For those in the Modern Orthodox community who send their sons to yeshivas in Israel for a year or two of post-high school study, it’s long been an open secret that Rav Aharon Bina, rosh hayeshiva of Netiv Aryeh in the Old City of Jerusalem, has a unique — many say bizarre — pedagogical style.
Supporters call it “tough love”; critics call it abuse.
Credited with transforming many troubled American students who had been branded hopeless by other educators, and taking motivated young men to a higher level of learning, the 63-year-old rabbi is praised by several leading American rabbis as having been a wonderful educator for more than three decades. And his yeshiva, supported by prominent philanthropists, including businessman Ira Rennert, is a major — and approved — feeder school to Yeshiva University.
But a significant minority of former students, employees and colleagues maintain that Rav Bina is controlling, manipulative and emotionally coercive in ways that would never be accepted in other schools. In what has become known throughout Israeli yeshivot as “Bina Stories,” he is said to regularly yell at, humiliate and insult students in public; threaten to expel them for seemingly no reason (and make good on that promise with a few every fall, sometimes without first notifying the parents); press psychologists he hires to share private information about the students he has sent them; and tell those in disfavor that they are cursed.
The situation is so well known that a several years ago a disgruntled former student created a blog and invited others to share their experiences — and many did. It was called IHateRavBina, later changed to the Bina Abuse Blog, which has posts from more than two dozen former students and parents over a span of three decades sharing their personal stories of disturbing encounters with Rav Bina.
The blog re-emerged recently, and includes a long post from Joel (Yoel) Moskowitz, 47, of Long Island’s Five Towns, who recounted several disturbing episodes from more than 30 years ago, when he was a student of Rav Bina at HaKotel, a Jerusalem yeshiva Rav Bina headed before heading Netiv Aryeh.
Having lost his mother to cancer and seen his father remarry shortly thereafter, Moskowitz said he was shocked when Rav Bina, in class one day, suddenly declared that if a man remarries after his wife dies, it shows he never loved his first wife. Later, seeing that Moskowitz was distraught, Rav Bina said to him, “If you took it personal, then you’re a bigger idiot than I thought you were,” the former student recalls.
“I want to be quoted by name [on the website] and I chose to speak out,” Moscowitz says, “because I hear that this abusive and damaging behavior by Rav Bina is still going on and [I know] that victims tend to blame themselves.”
He adds that his experience helped turn him away from Jewish observance for a time. And he finds it “inconceivable” that the rabbi’s actions are known and tolerated by Jewish lay leaders and yeshiva high schools in the U.S., “reminiscent of all the other instances of the head-in-the-sand attitude in the Orthodox community toward abuse, albeit emotional and not physical.”
Even the rabbi’s most ardent supporters acknowledge that he sometimes speaks and acts as if out of control, and some have described him as “crazy,” “wacko” and “doing things no rebbe should ever do.” But in the next breath they defend him as a warm, remarkably caring man who has had a very positive impact on the overwhelming majority of the thousands of students he has taught.
Sandy Eisenstadt, a New York businessman who has been an avid supporter of Rav Bina for the last 25 years since his two sons studied with him, likens Rav Bina to a drill sergeant.
“If you’re thin-skinned, he’s not for you,” he said, comparing the Rav Bina experience to becoming a Navy Seal or U.S. Marine. “You know what you’re in for. Otherwise don’t go. You have to ask yourself why more students are coming to his yeshiva than any other. And most love and adore him, and have become wonderful Jews.”
But some are wondering why, indeed, Netiv Aryeh is so popular, with an estimated 110 first-year and 60 second-year American students. Is it because of, or in spite of, Rav Bina’s personality? And why do families, deeply concerned about the emotional, educational and spiritual well-being of their children, continue to send their sons to study with Rav Bina when his controversial reputation is so well known?
A Slap Or A Shove
The level of concern about the rabbi’s behavior escalated in 2009 after Andrew (not his real name), a student at Netiv Aryeh and graduate of the Frisch School in Paramus, N.J., says that Rav Bina slapped him in the face four or five times during a meeting in the rabbi’s office. Andrew’s parents lodged complaints and were told the rabbi would apologize for his behavior. But the rabbi claims, through intermediaries — he declined to be interviewed for this story — that it was a harmless shove or poke to the shoulder.
What led to the encounter was the fact that although Netiv students are not allowed to leave the premises at night, Andrew had gone out to a bar with friends on Ben Yehuda Street, the pedestrian mall and popular hangout for American students in Jerusalem, and was spotted by a madrich, or counselor, from his yeshiva.
The next morning he was told he was expelled.
Andrew later explained that at Netiv, expulsion meant a student could remain in the dorm and eat in the cafeteria, but could not attend classes. To be readmitted, one had to meet with Rav Bina and “you had to beg him to let you back,” he told The Jewish Week, which often happened, but the result was that “you were going to be watched more closely.”
Andrew decided he would meet with Rav Bina, apologize and hope to be taken back. “I had made great friends, was learning a lot and did not want to leave,” he explained.
When he arrived at the rabbi’s office, he recalled that about nine other students were there for the same reason, on “parole” and seeking readmission.
He said they waited for many hours until, at 2:30 a.m., Rav Chanan, one of Rav Bina’s sons and his top assistant, emerged from the main office to say that Rav Bina needed to sleep. The young men came back in the morning and waited for “five, six hours at a time” to be called in, according to Andrew, with brief breaks to eat.
This went on for “two or three days,” he said.
“Occasionally Rav Bina would walk out of his office and yell at us, telling us that we weren’t good people and that we were nothings.” Andrew said he tried to go back to his morning seder [class] once but the rabbi in charge told him to leave.
Eventually the boys on parole were called in to Rav Bina’s office, one at a time, and during his meeting, Andrew said he apologized for his behavior and said he had made a mistake, but the rabbi said he was being dishonest. “You’re a good actor and a liar,” he says Rav Bina told him.
He alleges that Rav Bina rose from his chair, walked behind him, grabbed his shirt and asked, “What are we going to do about this? What are we going to do?” Then, Andrew claims, the rabbi lifted his hand and slapped him “across the face four or five times.
“I was shocked, I couldn’t speak,” he says.
The Rav Bina version, culled from intermediaries, is that he was concerned about the young man’s drinking and was just trying to shake him up, out of concern.
Whatever transpired, whether Andrew was slapped in the face or, as Rav Bina claims, shoved in the shoulder, the young man notified his parents back home that he was on probation and would only be accepted back if he agreed to three conditions: no more Ben Yehuda visits; he would have to sit in the beit midrash [study hall] and learn all night on Thursday nights, as is a regular if not prevalent practice at many yeshivas; and he had to be willing to see a therapist at his own cost if Rav Bina thought it was appropriate.
Andrew’s mother was uncomfortable with the situation and called John Krug, The Frisch School guidance counselor who is also director of alumni affairs for Netiv Aryeh and unofficial spokesman for Rav Bina. He sought to reassure her that Rav Bina was “a very good person but just has a different way of doing things,” as she recalls.
Krug has said that Rav Bina is often misunderstood, noting that people who are “passionate about what they do are going to arouse emotions in other people. In today’s world, with its [emphasis on] political correctness, sensitivity has taken a place on the front burner.”
Andrew’s mom said Krug told her he would see to it that Rav Bina would apologize, which did not happen.
She also met with Ilana Scheiner, the executive director and American representative of Netiv, who began the conversation by praising Rav Bina and his positive impact on his students.
“Then I told her what happened” to her son, the mother said. “’He may have gone too far,’ she told me. ‘In general he’s very effective.’”
Andrew said that after word got back to the yeshiva that his mother was questioning Rav Bina’s behavior, he was treated with suspicion, and felt increasingly ill at ease.
He ended up transferring to another Israeli yeshiva, and looks back on the Netiv experience as contributing to the fact that he is no longer observant.
Now a sophomore in college, Andrew said he was disillusioned by what he encountered. “We learned in yeshiva that if you embarrass someone it is like killing him, and yet Rav Bina likes to publicly humiliate people.
“I’m off the derech [religious path] now,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is how you treat people as a rabbi in the Old City of Jerusalem?’ This is not for me.”
The complaints Andrew’s mother made became known at Yeshiva University, since Netiv Aryeh is one of 24 men’s yeshivot and 20 women’s seminaries in Israel that are part of YU’s S. Daniel Abraham Israel Program. Each year about 600 high school graduates begin their YU education with a year of study in Israel, for which they receive college credits, before continuing their undergraduate studies at YU, here in New York.
Scott Goldberg is director of YU’s Institute for University-School Partnership and part of a team of educators and psychologists that visits the Israeli yeshivot periodically “to review their educational programs to satisfy our need for confidence” in the academics and the quality of the yeshiva program, he said.
In 2010, Goldberg was part of a team that visited Netiv Aryeh and, “having been made aware of complaints” about Rav Bina’s behavior, met with the rabbi and other administrators, as well as educators and students who were there at the time.
“We asked pointed, tough questions,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Week after declining to be interviewed in person, “and received what we judged to be straight answers. We learned that changes had been made and that specific programs and procedures had been put in place to not only monitor the situation but to ensure the safety of all the students.”
Goldberg did not respond to The Jewish Week’s request for details about the nature of the review or the changes that were put in place.
Andrew and his mother say they were never questioned about his encounter or how the yeshiva dealt with the complaint.
Goldberg said that since the 2010 meeting with Rav Bina, neither he nor YU staff members in Israel have heard of any new grievances. He added that were they to learn of “a credible new complaint, we would certainly look into it immediately and respond appropriately.”
Similarly, Rav Bina’s supporters acknowledge that he has acted inappropriately on occasion over the years, primarily in terms of berating students publicly, but they insist he is a changed man and that they know of no recent accounts of the rabbi acting in a belligerent manner.
But the complaints persist and are not difficult to come across.
Peter (not his real name), a 19-year-old currently studying in Israel, attended Netiv Aryeh this past fall but transferred after finding the environment too authoritative.
He maintains that Rav Bina can be extremely controlling and manipulative of his students. Peter recalls a friend of his being chastised by the rabbi after the student decided to play football on the night of his father’s yahrtzeit.
“Why do you hate your father?” Rav Bina berated the student, according to Peter, and later told the young man he had to see one of the school therapists at his own cost.
Several psychologists called on by Rav Bina to meet with students have refused to do so because they say the rabbi insists on finding out what was discussed between client and therapist, a professional taboo.
Peter also notes that Rav Bina would make fun of and bully certain students in public. He regularly “disregards a person’s feelings and just does what he wants, whether its correct or not.”
Ben (who gave permission for only his first name to be used), left Netiv Aryeh halfway through his year there, in 2006, feeling “very depressed.” He says he was bullied and publicly humiliated by Rav Bina, who referred to him as shaygetz (a derogatory word for gentile) because he had been caught reading a book on evolution. Ben said his social isolation reached the point where his classmates would not count him in a minyan.
Aaron (not his real name), a recent alum of Netiv Aryeh and current student at YU, said he was uncomfortable with how Rav Bina spoke to students, making seemingly instant judgments about their character based on appearance. Picking on certain students, he often would refer to them as “gay,” or say they had a “goy face,” or were fat or would come down with AIDS or that God hates them.
“Rav Bina would regularly tell people they are addicted to drugs, mistreat their parents and are going to beat their wives,” Aaron said. One student caught drinking early in the year was from then on referred to by the rabbi as “Alan the Alcoholic.”
“Rav Bina would single out specific kids in class and say things like, ‘You look at porn and you will for the rest of your life. You told me that; I know what you do. Get out, pack your bags.”
Such students were told by the rabbi they were being sent to cherem (a form of censure or excommunication) and had to transfer to a yeshiva in the south of the country, in the isolated community of Mitzpeh Ramon, often without their parents being notified.
That control apparently applies to yeshiva staff as well. One former Netiv Aryeh rebbe described the environment of the yeshiva as one of “constant emotional abuse” during the four years he was there. He said he was one of a number of teachers forced by Rav Bina to go to one of the school therapists, and that the sessions were not kept confidential.
Supporters of Rav Bina, including rabbis, lay leaders and illustrious former students of his, offer up a very different portrait of the man they deeply admire, while acknowledging his excesses.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side, says that “whoever Rav Bina is, and whatever his way of teaching and reacting may be, it is well known in the community that he is, on the whole, a person who deeply loves his students and cares very much about their development.
“He may be guilty at times of what I would consider ‘tough love’ and talks freely, perhaps going overboard and embarrassing people, but all of the situations I am aware of are where he cares deeply about the students and wants to keep them on the straight path.”
Rabbi Lookstein, whose son was a student of Rav Bina two decades ago, said he can think of no other Israeli rebbe who is flown in to the U.S. to officiate at as many weddings of former students as Rav Bina, an indication of the devotion and affection his students and their families have for him.
“I know from personal knowledge that he teaches students to be baalei chesed [kind people], to give of themselves to the community and to individuals,” Rabbi Lookstein said. “That’s the Rav Bina I know, and if sometimes his speech is too quick and too strong, he’s a human being who can make mistakes. And that is the essence of the man.”
Asked about the critical statements some former students of Rav Bina have made, Rabbi Lookstein said, “I’m not familiar with blogs,” adding, “When I talked to him recently, he said he was spoken to by a professional from another institution and that he has tried very hard to avoid this kind of speech.”
Rabbi Heshie Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere has known and been close to Rav Bina for more than 40 years.
“I have attended several Netiv Aryeh alumni Shabbatonim,” he told The Jewish Week, “and am impressed by the huge turnout of alumni — single and married, recent alumni and alumni from decades ago — who come for an inspiring tefillah [prayer service] and for the opportunity to say Shabbat Shalom to Rav Bina.”
Sandy Eisenstadt, the local businessman who described Rav Bina as a kind of rebbe-drill sergeant, said he is “totally devoted to teaching his students” to be upstanding Jewish young men. “He is not politically correct, his style is not traditional, he acts in provocative ways. But it works with most students, who love and adore him and who become wonderful Jews.”
Would the rabbi’s behavior be tolerated at an American school or yeshiva?
“Probably not,” Eisenstadt said, adding, “Maybe not anywhere else.” But he said that students and parents know what they are signing up for, and that the overwhelming majority of them are very pleased by the results.
Eisenstadt solicited 11 lengthy testimonials from grateful parents and recent and older students of Rav Bina, including rabbis, each describing their teacher as deeply considerate, personally concerned with them as individuals, and not at all like the “scary” personage they had heard about before coming to his yeshiva.
Ari Berkowitz, who spent the last two years at Netiv Aryeh and is currently living in Israel, awaiting the start of his service in the Israeli army, wrote: “In my years at Netiv Aryeh, Rav Bina has time and again dispelled my initial fears and proven what an incredible human being he is and how much love and care he has not only for Judaism but for each and every one of his students as well.”
Unlike most people, Berkowitz noted, Rav Bina “often does not make a good first impression; however, the more one gets to know him, you realize how kind and caring he is.”
The other writers also noted that what they had heard about Rav Bina in advance of meeting him made them cautious, but that he proved to be warm, insightful, compassionate and devoted to each of his students.
Could the same rabbi be so kind and attentive to some students and controlling of others?
One American rabbi, who asked to remain nameless here, said the negative stories he has heard over the years are “very troubling” to him and that he is certain at least some of them are true. But he said Rav Bina “has helped so many” students and “puts more care into each kid than anybody” that he himself continues to recommend the yeshiva, except for “emotionally fragile” young men.
Dr. Michelle Friedman, a Manhattan psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who directs the pastoral counseling program at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, says she has heard a number of disturbing stories about Rav Bina over the years.
She has written professionally about what she calls “the power and peril of rabbinic charisma,” and speaks of the need for a rabbi’s self-awareness about his or her control over congregants or students, as well as the importance of establishing boundaries.
She questions why parents who are “so concerned about the quality of the food and laundry service” at Israeli yeshivas where they send their children are not more involved in choosing the right psychological environment.
“You’re sending your child thousands of miles away for a year in late adolescence for an intense, isolated experience,” she said, and yet she finds “an unquestioning reverence for what goes on there. It just amazes me.”
In regards to reports about Rav Bina, she asked: “Why are we so accepting? Are we so fearful of critiquing authority? Do parents think, ‘he’s doing a great job, and if we criticize it we’ll be on the outside,’ so they just say nothing?”
Friedman says the hazing analogy, comparing Rav Bina’s technique to an army drill sergeant, doesn’t hold up.
“The assumption is that hazing is somehow necessary for the end product,” she said. “But what about the fallout and destruction wrought by the hazing? What about the impact on the other students who witness it and remain passive? Maybe they figure, ‘he’s a great rabbi, I better not say anything.’”
A number of the students interviewed here said they had heard about Rav Bina’s unusual behavior but were advised, as one said, “if you keep away from him you can have a positive experience” in the yeshiva.
Another said his parents were taken with the Old City setting, the assurance that the students would be safe, with strict curfews, and the reassurance that so many other American students were attending.
The mother of “Andrew,” the boy who alleges Rav Bina slapped him, said that on meeting Rav Bina in the U.S. when he was recruiting, “he came across as eccentric but very grandfatherly.
“We talked to many boys who went there, and they told us, ‘just follow the rules” and steer clear of Rav Bina.
“How we didn’t get it, I just don’t know,” she said ruefully. “We should have seen the red flags.”
How parents make choices is critical for Michelle Friedman. “Maybe the rabbi has a good heart. But if he were, for example, driving a car recklessly, wouldn’t we say something? In this case his words and actions can be dangerous and are antithetical to his Torah. Why don’t people challenge that?”
Yedidya Gorsetman is a senior at Yeshiva University where he is a features editor of The Commentator, the official student newspaper.
Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The Jewish Week. Ben Sales, former editor of New Voices, contributed to this report.