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June 20, 2022 10:42 am
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New Book Is a Stunning Look at Sexual Abuse in Jewish Institutions

avatar by Alan Zeitlin

Opinion

Photo: provided.

It has been nearly 22 years to the day, since a blistering report about sexual assault and abuse by Rabbi Baruch Lanner sent shockwaves through the Jewish community.

Gary Rosenblatt, then the editor of The Jewish Week, wrote the article that helped result in Lanner’s 2002 conviction of sexually abusing two teenage girls.

The Israeli publication Ma’ariv last year exposed allegations of sexual assault by Rabbi Chaim Walder, a noted Haredi author of a best-selling children’s book and young adult series who counseled women, and was accused of sexually assaulting numerous women and children. An Israeli rabbinical court heard testimony from numerous accusers, as well as an audio recording where Walder threatened to shoot himself if accusations went public. Rather than appearing before the court, he did choose to kill himself.

Elana Sztokman is the author of the powerful, much needed, and harrowing new book, “When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture,” that includes about 84 victim reports.

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“A lot of people observed that something seemed to have shifted with the Walder case, because it was the first time that the ultra-Orthodox community actively responded in that they took his book off the shelves, and they cancelled his media contracts,” Sztokman said. “That was unprecedented. At the same time, the Israeli chief rabbi went to console [Walder’s] family when he committed suicide. It feels like two steps forward, one step back … it’s so deeply rooted, it’s hard to uproot it.”

Sztokman makes clear that this is not a strictly ultra-Orthodox or Orthodox problem — or a Jewish one. But ultra-religious communities have factors that can allow allegations to get swept under the rug, or discourage victims from reporting them.

She cites psychologist Michael J. Salamon, who lists LaShon Hara (a prohibition against evil speech or gossip), mesirah (turning a Jew over to others), and Chillul Hashem (a prohibition of committing negative acts that are a desecration of God’s name, but in practice can extend to reporting on such actions.)

Sztokman said among the most disturbing things she uncovered was a case where leaders of a Jewish organization encouraged a young female worker to sleep with/date a million-dollar donor.

She said priorities have to be straightened out.

“People are drawn to perceptions of power and celebrity. … They’re willing to excuse a lot of things and conveniently look away. … We tend to go with a leader who has a charisma. We care more about the powerful abuser than the powerless victim.”

The book should be required reading for all Jewish institutions. It is extensive, and the stories are damning and ring credible, though she writes that she did not seek comment from the accused, as she was not an investigator.

A two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Sztokman may get a third for this effort.

She is a former executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, known as JOFA, and says she was retaliated against when exposing verbal abuse and harassment by its former president, who denied the allegations.

“The most painful takeaway from my book and all this research is [that] an abuser is in a position of power,” she said. “That abuser is considered valuable …we’re letting our culture of power and status determine human worth. I would like a serious examination of our communal values around power, worth, status, and virtue, and what makes a human worthy of being heard.”

The author is a writer based in New York.

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