Last week The Jewish Week reported that Gov. Paterson had allocated $500,000 to be channeled to an as-yet-unnamed organization in the Brooklyn Orthodox community. The money is to be used to help address what many now believe is an epidemic of childhood sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox world. While in theory we as a community should welcome governmental support to help us solve our social problems, how does one explain the apparent absence of rabbinic and lay leadership on this issue? When did protecting our children become the job of the governor and a local assemblyman? Where are the voices of our rabbinic and lay leaders?
Until about four years ago, thankfully, I knew little about this issue. In late 2005 I was approached by a friend who had been molested as a teenager by both Rabbi Yehuda Kolko and Avrohom Mondrowitz. When he reported the abuse to Rabbi Kolko’s employer, he and his family were threatened and intimidated into inaction. This many years later he remained haunted by the fact that Rabbi Kolko was still teaching and asked that I help him get the rabbi removed once and for all from working with children.
With the help of a few other committed activists, I did just that. It was, to say the least, an informative process. I learned about the web of cover-ups that had served to protect Rabbi Kolko and also of the mistreatment, suffered not only by my friend, but of other Kolko victims, at the hands of rabbis and leaders revered by many in our community. And I learned, much to my growing shock and horror, about other stories, involving other victims and other predators in other communities from Williamsburg to Lakewood to Stamford Hill to Jerusalem to Bnei Brak.
And every attempt I made to enlist the aid of rabbinic leadership was met with reactions ranging from an unwillingness to deal with the problem, to indifference, to total denial of the existence of a problem — which I have since learned was in all cases completely disingenuous. The rabbis in fact knew about this problem all along and they acted to protect the pedophiles and intimidate the victims and their families, all the while maintaining a public silence.
This from the same people who organized tens of thousands to pressure Florida’s Gov. Crist to commute the death sentence of a Jew who brutally murdered a Florida Wildlife Officer. These same people were unable to issue even one statement about the arrest and guilty plea of Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, who had been an employee of Camp Agudah and Yeshiva Torah Temimah, a member school of Torah Umesorah. The same people who also remained silent on efforts to have Rabbi Avrohom Mondrowitz extradited from Israel to the U.S. in order to face trial for the rape of young boys in Borough Park. The same people who sat silently as Dov Hikind disclosed on his radio show how hundreds of victims of multiple offenders — including many teachers and rabbis — had contacted him, begging for help.
When they finally spoke, their words were not encouraging.
Our rabbinic leaders’ first public statement on this issue came last year, prompted by the introduction of the Child Victims Act of New York, commonly referred to as the Markey Bill. This pending legislation would allow victims of childhood sexual abuse below the age of 53 one year to file currently time-barred civil lawsuits. Numerous Jewish organizations came out in support of the bill. However, Agudath Israel of America and Torah Umesorah (The National Society for Hebrew Day Schools) issued a joint statement opposing it.
In it they explained that their “vigorous” opposition to the bill was based on the fear of “crippling financial liability” that could jeopardize “the very existence” of yeshivas and communal institutions. The rabbis’ sudden shift from consistently denying the existence of the problem to a public statement acknowledging a problem so severe it poses an existential threat to yeshivas and organizations they run serves to highlight the depth of our community’s crisis of leadership.
If this sounds familiar, that is because it is. Our rabbis have chosen a well-trodden path: that of the Catholic Church.
In Vayikra 4:22 the Torah teaches us asher nasi yechtah, that when leaders sin their obligation is to publicly confess and atone. Our sages praise such behavior and declare it to be the very essence of a leader. Oddly, we live in a time when our rabbinic leadership have replaced this value with a modern concept known as “daas Torah,” essentially a new ultra-Orthodox Jewish equivalent to Papal Infallibility.
The time has come for a shift to the Torah approach, a mass confession, a loud and public mea culpa by our rabbinic leadership. Chohchma b’goyim, taamin, believe there is wisdom among the gentiles. Respectfully, it is time to emulate Pope Benedict XVI, who recently came to New York and publicly apologized to those molested by priests. I dare say the image of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, the Council of Torah Sages, publicly apologizing for their wrongdoing would do much to comfort those they have hurt most.
But in the meantime, it behooves all of us to do everything we can to protect our children and save our community. This is not a task for the few; in order for it to succeed, all of us must participate. Be honest and open with your children so they will be comfortable talking with you about these issues. If, God forbid, something does happen to your child, don’t ask a rabbi’s permission before you act to protect your family. This is a crime; report it to the police.
Just as important, if you know of someone who is going through this terrible crisis, offer your vocal and emotional support. Let them know that you and the community are with them. It’s that simple. n
Ben Hirsch is the president of Survivors for Justice, an organization that advocates on behalf of survivors of sexual abuse and their families in the ultra-Orthodox community.