our Day of Atonement, the 56th day since the opening of the New York State Child Victims Act Lookback Window will be drawing to a close. Already hundreds of lawsuits have been filed across the religious and secular communities in New York State demanding justice for child sexual abuse that was enabled and covered up by their institutions. In less than two months the lawsuits filed by just a relative handful of survivors represent the prospect of justice for tens of thousands of people who were sexually abused as children and for decades denied their day in court.

Our communities are not exempt from this reckoning. Already several lawsuits have been filed against major Orthodox Jewish institutions, with many more on the way. Because of this outstanding liability many Orthodox Jewish organizations, most notably Agudath Israel of America, lobbied hard against the Child Victims Act. They joined with the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America in opposing justice for survivors of child sexual abuse, and in so doing ignored not only the cries of the children abused by their negligence, but their responsibility to do meaningful teshuva for the lives they’ve destroyed.

In the immediate aftermath of the opening of the Lookback Window these institutions, rather than reaching out to survivors and advocates to find out how they could help the survivors in their communities, instead began compiling and distributing lists of defense attorneys willing to take their cases. Their justification for their opposition and response to the Child Victims Act was that these crimes were far in the past, that they’d cleaned up their acts. Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, never once did they consider their collective obligation to repent for their crimes.

As we head into Yom Kippur and we turn our souls toward repenting for the sins of the previous year, we must insist that the institutions that serve our communities and children do the same. Maimonides, in outlining the laws of repentance, doesn’t merely characterize it as a commitment for the future, but also as an acknowledgement of the sins committed, and an open confession of those sins. Whereas in the case of sins between people and God abandonment of sin, regret, confession, and commitment for the future are sufficient for repentance, that’s not true of sins between fellow people.

For sins that injure another person repentance requires making restitution for the injury, obtaining verbal forgiveness from the injured party, and appeasement of the injured party. While lawyering up and fighting against claims made by survivors of abusive institutions might suffice for the civil process, it does not suffice for the halachic or moral process of how someone responsible for the sexual violation of a child is required to repent for that damage.

In the Haftarah reading for Yom Kippur we read from Isaiah where God rebukes our piety that comes at the expense of others. On the holiest day of the year, on a day when we are commanded to afflict our bodies with fasting to atone for our sins, we read the words of God telling us that the ‘fast’ God actually desires of us is “To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. To share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.” This on a day when we—under penalty of kares—are commanded to fast. God instead entreats us to be just and kind, to support society’s victims, and refuse to abide injustice.

It’s no coincidence that on this holiest day of the year we are reminded that our external pieties are secondary to and can never come at the expense of justice for those who are least able to get it themselves. Our prayers, our fasting, our speeches, our crying, and our repentance mean nothing if we continue to deny survivors of child sexual abuse the justice they for decades have been denied, and if we continue rationalizing why the institutions responsible for violating them deserve not to be held accountable.

Our concern as a community must always be centered around the people these institutions were meant to serve and protect, and when those institutions fail, when they are responsible for the sexual abuse of children, we must demand that they make restitution for those crimes. We must support the survivors of those crimes, and we must stand with them in demanding justice.

The second an institution becomes more important than the people it serves it no longer deserves to exist.

If we are to grow as a community and move forward together into a safer era for our children we must first atone for the sins of our past. We must stand with the people violated by those sins. We must learn from our sins, we must listen to and learn from the survivors’ stories and experiences, and we must use them to grow in the future.

Otherwise our pieties, our fasts, our prayers, and our institutions are nothing more than empty mockeries of what God actually wants from us on Yom Kippur.

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Dr. David Pelcovitz’s Troubling Track Record on Child Sexual Abuse

In May of 2012, Evan Zauder, then a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University and 6th grade teacher at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, NJ, was arrested for receipt, possession, and distribution of child pornography, and for using the Internet to entice a minor to engage in illegal sexual activity. He pled guilty in January of 2013 and was scheduled for sentencing in April of 2014. Prior to his sentencing, there was an outpouring of support by many leaders in the Orthodox Jewish community.

Notable among those who wrote positive sentencing recommendation letters requesting leniency were Rabbi Kenneth Brander, who at the time was the vice-president of Yeshiva University and now serves as president and rosh yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky,  former vice president and Executive Committee member of the Rabbinical Council of America and rabbi of Congregation B’nei Yeshurun in Teaneck, Rabbi Ezra Schwartz, rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), Rabbi Reuven Taragin, dean of overseas students at Yeshivat Hakotel, Rabbi Baruch Taub, founding rabbi and rabbi emeritus of Beth Avraham Yosef of Toronto (BAYT), the largest Orthodox Jewish congregation in Canada, and Dr. David Pelcovitz, Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Chair in Psychology and Jewish Education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University.

Dr. Pelcovitz is something of a standout in that group because of his renown as an advocate for survivors of child sexual abuse. Dr. Pelcovitz has spoken at countless conferences and seminars on the topic of child protection and abuse prevention education and is considered by many to be a leader in the field of abuse within the Orthodox Jewish community. He currently sits as the chair of the board of advisors for Amudim, the largest Orthodox Jewish victim services organization in the United States.

In his sentencing recommendation letter for Zauder, Dr. Pelcovitz stood on his extensive credentials and experience when he wrote, “…I spent most of my career treating the victims of child sexual abuse in the specialized clinical and research program that we has at the North Shore University Hospital, which was then part of the NYU School of Medicine. In light of this expertise and the qualities I saw in Evan when he was my student, I hope that this letter can provide a perspective that can help justice be tempered with mercy when Evan is sentenced.”

He then went on to imply without saying it that he had seen Zauder clinically following his arrest, which was not the case:

“In my interactions with Evan during and after class, what came through most, was his warmth, empathy, concern for others and genuine commitment to serve the community. In my meeting with him after his arrest he wasn’t in the least bit defensive about his actions. He expressed sincere regret and remorse, wishing that he has the strength to get professional help for his problem before they reached the disastrous proportions that brought him to your courtroom.”

In other words, Dr. Pelcovitz had no knowledge whatsoever of Zauder’s crimes while he was his student, and never treated him clinically.

Dr Pelcovitz continued, having never seen Zauder clinically, “In over thirty years of practice, I have had the opportunity to treat many individuals with issues in the area of controlling their sexuality. As you know, the prognosis for sustained change is often guarded. In the case of Evan, however, I believe that he possesses many of the ingredients that I have come to associate with sustained change and potential to be a valuable member of society…”

He then proceeded to ask the judge to give Evan Zauder the minimum possible sentence.

Setting aside the fact that this level of concern is rarely shown for victims of sexual abuse within the Orthodox Jewish community, Dr. Pelcovitz’s letter was particularly disgusting to the survivor and advocacy communities because most people would agree that someone who claims to be an advocate on behalf of survivors should not be writing sentencing recommendation letters on behalf of abusers, especially when that advocate deliberately attempts to mislead the court into believing that the basis for his opinion on the abuser is clinical rather than personal.

But what’s even more concerning about Dr. Pelcovitz is that this is far from his first questionable decision with regard to sexual abuse.

In 2011 after Agudath Israel published its halachic ruling requiring survivors of child sexual abuse to ask permission of a rabbi before reporting to the authorities, they rolled out a companion plan to implement abuse prevention measures in yeshivas. This included mandating windows in all classroom doors, advocating for cameras in classrooms, instituting basic child safety protocols, and organizing abuse prevention events for parents and teachers around the community.

One of the speakers on Agudath Israel’s circuit for this campaign was Dr David Pelcovitz. In May 2012, Dr Pelcovitz was speaking at such an event alongside Debbie Fox of Magen Yeladim, and David Mandel, CEO of Ohel. Following the event, a parent approached Dr. Pelcovitz and asked him what to do if he becomes aware of a molester. Dr Pelcovitz then admits that the panel purposely didn’t touch on the issue of reporting child sexual abusers to the authorities because they were told not to by the organizers of the event.

In a 2017 presentation for an abuse prevention event for CHANA, a Baltimore-based Orthodox Jewish community helpline for survivors of abuse, Dr Pelcovitz spoke about the importance of having frank conversations with children about their right to assert themselves in unsafe situations. He added the caveat that it should be done in a way that isn’t “chutzpahdik,” or disrespectful:

“…letting them know that there are times that if adults do things that make you a little bit uncomfortable you have a right to tell them in a way that’s not chutzpadik, but you have a right to tell them. “

This is something that flies in the face of any recognized best practice where abuse prevention education is concerned. Children, when asserting themselves in an abusive or unsafe situations, should not be burdened with the responsibility of being concerned with the feelings of the adult who is making them feel unsafe.

Last Wednesday, following the arrest of SAR associate principal Rabbi Jonathan Skolnick for production of child pornography, Dr Pelcovitz was brought in by the administration to address parents’ concerns in the wake of the arrest. Information had surfaced the day before Dr Pelcovitz’s presentation that a number of students had been contacted by Rabbi Skolnick through several of his aliases. Within the first ten minutes of his address, Dr Pelcovitz was asked about his letter of recommendation for Evan Zauder.

His response to the inquiry was defensive, dismissive of the severity of his actions, and annoyed at being asked the question at all.

He began by characterizing his plea to the court on behalf of Zauder not as an appeal for a shorter sentence, but as an appeal to the judge to “temper justice with mercy.” He describes being asked by Zauder’s attorney and therapist, whom Pelcovitz admitted to having relationships with in the past, to write the letter. Dr. Pelcovitz then went on to explain that his “working supposition, based on what I was told and based on what was released to the public at the time,” was that Zauder had been in possession of child pornography, but not that he had “actually abused.” “Had I known that Evan had actually abused,” Dr Pelcovitz said, “which is something I didn’t find out until much later, I never, ever, would have written the letter.”

It should be noted that the information was public at the time, and had not only been in the release by the Department of Justice, but had also been in several news outlets at the time, and that Dr Pelcovitz had specifically requested the minimum legal sentence in his letter, despite claiming otherwise in his presentation.

Dr Pelcovitz then finished with an aggrieved challenge to the attendees:

“There are other background reasons that go behind my writing that letter that’s extremely frustrating to me that I can’t share—and I don’t want to sound at all defensive—but basically it was a mistake, it was a big mistake, and I apologize for that mistake. Ok? We hear it? Anybody wanna yell at me or push back on me? Ok? We’re good?”

Following the presentation, several parents complained to the SAR administration about the tone-deaf irony of having someone who wrote a sentencing recommendation on behalf of a child sexual abuser convicted for luring a 14 year old to have sex with them and possession and distribution of child pornography speak to parents in the aftermath of such a similar case.

But the issue isn’t necessarily that SAR reached out to Dr. Pelcovitz as a trusted and well-known expert in the dizzying aftermath of their associate principal’s arrest. It’s the fact that he remains a trusted expert despite his very questionable history of collaborating with Agudath Israel following their psak, deliberately failing to instruct parents of their responsibility to report sexual abuse to authorities, writing a sentencing recommendation letter for a convicted pedophile, and advising parents that they should instruct their kids to not be chutzpahdik when asserting themselves in unsafe or abusive situations.

While there can be no doubt that Dr. Pelcovitz’s credentials are impressive on paper, in practice his record gives cause for concern. He is by far not the only recognized expert in the Orthodox Jewish community on child sexual abuse. However, he is one of several recognized experts who seem to have other priorities where child sexual abuse and prevention and institutional and communal concerns intersect.

Advocates on behalf of survivors of child sexual abuse must have only one concern, one priority when addressing the needs of survivors: The best interests of children and survivors. How to secure justice for them in the wake of abuse, how best to support them when they come forward, and how best to prevent them from being abused in the first place. Concerns about chutzpah, or institutional finances, or communal image have no place in an advocate’s priorities. Dr Pelcovitz’s record on this should be of great concern to any school administrator or community leader looking for a recognized expert to address parents or teachers about child sexual abuse and prevention.

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Amudim is Part of the Problem

Here’s the problem with the way we’ve been conditioned to respond to things like Zvi Gluck deliberately lying to survivors about their rights under the Child Victims Act. We’ve grown so accustomed to the status quo being so incredibly terrible that we’ve lost sight of what the right thing actually looks like, and we’re therefore so much more willing to sycophantically lick the boots of the people who throw us enough crumbs to stay quiet than we are to hold them and the systems that protect abusers accountable.

To give an example. I just got off the phone with someone who called me regarding a quote I shared from Zvi Gluck in which he defended his decision to not publicly make his followers aware of their rights under the CVA, and lie about it in an op-ed he wrote shortly after it passed.

According to Zvi Gluck, director and founder of Amudim, one of the largest victim-service organizations in the Orthodox world, with an annual operating budget of $7 million, efforts not to publicize the one-year look-back provision and extended statute of limitations for civil suits were intentional, based on the organizations prerogatives.

Gluck said the organization chose not to speak out publicly because he did not want to “risk causing secondary trauma for survivors.”

“If we publicized about these new legal options and survivors chose to bring their cases back to court only for those cases to be dismissed, we could cause even more trauma for survivors,” he said.

Zvi Gluck to Hannah Dreyfus of the Jewish Week


The person I spoke to said that whatever my opinions of Zvi Gluck, didn’t I think think that what he was doing was a net positive? After all, he’s saying things no one else is saying in the community. He’s helping people no one else wants to help.

Those things are great, but here’s the issue: Zvi Gluck is part of the problem he claims he’s helping to fix.

Awareness was definitely an issue in the frum community ten years ago. To even discuss sexual abuse, to even acknowledge its existence was taboo. The people talking about it, like Nuchem Rosenberg, Shmarya Rosenberg, and Paul Mendlowitz, were considered fringe nutjobs yelling about something that people didn’t believe was a problem.

Ultimately, however, thanks to their efforts, the efforts of those who came after them, and increased general coverage of child sexual abuse in the press, the public is now aware that it exists and that it’s a problem. That’s not to say that awareness campaigns are not important. There are anyways people who remain unaware, and survivors who feel alone in their experiences who need to be reached. But the issue of awareness existing in the community has in large part been addressed. We’re aware. Now what.

When Zvi Gluck and people like him get credit for raising awareness in the community, what’s not being addressed are the systems in place in the community that actively silence survivors. It’s not because the community is unaware of sexual abuse that Yated, Hamodia, Mishpacha, Ami, and Yeshiva World don’t allow any mention of child sexual abuse in their publications. It’s because the rabbonim and community leaders who dictate what does and doesn’t get printed in those publications decided to either explicitly or implicitly forbid it.

If you’re aware of child sexual abuse, especially if you’re a survivor, and you look around you in the general world and see everyone talking about it, and then you look around in your community and see a complete moratorium on any public discussion of it, you get the message very clearly that the community does not care about you and does not want to hear or help you. That’s by design. It’s not due to a lack of awareness.

When I began leading protests for ZA’AKAH in the community, I expected a fierce backlash. I was doing something that hadn’t been done very much before, and I was being loud, rude, and in-your-face about it. We stood on street corners outside of shuls, and yeshivas, and we yelled and chanted about sexual abuse.

And the response was overwhelmingly positive.

People came over to us and offered us water. They took our fliers. They talked to us, and asked us questions. Some even waited until the end of the protests and thanked us, or asked us for help with situations they were dealing with. While there was some negative response, and even one violent incident, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

The awareness is there. The people know that sexual abuse is a prevalent problem. What they don’t have is anyone to stand up for them when they want to report sexual abuse. They don’t have anyone who will protect their jobs, their homes, their children’s educations, when they dare to come forward against their abusers and the people who enabled them.

And that’s really what they need, and they need it to be public and full-throated. They need to hear that reporting sexual abuse is the right thing to do. They need to hear that any rav who tells them otherwise is wrong. They need to hear that they’ll be supported. They need to hear from the people with the resources and communal and political capital that they will be supported if they come forward.

And Zvi Gluck could have been all of those things, but instead he chooses to protect the systems and institutions that continue to silence survivors.

That’s the real problem with giving people credit for simply saying things that no one else is saying without backing it up in action. We know, for the love of God, we know that sexual abuse is a problem. We live it. We’ve survived it. Amudim has an annual budget of 7 million dollars. It is run by a very prominent and well-respected member of the community, whose father is even more prominent and well-respected. The only excuse for such an organization to lie to its constituents about their rights under the CVA is if they’re trying to maintain the status quo. If anyone can get away with pushing the envelope, so to speak, it’s Amudim and Zvi Gluck.


And to the argument that they’re trying to change things from the inside I ask, but how many people are you hurting along the way, and how long must they wait for you to do the right thing? The community will not change until pushed, and until community leaders and rabbonim can no longer point to Amudim and use them as pretext to claim they’re taking the issue seriously, nothing will actually change. And when it eventually does in spite of them, it will come after hundreds and thousands of broken survivors who needed help but couldn’t find it.

It’s telling that the response Zvi Gluck gave the Jewish Week about why Amudim wasn’t informing survivors of their rights under the CVA was couched in concern for victims.

‘“If we publicized about these new legal options and survivors chose to bring their cases back to court only for those cases to be dismissed, we could cause even more trauma for survivors,” he said.”

Zvi Gluck to Hannah Dreyfus of The Jewish Week


Every other victims services organization like Safe Horizon, and Zero Abuse Project has to deal with similar issues. They field calls from survivors looking for help finding legal representation, and some people have viable cases, and some people don’t. Some people will win their cases and some people don’t.

The correct answer to that problem is not to lie to your constituents and pretend that their rights don’t exist for their benefit, it’s to be honest with them, inform them of the risks, and then make sure that they understand that you will be there for them and support them through whatever happens.

Survivors have been lied to for long enough. They’ve had their trust violated for long enough. They’ve been held hostage by oppressive community systems and silenced in the interest of institutional concerns for far too long. We’re all aware of it. Now what are we going to do about it?

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Epstein, Wexner, and Our Communal Reckoning with Dirty Money

In the wake of the recent resurfaced allegations against alleged child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, much attention has been given to the people around him who for many years enabled his well-known sexual abuse of children. Perhaps most notable among these enablers is Leslie Wexner, whose foundation has issued many scholarships to some of the Jewish community’s most influential up-and-coming leaders, and donated to many institutions across our community. When the allegations of Wexner’s complicity arose, we all knew that a reckoning was imminent, but it seems that Mechon Hadar has beaten everyone else to the punch, and not in a good way.

Above I’ve shared screenshots of an email conversation my friend Ike Brooks Fishman had with the Rosh Yeshiva of Mechon Hadar, Rabbi Ethan Tucker, regarding an email Ike sent to the Hadar community listserv. Ike had emailed the listserv to start a communal discussion about how the community would and could respond to its entanglement with Les Wexner in light of his close partnership with alleged international sex-trafficker and child rapist, Jeffrey Epstein.

It should also be noted for general context going forward that Wexner stands accused not only of being Epstein’s only public (and very wealthy) client despite almost undoubtedly knowing of Epstein’s horrific crimes, but also of allowing Epstein to sexually abuse women in his Ohio home. This was not raised in Ike’s emails, but it is relevant to the general conversation about how the Jewish community in general will have to contend in the coming months with Wexner and his various philanthropic endeavors.

Leslie Wexner is the founder and CEO of L Brands (formerly Limited Brands), which among many other things, owns Victoria’s Secret. This is notable because Epstein is accused of posing as a talent scout for Victorias Secret as early as the mid-90s, and using that as a pretext to lure models back to his hotel room for auditions, where he would sexually assault them. L Brands was allegedly made aware of this at the time and did not sever its relationship with Epstein, nor did it seem to take any steps to make Epstein stop representing himself as their employee.

He allegedly was also sent underage models to be sexually assaulted by a modelling agency used by Victoria’s Secret. Victoria’s Secret continued using that modelling agency despite allegedly being made aware of those allegations. As mentioned above, Wexner is also alleged to have done nothing after Epstein allegedly assaulted Maria Farmer at his Ohio home.

The closeness between Wexner and Epstein and his ever-growing list of accusers paints a clear picture of either active or tacit complicity on the part of Leslie Wexner in the crimes of Jeffrey Epstein.

The other thing Wexner is famous for, particularly in the Jewish community, is the philanthropic works of the Wexner Foundation, which invests in the future of Jewish leaders and institutions. One of the most sought after scholarships in the Jewish community is the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, which is awarded to 20 promising graduate students every year, and is a very prestigious line on any resume.

What makes the issue of Wexner particularly touchy for Mechon Hadar and Rabbi Ethan Tucker, is the fact that Rabbi Tucker, along with the other two founders, Rabbis Elie Kaunfer, and Shai Held are all Wexner Fellows. The Wexner Foundation website hosts a lot of content created by all three of them. The Wexner foundation has also funded several programs over the years in conjunction with Mechon Hadar. It’s unclear what the total amount of either actual or in-kind contributions Mechon Hadar has received from the Wexner Foundation, but it’s clear that there is a close friendship between the two institutions.

The Wexner Foundation for its part claims that Leslie Wexner severed his connections to Epstein 12 years ago, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Which brings us back to Rabbi Tucker’s reaction to Ike’s initial email to the listserv. When the new allegations against Epstein broke, and Wexner was almost immediately implicated, there was a collective browning of many a pair of pants among the Jewish community and its institutional leadership. Wexner has donated millions over the years, given scholarship to scores of the most recognizable names in our communities, and that realization no doubt caused a panic in many of those people and institutions. Ike no doubt touched an extremely raw nerve with his first email, which is likely what caused Rabbi Tucker’s vitriolic response.

I am ashamed that you were once my student.

You should be deeply ashamed of yourself for doing this and I will do what I can to make sure that you or anyone else who engages in this sort of behavior is considered a pariah in this community until such time as you have done genuine public teshuvah for this.

Rabbi Ethan Tucker to Ike Brooks Fishman

But here’s the thing. This is not Hadar’s problem exclusively. It’s not Rabbis Held, Kaunfeld, and Tucker’s problems exclusively. This is about how we as a community are going to deal with the fact that one of our most prominent philanthropists now stands accused of at the very least enabling the rape and sexual assault of countless children. In the coming months the Jewish community at large will be grappling with questions like whether or not to scrub Wexner Fellowships from resumes, whether or not to return unspent Wexner Foundation grants, how to address the connections between the Wexner Foundation and community institutions, and whether or not the Jewish Community as a whole should turn its back entirely on Wexner, his foundation, and his money.

These conversation must be had in public. They must be had broadly among members of the affected communities. Silence is what allowed Epstein to continue committing his crimes against children. Silence is what enabled the shameful plea deal reached between Epstein attorney Jay Lefkowitz and then US Attorney Alex Acosta. Silence is what enables the abuse of children every day in our communities. Silence encourages impunity.

The faculty, student body, alumni, and communities surrounding Mechon Hadar have a difficult conversation in their collective future, but so do many other institutions and communities. Perhaps we in the broader Jewish community should all have known better. Perhaps we all turned a blind eye the first time Epstein was accused. Perhaps in the past we’ve been enticed by Wexner’s money, and the good things we believed we could do with it. But that era is over. We know too much to remain silent any longer.

I’m not going to pile on Rabbi Tucker and hold him uniquely responsible for disavowing Wexner and distancing himself from anything connected to him. That responsibility falls on all of us. What I will say is that this is a teachable moment that we shouldn’t allow to slip by unnoticed. The way Rabbi Tucker responded to Ike’s email while understandable is entirely inexcusable. The response to calls for transparency and reflection around the issue of sexual abuse can never be silence.

I wish Mechon Hadar, its leadership, its community, and all the institutions and communities within the Wexner foundation orbit much luck in the coming months as they address how best to disentangle themselves from his money and influence.

One thing is for sure. I and many others will be watching very closely.

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Child Victims Act Passes NY Legislature, Agudah Still Opposed

This past Monday, the New York State Senate voted unanimously to pass the Child Victims Act, and the assembly voted 130-3. Governor Cuomo is expected to sign it into law within the coming days. The votes themselves were powerful and emotional to experience. Many senators rose to speak about why they support the legislation, and one senator and several assembly members talked about their own personal experiences as survivors of sexual abuse.

Senator Alessandra Biaggi spoke about being sexually abused when she was younger, and described how her “silence lasted for over 25 years.” Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou broke down in tears as she described in vivid detail being abused by a teacher at the age of 13. “I can still smell him,” she said. Assembly member Rodneyse Bichotte revealed that she was abused by a pastor when she was 10 years old, and Assembly member Catalina Cruz disclosed being abused by a family member.

When the results in each house were announced, everyone in the chambers erupted into applause. Many of the survivors who fought for the Child Victims Act were in attendance, and there were many teary eyes as they embraced each other, overcome by the emotions if finally seeing New York State almost unanimously acknowledge their suffering and finally bring them an opportunity for justice.

The Child Victims Act includes the following provisions:

1) Raises the criminal statute of limitations for sexual abuse to age 25 for misdemeanors, and age 28 for felonies.

2) Raises the civil statute of limitations for sexual abuse to age 55.

3) Eliminates the 90 day notice of claim requirement for civil actions related to child sexual abuse against public institutions.

4) Opens a one-year lookback window, effective 6 months after the bill is signed into law, during which any cases previously barred by the statute of limitations could be brought to civil court.

While the Catholic Church had retracted its opposition to the Child Victims Act by the time it went to the floor for a vote, Agudath Israel had not. In a statement released shortly following the passage of the bill in the senate and assembly, Agudath Israel released a statement condemning the lookback window for its potentially devastating effects on liable institutions. The statement also included a commitment by Agudath Israel to fighting the “terrible scourge” of abuse going forward. It’s worth noting that despite this statement, Agudath Israel’s official policy is still to require rabbinic permission before sexual abuse is reported to police.

While there undoubtedly may be parties who are inconvenienced by any school or institutional closures that result from lawsuits allowed under the Child Victims Act retroactive window, our primary concern must always be for the survivors of sexual abuse who were abused because of the negligence or intentional malice of these institutions. Those survivors haven’t forgotten what was done to them. The pain hasn’t faded. They not only live with the violation of their bodies and souls every day, they also live with the betrayal they experienced at the hands of people, institutions, and community leaders in whom they had placed their trust. 

That harm doesn’t go away, and neither does the liability to make reparations. In the same way institutions, despite changes in leadership or location, stand on their legacies and reputations of previous administrations for the purposes of fundraising or promotion, they must also accept responsibility for the actions of previous administrations when those actions so fundamentally damaged other people. In the same way institutional debts and bills aren’t wiped clean when administrations change, neither are institutional liabilities for enabling and covering up sexual abuse. 

These institutions owe a debt that must be paid to the parties who were made to suffer by that institution’s actions. Abuse is a particularly insidious crime in the way it not only affects individuals, but their families and communities. Not only do the victims suffer, but so do their families, as the pain of the abuse, the aftermath, the backlash, and the community ostracism radiates outward. Generations afterward feel it as parents who were abused and still suffering pass the trauma on to their children who have to witness the pain of their parents. Communities feel the pain when they are split apart in the wake of a report to authorities that pits rabbis and community leaders against survivors and their friends and families. And on the other side, the families of the abusers are also harmed by the actions of the abuser. 

And yet, the suffering of the victim demands justice, because a crime was committed, a child was violated, and for that there’s a price that neither time nor outside considerations can mitigate. So the families of the abuser suffer along with them as their loved one is charged, imprisoned, and registered as a sex offender. Constituents of institutions suffer when their institutions are forced to downsize or close. Ultimately, however, the responsibility for all of that harm, both the direct harm to the victims and the collateral damage caused to all of the otherwise innocent bystanders, lies squarely with the abusers and the people who enabled and covered up for them. 

Survivors are owed these reparations the same way the power company is owed its fees for electricity, and the water company is owed its fees for running water. Even more so because one has no moral obligation to have power or running water, but one does have a moral obligation to protect children from sexual abuse, and immediately report the abuser to authorities if, God forbid, someone does abuse a child. 

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Yes, Gordimer, Leah Forster Should be Allowed to Perform

The Gemara in Yevamos 79b states that three traits are emblematic of a Jew, and that if any of those three traits are missing, we should question the person’s heritage: That they be compassionate, humility/contrition, and a willingness to do kindness to others. And yet, seemingly in direct contravention of this gemara, Avraham Gordimer, on December 20th, penned an article in the Jewish Press calling on the Orthodox community to withhold our empathy for our fellow Jew.

In his article titled ‘Should Leah Forster be Allowed to Perform?‘ Gordimer questions whether or not it is appropriate not only for a lesbian woman to hold a comedy event at a kosher establishment, but whether or not it is appropriate for Orthodox Jews to attend. Despite acknowledging that Leah “does not publicly discuss her sexual orientation,” and that the “content of her routine is, as she claims, free of anything controversial[,]” he nonetheless proceeds to warn us that attending such a performance may be inappropriate since “when [people] laugh along with a performer and enjoy his or her presentation, they bond and start to grow comfortable with what he or she represents. Concomitantly, they start becoming uncomfortable with anything the Torah says that may paint this person in a negative light.”

He goes on to warn that “Attitudes in America toward homosexuality and non-marital intimate relationships have undergone a sea change in the last few decades[,]” and that “Even if viewers claim to hold by their moral opposition to homosexuality[,]” exposure to LGBT performers and the humanity they portray “elicited sympathy for them and their way of life and thus helped break down the walls of Biblical morality.”

In other words, despite the fact that the performances have nothing to do with the performer’s LGBT identity, and has nothing to do with promoting LGBT identities and orientations, we should nonetheless refuse to attend their performances since interacting with their humanity may cause us to rethink the bigoted positions our community has spent so much time carefully inculcating into its members.

Never mind the fact that while the Orthodox community continues to pretend otherwise, there exists no issur in the Torah against having an LGBT orientation or identity, certainly not anything that dictates what sex or gender we should find attractive. More to the point this is another illustration of the fact that this isn’t really about whether or not we’re worried about eroding Torah values in the community as much as it’s about specifically discriminating against LGBT people.

I’ve never once seen an article from Gordimer similarly calling for the boycott of non-religious, Shabbos-violating Jewish performers. I’ve never heard of someone being thrown out of a shul for being an adulterer, and if it happens it certainly isn’t as commonplace as LGBT people being excluded from shuls for the mere fact of their identities or orientations. We as a community, in the interest of maintaining a connection, however tenuous, to all Jews, regardless of their level of observance, have always welcomed people who haven’t been perfectly observant, even of halachos whose violation carries the death penalty. And yet, for some reason, when it comes to LGBT people we decide to draw a line and rigidly defend it.

That’s not new. What is new is the specific expression of this calculus: God forbid we engage with LGBT people in a way that showcases their humanity, that enables us to empathize with them as people instead of just viewing them as some foreign, sinful threat, lest we find ourselves so compelled by how like us they that we abandon our bigotry. Imagine if kiruv rabbs adopted with shabbos-violators, or people who don’t keep kosher? I’m willing to bet that membership numbers at Aish and Ohr Somayach would rapidly dwindle.

The call to empathy and compassion, to see past externalities to the humanity in each and every person is what makes us Jews. Certainly not misguided calls to the contrary based on a standard we don’t apply to any other group.

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The Yeshiva System’s ‘Perfect Image’ is Built on the Children It Discarded

Over and over throughout my time in yeshiva I heard this constant refrain, that we were better than the public schools because we had a higher graduation rate, and didn’t require drug screenings and metal detectors. And I believed it. I believed that the education I was getting was far better than whatever public school had to offer, and that I was intellectually and morally superior to my public school peers.

Then I grew up and realized that the world isn’t quite so simple.

I’m now seeing a resurgence of this ridiculous idea in the wake of the debate over private school curricular standards in New York State. Since that topic as a whole is very complicated and nuanced, and would require more than one post to fully flesh out my opinions, I just want to focus on this one specific aspect of it: The idea that yeshivas are academically and morally superior to public schools.

What really kicked my opinions of yeshivas in the teeth was when I started volunteering for Our Place, a drop-in center for Jewish kids at risk. Sure, I’d been abused for years in the frum world and had dropped out of yeshiva, but I still thought before that point that it was really just me and my life experiences, and that the image I had of the frum world in general, and the yeshiva world in particular, were sound and valid.

Just to give an example, the idea that yeshiva guys would do drugs or have sex before they were married was inconceivable to me. Mind you, I was 19 at the time, but I’d never really stepped out of my personal bubble. When I started volunteering at Our Place, reality came at me fast and hard. A lot of the kids there were regular drug users, some of whom were drug dealers, some of the kids were in gangs, some of them had knocked up their girlfriends, and so on. It was, to 19-year-old me, at once heartbreaking and eye-opening that this myth I had believed about the frum community and the people within it was nonsense.

More shocking even than that was the way a lot of the community seemed to interact with and feel about this group of boys. Many of them had been abused, the community had silenced it or covered it up, and when they inevitably started “acting out” as a result of their trauma, the community threw them out. One night I got curious and asked a bunch of the boys there whether they had been able to speak to their rebbeim about a range of topics. Unanimously they said no. They had been kicked out of yeshiva for asking. Then they’d been kicked out of the next yeshiva for asking, and so on. They were only taken seriously when they were finally sent to what they characterized as “babysitting/kiruv” yeshivas, where, since they were already at the rock bottom of the yeshiva world, the rebbeim had nothing to lose by engaging with them.

Why? Because at that point the yeshivas and rebbeim had nothing to lose. There was no longer any image of perfection to maintain because they were dealing with kids the community had rejected for threatening to shatter that illusion. Of course, by then these boys were soured on the community and yeshivas in general, and never lasted long in these places.

Every so often one of them would die. A suicide, or a drug overdose, or a gang-related killing. Not a word in the charedi press. Not a tear shed for them. Not a world written in remembrance. These boys die without so much as a peep from the community that excised them to retain this illusion of perfection, to prop up this ridiculous idea that we’re so much better than “them” both academically and morally.

Public schools don’t get to be selective with their student bodies, they have to work with whatever district they happen to be in. They have to find a way to make it work. If their district happens to be an a high-poverty, high-crime area, then they have to try to educate that population, even though the children in that district may have more immediate, existential priorities than learning their reading writing and ‘rithmetic.

Yeshivas, on the other hand, get to be selective. They get to choose what “types” of people they accept. They get to expel with impunity. They get to abuse, and cover up, and expunge the victim from their narrative, all in service of maintaining this lie that yeshivas are by definition better than public schools.

Setting aside the fact that many yeshivas actually do graduate and issue diplomas to students who aren’t, in fact, deserving of them by artificially inflating their grades, it’s very easy to claim academic superiority when you make your job easy by eliminating anyone who you think might disturb that illusion.

Comparing yeshivas to public schools in this regard is therefore disingenuous at best, and malicious at worst. The yeshiva world can’t have it both ways. It can’t refuse to serve, and in doing so deny the existence of, the kinds of children that public schools are compelled to and still maintain that they somehow by nature operate at a higher level. They don’t get to expel from school and ostracize from the community children who struggle with drugs, who have sex before marriage, who suffer from mental health issues, who come from broken, or abusive homes, who have questions of faith, and then claim that because they’ve washed their hands of such problems they are therefore better than the ones who haven’t.

The system is built on the blood of those discarded children, and that blood boils on the ground as these liars stand on their corpses to more loudly proclaim their lies.

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