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.

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Wexner Independent Review Deliberately Misses the Point

Author’s note: Full text of the investigation report can be found at the bottom of this post. For a previous post with more detail on Wexner’s connections to Epstein, and what Wexner is alleged to have enabled, check out my last blog post on the subject.

Yesterday the Wexner Foundation released the findings of its independent review of its connection to Jeffrey Epstein. Ever since Epstein’s arrest, there has been fierce conversation and debate within the Wexner Foundation’s internal listserv, Wexnet, about how the foundation should proceed, and how Wexner Fellows should react in the wake of the revelations.

The focus of the report, attached below in full, was on three primary questions:

1) What was the nature and extent of Epstein’s relationship and interactions with the Foundation?

2) Did Epstein make any financial contributions to the Foundation and, if so, how did the Foundation use any such contributions?

3) Did Epstein use his ties to the Foundation to commit any crimes?

Unsurprisingly the report’s answers to those questions boiled down to 1) no, 2) no, and 3) no, but let’s break that down.

First the report details the scope of the Foundation’s charitable contributions and the hundreds of millions it’s paid out over the years. It then goes on to claim that white Jeffrey Epstein was a trustee of the Foundation, he had nothing to do with the day-to-day operation of the Foundation, or with the selection of Foundation Fellows. Not that anyone was expecting Epstein to have been ordering the Post-Its and paperclips anyway.

What comes next in the report we can leave to actual reporters, lawyers, and accountants to sort out, but the general gist of it seems to be a series of donations that started with Epstein and ended with Wexner, that the report explains away as being Wexner money to begin with, or technically donations made indirectly to the Wexner Foundation after passing through other charities and foundations. In other words, it’s OK that the Wexner Foundation received money from Epstein because it was just indirect enough to make it plausibly deniable.

The report ends with a statement that Epstein never used the Foundation to commit any of his crimes, and that the Foundation had no contact with Epstein since his resignation in 2007.

But what’s important to note here is not so much the findings of the report but its limited scope. The concern for many advocates was never just whether or not Jeffrey Epstein was using the Wexner Foundation as an entity to commit or enable his crimes, but whether or not Leslie Wexner, the guy whose name is on the Foundation, whose money funds 90% of its work, and whose personal reputation is laundered through the reputation of the Wexner Foundation was complicit in or aware of Epstein’s crimes.

Wexner’s relationship with Epstein goes back to 1986 when Epstein was introduced to Wexner and became his financial manager. By 1991, Epstein had power of attorney over Wexner’s assets, and was in full swing managing them on the L Brands billionaire’s behalf. For two decades Wexner was Epstein’s only publicly known client.

During that time Epstein allegedly used his connection to Wexner to pose as a talent scout for Victoria’s secret, enticing models, many of whom were children, back to his house to talk about their futures at which point he sexually assaulted them. L Brands was allegedly made aware of these assaults, and did nothing to stop them. Epstein was told to please stop claiming he was a talent scout, but was never penalized at all.

This continued for 11 years, from 1995 to 2006.

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

Throughout all this time Epstein was developing a reputation for “liking” young girls, and people were starting to take notice. At no point did Wexner indicate any inclination to fire or at least discipline Epstein even though he continued claiming to be a modeling scout for years after the initial complaints were made to L Brands.

Recently there has been increasing coverage of accusations of sexual harassment at Victoria’s Secret, a part of the L Brands company. According to reporting by the New York Times, Ed Razek, an executive at L Brands, was the subject of repeated complaints about how he tried to kiss models, get them to sit on his lap, or touched their crotches, as well as fostering a general atmosphere within the company that was hostile toward the women who worked there and made Victoria’s Secret the money making brand Wexner was making his millions off.

Wexner is alleged to have been well aware of these complaints have is also alleged to have even made inappropriate comments himself. Women who spoke to the Times described being subjected to personal and professional retaliation after disclosing the harassment they’d experienced.

Earlier in February Wexner announced he would be stepping down as CEO of L Brands amid new criticism over this history of sexual harassment.

Along with this independent review released by the Wexner Foundation, its president, Rabbi Elka Abramson, released the following statement to its membership:

Dear Members, Fellows, Alumni and Partners,

As you know, given the concerns expressed by this community, we initiated an independent review of Jeffrey Epstein’s involvement in The Wexner Foundation. The review represents what is widely regarded as best practice in cases like this and is part of our ongoing effort to be transparent and appropriately responsive. Completing this work in a thorough fashion required time.

The Columbus law firm of Kegler Brown was selected by the Foundation to conduct the review, with attorneys Chuck Kegler and Loriann Fuhrer leading the review team. Neither the Foundation nor Wexner family has worked with the Kegler Brown firm previously. The specifics of the process are detailed in the report, which is available to download here.

Listed below are several key findings from the report which, after my own reading, I believe are worth highlighting:
Epstein served as a trustee of the Foundation from 1992 to 2007 when he was terminated by the Wexners and resigned as a trustee of the Foundation.

Epstein was never involved in determining Foundation policy. He never had any role in the Foundation’s day-to-day leadership or activities. He did not have any role whatsoever in screening, identifying or selecting participants for any of our leadership initiatives. Rather, he merely acted as a functionary executing documents and facilitating the required financial support from the Wexners.

Foundation leadership have no recollection of seeing Epstein in the Foundation offices or ever attending any Foundation program or events.

There is no connection between the Foundation and any Wexner-related entity except for the bookkeeping and accounting services provided to the Foundation by the Wexner family financial office.

As previously stated, Epstein never contributed even a single dollar to financially support the work of the Foundation.

The facts regarding the YLK monies, while more complicated, are also clear. As the Wexners have stated publicly, they terminated Epstein in 2007 and severed all ties completely. At that time, a foundation, YLK, was created upon the advice of counsel.

There is no evidence that any Epstein personal, business or philanthropic funds were ever used to support the Foundation’s work.
While not included in the report, I personally asked Abigail Wexner why legal action was not pursued against Epstein once his financial misappropriation was discovered. She explained that given the financial discoveries and what the Wexners were learning about the allegations of sexual misconduct against Epstein being raised in Florida, the Wexners concluded it was in the best interest of their family to avoid ongoing litigation entanglements and to terminate all association with Epstein immediately.

You are encouraged to review the report in its entirety. Other more recent press unrelated to and not intended to be addressed by this report has generated additional conversations and questions from some of you that we are considering. We also are taking time to reflect on the report and review and assess best practices of philanthropic governance. We continue to seek and appreciate your patience even as we welcome all of your feedback.

Finally, together with the entire Foundation team, I thank you for your impassioned belief in our work, your high expectations of us as an organization, and most of all for your continuing leadership in your Jewish communities and the State of Israel.

Let us all move from strength, through every challenge and back to even greater strength,

Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson
President
The Wexner Foundation

Again, this statement and the report as a whole ignores the actual point here. This isn’t about whether or not Epstein himself used the foundation for his crimes, this is about whether a man who allegedly enabled the wholesale trafficking of children for sex, allegedly deliberately turned a blind eye against Epstein’s Victims when made aware of how Epstein was abusing his position to facilitate his crimes, and who allegedly deliberately ignored rampant sexual harassment and retaliation against its victims within his companies, should be allowed to launder his money through the fantastic work done by the incredible leaders funded by the Wexner Foundation.

Because there is no separating the donor from his actions. Many rich philanthropists use the money they donate lavishly to charity to mask the real harm they’re doing or enabling to real people every day. The Sacklers did it for decades, and are only very recently being held to account. But an important thing to note about the dangers of this reputational laundering through Wexner money: Given how many of our current and future leaders are being funded by Wexner money, it’s safe to wonder whether or not these people who might otherwise be inclined to speak out against the enabling of child sex trafficking, and rampant sexual harassment are equally inclined to decry it when doing so would bite the hand that feeds them?

The issue is not whether retroactively we have to worry about whether or not the money ever touched Epstein, but whether or not going forward the money the Wexners give through their foundation will silence those who want to hold them accountable for what they’ve allegedly enabled.

I have spoken to many Wexner Fellows in the months following the renewed controversy, and many of them have mixed feelings about how to relate to their own participating in the fellowship in the past, and whether or not to accept money in the future from them. I’ve had many similar conversations with beneficiaries of similarly controversial organizations in the past, with varying degrees of discomfort, but what makes the conversation around Wexner and the Wexner Foundation different is the sheer avalanche of money involved. It changes people, changes their attitudes, and changes the ways in which they’re willing to criticize organizations they find to be problematic.

At the end of the day I’ll reiterate my guiding principle:

The second an institution becomes more important than the people it’s there to serve, it no longer deserves to exist.

I call upon the Wexner Foundation to expand its investigation to include not only the narrow scope of Epstein and what his role may have been in the foundation, but also Leslie and Abigail Wexner themselves, what they may have known about or enabled, and whether or not it is ethical to be led by people who may have been able to stop an international sex trafficker but didn’t.

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Our Institutions Owe Us Their Teshuva For Child Sexual Abuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Amudim is Part of the Problem

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

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

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

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

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

Zvi Gluck to Hannah Dreyfus of the Jewish Week


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the response was overwhelmingly positive.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Zvi Gluck to Hannah Dreyfus of The Jewish Week


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

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

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

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Epstein, Wexner, and Our Communal Reckoning with Dirty Money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am ashamed that you were once my student.

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

Rabbi Ethan Tucker to Ike Brooks Fishman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Child Victims Act Passes NY Legislature, Agudah Still Opposed

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

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

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

The Child Victims Act includes the following provisions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yes, Gordimer, Leah Forster Should be Allowed to Perform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Moment is About the Victims | From the Mailbag

Someone asked me the following question, and I wanted to share it and the response I gave. I think it’s relevant to this moment in history.

“What’s your opinion on distinguishing between sexual assault and sexual harassment? Do you think there is such a distinction, and that there should be different penalties for these potentially two different things? Or do you think think it’s all rape, and should be treated the same each time? Thanks in advance for any insights.”

My response:

I’m not sure that really is up to opinion. They are in fact different things. Sexual harassment isn’t necessarily sexual assault, and sexual assault isn’t necessarily rape. In order to have a functioning justice system we necessarily assign different penalties to each. The thing that makes sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape different than most other crimes is the fact that our society doesn’t really consider them to be as unjustifiable as they do other crimes, which is odd considering that as far as crime goes these three are in fact among the most unjustifiable.

For example, murder is most harshly treated by our justice system, however there are all sorts of justifiable reasons for murder. It’s perfectly justifiable, if perhaps not legal, to murder someone who’s trying to hurt you or someone else, if murder seems like the only way to prevent harm. If someone walks in on someone being raped, murder, if not legal, could be justifiable.

Theft can be justifiable, if not legal. If someone is poor and faced with a choice between starvation and theft, theft, if not legal, can be justifiable.

Sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape, however, have no inherently justifiable circumstances. There’s never an instance in which one must sexually harass, sexually assault, or rape in self defense, to stave off starvation, or to make a living. And yet, it’s a the one category of crime that mostly goes unreported by its victims, and tends not to be taken seriously by our society.

It also happens to be one of the most traumatic categories of crime for its victims, particularly because it is completely unjustifiable and therefore particularly violative. The only reason anyone ever sexually harasses, sexually assaults, or rapes, is precisely because they feel that they have an entitlement to violate another person’s boundaries, body, and soul, and treat them as if they were a thing, rather than a human being.

So yes, we necessarily assign different weight to each crime in this category, and we subdivide based on the precise violations committed in each case, but that’s really beside the point in this national discussion we’re having. This country fundamentally doesn’t care about the victims of this category of crime. It doesn’t care about its prevalence or the effects on its victims, and it really doesn’t care to do anything about it.

To listen to victims of this category of crime is to hear the same story over and over again. “I didn’t speak up because I didn’t think anyone would believe me,” punctuated by responses of “I did speak up (to my boss, my family, to HR, to clergy, to community leaders, or law enforcement) and no one believed me. They blamed me. Asked me what I did to deserve it. Asked what, if anything, I had done to prevent it, as if such a thing were possible.” These experience exist by the million, and for some reason nobody seems to particularly care, despite the fact that the prevalence of this category of crime is of epidemic proportion, and its effects on its victims are often devastating.

So yes, as I said now three times, there necessarily has to be a difference in the way we treat the crimes in this category, but then there’s how we as a society, outside of the legal system, have to reckon with it, because our attitudes toward sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape determine how they will be treated by our justice system. Our police, prosecutors, lawyers, and juries don’t exist in a vacuum. They are all products of our society and our societal attitudes toward this category of crime. If people fundamentally believe that sexual harassment is the fault of the victim, that sexual assault can be “asked for” by the way a victim dresses, that rape can be “asked for” by what the victim drank, then it in fact is impossible for a victim to get justice.

This is what this country is reckoning with in this moment. Whether we will start taking sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape seriously, whether we will choose to believe that it happens, that it’s serious, that it’s devastating and prevalent, or whether we’ll continue to justify the inherently unjustifiable.

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