Society in Israel and North America are different in many ways, but when it comes to understanding the dangers of sexual abuse of children by rabbis, communities in Israel and the diaspora must find ways to cooperate in making progress on this painful and complex issue.
Several years ago, a group called the Takanah Forum, was established by Orthodox leaders including Rabbis Aaron Lichtenstein, Shlomo Riskin, Eliyakim Levanon and David Stav along with Rabbanit Chana Henkin, Yaffa Gisser and others, as a watchdog for sexual abuse and harassment in the religious community. It found Rabbi Mordechai “Moti” Elon, a charismatic, much beloved rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat HaKotel who hosted television and radio programs in Israel, responsible for multiple cases of abuse of power, and sexual exploitation against students. They made the difficult but necessary decision to require Rabbi Elon be removed from teaching, or having any contact with youth in an effort to protect future victims.
Nearly four years ago Rabbi Elon violated his agreement with the Takanah Forum, and hence the issue was brought into the public domain. This past week, the Jerusalem District court convicted Rabbi Elon on two counts of indecent assault by force against a minor. Although the punishment was disappointingly light, the conviction should have caused deep repercussions in the Orthodox world – a sign that abuse can come from highly respected rabbis. Unfortunately not everyone is outraged at Rabbi Elon’s violations, and not everyone sees him as a dangerous and habitual predator.
Rabbi Haim Druckman, the spiritual leader of the Bnei Akiva schools network in Israel, and Rosh Yeshiva of Or Etzion, remains impervious to the pleas of many parents and teachers who have implored him not to allow Rabbi Elon to continue teaching. Rabbi Druckman has ignored the court’s decision and the Takana’s directive. He continues to defend Rabbi Elon, and is allowing him to teach in his hesder yeshiva.
Moreover this is not the first time in his career that Rabbi Druckman has protected a sex offender. In the 1990s Rabbi Druckman, also in the role of head of Bnei Akiva Yeshivot, was told that Rabbi Zev Kopilovich, the Rosh Yeshiva at the prestigious Netiv Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, was sexually abusing students. Rabbi Drukman failed to report the allegations to the police, and kept Rabbi Kopelovich in his job, allowing him free access to the students, and the abuse continued. Rabbi Kopelovich subsequently pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Now again history is repeating itself as Rabbi Druckman proclaims Rabbi Elon’s innocence and protects him.
Rabbi Druckman is a revered icon in the National Religious world. He was even recently awarded the most prestigious Israel Prize, although not without protests because of the Netiv Meir affair. Still many believe that Rabbi Druckman’s repeated inability to protect abuse victims, and the children entrusted in his care, either due to naïveté or ignorance, is inexcusable. His current defense of Rabbi Elon and insistence that he teach in a yeshiva reflects very badly on Rabbi Druckman’s judgment and calls into question whether he should be entrusted with the welfare of the 24,000 students of the school network. (It should be noted that this is the Bnei Akiva educational network and not the Bnei Akiva youth groups).
Many in Israel have an expectation that those in a position of influence pressure Rabbi Druckman to stop Rabbi Elon from teaching. Some have even urged the American Friends of Yeshivot Bnei Akiva to have Rabbi Druckman censured publicly for his bad judgment and intransigence.
(Rabbi Elon is banned by law from teaching those under 18, but the students at the yeshiva are of legal age.)
We are very worried about the young men who could be hurt, and about the message to other potential offenders, that even in the unlikely event they get caught and convicted, there will be few if any consequences. But for many here in Israel there is a deeper worry, that of the blatant disregard by some rabbinic leaders for the conviction of Rabbi Elon. That a rabbi who is the spiritual leader of 24,000 of our children can say that the word of the court is irrelevant and that he knows better. And that nothing can be done, to reverse the decision. That the pleas of victims, parents, teachers, donors and politicians do not count.
Where is the humility for the similar mistakes he made, the lives ruined, the suffering caused? Where is the regret, the accountability? What will it take for this travesty to stop?
Daniel Goldman is co-chair of Friends of World Bnei Akiva and Miriam Zussman is a social activist.