The Right’s Grooming Panic

As those of you who follow me regularly may have realized, I tend to think and post in long-form. I think in paragraphs. It takes me a while to fully flesh out and explain an idea. Practically speaking that boils down to me really hating Twitter as a platform for discussion and debate, which is why I spend most of my time here on Facebook. For some issues, however, I feel it’s important to engage on Twitter, either because the information I’m posting is informing the public about something I feel is important and relevant, or because there’s a concerted disinformation campaign against the information I’m posting and I feel it’s important to fight back against that.

For example, I spent a fair amount of time on Twitter over the last month posting about the Krishevsky case and combatting the disinformation campaign lying about it claiming it was immediately dismissed (it wasn’t) making ridiculous, mutually exclusive defenses for him, and then recently with the disposition of his case with a low-level plea, the claim that the case was dismissed with a trespassing ticket (he plead guilty to disorderly conduct). I did this because it’s important that the community have access to accurate information about these cases and not have to rely on disinformation.

I’ve also spent a lot of time on Twitter this week arguing about the trans teacher who was fired from Magen David for being trans because there wasn’t a lot of awareness about the case, and because there was so much hate being spewed against her I felt it was important to show some support. As you can imagine it didn’t go very well, but there were a few things that happened over the course of these arguments that I wanted to unpack here.

The first being the repeated accusation that I hate the frum community, everyone in it, and want to destroy it. Why? Because the frum community doesn’t like trans people and I want them to have to hire them as teachers anyway. Tied in with this accusation is the fact that I post incessantly about sexual abuse in the community, and had an opinion about secular education in yeshivas that they found objectionable. It culminated in someone saying to me that I was to the Chassidish community what the Nazis were to the Jews, and what the KKK is to black people.

This happens to me a lot and it speaks to a fundamental difference of opinion between me and others about what comprises the frum community. To them the community is only the people who fit in perfectly, follow the rules not necessarily as they’re set forth in Halacha but as they’re set forth by the rabbonim. Anyone not perfectly in line with the rabbonim, regardless of how personally religious they are, is to them not a part of the community.

I fundamentally disagree. The community is for the most part not something opted into, its something born into, and given the fact that membership for most begins involuntarily there’s necessarily going to be, as with any population, a wide variety of people and experiences within it. There will necessarily be victims of sexual and physical abuse, there will necessarily be gay and trans people, there will necessarily be people with mental illness, and there will necessarily be people who despite following halacha and enjoying the culture will have differences of opinion on the exact application of that halacha and its cultural implications. There will also necessarily be people who no longer want to be a part of either the faith or the community or both.

The community to me is comprised not only of the people who perfectly fit in but also the people who don’t, which is what motivates a lot of my advocacy. Survivors of abuse are also members of the community even if the community generally wishes that weren’t true, or rather, wishes they didn’t have to contend with that fact. The community is also comprised of frum LGBTQ people who are as religious as everyone else they sit next to in shul, and as much a part of the culture and community as everyone else but happen to also be LGBTQ. It’s also comprised of those in the Chassidish communities who wish their children to receive a basic secular education.

I fundamentally don’t believe that the community gets to disclaim responsibility for those members and pretend they aren’t a part.

Others both inside and outside the community often disagree saying things like “well if you don’t like the way things are, leave. This is the way things are and this is the way they’re staying, and you can either get on board and conform or you can get out.” But it’s not that simple. Aside from the difficulty of leaving the community one was born into, it’s also entirely unreasonable.

A Chassidish or Yeshivish kid who’s spent their whole life in the community, went to yeshiva in the community, whose family and friends and entire experience is in the community, whose whole outlook on life, religion, and community is informed by being a part of the community, doesn’t suddenly give that all up because they realized they’re LGBTQ.  Their experiences and cultural and religious identity and beliefs don’t suddenly radically change.

To me this is the same as people who in response to Agunos engaging in activism within the community to free themselves and others and change the way Gittin work in the community tell them they should instead just stop being Orthodox, leave the community, and remarry whoever they like whether the Beis Din approves or not. It’s an entirely unreasonable suggestion that someone whose whole life was within a certain set of beliefs and cultural experiences immediately stop believing and relating to them because of one experience.

It also presupposes that the community has always been one thing since the beginning of time and will be the same thing to the end of time, immutable, and never changing. That’s not true. It’s never been true. The Charedi community as it exists today isn’t the same as it was 100 years ago, even 50 years ago. It isn’t even the same as it was 20 years ago. It’s constantly changing, in some ways becoming more stringent and, in some ways, becoming more open. No community is every stagnant and unchanging. That’s not how human beings work. Things are constantly changing in every community.

It also presumes to claim that the community as a whole is perfectly observant of halacha and that anyone who isn’t falls outside its parameters. That’s not true either and never has been. Out of any given shul there are probably at least 10 adulterers, a wife-beater or two, someone who doesn’t strictly keep kosher, a couple of mechallelei Shabbos, and a few people who have committed fraud and either went away for it or just haven’t been caught yet. No one could argue with a straight face that those people aren’t members of the community. They may not be the community’s shining examples, but for better or worse they’re members.

When I bring this up the counterargument is usually something like, “Well yes, of course they exist, but they at least agree that what they’re doing is wrong. LGBTQ people don’t. Their whole identity is contrary to halacha.” The implication there is that the community as a whole, even when they don’t practice halacha perfectly, have at least bought in to it. In other words, when they’re sinning they know they’re sinning, they acknowledge it, and they give deference to what’s right even if they cant do what’s right.

But that’s not true either. It’s not just individuals who pick and choose, it’s also communities. In my community in Boro Park growing up, it was perfectly normal to commit fraud, cover up sexual abuse, and treat victims of abuse like garbage, none of which is in accordance with halacha. And yet that’s the way it was, and many if not most of the people within the community would agree that those things weren’t big deals. Flagrant violations of halacha that the community as a whole not only engaged it but believed was right. Communities absolutely pick and choose in the same way individuals do, and they tend to be just as dishonest with themselves as individuals are with themselves about their picking and choosing.

Which brings me back to my point.

Whether LGBTQ people observe halacha is between them and Hashem and it’s not really our place to interrogate that any more than we interrogate the halachic observance of anyone else in the community who isn’t LGBTQ, and if you’re going to claim that your community is perfectly Halachically observant, or at least declares as its values the perfect observance of Halacha, you better damn well make sure that’s true before you try to ostracize members of the community on that basis.  

The other thing that happened yesterday was that someone called me a sexual predator because I believed that trans people shouldn’t be fired from frum schools for being trans. Specifically what was said was “Yet you can’t seem to get adults to support your gay/trans/progressive agenda so you favor targeting their children. That makes you the predator. There is zero difference between a rabbi asking a minor for sex and you pushing minors to be indoctrinated about sex.”

Before addressing the bigger problem with that statement, I want to address the very obvious problem with it. The idea that being taught by a trans teacher is a trauma equivalent to being sexually abused as a child is not only monstrous but laughable. The person who said that has clearly never been sexually abused as a child nor talked to anyone who was because if he did he wouldn’t make such comparisons. For starters, there isn’t a documented increase in the suicide rate among students of trans teachers. There isn’t a documented increase in the rates of PTSD, depression, anxiety, addiction, self-harm, and eating disorders among students of trans teachers. There is among victims of sexual abuse.

Being taught social studies by a trans teacher is not traumatic. It might be uncomfortable for some who were raised a home where trans people are vilified, but it’s not traumatic, certainly not on the level of being sexually abused. The idea that the two experiences are even within the same universe as each other, let alone equivalent is insane.

Next there’s the claim that being taught by trans teachers is somehow indoctrinating children about sex. This is a particularly nasty bit of bullshit that has been going around Republican and right wing circles recently. The basic idea being that anyone who supports LGBTQ people being around children is essentially supporting the grooming of children for sexual abuse. There’s a lot to unpack about this claim and most of the time when people encounter it, they choose to just shake their head at it and walk away from it because it’s patently ridiculous but time consuming to argue against in the same way that Holocaust denial is patently ridiculous but time consuming to argue against.

This starts off with the idea that since the “LGBTQ movement’s” whole purpose is essentially to normalize identities that are considered deviant by conservatives, they must exist to normalize *all* identities that are considered deviant by conservatives. This, to them, includes pedophilia. This is not a new accusation, it’s something that gets hurled at LGBTQ people all the time despite it having no basis in reality.  

However, that’s why you may see uproar every now and again about the “left” trying to normalize pedophilia. These days the primary arguments stem from discussions in books like A Long Dark Shadow: Minor Attracted People and Their Pursuit of Dignity, and similar academic papers on the subject of so-called non-offending pedophiles. The argument essentially is that there are people whose sexual orientation is that they’re sexually attracted to children who spend their lives fighting that attraction and they deserve not to be lumped in with the people who actually abuse kids.

This is not a widely accepted idea at all, is extremely controversial, and by and large exists only in a very limited number of academic discussions on the subject. The term itself, Minor Attracted Person, is used in academic studies on the subject, but use of the term is generally a term of precision rather than a value statement on the phenomenon. Studies referencing Minor Attracted Persons are not by definition in favor of destigmatization or normalization. They’re simply using a neutral term for the purpose of being precise.

Despite that, the Right likes pretending that the idea of normalization and acceptance of pedophilia is becoming more popular in society. To cite one example from January 2014, Rabbi Yair Hoffman wrote an article for the Five Towns Jewish Times (republished by Yeshiva World News) titled We Are Under Attack by the LGBTPed Community. Ped being pedophile. The article itself made no mention of pedophilia, nor attempted to explain a connection between LGBTQ people and pedophiles. It was mainly complaining about the banning of conversion therapy in New Jersey and the introduction of a bill in New York to legalize gay marriage.

The Right’s position on this is essentially a slippery slope argument. If you can normalize relationships between same-sex couples, and you can normalize gender identities that are incompatible with society’s accepted gender norms, why couldn’t you normalize pedophilia too? That, therefore, must be the real agenda!

The next part of this argument essentially hinges around the idea that LGBTQ identities are fundamentally sexual. To them the idea that gay people want the people around them to know that they’re attracted to the same sex means that the identity is entirely focused on gay sex. They don’t believe the same thing about being straight, though.

To them straightness is the default and gayness is the deviance, so when straight people appear in popular culture talking about things like dating, falling in love, getting married, having children and building families, they don’t read sex into any of that. When they see a straight couple holding hands they consider that wholesome and don’t register that as sexual. When they see a gay couple doing the same thing their minds immediately jump to sex. To the Right being gay is only about the sex that same-sex couples are having. They don’t acknowledge the relationships around same-sex couples. They don’t see the same desire for love, companionship, stability, and family. All they see is a desire to engage in gay sex.

They feel this way because the foundation of their disgust toward gay people is based on the passuk in Vayikra about homosexual anal sex. To them being gay starts and ends there because that’s why they don’t approve of it. To them the entire identity revolves around that act. This also extends, therefore, to trans and queer people. Basically, anyone with a gender identity or sexual orientation that deviates from what they consider acceptable gets boiled down to being entirely about sex.

Given that position they take the next leap to calling anyone who advocates for LGBTQ people being around children groomers, as in grooming children for sexual abuse. The way they reach that conclusion is by twisting the definition of grooming.

Grooming is a process by which an abuser slowly pushes the boundaries of their relationship with a child, slowly acclimating them to these things that are not appropriate until the boundaries between what is and isn’t appropriate between that adult and that child are so blurred that the child either doesn’t realize that what’s happening is abuse, or feels so responsible for the connection between them and the adult that they will be less likely to report what’s happening.

Grooming often starts by an adult showing a child special attention, and showering them with praise, and gifts. It then often moves on to trying to separate the child from the influence of the adults around them, their parents, other teachers, siblings, relatives, etc, in an attempt to draw them into a world where their only friend, the only one who cares about them, is this adult. It then often progresses to pushing sexual boundaries, often by making inappropriate jokes, talking about sex, showing the child pornography, etc. From there it progresses to touching, which then escalates to sexual abuse. By the time the grooming process has taken its course the child is too confused about what’s happening to tell the other adults around them.

Abusers who are grooming children will also often threaten them in various ways. Sometimes they’ll tell the children that their parents will be mad at them and punish them if they find out what happened. Sometimes they’ll tell the child that if anyone finds out about what happened the adult will lose his job, family, or that the adult will be physically harmed. The child at this point feels a confused allegiance with the adult and may not want that to happen. Sometimes the adult will outright threaten the child that they’ll harm or kill the child if word of what happened gets out, or that they’ll make sure the child will be punished, and that being the adult they’ll be believed over the child anyway.

Victims of grooming and subsequently abuse are often in some way disadvantaged and otherwise vulnerable. Predators will often choose victims who suffer from some kind of mental health or developmental issue, come from a divorced home or a poor or otherwise troubled family, or, ironically, LGBTQ children because their credibility is often lower in more conservative settings, and because their identity can be leveraged against them to prevent them from reporting the abuse.

In this light we can understand the perverse distortion of grooming that the Right relies on when it calls those who support LGBTQ rights groomers.

Because the identities of LGBTQ people are to them entirely about sex, and because the inappropriate acclimation of young children to sex is a part of the grooming process, therefore having LGBTQ people around children is an inappropriate acclimation of those children to sex, which makes them and the people who support them groomers.

It a stretch longer than a taffy pull.

LGBTQ identities are not inherently sexual even though being gay, for example, means that you’re likely to have sex with people of the same sex in the same way that being straight isn’t inherently sexual even though it means that you’re likely to have sex with people of the opposite sex. The endgame of existing as an LGBTQ person is not to abuse children, it’s to live life in the same way everyone else lives life, in pursuit of love, companionship, truth to oneself, and stability. To blanketly claim otherwise is absurd, and yet the Right just hurls this accusation at people as if the words mean nothing, as if they aren’t invalidating the experiences of every child who has ever actually been sexually abused and lived through that trauma.

It’s just disgusting.

When I called him out on that by saying that the overwhelming majority of actual abusers and groomers ZA’AKAH has dealt with have not been any kind of LGBTQ, he responded by saying what the Right always says when they want to disclaim any responsibility for actually caring about child protection and justice for survivors, “I believe all abusers should be castrated in the public square.”

I get this all the time from people, including from people who are in the process of telling my why someone I know for a fact abused kids didn’t abuse them. “Listen,” they say, “I support the work you do. Believe me, if this guy did it I’ll be the first person to castrate him.” It’s a meaningless statement because that’s not actually what happens to abusers. What tends to happen to them, especially in our communities, is that they’re protected by rules forbidding reporting, by people shouting down anyone talking about their cases by accusing them of Lashon Hara, and by claiming that they’re making I up for a host of different reasons.

More broadly speaking when the Right says things like that I point at states like New York, and Pennsylvania, where the Republican state legislatures for over a decade prevented any kind of statute of limitations reform for child sexual abuse from passing to protect religious institutions. Thankfully that changed in New York, but in Pennsylvania the fight is still ongoing. I point to the defunding of the Violence Against Women Act during the Trump administration. VAWA didn’t just fund domestic violence programs, it also funded many state and local programs and nonprofits that directly supported survivors through the reporting and healing processes. Those are just two examples of many where the Right belies its own claims of caring about the safety of children.

During the defunding of VAWA and in states where they fought statute of limitations reform I didn’t see those policies and programs replaced by a regime of mass castration in the public square.

There are concrete ways to help protect children from sexual abuse and secure justice for survivors, but attacking LGBTQ people and taking away their rights isn’t one of them, and doing so not distracts from the very real issues and policies on the table about child protection, but also makes LGBTQ kids more vulnerable to sexual abuse by the real abusers that actually exist in our communities.


Yeshiva University Sued for Alleged Rape Coverup & Title IX Violation

In a suit filed today in federal court, the author of the Commentator article who alleged that she was raped by a YU student athlete is alleging that YU in its handling of her complaint attempted to cover up her rape, and violated Title IX while doing so.

Plaintiff alleged at the time and reiterates the allegation in her new filing that she went on a date with the alleged rapist (referred to in the lawsuit as Perry Doe) and made it very clear to him that she didn’t want any kind of physical or sexual contact. Perry Doe allegedly nonetheless tried to convince to come back home with her. When she refused, Plaintiff alleges that Perry asked her to help him carry up some things he’d bought as a pretext to get her into his apartment despite her prior refusal.

Plaintiff alleges that once she was in the apartment Perry violently raped her, choking her and forcing her legs open with his knee, both of which allegedly left significant bruising. The complaint alleges that following the rape Plaintiff went back to her apartment, and told her roommates what had happened. They cared for her and convinced her to go to the hospital and have a rape kit done, which she agreed to do.

According to the complaint, following the rape Plaintiff’s schoolwork suffered. She allegedly contacted Dr. Sara Asher, Assistant dean of student affairs, and disclosed the rape to her, asking for accommodation in its aftermath. Dr Asher allegedly told Plaintiff to contact her professors individually and inform them of what had happened to her and request accommodation from them directly.

The complaint alleges that later that month Plaintiff disclosed the name of the assailant to Dr Asher who advised Plaintiff to file a formal Title IX complaint with the school’s Title IX office, headed by Dean of students Dr. Chaim Nissel. According to the complaint, once receiving the complaint Nissel, who had allegedly provided Plaintiff with no resources, no advocate, no real understanding of what the process would look like, and had allegedly told Plaintiff that the results of the investigation they conducted couldn’t be released until Plaintiff signed a nondisclosure agreement, had no contact with Plaintiff during the investigation. According to the complaint that nondisclosure agreement is illegal and therefore void because according to the Clery Act requires that a university is required to give each participant in a Title IX proceeding unfettered access to investigative materials and reports. Plaintiff seeks a declaratory judgment rendering the NDA null and void.

The complaint alleges that rather than give Plaintiff access unfettered access to the investigative reports and materials, YU provided her with an encrypted file that was locked by YU a few days later before she had a chance to review any of the documents with her attorney.

According to the complaint, Nissel did talk to YU’s general counsel, Avi Lauer, and allegedly conspired with him to address, resolve, and whitewash the alleged rape, especially since YU had at the time had begun a massive fundraising campaign that could have been damaged by these allegations. The complaint alleges that a short time later Nissel contacted Plaintiff to let her know that they had contracted what he characterized as an independent investigator to conduct the investigation into her rape. According to the complaint Nissel contracted the lawfirm of Seyfarth Shaw which assigned lawyers Dov Kesselman and Emily Miller to the case.

What was allegedly not disclosed to Plaintiff, however, was the fact that the firm in general and those lawyers in particular had already represented YU for a long time, and in numerous sexual assault cases, too, including the lawsuit filed by the victims of child sexual abuse suing YU for alleged coverup of sexual abuse committed by George Finkelstein and others in the Yeshiva University high school. Plaintiff alleges that this constitutes a clear conflict of interest, especially since these attorneys say on a council called the General Counsel’s Council which comprises attorneys from outside law firms and corporate legal departments who believe in the mission of the university and would like to assist through the provisions of pro bono legal services. Such lawyers, the complaint alleges, would be incapable of conducting an independent, unbiased investigation given not only their direct connection to the school as its longtime lawyers, but also given their personal dedication to the school. According to the complaint this conflict of interests was never disclosed to Plaintiff despite it having potentially been grounds for appeal of YUs decision in this case.

The complaint further alleges that these coverups are part of a pattern of behavior by YU to fraudulently project an image of safety and security for students on its campus contrary to reality. According to the complaint YU has failed to fulfill its Clery Act mandated disclosures of rapes and sexual assaults for over 20 years. The complaint demonstrates that between 2001 and 2020, YU, despite being required to do so by the federal government as a condition of receiving federal funding, disclosed not a single rape or sexual assault during that period despite having received many complaints of the same during that period. The complaint seems to paint a picture of a school more interested in its image than the safety of its students.

According to the complaint, Nissel failed to treat the complaint by Plaintiff as a Title IX case, and without notifying Plaintiff of this, conducted the investigation as though this were a simple disciplinary matter, not a sexual assault, and not a Title IX case. Even within the guidelines set by YU, the complaint alleges that the investigation was inadequate. The complaint alleges that there was no live, in-person interview of Plaintiff and Perry to ascertain credibility, material witnesses who could have corroborated Plaintiff’s claims were not interviewed, and evidence collected by the rape kit was not only never seen by the investigation, it was never sought, despite Nissel and the investigators allegedly knowing clearly about their existence. The complaint alleges that while Nissel and the investigators knew that in order to procure the rape kit from the hospital they would have to get Plaintiff’s permission to release it, they never informed her of that fact and then used that as an excuse for why they hadn’t procured and examined the rape kit.

Included in this testimony and evidence, according to Plaintiff, would be testimony by friends who were told about the rape or saw and cared for her in its aftermath, and pictures of the bruising around her neck and thighs from where Defendant allegedly choked her and forced her legs apart with his knee.

The complaint also alleges that when the investigators interviewed Plaintiff they repeatedly made her tell her story about what had happened, subjecting her to traumatic questioning repeatedly, which not subjecting Perry to a similar level of scrutiny, and not requiring him to restate his version of events repeatedly.

The complaint makes sure to detail why YU should be responsible for this case despite it happening on campus. First, the complaint alleges, the apartment in which the rape took place falls within YU’s security coverage area. Second, given the fact that Perry is a foreign citizen and apartments in the area won’t rent to foreign citizens unless they are vouched for by the school, the school had a hand in securing the apartment. Similarly, since Perry was allegedly under the age of 21 at the time, YU would have had to vouch for him to get the apartment. Perry would also allegedly have needed YUs permission to live off campus. Perry also allegedly received funding from YU to pay the rent on that apartment. The complaint asserts that all of these factors contribute to this rape being the responsibility of YU to handle as a Title IX case and follow proper procedure.

Additionally, the complaint alleges that after YU concluded its investigation and closed the case without having found Perry responsible, and without informing Plaintiff why the case was closed, Nissel allegedly refused to accept an appeal of that decision from Plaintiff despite her having the right to do so and Nissel having the responsibility to allow an appeal to be decided by somebody outside of the Title IX office. Plaintiff allegedly repeatedly tried requesting an appeal and was repeatedly denied by Nissel.

Following all of this, Plaintiff alleges that she requested certain security measures from the school to ensure her safety in the aftermath of the alleged rape. Plaintiff alleges that as time went on, Perry’s presence on campus caused her much fear and anxiety. According to the complaint, Nissel had a responsibility under Title IX to consider appropriate security measures both during and after the investigation to ensure the safety of Plaintiff. Among the options available to Nissel under Title IX were barring Perry from campus, barring Perry from certain areas on campus, barring Perry from certain areas on campus at certain times, removing Perry from the YU basketball team, and providing Plaintiff with escorts to accompany her while on campus. Nissel allegedly refused to afford Plaintiff any of these security measures despite Plaintiff repeatedly expressing her fear and anxiety about being on the same campus as her assailant.

According to the complaint, when Plaintiff once again requested security measures later that year she was told by Asher that by then there was too much bad blood to implement any security measures. Plaintiff alleges that YU refused to provide any security measures in retaliation for her having reported her rape.

Later that year, YU allegedly finally notified Plaintiff that her case had not been handled as a Title IX case because the rape took place off campus. However, the complaint points out that aside from YU’s security coverage of the area in which the rape took place, and aside from YUs role in security Perry’s housing for him, the YU Student Bill of Rights ensures that sexual assaults committed by students against other students, whether on or off campus, would be subject to a proper investigative process which was allegedly not followed in this case. Furthermore, the complaint cites the YU Anti Bullying and Hazing Policy for Students as saying that the policy applies to conduct that occurs off campus as well, if it determines that the behavior of the accused perpetrator impairs, obstructs, substantially interferes with or adversely affects the mission, process, or functions of the university. The YU Policy on Protecting Athletes similarly states that it applies, whether on or off campus, to any sexual harassment or assault.

The complaint then details numerous instances of YU policy requiring that it have applied a proper investigative process to this alleged assault regardless of where it happened.


What was Rabbi Vinter Thinking? – Tzarich Iyun

In a recent article in the Haredi journal Tzarich Iyun, Rabbi Tzvi Vinter, in an article titled What They Call Love—Sexuality in Charedi Society, makes the argument that while the way Charedi society handles sexual abuse is bad and needs significant improvement, it’s good actually and miles ahead of what they goyim have. In the article he blames the hyperfocus on sexuality in secular society for the damage caused by sexual abuse, and then spends the latter half of his screed deflecting blame for society’s ills onto gay and trans people.

Writing an essay in response to this smorgasboard of stupidity would be a frustrating game of whack-a-mole with an inadequately sized mallet. Instead what this deserves is a good old fashioned fisking.

“Several sexual assault scandals within Charedi society, and specifically the Walder affair that left the community shellshocked, have led many to think we are now entering a “Charedi MeToo” era. On social media, at the very least, everyone seems to be bracing himself to see who will be outed next as a predator. The framing of the course correction on sexual assault as a “Charedi MeToo” may seem to be just trendy terminology; yet, words certainly matter, and they go a distance toward determining actual communal policy.”

The phrasing of his introductory paragraph foreshadows the attitude he’s about to present toward sexual abuse in the rest of his article. The idea that a mention of Chaim Walder and the idea that #MeToo has gone too far can exist in the same paragraph when to date there has yet to be systemic change of any kind to the Charedi approach to sexual abuse is tragic proof of the fact that those who bemoan #MeToo going too far generally bespeak the fact that it hasn’t gone far enough.  

“The MeToo movement is a feminist social movement interested in changing how men and women interact with one another in western society. It emerged from within a broader ideological framework centered on human rights, especially the right to equality. The MeToo movement seeks to write a new, more egalitarian contract governing the social treatment of men and women, and, more specifically, how men treat women.”

Listen, if the idea that people (women in particular since women comprise the majority of victims of sexual violence) are fed up with being sexually harassed and assaulted and are finally reclaiming some of the power robbed of them by their abusers and harassers is what passes for a feminist agenda in Rabbi Vinter’s mind I’m curious to know what he thinks about women having bank accounts or the right to vote.

More to the point, if his idea of a social contract is that half the population docilely accept being potential victims of sexual harassment and assault, I’d ask what he’s offering in kind for such a concession.

Even more to the point, Chaim Walder was by far not the first high-profile Charedi leader publicly accused of sexual abuse. The ongoing case against Malka Leifer, a woman principal of a girls school accused of sexually abusing multiple students, as well as numerous cases, including notably the cases against Yiddy and Yossi Kolko, Avraham Mondrowitz, and the many, many Child Victims Act cases filed against male and female abusers of boys and girls starkly underscore the fact that #MeToo in the Charedi community is not a “women’s issue” or “feminist agenda” but an effort to prevent male and female sexual abusers from abusing boys and girls in the community and getting away with it.

“Moreover, supporters of the movement claim that supplementing the formal, stringent procedures of criminal trials with the tools of popular protest is essential for promoting the just cause of women. Such procedures are simply too gradual and demanding, and what’s needed is broader social change right now. In addition, when it comes to harassment, it’s often hard to obtain testimony that is admissible in court. And who says criminal justice is the only species of justice out there? Social justice matters, too, and the process of improving norms includes changing behavioral patterns for which the criminal justice system is not the appropriate tool.”

Yes. And we claim this because the prevalence of sexual abuse is staggering, both in secular society and in the Orthodox community. But what’s worse about the problem in the Charedi world, without speculating about whether the prevalence rates there are higher, is the fact that while in secular society abuse and coverups happen with alarming frequency, in the aftermath of their exposure there are many resources available to survivors, and many well-funded organizations available to provide support, public education, and advocacy on behalf of the victims That’s not the case in the Charedi world, or in fact the Orthodox world.

In my ten years of advocacy on behalf of frum survivors of sexual abuse I’ve never come across a case of a Charedi victim reporting to police or suing their abuser and people/entities that enabled the abuse in civil court where the victim was provided any support by the community. The most the community will do if the survivor is lucky is not retaliate against them. So no, Rabbi Vinter, when the courtroom doors are only accessible through a gauntlet of rabbonim and askanim calling those who report moisrim, destroying the parnassah of their families, expelling their children from yeshivos, and ostracizing them from the community, it’s not enough to just theoretically have access to the courts. More needs to be done.

“The MeToo movement has met with many successes in recent years, as well as occasional backlashes. It has led to a lively public discussion of sexual assault and the proper relations between the sexes, and its reach has now extended even to the relatively cloistered Charedi community. Charedi “social activists” have taken it upon themselves to be the bearers of the “Charedi MeToo” message and change attitudes towards sexuality in Charedi society.”

Well yes, because the last coordinated Charedi response to the problem of sexual abuse was Agudah’s 2011 psak requiring that people ask permission of rabbonim before reporting sexual abuse. I’d say an attitude toward sexuality that requires permission before complying with state law and reporting suspected child sexual abuse is desperately in need of change. More recently the most prominent public response in the American Charedi print media to the Chaim Walder scandal were two articles in Mishpacha articles proposing batei din as the solution to the problem of sexual abuse. The need for a Charedi #MeToo movement couldn’t be more pressing.

“Unsurprisingly, calls for greater transparency and external involvement in addressing sexual assault are coupled with attempts to undermine traditional authorities. Our present leaders, the critics believe, have simply failed at their basic responsibility to protect the vulnerable and redress the grievances of victims.”

This is undeniably true.

“In addition, critics seek to change how accused parties are treated. If until now things were often just “cleared up” by Charedi leaders with an offender, now there’s a demand for legal authorities to become involved, for the offender’s actions to be strongly, publicly condemned, and for the community to sanction offenders more seriously.”

Yes. Rabbis are not qualified to investigate, adjudicate, or penalize sexual abuse. That’s what law enforcement and the civil and criminal courts are for.

“The way in which society treats sexual injustices derives from prior assumptions about sexuality’s place in human life. The secular public handles sexual assault as it does because of the enormous place that sexuality plays in human life. The increased interest in sexual harassment in western society is but only one aspect of sexuality’s centrality to western life, which is expressed in education, cinema, literature, and music. A person’s “sexual identity” is seen as one of the core characteristics of their personality. Indeed, the very concept of “sexual identity” expresses this new status of sexuality: sexuality becomes “identity,” something that defines a person’s essence.”

No it doesn’t. It derives from the fact that we now recognize the significant, often deadly toll that sexual abuse takes on its victims. Victims of sexual abuse are at increased risk of depression, eating disorders, addiction, anxiety disorders, self harm, problems with relationships and intimacy, and suicidal ideation. The harm is often compounded by the secondary trauma of having disclosed either to community members or leaders or law enforcement and either being disbelieved or receiving backlash for having disclosed.

Secular society now recognizes that which is why so many well-funded organizations exist to assist survivors of sexual violence in the aftermath of being abused. It’s why state after state in the United States is passing legislation to extend or eliminate criminal and civil statutes of limitations and open retroactive windows during which cases previously barred by insufficient civil statutes of limitations can be revived and brought in court.

Moreover, while Rabbi Vinter began his article discussing sexual assault of children, he now shifts to sexual harassment of adults. To head off his minimization of the issue of sexual harassment later in the article let me say that sexual harassment is not remotely just a secular issue. Orthodox women, even Charedi women face sexual harassment in the workplace, and Orthodox men, even Charedim, commit it.

The effects of sexual harassment on women in the workforce isn’t a function of one’s “sexual identity.” It’s harmful because it’s violative of a person’s body autonomy and sense of self. It’s harmful because sexuality is one of the most deeply personal parts of ourselves and sexual harassment is the act of someone else forcibly taking ownership of another person’s sexuality, fundamentally demonstrating to the victim that what they want doesn’t matter if it gratifies their harasser. That violation is why sexual harassment is a problem that secular society is beginning to take seriously, not because of new ideas on “sexual identity.”

“A dialogue of the deaf results. On the one hand, we find activists leading a charge for mending our mishandling of assault cases, often driven by an enormous sense of urgency. On the other hand is the broader Charedi community, which does not always understand what all the fuss is about. The latter is worthy of condemnation in the eyes of the former for its indifference and ostrich-like behavior, while the former group is often seen as a “pursuer” (rodef) in the eyes of the latter, with its zeal for condemning Charedi society as negligent at best and abusive at worst.”

First of all, many in the broader Charedi community do understand what all the fuss is about, they’re just so thoroughly disempowered by community leaders and rabbonim from doing anything about that they don’t bother trying. Secondly, of those who actually don’t understand what all the fuss is about, I would wager that the active fight against any kind of robust, best-practices based abuse prevention education curriculum in Charedi yeshivos, or even any direct and honest coverage of the issue in Charedi media outlets like Mishpacha, Ami, Hamodia, Yated, Binah, Zman, etc has something to do with it. Pointing to members of the Charedi community not understanding what the fuss is about as a reason to not challenge the Charedi approach to sexual abuse is like killing your parents and crying you’re an orphan.

Third, many rabbonim and gedolim have issued piskei halacha calling abuse pikuach nefesh and abusers rodfim and therefore allowing mesirah. Who is Rabbi Vinter to think he knows better?

“I do not claim here that Charedi handling of sexual assault is ideal. Far from it. Certainly, there is ample room for improving the handling of assault and our approach to sexuality in general.”

He could have stopped there, but there’s a ‘but’ coming.

Referring to the differences between secular and Charedi views on sexuality, Rabbi Vinter makes the case in the next few paragraphs that the primary difference between the two views is whether sexuality is viewed as something that is primarily serving an individual’s purpose and encouraged as a vehicle for personal fulfillment, or whether it is viewed as something driven by the evil inclination that is elevated by the limitations Charedi society places on it and the way it is instead focused externally on the building of a family and leading a spiritual and Halachic life.

“In western, secular society, a man whose life is filled and shaped by adapting to the norms of his family and whose success is constituted by forming a family as part of a community is engaging in self-denial for the sake of external social conventions. However, from the pre-modern perspective, which remains the situation even today for much of Charedi society, those conventions are part of what shapes a person’s “self.” Consideration of such matters is not a “sacrifice” for an external value and is obviously not a denial of our “self.” On the contrary, a person who leaves behind family and community norms in favor of an “inner authenticity” is considered a failure. The Charedi individual forms his sense of selfhood through affiliation with the community (among other things), an affiliation involving specific patterns of behavior and ways of life.”

He then lays out four main points on “liberal western society’s attitude to sexual assault:”

1) “The severity of the problem: There is a consensus that this is the most serious problem around, and that sexual assault, even when not amounting to rape, involves unbearable emotional harm with long-term consequences.”

Given how he’s framing this as a “western liberal” view vs a Charedi view, it’s baffling how this can be denied with a straight face. The effects of sexual assault of any kind, irrespective of whether or not it was penetrative, are well documented, both within and outside of the Charedi community. This misconception that penetration is somehow the dividing line between a legitimate trauma and an exaggerated overreaction worryingly pervades many modern halachic discussions regarding sexual assault.

On this point it’s important to understand that there is an important distinction between the actions of an abuser and the effect it has on the victim. Trauma responses are unpredictable. Some people are able to withstand years of horrific rape without later suffering debilitating psychological effects, and some people find themselves debilitated by PTSD in the aftermath of one assault, penetrative or not. That’s not a function of what precisely was done to the victim, there are many factors that comprise a person’s capacity for resilience following trauma. The “severity” of the act of abuse is rarely the determining factor in what the effect will be on the victim.  

2) “The definition of the problem: The scope of what counts as sexual assault is constantly being expanded. Today people even speak of “retroactive” harm, an experience of harm that arises when the situation is reconstructed at some later date.”

Yes, the scope of what “counts” as sexual assault is constantly being expanded. In previous generations only penetrative sexual assault was considered serious enough to warrant action. These days secular society at least recognizes that non penetrative incidents of sexual assault can be equally harmful. We also recognize non-contact incidents as sexual assault, for example, showing a child pornography, or exposing oneself to someone else without their consent.

In each of these examples, whether penetrative or non-contact, what causes the trauma is not the “severity” of the act but the fundamental violation of the personhood of the victim that causes the trauma.  

When referring to “retroactive harm” Rabbi Vinter is dismissing the lived experience of many survivors of abuse who despite living with the effects of what they experienced didn’t possess the language, either internally or externally, to name what happened to them. The reasons why survivors of abuse may not initially have the language to understand or explain what happened to them often stems from the fact that when the abuse happened they didn’t possess the language to describe what was happening. For example, children who don’t know what their or their abuser’s body parts are called or intended for may not be able to describe what happened to them, while still feeling and experiencing the effects of the violation entailed by the abuse.

Additionally, many survivors hear and see people around them dismissing experiences like theirs, blaming the victims, or minimizing the severity of it, and tell themselves that the pain they feel is the result of something wrong about themselves rather than the result of the sexual abuse they experienced.  

3) “Level of containment: Sexual assault is considered a crime that cannot be contained. Any means necessary must be deployed against offenders to prevent them from causing future harm, including harming their livelihood, name, and family. A sex offender receives the least forgiveness and empathy of any criminal, even murderers.”

Yes. The damage they cause is actually tremendous, not just to the victims but to the communities and families around them. In many cases the damage spans generations with the trauma of a parent who was abused as a child manifests in the raising of their own children. Furthermore, sexual abusers often have dozens of victims over the course of their lives and the devastation caused both directly and indirectly ripples throughout the community.

4) “Intensity of the struggle: In light of the above, the common approach is that an uncompromising war must be fought against sexual crimes, even at high costs. The morality against sex crimes is a morality of war that justifies such collateral casualties as family members, mistaken identification, and so on.”

This is a common weapon employed against those seeking justice for survivors of abuse, that in doing so we unfairly damage the families of abusers who shouldn’t be collectively punished for the actions of one person. In employing this argument against survivors and advocates working on their behalf Rabbi Vinter is attempting to shift blame from where it belongs to the people working to solve the problem.

Sexual abuse is a crime which affects not only the victim but their family, friends, loved ones, and community. The blame for that damage lies squarely at the feet of the abuser and nobody else. Similarly, the families of abusers suffer as a result of the actions of the abuser. The blame for that also lies squarely at the feet of the abuser. In committing an act of abuse they not only harm the victim and all the people in their sphere, they harm their own families. The idea that we should allow abusers to avoid justice by using their families as human shields is despicable.  

He then slips in a mention of “mistaken identities” as though this is a common problem. It’s not, and I would defy Rabbi Vinter to publicly identify 3 examples of this happening. “Mistaken identity” is a euphemism for false report. False reports are exceedingly rare. It’s even rarer for a false report to progress to the point of arrest or filing of a civil case. It’s even rarer for a false report to result in a conviction or judgment, and I would defy Rabbi Vinter to publicly identify 3 examples of false reports.

Charedi leaders often point to the trumped up idea of false reports when discussing sexual abuse because it allows them the latitude they need to deny the validity of any individual case. This is a problem I often refer to as Schrodinger’s Sexual Abuse: Sexual abuse is simultaneously a very serious problem that happens alarmingly often and that we therefore need to take serious measures to prevent and address, and also a problem that seemingly doesn’t exist because this case is a lie because the victim suffers from drug addiction, and this case is a lie because the girl was promiscuous, and this case is a lie because the abuser is prominent, and so on.

As long as the community can perpetuate the idea that false cases are common they can get away with labelling every case they’d prefer to ignore as false. To hear them tell it the incidence rate of false reports would be 95%.

“Halachic requirements alone require concealment of sexuality and its restriction to very limited times and places. For a person living a life of holiness and purity, following all rules and strictures of halacha, sexuality will necessarily occupy a limited part of his life. Sexuality is thus seen as something that should not be neglected, but not as critical to a person’s basic personality. As noted, this is not due to a neglect of the “good life” but rather a different understanding of personhood, in which sexuality occupies a much less important place in the formation of the self.

The attitude toward sexual assault in the Charedi space derives from the Charedi approach to sexuality outlined above.”

Oh really!? Then why does my organization regularly receive calls from Charedim who were sexually abused asking us for help finding inpatient and intensive outpatient treatment for trauma? And why do we get calls from Charedi women asking us for help after being raped by their husbands? And why is the demand for funding for trauma therapy so much higher than the funding available? Why do we have support groups full of Charedi men and women who were sexually abused and for years haven’t been able to heal from the trauma? If the outlook on sexuality in the Charedi community is so much more suited to helping survivors recover from the trauma of sexual abuse, why do we consistently find that the Charedi cases we handle are often more emergent that cases from more leftward sects or denominations?

“I do not deny that there are shameful coverups and improperly handled cases, and these need addressing.”

There’s another ‘but’ coming.

“But it is essential, even in considering how to address the severe issues that require attention, to understand the underlying attitude, which derives from the fact that sexuality lacks a formative role in shaping us. Even sexual crimes are not seen as something special. I believe this is why sexual crimes are not seen as being more heinous than other severe injustices, and why dealing with them is not considered a top social priority.”

Perhaps sexual crimes aren’t seen as “special” (read: not worthy of taking seriously) to Rabbi Vinter’s mind, but speaking as someone born, raised, and sexually abused in Boro Park, the fact that I and my family were Charedi didn’t lessen the damage my abuser caused me. The PTSD I experience wasn’t lessened by the fact that the people around me had a pre-modern approach to sexuality. I was a child and had no concept of sexuality, liberal Western or premodern, and I still managed to be hurt by the abuse I experienced.

Rabbi Vinter can believe whatever he wants, but his opinions are based not in fact but in ignorance. Sexual abuse isn’t harmful because of a Western liberal sexual ethic, it’s harmful because violating another person—especially a child—sexually is harmful. Rabbi Vinter also admits more than perhaps he realizes when he concedes that dealing with sexual crimes isn’t considered a top social priority. His ignorance, which is alarmingly common in the Charedi community, is an outgrowth not of the fact that sexuality and everything connected to it isn’t actually important to Charedim, but because Charedi leadership actively prevents any public discussion about sexual abuse from taking place in its press, and any best practices based education about sexual abuse and child safety from being taught in the community.

He is a perfect exemplar of the problem he thinks doesn’t exist, a pristine demonstration of the Dunning-Kreuger effect in action. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know because his community has kept the relevant information from him.

“The existing consensus in the west regarding the severity, the urgency, and the importance of handling sexual assault does not exist among Charedim.”

Too true, unfortunately.

“This is not because Charedim don’t care about women or are insensitive to the suffering of the weak, but because sexuality has traditionally been somewhere on the spectrum between a “human necessity” and a “low and base necessity.”’

He had it half right in the first clause of that sentence, but not for the reason he cites. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Charedim don’t care about women or the suffering of the weak, but I think it’s pretty obvious that in a community where it’s taboo to even name the problem of sexual abuse it’s going to be very difficult to get people to take the issue seriously.

“As such, sexual assault is not considered a special attack on human dignity but is instead akin to other forms of cruelty.”

But it is, and it should be considered a special attack on human dignity. There’s a reason, for example, that rape as a weapon of war is considered more of a crime than collateral damage. It’s because the weaponization of sexuality to violate victims actually causes more harm than physical injury. But what’s even more shocking is the fact that he in the same breath flippantly dismisses other forms of cruelty. If sexual abuse is considered akin to other forms of cruelty either Rabbi Vinter is admitting that he doesn’t care about those either, or that sexual abuse should be taken very seriously.

“The different conception of the severity of sexual assault leads to a relative diminishment of the sanctions applied to perpetrators. Charedim do not view sexual crimes as uniquely reprehensible, and so are not willing to pay uniquely high costs to redress them.”

The fact that he readily admits that out loud is more damning than he realizes, and the fact that he isn’t embarrassed to do that is alarming. The fact that an article with such a shocking admission was published reflects very poorly on this publication and on the community he claims to represent. He should be denounced by Charedi leadership if for no other reason than the fact that it makes them seem monstrous.

“In the struggle against sexual assault, broader considerations are made of the costs of punishing offenders (innocent accused parties are likely to be caught up), of preventing future harm (trusting relationships are harder to form if people are taught to see themselves foremost as potential victims), of sex education (which can undermine accepted modesty standards), and so on.”

Rabbi Vinter should call any of the nonprofit leaders who serve survivors of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community and ask them how many survivors they know who have died by suicide or who struggle every day to stay alive as a result of their trauma. Perhaps then he’d appreciate the fact that sexual abuse is pikuach nefesh. Hashem gave us the Torah and in it 613 mitzvos, and commanded us to violate 610 of them to preserve life. Rabbi Vinter is apparently frummer than Hashem himself.

“Moreover, sexual assault is not automatically considered justification for destroying a person’s public standing.”

Again, this is a shocking and monstrous admission that should embarrass anyone in Charedi leadership who reads this.

“For many liberal outsiders of Charedi society, all of this is anathema.”

Oh yes, those immoral liberals and their caring about victims of sexual abuse.

“But for those on the inside, especially those who are older and less familiar with modern values, it is almost obvious.”

It’s not. They suffer silently because they know that if they dare to speak up people like Rabbi Vinter will punish them for doing so.

“But what of the victims? If we are a good society, how can we be so uncaring toward the suffering of victims of sexual assault?”

The fact that he’s self aware enough to ask this question makes this pile of drek so much worse.

“While I do not take this question lightly, and it is more than possible that some internal-Charedi reform is in order, I want to raise—with requisite caution—the following thought. It is possible that the centrality of sexual identity in liberal society raises the likelihood that victims will see themselves as defined by the experience of sexual assault. This, in turn, will also impact the level of pain and suffering, especially for cases of assault and harassment far from the extreme side of the spectrum, and will make the process of rehabilitation that much harder.”

This too is an unfortunately common misconception, that the suffering caused by sexual abuse is caused not by the abuse itself but from third parties telling victims that they should feel traumatized. Not a single person who works in survivor advocacy wants survivors to feel more traumatized. To the contrary, we spend a lot of time and money helping survivors overcome trauma and thrive in the aftermath of sexual abuse. This attitude is a dangerous canard employed cynically in an attempt to delegitimize therapy and best-practices based responses to sexual abuse.

We regularly receive calls from people who were sexually abused as children, never left the community, never told anybody, built lives for themselves with spouses and children, and are years later feeling the effects of the trauma they experienced forcing its way to the surface. Sexual abuse is harmful because sexual abuse is harmful, not because someone told the victim that they should feel harmed.

“We are used to the statement whereby “we are more aware today of the deep and unrepairable damage of sexual assault,” and there is room to ask: Is this only because of heightened awareness and sensitivity that our ancestors did not possess, or does our newly-found knowledge also derive from the modern emphasis on sexuality as defining to selfhood?”

This entire article is an exercise in begging the question.

“If less value is placed on sexuality, then less of a person’s inner self is perceived as having been injured by sexual assault, and the process of rehabilitation becomes, perhaps, somewhat less arduous.”

Reality doesn’t bear out this wild assumption.

“The takeaway from this article is that collectively accusing an entire public of being deniers and insensitive is not beneficial and, more importantly, is incorrect.”

No, Rabbi Vinter, you spent this whole article telling the world that Charedim don’t care. Don’t put that on those of us trying to fix the problem and help survivors.

“Moreover, adopting the language and form of liberal society’s handling of sexual assault involves the internalizing of western sexual mores and human self-conception, something which is not necessarily desirable within Charedi society.”

What he means to say here is that in order to properly address the issue of sexual abuse we need to frankly discuss the problem using correct terminology, and we need to educate children, parents, and teachers in children’s body autonomy, respecting children’s boundaries, believing them when they say that they feel unsafe, learning how to recognize the red flags indicating sexual abuse, and how to properly report it to the authorities, and that’s more than he can personally tolerate.  Because of that he feels comfortable sacrificing however many children it takes to maintain this illusion of a community that doesn’t have a sexual abuse problem.  Perhaps he should be compelled to visit the shivas of parents whose children have died by suicide and after sitting with enough of them and really listening perhaps he’ll regain his capacity for empathy.

“Proper handling of the issue of sexual assault within the community should be done out of an awareness and understanding of the Charedi conception of sexuality.”

No, Rabbi Vinter, it should be done in whatever way best protects children and saves lives.

“If we decide that we want to change our conception of sexuality itself, and accept the liberal understanding thereof, then we need to say so explicitly. If we respect the traditional Charedi approach and do not wish to dramatically change it, we need to accept that handling assault will be neither as totalizing nor as dramatic as it is among the general public.”

Finally, on this point we agree. The choice is this: Either the community and its leadership accept the fact that its handling of sexual abuse thus far is inadequate, harmful, and costs the lives of Charedi children, or Charedi leadership can continue covering up and enabling abuse, ostracizing victims, and supporting abusers, and sit upon the piles of dead Charedi children proudly patting each other on the back for at least not being liberal.


A Response to JOFA’s Statement on Their Sexual Harassment Scandal

Earlier today JOFA released a statement by their board president, Pam Scheininger. Here’s my response.

This statement is nothing but a pack of lies.

Firstly, what does mutual mean in the context of the situation? How could there be a truly mutual decision when one side is firing the other for reporting sexual harassment and making severance contingent on the NDA? That’s not mutual, that’s an incredible imbalance of power. An employee, after experiencing serious sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting, is being fired and given a choice between getting fired with nothing and getting fired with severance is going to choose severance, and you know that. That doesn’t make it any more mutual than its a mutual decision between a mugger and their victim to hand over their wallet and phone.

Second, that investigation was garbage and JOFA knows it. Neither of the women were contacted as part of the investigation, and the reason JOFA thought they could get away with that was because of the NDAs each had been forced to sign. But since they mention the investigation, why not release the report so we can all see what the investigation actually consisted of, who the investigators were, and how they reached their decision?

Third, JOFA absolutely knew about the second (actually first chronologically) victim seeing as they had fired her with an NDA the day she reported her harassment to the board.

Fourth, the policy JOFA adopted in 2019 was laughable. It was boilerplate. There was absolutely no effort put into it at all despite being well aware of available resources for actually crafting an anti-harassment policy to address what had actually happened at JOFA. Throwing up a boilerplate harassment policy and placing all responsibility for solving the problem on victims reporting is less than meaningless considering JOFA’s history of firing sexual harassment victims for reporting.

Fifth, JOFA really shouldn’t be bragging about joining SRE seeing as they were kicked out for being malfeasant and refusing to comply with SRE’s new NDA policy.

Sixth, JOFA can’t with a straight face claim it naively didn’t know that NDAs were improper practice. When the second NDA was issued, New York State was actively in the process of banning their use precisely because they were instruments of coverup in sexual harassment case. JOFA can’t honestly claim to be a feminist organization while also claiming they don’t know how NDAs are used to silence victims of sexual harassment.

Seventh, JOFA touting it’s “good work” is like asking Mary Todd Lincoln how she enjoyed the play. It has always been my operating principle that the second an institution becomes more important than the people it serves it no longer deserves to exist. That’s what happened here. JOFA the institution became more important than the women it served. The second they covered up sexual harassment and forced employees into a nondisclosure agreement they lost your right to exist. Their other work means nothing in light of what they did here.

Finally, the members of the board at the time who were complicit in this coverup don’t get to just walk away from this. Every single one of them who were on the board at the time should resign in disgrace.


A Day in the Life of Anti-Abuse Advocacy

Author’s note: The context to this post can be found here.

I typically don’t share things people send me because I respect their confidentiality, but in this case I’m making an exception to give you all a brief look behind the curtain of the insanity that this work pretty regularly entails.

After posting the summary of the case against Daniel Dresdner, I started getting calls from people asking me to take the post down. I didn’t understand, they’d tell me, the alleged victims were [insert derogatory bullshit here], and while they respect the work I do, in *this* case I was wrong and should take it down. I was also told I was ruining the life of a good man by summarily declaring him guilty without investigating the claims myself.

I explained, as I do every time I get this wholly unoriginal type of call, that neither I nor ZA’AKAH is qualified to do investigations or make determinations of guilt or innocence, which is why we only post public information we believe to be in the public interest, and present it neutrally without giving our opinions on guilt or innocence.

Without fail, every single one of these self-deluded cheppenyaks that call me think they’re the only one to ever have such a conversation with me, despite the fact that in nearly every case I post I get at least a few calls from people telling me that I do important work but in this case I have my head up my ass. As if *their* alleged rapist is different than all the other alleged rapists.

Anyway, At some point Yehuda Dresdner, alleged rapist Daniel Dresdner’s brother, calls me and has this conversation with me. I explain to him the same thing I explain to everyone else, and tell him that the only way that post is coming down is if the court makes a definitive finding of falsehood in the case. First he tried telling me he had evidence to share that would show that the allegations were false. I told him that if he had such evidence he should have his brother’s lawyer present it in court. Then he threatened to have me sued if I didn’t take the post down, to which I responded by offering to give him my attorney’s contact information so he could more easily send the lawsuit.

Then he asked if he could email me, and I told him that while I couldn’t give him what he wanted he was welcome to email me.

This is what he sent:

Please read this letter in it’s entirety. And I would appreciate this letter be shown to the board you mentioned earlier today. This letter is not meant to pressure anyone. It is to have a dialogue and to educate. And hopefully enlighten.

My intentions in writing this letter is not to make light of, in any way shape or form, the pain, agony and shame survivors of sexual abuse must endure not only during their experience but for many years to come and possibly (most probably) even for the rest of their life. No, in fact, my intentions are quite the contrary. Up until recently I had never heard of your organization.

However, based on what I have been reading and watching on your Facebook page, twitter account etc. the goal of your organization seems to be pretty clear and straightforward. To stand up and give a voice to the many people who have been sexually molested and abused in the Jewish community. To help and assist the most vulnerable who have no one to turn to. In short, to support those who have been grossly wronged and to make sure innocent people do not get raped and thrown to the side (figuratively and literally).

Which brings me to my main point. It seems like to me that in your great desire to help those who desperately need help you in fact are also opening the door to those who seek to harm others. I was told very clearly that Zaakah’s policy is to post information on their Facebook page once a lawsuit has been filed WITHOUT EVEN ONCE reaching out to the one who is being accused. And a couple of reasons were provided as a means to explain these actions. But ultimately you are providing a platform for anyone who’d like to go damage other individuals.

It is incomprehensible that you would post such damaging information about an individual without delving into all the information that can be provided from all parties involved. In other words, you do not seem to care about what is true and what is false. And that really is the bottom line in any case. You have unnecessarily caused immense pain and embarrassment to my brother, his wife, my parents etc. And here is the part I simply do not understand. If you truly are interested in helping victims WHY WOULD YOU FACILITATE BASELESS ATTACKS ON INNOCENT PEOPLE ?!

And although you have told me on both of our phone calls that you are simply posting public information it is quite clear in the way the woman reads the allegations on your TikTok page and in the way the matter is presented on all of your social media platforms that you believe these allegations must have teeth to it otherwise it would not have gotten to the legal standpoint it has currently reached. Which is ridiculous because to be honest, anyone can sue anyone or press charges in this country. It really is not a difficult action to get done. A conviction by the courts etc is a whole different level but you do not wait for such actions to occur.

The fact of the matter is that you and I both were not witness to any of the alleged actions mentioned in the lawsuit. Is it possible that they have fabricated many lies in order to smear the reputation and to cause pain to someone who they simply do not like for various other reasons? You must agree that it is a possibility. And I believe it’s the reality. We have been dealing with [redacted], long before the lawsuit and long before Zaakah stuck it’s nose into the matter. And if you take just a little time and do some research on this story you will realize that you are being used…Why would an organization who claims to want to help people go and hurt someone?! And without even giving them a chance to explain and say over their part of the story?!

The only possible conclusion that I can come up with is that you are so embroiled in your own personal pain from your own life experiences causing you to lash out and take a stance at anyone in any situation where someone rises up and screams that they were sexually attacked etc. without actually understanding the many other possible scenarios driving the accusations. I very much understand why you do what you do. However what I do not understand is how you stoop to such a level of hurting innocent people along the way.

If you really don’t know what happened and you post things in a way that indicates that it is more fact than fiction how do you live with yourself? Really, how do you justify hurting some people in some instances in order to help those in other instances. You have a crooked policy of jumping right into something without bothering to learn the facts and if you hit the mark some of the time so then it’s all worth it to you. Is that really how you operate?? It’s terrible. I implore you to take down the Facebook post and any social media post and video about my brother. But not only should you take all of this down but you should issue a public apology for doing what you did.

Will it help fix the undeserved damage you caused? Probably not. But it will bring some comfort in knowing that you actually stand by your principles that all people should be protected. Should you continue to support these two women privately? I don’t know, if you actually believe them go for it. It will be wasted time that you could use for more productive actions but that would be your choice.

This entire matter will eventually be dropped and legal action will be taken against them [redacted]. But at least acknowledge that we are talking about one (or two) adult married women who [redacted]. Innocent until proven guilty are not just cute words. It actually has some truth to it and in this case you have actually taken the side of the aggressor not the victim!

People should be protected and represented when sexually abused. But we should not just run with it on a public platform if it is just one person’s word against another. It not only makes no sense to do that, it is downright wrong. Looking forward to hearing back from you…

Yehuda Dresdner


So in short, nothing of substance.

He followed it up with this:

The least you can do is acknowledge that you received the email. I don’t have high hopes that you will do anything differently because for whatever reason you march to your own beat and absolutely do not care at all about separating truth from fiction. If you did you would have realized that two adults in a dispute happening in real time might have something else going on as opposed to an adult accusing someone about something done many years ago when they were a child etc (not that I agree with what you do in those cases either). When you are dealing with a case in real time like this it really is easy to investigate just a bit.

The only one who does not do so are those who do not care about the truth. In essence you have now become exactly like all the major organizations you rally against. Because in this case you took the side of [redacted] and they go up against my brother who in this case is on his own.

Don’t worry this will be my last email regardless if you respond. To be clear I just view you as a messenger. No one can do any damage unless Gd will it. And whatever has been done with your posts etc has already been done. You’re not the real issue anymore but I just figured I’d just send one last email letting you know that the good work you do does not justify at all the terrible thing you have done.


It wasn’t, in fact, the last email he sent.

Some context to the next one. His alleged rapist brother had a court hearing on 4/7 and I took time out of my very busy day to go be in the gallery. Someone I believe was Yehuda Dresdner showed up, but left when he saw me there. This was the email I received a few hours later:

You are a horribly terrible person


Next morning I get a call from Yehuda asking me why I wasn’t acknowledging receipt of his emails. I told him that nothing constructive had been sent so I had chosen to ignore it. I may have also cursed at him a bunch for interrupting my morning with his nonsense.

Not taking the hint, he called me back. I asked him to pause so I could turn on my call recorder for the purpose of having what to send to the plaintiff’s attorneys. Politely he obliged. He then launched back into his bullshit, so I cursed at him again and hung up.

He then called back again and left the voicemail linked below, and followed it up with this email:


Hah you get worked up when a random person writes in an email that you are a horrible person. For someone in your position I’m surprised that you have such a low self esteem that one little comment gets you so roiled up. And you are the person who bashes lots of other people without any proof and send people to harras others?! If you need I know of many therapists that can help you get through the trauma that is causing you to act the way you do.

Not that I care to help you but I figure if you get some help you will stop trying to destroy others people’s lives for no reason other than to strike your small little ego. It’s great that you recorded our phone call, maybe you can send it to me so that I can play it for a lawer and charge you with harassment and threatening comments etc.


Gotta say that last email had strong DEBATE ME YOU COWARD energy. Here’s the funniest bit, two hours after he sent me the first email his alleged rapist brother was arrested on 55 counts of criminal sexual abuse in the third degree. He had no idea that was coming when he sent that email. I did, though, which made that first email all the ridiculous.

Anyway, here’s the voicemail he left me.


SRE Network Takes Small Step Toward Fixing Malfeasant Member Problem

Following yesterday’s post about SRE Network and their malfeasant member organization, they released an updated statement and policy recommendation on NDAs (linked below). While this is a good start, the work isn’t done, and I don’t believe SRE has done enough yet.

To SRE leadership:

A few primary points I think still need to be addressed, especially in light of this member that has been actively malfeasant, lied to SRE leadership about the extent of the harassment they enabled, and continued to promote the perpetrator on several occasions.

1) There needs to be an acknowledged difference between an institution that has in the distant past been malfeasant and has joined in good faith to gain access to experts and resources that can help bring them in line with best practices, and organizations like this member organization that have very recently been malfeasant, and whose malfeasance is ongoing.

2) Your policy recommendations on past nondisclosure agreements are not good enough. The commitment should be public, so they can be held publicly accountable should they attempt to later enforce the nondisclosure agreement.

3) Your policy is vague on what constitute appropriate channels. Appropriate channels for disclosing sexual harassment or abuse are whatever channels the victim deems appropriate. The public voiding of the NDAs should be unequivocal and unconditional. It’s not for the malfeasant organization to determine what is and isn’t an appropriate channel for the disclosure of sexual harassment or abuse.

4) Your member page is very vague on what membership in SRE entails with respect to what SRE membership does and doesn’t mean for member organizations, particularly the fact that clearly SRE membership in no way guarantees even any sort of commitment to compliance with policy recommendations, and with respect to what SRE expects of its members. Whether you intend it to or not, this results in the impression that SRE membership is an acknowledgement of of a member organization’s safety, which as you said in this statement is not the case. This should be very clearly and explicitly corrected on your membership page.

5) There needs to be a procedure for removing members from the network. You can claim until you’re blue in the face that the goal is to encourage members, however malfeasant, into compliance, but at some point allowing the membership of a malfeasant organization that resists any sort of meaningful compliance is not only harmful to the image of SRE, and not only reflects poorly on other member organizations and SRE advisors, but actively hurts the people harmed by the member organization’s malfeasance. There has to be a limit after which a member is expelled. There needs to be a process and procedure for removing malfeasant members. It’s unreasonable and embarrassing to run a network committed to safety respect and equity where any member can flout the recommendations and continue to retain membership.

I look forward to seeing these issues corrected in the very near future.


Safety, Respect, Equity Network Compromised by Malfeasant Member

For those of you unfamiliar, the SRE Network (Safety, Respect, Equity) was founded in 2018 in response to the #MeToo movement which swept through the Jewish private and nonprofit sectors as well, exposing many well-known abusers and finally allowing the stories of their victims to be told. The goal of the SRE Network was to documenting their testimonies, develop robust organizational policies for Jewish institutions, support respectful workplace training, improve hiring and advancement practices, and further gender equity in the rabbinate.

Since then they’ve done incredible work, pouring funding into efforts that have led to measurable improvements in currently accepted best practices across those sectors, and creating a space for dialogue and development of best-practices based policy recommendations for member institutions.

With a couple of notable exceptions.

One in particular.

In 2019 I was made aware of sexual harassment committed by a now-former board member of a prominent SRE member organization. Following complaints by staff of this organization to the board, the employees who complained were retaliated against and were made to sign NDAs as a condition of their severance. At the time I approached the new executive director of that member organization and attempted to convince her to resolve the outstanding claims to the satisfaction of the victims. On the advice of experts in the field, a number of recommendations were made to this executive director on how to resolve the outstanding issue. While this executive director had originally shown good faith on the issue, she very quickly started pushing the company line, so to speak, secure in the knowledge that the victims of the harassment were muzzled by the NDAs they’d been made to sign.

This organization then joined SRE.

Mind you, by the time they joined, what had happened with their former board member was a somewhat open secret within the Jewish nonprofit world, including within other SRE members. This resulted in a conflict within SRE which led to this organization staying and an SRE advisor leaving in protest.

Since then, anytime anyone has mentioned SRE to me I’ve told them this story to explain why I’ve never sought to join SRE, accept any of their funding, or seek any of their promotion. Also since then, as this story has become more well known, I’ve been finding it increasingly frustrating to see how many organizations whose leadership knows exactly what that organization did to its former employees nonetheless continue to enthusiastically work with them.

A few months ago, an SRE advisor I’m friends with connected me with SRE leadership and we began discussing a way forward for SRE in light of their malfeasant member’s unrepentant refusal to resolve what they did to their former employees. For the most part I’ve been polite if forceful with SRE leadership on this issue.

However, while I understand that expecting institutions like SRE to move quickly to resolve anything may be like watching Titanic and expecting the ship to turn away from the iceberg if the audience yells loudly enough through the screen at the captain, I don’t need their money, and I don’t need to have patience. The fact that they knowingly have a malfeasant member that has shown no interest in making restitution to their former employees makes me wholly unsympathetic to the realities of the glacial pace of institutional movement.

People were hurt, and those people continue to be hurt by the presence of the institution that hurt them and did nothing to make amends for it remaining the member of a network purportedly constituted to promote Safety, Respect, and Equity.

I would therefore encourage those friends of mine who are either members of the SRE leadership team, leadership of SRE member organizations, or grant recipients from SRE, to insist that SRE adopt a mandatory policy requiring that SRE members immediately cease any use of nondisclosure agreements for anything other than proprietary trade secrets, retroactively void any NDAs already issued to current and former employees, and publicly commit to not enforcing any previously issued NDAs. Failure to do so should result in expulsion from the SRE network.

Given how many stories we’ve seen of lives destroyed, victims silenced, and abusers protected by the use of NDAs, there is no excuse for their continued use. There never was, but now there are no longer any excuses to pretend they don’t know better. It would be wildly hypocritical to stand on the shoulders of those who led the #MeToo movement while clinging to the instruments that necessitated the movement in the first place.

Any SRE member that refuses to comply with this policy should rightly have a lot of explaining to do as to why they’re reluctant to adopt this policy.


When Weeping Is Not Enough: A Walder Survivor Speaks Out

The following letter was sent by a survivor of Chaim Walder to Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman, rabbi of Congregation Ahavas Israel of Passaic. It was sent in full to the shul’s mailing list. I’m sharing it here so it can reach a wider audience. The survivor, whose name has been changed for this letter, is using the pseudonym Rena Solomon. The only edits that have been made by me are in formatting. Below is her letter as translated from Hebrew by Rabbi Eisenman

When Weeping Is Not Enough

by Rena Salomon

Dear Rabbi Eisenman,

My name is Rena Salomon, and I am a victim of cw.

I say this is in the present tense because even though he is dead (may the name of the wicked rot), he still terrorizes and victimizes me. I have never been to Passaic, New Jersey, and I am sure we don’t travel in the same circles.

Why am I writing to you?

I could pander to you and tell you that I am writing because “you get it.” However, that would be a lie. You may want to get it and try to get it, but you can’t, and you will never “get it.” My great grand-parents both did a stint in Hell on Earth. The world knows it as Auschwitz. They passed away when I was a child. My grandmother told me that her parents never spoke about being incarcerated in Hell.

The first time she asked her mother about the strange numbers on her forearm, her mother cried, pulled down her sleeve to the wrist, and through her tears said only, “mein baliebte tochter, vet keinmal nisht farshteyn” (my beloved daughter, you will never understand). Much later, my grandmother understood why her mother never spoke about it. Survivors such as my great-grandmother were embarrassed to speak about Auschwitz for the first few years. They always felt as if the listener blamed them for being in Auschwitz or never fully believed what they endured and how painful and life-changing it was.

Later in life, when the street narrative changed and holocaust survivors became heroic people who you should seek out for Brochus, my great-grandmother still chose to remain silent. When asked by her daughter, who by then was herself a grandmother, “Why, Mama, do you still remain silent?” My great-grandmother answered with a wave of her hand, “ich darf nisht kein rachmonus” (I don’t need anyone’s pity).

So too, Rabbi Eisenman, there are still many people who blame me for being molested. They ask me (or I can tell that they at least want to ask me) the same question as they questioned (or wanted to question) my great-grandmother, “Why didn’t you fight back?” Certainly, those people don’t get it as they persist in their belief that most victims are either lying, exaggerating or loshon hora mongers who have thinly-veiled agendas to destroy Orthodox Jewry. Thankfully, as time has gone on and more people have come forward, and the realization is beginning to take hold that sexual abuse occurs, the reaction of some people towards the victims has changed. Just as people began to change in their reaction to Holocaust survivors, people are also changing in their response to abuse survivors.

The reaction varies from disbelief at worst to pity and compassion at best. As much as compassion is better than feeling repulsed, rejected, tainted, and not believed, I say to you Rabbi Eisenman as my alter-bubbe told my grandmother, “ich darf nisht kein rachmonus.” I, and survivors like me, are not interested in being looked at as pitiful, stained misfits who now deserve your “deepest sympathies.” Rather, we need people to believe us and in us. And we need people to treat us as true survivors who have withstood the horrors of abuse and molestation and are still functioning human beings.

You want to commiserate and validate my pain. However, you have never done a stint in Hell on Earth on the folding cot in cw’s warehouse while being raped between stacks and stacks of books whose themes were helping, protecting, and empowering children. You have never lived a day in Hell where the daily schedule consisted of being violated and humiliated by the man (whose horrid breath I smell every day of my life) who was regarded by hundreds of thousands of admirers- as the ultimate protector of children. I appreciate your compassion, but never think Rabbi Eisenman (or any other rabbi) that you “really get it.” Unless you too were incarcerated, battered, humiliated, and wounded for life by the recipient of the 2003 Magen LeYeled (Defender of the Child) award from the Israel National Council for the Child- you don’t get it.

Would you ever tell someone who was in Auschwitz, “Yes, yes, I understand your pain? I, too, went through hard times.” That statement would be laughable cruel, and insensitive. Just as you can never understand imprisonment at Auschwitz, you can never understand being a caged twelve-year-old girl enslaved and subjugated by an evil, pernicious pedophile.

This pedophile is the embodiment of brutality and heartlessness. For me and hundreds of others, he was the most demonic creature to walk the face of this Earth. Therefore, you can never fully understand as sympathetic as you are, although I appreciate your sincere desire to understand.

There is something; I, too, will never understand. I will never understand how any sane individual, much less a rabbi, could allow cw’s books to remain part of a home or school library. If your grandmother was medically experimented on by Josef Mengele Yimach Shemo, would you ever think to allow his medical books in a Jewish home?

I and dozens if not hundreds were sexually experimented on by cw Yimcah Shemo.

The debate surrounding the retention of his books speaks volumes of the insensitivity of our Tzibbur to sexual molestation. Yet, my optimistic, hopeful self tells me to write with the hope that words that emanate from the heart will enter the heart of my readers. After encouragement from my own Rav and therapist, I have decided to put into words my story.

Why now?

There has been much discussion and analysis in the Jewish world regarding the cw debacle. I have read and heard it all. Everything I have read and heard has been from people commenting on the events from the outside. I have been obsessed with the demise of this putrid, fetid monster ever since he did the greatest favor to the Jewish people (if only he had done so decades ago) by bringing to an end to his thirty-year reign of terror. Which I must add, was known about by much more people than you can ever imagine. How embarrassing it is and how ironic it is for our Tzibbur that a left-wing anti-religious newspaper was the savior, hero, and true defender of Chareidi Jewry, as it was their exposé that finally stopped the monster.

I’ll leave the message Hashem wants us to take from this to the rabbis.

Since, as mentioned, everything printed or posted has been from outsiders, namely, people who were never abused and certainly not by cw, I have decided to take my rightful place on the platform. Why should only those with outside knowledge comment, analyze, critique, and in some cases even justify cw?Should I not have a place at the table? After all, I spent more nights than I care to admit in the company of the embodiment of Satan himself. Who else has the right to be heard if not me?

Before I write about my feelings about how we should react, I want to tell you about myself to understand where I am coming from. I am the youngest of a large Hareidi family in Bnei Brak. When I was twelve years old, I began to act out in school. My parents took me to the Center for the Child and Family in Bnei Brak to be evaluated. A week after the evaluation, a phone call informed us that I had an appointment with a therapist for that Wednesday.

When I arrived, I was told to wait in an office for the therapist. To my amazement and the joy of my family, cw himself entered the room, introduced himself, and said he was going to be my therapist. I silently thanked Hashem for my good fortune of having the privilege of cw himself being my therapist. At first, he encouraged me to talk about myself and my family. Sometimes the questions he asked about the relationships between family members were strange to me. However, I was sure that cw knew what he was doing; after all, he was cw.

Soon his questions focused on me and my personal life. He asked me questions that I could not believe a man – much less a rabbi, much less a person such as cw who our family and almost every family we knew listened to him on the radio every week- would ask. He asked me if I had reached menarche. I was shocked and embarrassed by this question. I was going to tell my mother. However, I was too ashamed to say anything; after all, my mother was thrilled that cw had picked me to “treat.”

Soon he began to touch me. My body froze in horror when his maniacal hands touched my body. I was a twelve-year-old Hareidi girl brought up with “Kol kevuda bas Melech penima”- “The royal daughter is all glorious within the palace.” Meaning I should be quiet and obedient to my elders and not assert myself. I was taught to be submissive, especially to rabbis and cw was a great rabbi. “Hisbatlus”- to subordinate yourself to rabbinic will was the creed and doctrine of my upbringing.

The touching continued, and cw became progressively more aggressive. I told my best friend that I see cw every week. As can be predicted, soon, every girl in the class knew that I met one on one with cw every week. Girls would ask, “Does he give you free books? He must be so kind and understanding.”

Do you know what it is at twelve years old to have every girl in your class know that you know cw and be reminded of this daily? Can you imagine what it feels like to be raped at ten in the morning and then return to school, and all the girls crowd around to ask, “How did it go?” Do you know what pain and anguish it is to return to class after being assaulted by this monster only to discover that the Morah is reading aloud from Yeladim Mesaprim (Kid’s Speak) as a reward for good behavior?

Why didn’t I tell my mother? You must be joking.

My mother proudly asks, “How was it seeing cw today?”

Do I tell my mother, “That’s exactly the problem, I am seeing too much of cw”!

Can I tell my mother he did things that I have no facility to understand and process?

Do I tell my mother I need to see a therapist to speak to as the therapist’s therapist two hours ago assaulted me and left me to cry myself to sleep alone as I wonder if what happened in that warehouse made me pregnant?

Can you understand the loneliness, isolation, sense of abandonment, alienation, and desolation that a twelve-year-old girl from Bnei Brak feels as she cries herself to sleep nightly and quite often still does?
As a girl from Bnei Brak, I knew that we call out to Hashem in times of pain, and He will take away the pain.

Whenever his horrific hands touched my body, I cried and cried to Hashem to take away the pain. Yet, as I once heard my great-grandmother utter in a rare moment of complete candor, “Hashem forgot about us in Auschwitz.” So too, Hashem forgot about me in that warehouse in Bnei Brak, where a cot is sandwiched between the stacks of “inspirational books empowering children.”

I quickly dispelled that heretical thought from my mind and settled on a more acceptable explanation: “I am bad, and I am stained, and people like me are not worthy of Hashem’s kindness.” I appreciate your concern and validation; however, recognize the reality that your validation and empathy are limited to your life’s experience, and you were never a twelve-year girl being raped weekly by cw.

I knew it was wrong.

I knew a girl my age was not allowed to be alone with another man in a warehouse. But, a great rabbi was doing this, a person who I was taught to obey as he can do no wrong. It was drilled into me since I could walk that “we obediently listen to the rabbis’ without questioning. I knew from school, from home, from the streets of Bnei Brak, that we obediently listen to the rabbis’ without questioning. The great rabbis, and only they, possess this secret, mysterious, nebulous, amorphous power called Daas Torah.

I was raised with the dogmatic belief that women cannot decide important life-changing issues. Important issues are decided by those who have Daas Torah. If not considered the actual depository of Daas Torah, cw certainly had the backing and stamp of approval of Daas Torah. At the beginning of his books, there are glowing approbations and letters of validation from those who possess Daas Torah. Therefore, when cw told me we were taking a little trip to his warehouse, I obeyed; after all, obedience to those who represent DaasTorah is paramount.

Nobody ever told me that “all the glitters is not gold?”

Not once in all my years of education did a Morah, Menhales, Mechaneches, or anyone else in school inform me that Rabbis can be bad and do very bad things to little girls. We received no warnings of what to do if a man touches you. No one ever said, “If a man ever touches you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, no matter who he is, even a great rabbi, run away as fast as you can.” Not once did any educator tells us that all people can be bad.

We were taught rabbis are good, and greater rabbis are perfect. What was drilled into us was obedience without question to rabbinic authority.

So I lived in two worlds. At school, I was a Bais Yaakov Maidel, saying Tehillim and acting like any other girl. Yet, when cw had me, I became a sex slave, a Zonah, a harlot, a tramp, and a concubine to Satan himself.

Take a breath, Rabbi Eisenman. I know it’s painful to hear. But, I need to vent and pour out my pain. I would imagine that it’s not often that a woman who has a family of her own, a woman who no man besides her husband has ever seen one lock of her hair, talks like this. However, the same little girl who learned to compartmentalize life at age twelve and live simultaneously in two worlds is now a grown woman who still lives a double life. When I see my husband put on his Shtreimel Friday afternoons and he walks with our boys to Shul, I am filled with gratitude to Hashem for a wonderful, understanding husband and beautiful children. Yet, when I go light Shabbos candles and must face Hashem alone, my thoughts wander back to that warehouse of books in Bnei Brak.

I tremble as I light the match, and I begin to shudder and convulse. Every week for years and years, the same scenario repeats itself. I am ashamed and feel stained and sullied and most of all unworthy to light the Shabbos candles, which bring light when so much of my life was a black hole of darkness. You have no idea of what I (and many other survivors) experience when we are expected to enter the purifying water of the mikveh.

The destruction this satanic figure wrought in his thirty-year reign of terror will never be quantified or properly understood.

I know Rabbi Eisenman; you don’t have to defend or answer for anyone. I write these words not expecting you to answer, but rather as a crucial and essential cathartic exercise which I pray will help me one day achieve a true catharsis and relief for my troubled soul. I ask Mechilla in advance for any words that may seem disrespectful or disparaging. However, my goal is not to foster Machlokes; my goal is for all of us to come to a greater mutual understanding of the pervasive yet, currently silenced and swept-under-the-rug-problem of sexual molestation in our camp.

My goal is to be honest, raw, and real.

If I cannot reveal my true feelings, am I not still in the confining clutches of cw? Who inhibited and squelched me from speaking for so long. Can you deny a survivor her right to have her say after years of communal confinement? Is “our Tzibbur” so fragile that honest, heartfelt questions cannot be put forth?

I pray that is not the case.

Rabbi Lopiansky writes, concerning sexual abuse, ” if you prefer truth over enjoying life, you will discover a Gehinnom that exists here in our world.” I know the truth, and I saw a Gehinom that exists in this world. I “discovered” it lying on a cot between the aisles of a dust-filled warehouse as a man I had once idolized forced me to live in Hell. I discovered Gehinom in a hotel room in Ramat Gan as I was painfully violated and sentenced to live a Hellish existence until the day I die.

Rabbi Lopiansky, you are correct in referring to it as Gehinom. I prefer the English word Hell as it conveys the filth and nightmarishness of the experience. When we use Hebrew words, too often we sanitize and euphemize what should be explicit and clear. As a Bais Yaakov graduate and a victim of cw, I feel qualified to comment on how the “outside” world interpreted and explained (away) the infamous and vile debacle of cw.

For the first time in my life, you allow my voice to be heard. You are allowing me, in my own words, to tell my story.

I am tired of hearing my story told by others, especially those who never experienced Hell on Earth. I am tired of being told how I should feel, and I am tired of keeping my innermost pain buried deep in my Neshama.

I have a right to speak.

I have a right to have my voice heard.

I recently read an article by Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky titled, “For This, We Weep.” (It was originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 893; January 4, 2022) Rabbi Lopiansky, who I have heard is a very gentle and understanding person, presented a hypothesis to explain the almost pandemic problem of sexual abuse within the Chareidi world. Rabbi Lopiansky never mentions cw or any other known abuser by name, although he alludes to them. Rabbi Lopiansky is a man of integrity, and I am sure (as he says) he would encourage me to write the following piece.

He states the critical importance of hearing from survivors. Here are his own l words:

[“]A few years ago, I was involved in the publication of an issue of Dialogue on the topic of molestation and abuse. Included were lengthy interviews with professionals in the field and other related articles.
One article was written by a survivor. It is a person known to me whose every word is to be believed, someone who leads an extremely honorable and chashuve life. After the person opened up to me, I was shocked. He seemed to live such a fine and happy life. And only then did I discover what kind of Gehinnom he lived in. Decades after the events, he still lives with the trauma and has occasional suicidal thoughts.

To quote an adam gadol who read the article, “It has changed my understanding of what abuse and trauma are all about. I’ve turned from an agnostic to a fervent believer.”[‘]

If I can change people’s understanding of what abuse and trauma are all about. And convince one more agnostic to (become) a fervent believer- I will be satisfied.

Rabbi Lopiansky deals with why abuse is so prevalent in our community- or as he calls us, “our Tzibbur”?Rabbi Lopiansky contends, “there is another reason why our tzibbur keeps falling into this situation time and again, and that is the “halo” effect. We have the misguided notion that “if it glitters it is gold,” all the way through. We feel that if a person is doing good in one area, he is perfect in every area. In order to move forward, we need to first rid ourselves of a fatal flaw.

The most fallacious statement in our misguided thinking is, “someone who does good, cannot possibly be bad in any way.”

This is flat-out wrong”

I, of course, know first hand that the above point is true. However, with complete deference to Rabbi Lopiansky, I must ask, where does he think we came up with (as he calls it) the “misguided notion that … if a person is doing good in one area, he is perfect in every area.”?

Rabbi Lopianky, forgive me, but I must ask, “Who implanted in “our Tzibbur” this “fatal flaw” in our “misguided thinking?” Why does “our Tzibbur” (as opposed to a secular or non-Jewish community) have this “fatal flaw” in our “misguided thinking?”

Did it fall from heaven?

Why do we think “someone who does good, cannot possibly be bad in any way.”? Do non-religious Jews better understand human nature than “our Tzibbur”? I believe that you and I both know the answer. However, it is too uncomfortable and politically incorrect to verbalize. However, as a survivor, I have no hesitations or reason to be politically correct. I did my time in the trenches of cw and was exposed to things a twelve-year-old should have never seen or experienced.

Perhaps you were anticipating and waiting for me to come forward. I believe b’emunah Sheleima; it is my calling to say what is in my heart. We possess this “misguided thinking” because our teachers instructed us in this manner. Where else could it come from?

I was taught in Bais Yaakov that rabbis are good people, basically flawless individuals. Excuse me for being audacious, however, when you wrote, “The most fallacious statement in our misguided thinking is, “someone who does good, cannot possibly be bad in any way.” Are there exceptions to this rule, namely people who we must accept as a truth that they “cannot possibly be bad in any way?”

You stress that we have the misguided belief that “if it glitters it is gold”. And you continue to point out, “In order to move forward, we need to first rid ourselves of a fatal flaw.” We are a Tzibbur which prides itself on “Moshe Emes V” Soraso Emes”. If so, where and how did our Tzibbur come to embrace such a fatally flawed, misguided way of thinking? Your average ignoramus, which you will find on any street corner, knows that all that glitters is not gold. How can it be that such a simple, self-compelling truth is not part of our Tzibbur’s collaborative thinking?

The obvious answer as to why our Tzibbur is stricken with the halo effect is because the halo effect is part and parcel of every Bais Yaakov girl’s education. Some evil spirit did not fall from the Shomayim and smitten us with “misguided thinking.” Indeed, embracing the “halo” effect and believing the misguided thinking that all that glitters is gold signifies a successful Bais Yaakov education.

Please forgive me, and cut me some slack. However, you hit a raw nerve in my Neshama. Thousands and thousands of Bais Yaakov girls are being programmed as we speak to believe rabbis are the correct address for proper counseling.

Emunas chachomim is a bedrock principle in Bais Yaakov. No Morah in any Bais Yaakov adds the caveat when she speaks about rabbonim, “But, girls, beware, even the good rabbis can be bad. Even good rabbis can be rapists, sexual predators, narcissists, mafia-chieftains, crooks, philanderers, debauched and depraved perverts who may attempt to rape you?”

If “our Tzibbur” has this “misguided thinking,” it came from the educators in the classrooms of “our Tzibbur!”

I can confidently say that in no Bais Yaakov classroom in Bnei Brak are the girls informed that good rabbis can also be very wicked people. And I doubt there is a Bais Yaakov in the world where the Moros make sure to impress upon the girls that they should know, “Even the great Tzadikim who we tell stories about- might assault you and traumatize you for life. Therefore girls, remember, even the good people who seem to glitter may have a dark side to them.”

You write, “In order to move forward, we need to first rid ourselves of a fatal flaw”. How do you propose “ridding ourselves of this fatal flaw” if it is being taught as a fundamental dogmatic principle in Bais Yaakov’s around the world?

Rabbi Lopiansky, are you a maverick and are proposing radical curriculum changes to our Bais Yaakov program? (I hope you are) Are you saying that Bais Yaakov Moros begin to start to warn their charges that not all rabbis are what they seem to be?

If you are, then you are my hero.

If such is your intent, you hit the nail on the head.

The only way to rid our Tzibbur of misguided thinking that all that glitters is gold is to proactively educate girls about life’s “real” facts from a young age. Namely, all men (and even women) can be bad people and hurt you very badly. If such had been my chinuch, I would have never fallen into the clutches of that fetid receptacle of fecal matter feigning to be human. If I were told this fact from the age of seven and retold it every year, when cw brought me into his office to place his putrid paws on me, I would have been prepared and protected. If only we knew (as you so eloquently write), “Even if one has bright and dazzling light radiating in his soul, it is not at all to the exclusion of him also having patches of darkness”- many girls and women would have been spared pain and suffering.

Rabbi Lopiansky, you are so right. This “everyone is always good” approach has worn out its usefulness.
If we want to rid our Tzibbur of this plague of molestation, an overhaul of girl’s Chinuch is step number one.

Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz taught, “Ohr v’chosech mishtamshim b’irbuvya” [lit. light and darkness are concomitant] we must embrace his deep insight. We must begin to teach our girls to be vigilant and unafraid to stand up for themselves. We must tell them that everyone, a rabbi, a therapist, a morah, and even a family member, has no right to touch you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. If real change is to be had, we must expunge from our girls the misguided thought that all that glitters is gold.
Our girls must know the truth, namely, that everyone, literally everyone, can be bad.

Our daughters need to be drilled in the ugly truth that they must protect themselves from anyone who tries to violate them sexually, even if that person is in their own home.

Rabbi Lopiansky, I am sure you know that the overwhelming occurrence of sexual molestation occurs in the home where the perpetrator is a family member. Attend any support group of female survivors of sexual abuse, and you will quickly realize that the overwhelming majority of them were attacked and molested by brothers, step-fathers, cousins, uncles, sisters, and unbelievably shocking but true, even their father.

The “bad” therapist and the “bad” Rebbe or rabbi account for less than 10% of molestation.

Too often, a girl’s own bedroom is her Hell on Earth.

We must instill in our daughters this information. They must have the necessary tools to fight back.
Misguided thinking leads to fatal flaws in life. Educating our girls, especially at a young age, leads to empowerment and resistance to abuse. Our girls must know that if they are touched by a family member or a therapist, Rebbe, or whoever, they should immediately yell and scream. They should scream at the top of their lungs and claw and bite their molester if needed. Most molesters are spineless cowards who melt away at first sight of resistance.

The proof is in cw. As soon as he was exposed, he did the spinless act of shooting himself in the head.

The best weapon in our arsenal is our ability to shame and expose the molester.

The molesters best friend is the Sefer Chofetz Chaim. They rely on the fact that their victim will be silent.

The first step in eradicating molestation in our community is, as Rabbi Lopiansky states, ridding our Tzibbur of the misguided thought that all that glitters is gold. Once we have purified the minds of our daughters with the knowledge that anyone is potentially a molester, we can arm them with tools to fight back and protest. When molesters realize that their formerly meek and submissive victims are now fortified fighters of abuse, who refuse to go down without a fight and refuse to remain silent, they will crawl back into their private den of iniquity.

We should supply every Bais Yaakov girl with the reporter’s phone number from Haaretz as they alone seem up to the task of being brave enough to take down a monster. Hope is on the horizon once we have finally rid our daughters (and sons) of these fatal flaws of thinking all is good and glittery.

When I finally told my mother, and she told the local rabbi, I was violated again, this time emotionally. I was not believed, and even if finally, some local rabbis did, believe me, my pain was minimized, swept under the rug, and I was never validated. That is why I had to move from Bnei Brak. The approach of complete denial or minimization of the abuse, always lacking any validation of my pain, drove me far, far away from the environs of my hometown.

Rabbi Eisenman, I have taken too much of your time already. I end with a few closing remarks.

Rabbi Lopiansky writes, “Yes, you will righteously declare, “the rabbanim ought to do x, y, z.” I need to break the news to you: There is no organization called “the rabbanim.” There are thousands of rabbanim, rebbeim, ramim, each inundated with the needs and demands of their communities and talmidim. But each one is a yachid, overwhelmed by the particular needs of his charges.”

I must ask Rabbi Lopiansky, “Yes, of course, there is no organization called “the Rabbanim,” but please don’t play me the fool by claiming that rabbis never act in unison or as an organization. You know better than me that as we speak, high-stakes politics are going on In Israel involving the religious identity of the Jewish State.

I have seen numerous proclamations signed by many well-known and high-profile Rabbis taking a stand TOGETHER condemning an individual minister or an Israeli government policy. I have yet to see the same signatures on a joint proclamation condemning cw (or Eliezer Berland, who you allude to in your article), notwithstanding the clear danger of these people to vulnerable Jewish children.

When it comes to supporting the oppressed and abused, namely victims of sexual assault, they are overwhelmed and have no time? Can they not find the same time to issue a proclamation supporting victims of cw? Does this respectful question not deserve an honest answer?”

I conclude with my revulsion to the most painful post I have ever read. I must react and protest as the truth must be revealed, and sheker must be called out!

A noted female educator, Tzipora Heller, shockingly wrote,

“Chaim Walder’s 53 books were inspiring, sensitively written, and sold 2 million copies, a record for Israel. He lost his balance. I didn’t stand in his shoes. Hashem is called The Place in which the world exists. Pirkei Avos tells you not to judge anyone until you stand in their place, where something pure remains.”

Mrs. Heller’s remarks are too painful to believe that a Jewish mother wrote them. Suffice to say, they trigger strong flashbacks and are so hurtful I will limit myself to one comment.

Mrs. Heller, you wrote,

“I didn’t stand in his shoes. Hashem is called The Place in which the world exists. Pirkei Avos tells you not to judge anyone until you stand in their place, where something pure remains.”

Mrs. Heller, I did stand in chaim walder’s shoes; I did stand in his place, too many times that I care to remember.

Let me make one thing, Mrs. Heller, crystal clear.

There is no purity in the place of chaim walder. Instead, there is filth, wasted seed, abuse, rape, violent humiliation of a twelve-year-old girl, evil in its worst form. In his place, there is trauma and destruction of souls. In his place, the only thing pure which remains is pure persistent perpetual pain and anguish.

Shame on you, Mrs. Heller!

You prove Rabbi Lopiansky’s thesis that the belief that “someone who does good, cannot possibly be bad in any way… is flat-out wrong.” I am sure you have done good; however, the bad that you did with your post is a shameful culmination of your life in Jewish education.

Mrs. Heller, you mentioned, “I didn’t stand in his shoes.”

I did stand in his shoes.

I was forced to stand in his shoes and forced to be in his place. As a person who has a right to judge cw, after all, Pirkei Avos tells you not to judge anyone until you stand in their place, and I did stand in his place; I judge him to be a wicked evil man. A man who was allowed by cowardly and spinless people to continue assaulting boys, girls, and women for decades. Ultimately, I judge him worse than a murderer. A murderer kills your physical body while the soul remains pure. The pedophile not only abuses and humiliates the body, but it also kills your soul forever.

I judge him as a man who stole my innocence, girlhood, adolescence, and naivete.

I judge him for taking away from me the excitement and anticipation every Kallah deserves the day of her wedding and replacing it with dread and horrible flashbacks.

I judge him for stealing my love of life and love of all aspects of marriage.

He caused me horrific spiritual and emotional damage, which is irreparable and continues to haunt me. May his name rot, and may his name be blotted out through the eradication of his books from this world forever.

I conclude with gratitude for finally allowing me to have a voice.

I conclude with an appreciation for helping me carry my burden.

Knowing that my voice is heard makes me optimistic that tomorrow will be better. The more you hear my voice, the more I know that Hashem has indeed listened to my voice.

And that knowledge is comforting.

With pain and gratitude,
Rena Salomon,
formerly of Bnei Brak currently living in the United States


Hayim Nissim Cohen, Father of ‘Our Unique Family,’ Sued & Charged with Sexual Abuse of Child

Hayim Nissim Cohen, formerly known as Jeffrey Lujan Vejil of Odessa Texas, is the subject of both a civil suit and a criminal indictment for sexual abuse of children. Cohen gained some notoriety for being a Chassidic, single, adoptive father of 9 in Houston Texas. He has been written about in many Jewish and non-Jewish media outlets, and runs a website about his family called Our Unique Family. Cohen has presented in recent years. For starters, in a 2019 Jewish Press article Cohen seems to have represented himself as a Williamsburg native who moved to Texas in his 20s and had a brief stint in social work. He represented himself in the same way in an interview for the Adath Israel of San Francisco blog. Neither of those things is true.  

According to the civil suit filed against him, Hayim Nissim Cohen was born Jeffrey Lujan Vejil in 1984 in Odessa, Texas. This is confirmed by a quick Google search finding only one Jeffrey Lujan Vejil in the state of Texas born in 1984. According to the Odessa High School website Jeffrey was part of the graduating class of 2002. In 2005 a picture of him was featured in the Odessa American assisting in relief efforts at a Red Cross shelter set up at UTPB in Odessa, Texas following Hurricane Rita. While he is listed as having attended high school from 1998-2002, I couldn’t find any records online of which college he may have attended to study social work. I was also unable to find any social work license, current or expired, for either Hayim Nissim Cohen, or Jeffrey Vejil. Given the image in the Odessa American, Cohen was not a Williamsbug native, and definitely was born, raised, and lived in Texas until 2005.

By presenting himself as a Williamsburg native to the Jewish press Cohen was no doubt trying to avoid discussing his conversion to Judaism, which, if it happened, would have had to happen after 2005. There are other inconsistencies as well. In a 2017 interview with Houston Family Magazine, Cohen says that his children, who at the time numbered 6, were either able to speak or write Hebrew. However, in a 2019 Jewish Herald-Voice article he claims that 7 of his 9 adopted children were originally from Yiddish speaking families, and two were from Hebrew speaking families. In the different interviews he’s done he seems to tailor the narrative of himself and his family to suit the outlet’s audience.  

In October of 2019, Hayim Nissim Cohen was charged with Indecency with a Child related to Sexual Contact, a third-degree felony in the state of Texas. According to the Texas penal code:

A person commits an offense if, with a child younger than 17 years of age, whether the child is of the same or opposite sex and regardless of whether the person knows the age of the child at the time of the offense, the person:

(1) engages in sexual contact with the child or causes the child to engage in sexual contact;  or

(2) with intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person:

(A) exposes the person’s anus or any part of the person’s genitals, knowing the child is present;  or

(B) causes the child to expose the child’s anus or any part of the child’s genitals.

On the 28th of October, 2019 Cohen surrendered himself to police. Following his arraignment, he was released on 25,000 bond. This was later raised to $75,000 after a failure to appeal resulted in the revocation of his original bond. The case is still active with the next hearing scheduled for February 10th, 2022.

In April of 2021, a civil complaint was filed against Hayim Nissim Cohen for the abuse charged in the criminal complaint. According to the complaint, Plaintiff was a foreign exchange student from Spain participating in a foreign student exchange program facilitated by Estudiar en USA on the Spanish side, and Educational Resource Development Trust’s (ERDT) Share! High School Student Exchange Program on the American side. According to ERDT’s Share! website, they perform background checks on all parents who apply to host foreign exchange students. According to the complaint, Cohen had applied in 2014 and then again in 2018 to be a host parent for foreign exchange students. Detailed in the complaint are the numerous lies Cohen told on his background check application.

First, according to the complaint, Cohen listed an incorrect date of birth. He allegedly listed his work as “foundation” and his position as “rabbi” and provided his own cellphone number as his work number. The complaint further alleges that Cohen had stated that neither he nor anyone in his household had ever been arrested or convicted of any offense greater than a minor traffic offense. This was a lie. According to a criminal court search of the Ector County court records, Cohen, while still Jeffrey Vejil, had been arrested and convicted three times between 2005-2006 for misdemeanor theft.

The complaint further alleges that when asked for two character references within the Houston area, Cohen provided two names of people outside Houston, and that the phone numbers he provided for those people not only weren’t theirs, but actually belonged to Cohen and one of his children. The complaint also alleges that Cohen lied on the background check about never having received public assistance. According to the complaint, the background check didn’t turn up any information about his arrests or convictions, or even his name change from Jeffrey Vejil to Hayim Nissim Cohen, and many other claims Cohen had made which were allegedly lies. Nevertheless, according to the complaint, ERDT approved Cohen to be a host for foreign exchange students.

The complaint alleges that following his approval Cohen was provided with applications and photographs of foreign exchange students by ERDT, and that Cohen selected Plaintiff. According to the complaint, ERDT’s policies required that their staff remain in contact with foreign exchange students placed in host homes and regularly check in with the. Plaintiff alleges that not only did ERDT staff not keep in contact, but that Cohen had confiscated Plaintiff’s phone to prevent him from communicating with ERDT staff or his family. Despite this, ERDT allegedly continued to place foreign exchange students with Cohen.

According to the complaint, on numerous occasions between September 2018 and April 2019, while Plaintiff was between 15 and 16 years old, Cohen sexually abused Plaintiff by forcing him to spend hours in Cohen’s bedroom alone, forcing him to get into Cohen’s bed, forcing him to rub Cohen’s stomach and chest for the purpose of arousing him, forcing him to touch Cohen’s penis both inside and outside his clothes, and forcing him to masturbate Cohen until climax. The complaint further alleges that aside from the sexual abuse, Cohen psychologically abused Plaintiff by threatening to tell his parents about other minor infractions and threatening to have Plaintiff dismissed from the student exchange program, which would have caused Plaintiff to lose a year of his education. According to the complaint, unable to endure Cohen’s abuse any longer, Plaintiff made an outcry to representatives of his school. Shortly thereafter Cohen was arrested for the charge detailed above.


We Are Facing a Mental Health Crisis This Pesach

As we get closer to the impending three-day Yom Tov, I’m getting more afraid. I’m becoming increasingly terrified of coming back from Yom Yov to find that there has been a rash of suicides in the community committed by people who could not handle the isolation of a three-day Yom Tov alone. While this pandemic has been jarring for all of us and we’re all still caught up in the whiplash of a world changing ever more rapidly for the worse, I’m afraid that we’re forgetting about some of our most vulnerable community members.

A three-day Yom Tov is dangerous for people who live alone or are otherwise suffering with the isolation of social distancing and quarantine. It presents an actual, life-threatening risk to many singles, seniors, people living in abusive situations, and people who struggle with mental health. While there have been some efforts to figure out ways to account for those risks and mitigate them through various halachic accommodations, not enough is being done at the moment by our rabbis and community leaders.

On March 22 the RCA sent an email to its members with a brief directive from Rav Hershel Schachter regarding the use of electronic communication for vulnerable people on Yom Tov. The directive was very broad in its application, and was intended to give rabbis very wide latitude to issue heterim to members of their community who might be in danger due to isolation over a three-day Yom Tov. Because the directive was shared with me in confidence and was never meant for public dissemination I won’t quote its contents, but suffice it to say this directive was broad enough to address virtually every situation a rabbi might encounter dealing with this issue.

The basis of this directive was, of course, the idea that we have to take pikuach nefesh very seriously, that in such cases we must err on the side of saving lives, and that issues relating to mental health must be taken as seriously with regards to pikuach nefesh as physical dangers to human life.

When I found out about this directive, I immediately started contacting RCA member rabbis urging them to make some kind of public statement to their communities about the potential halachic considerations available for vulnerable people. Additionally, I wanted the RCA to make its own public statement about the issue, as well as establish a dedicated collection of rabbis who could serve as public consultants for questions related to the use of electronics on Yom Tov.

I wanted this for three reasons:

  1. People might feel embarrassed to ask their rabbis questions about their mental health. In many communities there is still a stigma associated with mental health, and people may feel too embarrassed to reach out to their rabbis.
  2. Not every rabbi is suited to this purpose. Not every rabbi is understanding of mental health challenges, or knowledgeable enough to render accurate piskei halacha on this subject. Not every rabbi fosters the kinds of relationship with their community members that would lend itself to that kind of discussion. Loathe as they may be to admit it, we need to account for the possibility that some rabbis may be unsympathetic, or inclined to incorrectly err on the side of observance, so to speak.
  3. Not everybody has a rabbi. There are many otherwise observant Jews who don’t have any kind of relationship with a rabbi, whether that’s because distance prevents them from being part of a Jewish community, because they are young and haven’t yet found a rabbi of their own, or because they had a negative experience with their previous rabbi and haven’t yet found a replacement.

My efforts were met with mixed results. Some of the rabbis I spoke to did start immediately speaking about it with their community members. Some went a step further and pushed their colleagues to do the same. Some felt uncomfortable addressing the issue publicly at all, but after some coaxing did so anyway. Some haven’t responded.

Meantime, the issue picked up steam. On March 24 Five Sepharadi rabbis in Israel made international headlines within the Jewish press for issuing a ruling allowing members of their community to use Zoom for the sedarim under certain circumstances. Much of the coverage took the psak out of context, and immediately resulted in backlash by many prominent rabbis.

The next day, Rav Hershel Schachter issued the following public psak on the use of electronic communication on Yom Tov:

While the fact that he made such a psak publicly is certainly commendable, and the psak does acknowledge that mental health is just as important when discussing pikuach nefesh as physical health, this psak was made in the shadow of the controversy over the Sepharadi rabbi’s psak, and it shows. While it’s also understandable that a private guidance issued only to rabbis intended to give them the tools they need to then issue their own piskei halacha would be far broader than a psak intended for the general public to apply at their own discretion, the degree to which this psak is guarded and qualifies seems to be a result of the controversy.

The RCA included this psak on its website in a list of general halachos for Pesach during COVID-19.

And while that is significant and commendable, it’s still not enough. We are not doing enough. Our rabbis aren’t doing enough. Our communities are not doing enough.

Some rabbis have been proactive about sending emails or other communications to their community members directly addressing the concerns of vulnerable people in their communities. Some of these messages explicitly state that mental health dangers are considered pikuach nefesh equal to physical health dangers and encourage community members to reach out before Pesach to discuss options for coping with isolation over a three day Yom Tov. Some even went as far as to encourage community members to call them on Pesach itself if they feel they’re in distress and need someone to reach out to.

Other rabbis have opted instead to hold shiurim on the topic and address it during those, no doubt assuming that whatever gets discussed during the shiur will filter out to those who may have missed it. Recordings will likely be made available.

Still others have opted to address the issue very obliquely, asking community members to reach out to them if they have any concerns about their mental health during isolation over the three day Yom Tov, but giving no background or accompanying information.

Many other rabbis have said nothing to their communities about the issue, opting instead to wait until contacted by a community member concerned for their safety over Yom Tov, or are proactively but privately contacting community members they believe to be in potential danger over Yom Tov.

Overall there doesn’t seem to be much of a coherent response by the community at large to address this issue. There’s a psak here, a psak there, some are comprehensive, some are minimal, and some are clearly operating with a complete lack of understanding of the realities of the challenges faced by members of their community.

For example, in his psak Rav Schachter opened by saying that if an “individual has a psychological condition where physicians who know this patient have determined that there is a possibility that this person being alone over the course of Yom Tov would be in a situation of pikuach nefesh (possible suicide) if the individual was not able to com-municate or speak with family members, then the family members must reach out to this person over Yom Tov to speak on the phone or use the internet by leaving a connection open from before Yom Tov.”

The qualification requiring that the person have a diagnosed condition in order to avail themselves of electronic communication on Yom Tov is flatly ignorant of reality. Many people who struggle with suicidal ideation have never been diagnosed. Many have never even seen a therapist. Whether that’s due to stigma, internalized shame, lack of resources, lack of access, or any other reason, the reality of the danger is no less pressing. Furthermore, waiting until someone is experiencing active suicidal ideation before allowing them to avail themselves of electronic communication on Yom Tov is irresponsible.

Additionally, addressing suicide as the baseline for leniency is itself irresponsible. There are many other mental health concerns for which allowances may be issued. For example, exacerbation or relapse of eating disorders, self harm, exacerbation of severe anxiety disorders, severe depression, potential triggering of manic episodes or cycling in a person with Bipolar Disorder, potential triggering of psychosis, and so on. These are complicated issues that can’t be lumped into the category of diagnosed potential risk of suicide.

The issue of course when approaching this kind of public psak is how to balance the need to be inclusive of everyone who may need to avail themselves of the psak against a desire to not give an overly broad public psak which will either be misapplied or dismissed as too lenient. Rabbi Aryeh Klapper wrote a very detailed article laying out the various considerations that go into this process and how they might best be balanced against each other.

There are a number of problems I’m seeing as I examine more and more of the communications sent to different communities.

  1. There is no coherent response to this problem. There is no organizational effort to centralize the response. It’s happening piecemeal and haphazardly.
  2. The politics and meta-halacha of the issue is getting in the way of addressing the actual problem.
  3. There is a fundamental lack of understanding about the realities of the mental health issues faced by many of the vulnerable people these piskei halacha are meant to address, and an apparent lack of will or desire to either become more educated or contact trusted experts on the subject.
  4. There is a lack of self-awareness on the part of many rabbis of how their communities interact with them. This is especially true of many larger congregations and communities.
  5. There is a fundamental lack of trust that laypeople, if actually given the details of the halacha, might apply it reasonably.
  6. There is very little consideration being given to the infrastructure necessary to actually put these piskei halacha into effect.

To that end, I suggest the following:

  1. There needs to be a group of rabbis and mental health professionals put together to address these concerns. These professionals should be available not only to consult on and put forth halachic policy, but also be available for consultation by those who may not have a rabbi or mental health professional of their own.
  2. There should be a guidance issued to community rabbis to proactively discuss the issue with their community members. This guidance should be issued by the group mentioned above. This way there is uniformity in the message, and community rabbis who might feel unequipped to address this issue with their congregation have some materials to help them.
  3. Community rabbis must have access to mental health professionals in the group to consult about the shailos they receive. Not every rabbi can be expected to understand the nuanced realities of mental health issues, and may need help issuing these piskei halacha.
  4. If piskei halacha are going to be issued to people that they may use electronic communication on Yom Tov, there must be someone available to pick up on the other end when they reach out. A psak allowing electronic communication is meaningless if there isn’t anyone for them to communicate with. Community rabbis should either designate themselves as contact people or designate someone else as a contact person (ideally a mental health professional), and should make sure that members who receive an allowance for electronic communication have someone that they’re comfortable talking to when they’re vulnerable, whether that’s the appointed central contact person, a friend, or relative.
  5. Because a rabbi, no matter how well connected to their congregants and no matter how large or small their community, can’t be certain what their congregants may be going through with regard to their mental health, they should make sure to include resources in their communications for crisis intervention services like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and encourage their community members to call those resources if they feel their lives are in danger.

We are living through a crisis the likes of which most people haven’t experienced in their lifetime, and that calls for for extraordinary measures. I urge laypeople reading this to contact their rabbis and impress upon them how seriously this must be taken, and urge them to discuss this openly with their communities.