Orthodox rabbis are pledging to take action in confronting the reality of sexual abuse in their midst.
The nation’s main association of centrist Orthodox clergy, the 1,200-member Rabbinical Council of America, has passed a strongly worded resolution committing the organization and its members to report acts or suspicions of child abuse to the police: a watershed break with longstanding practice in the Torah-observant community of protecting errant rabbis rather than reporting them to civil authorities.
At the same time, the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America is fighting behind the scenes in Albany to defeat a bill that would require clergy and religious institutions in New York to review old files and report past allegations against a religious leader.
The centrist Orthodox rabbis’ group will be reconsidering "the role and function" of its Ethics Committee, which has never before dealt with issues related to sexual misconduct. It will adopt policies and procedures for reprimanding, censuring, suspending and revoking memberships of those found guilty of such acts.
Their resolution was unanimously approved by nearly 300 attendees at the group’s annual convention, held May 27-29 at the Rye Town Hilton, after less than an hour of discussion.
"A whole confluence of events inspired us to take a step back and re-evaluate our leadership and responsibility in this area," said Rabbi Mark Dratch, a vice president of the RCA and author of the resolution.
"As rabbis our job is to be the servants of the community. Their welfare and well-being, not only spiritually but physically, is our prime concern," he said. "Otherwise we have no right being rabbis."
He is heading the committee that will re-draft an ethics policy by the organization’s next annual meeting. He hopes to involve mental health professionals and survivors of clergy sexual misconduct in the deliberations, he said.
Events pushing this to the top of the RCA’s agenda at its conference include the fact that rabbinic sexual misconduct in all of Judaism’s major denominations has lately been much in the news, and has been plaguing the RCA’s sister organization, the synagogue body the Orthodox Union, with the conviction of long-time youth leader Rabbi Baruch Lanner.
What’s more, one of the RCA’s members has been facing such allegations. Rabbi Ephraim Bryks has for the last few years run Yeshiva Berachel David, a small Orthodox high school in the Kew Gardens Hills section of Queens. Allegations of child molestation have followed him for years, going back to his leadership of a yeshiva and a congregation in Winnipeg, Canada, two decades ago. Canadian civil authorities investigated charges there and found no conclusive evidence of wrongdoing.
Rabbi Bryks has repeatedly denied the allegations, but because they have continued to circulate, RCA sources say, he is leaving the Queens yeshiva and at the conference, he resigned his RCA membership.
Efforts to reach Rabbi Bryks were unsuccessful. But Rabbi Heshie Billet, immediate past president of the RCA, spoke with him at the convention and told The Jewish Week that Rabbi Bryks "is leaving Jewish education. The school is closing and since he no longer will have a formal rabbinic position he feels it’s not necessary to belong to a professional rabbinic body.
"He told me his resignation should in no way be construed as an admission of guilt. He denies all the allegations against him," said Rabbi Billet. "I don’t know what he’ll be doing next. I just accepted his resignation at face value."
There are no charges or allegations outstanding against any other member of the RCA, Rabbi Dratch said.
Sexual impropriety and related issues were the convention’s focus. Leading rabbis from Chicago and Los Angeles presented case studies of how the Orthodox rabbis in their communities have handled abuse issues. Other sessions addressed rabbinic stress, rabbis and the media, and rabbis and legal issues as they relate to pastoral counseling, said Rabbi Basil Herring, the RCA’s incoming executive vice president. He succeeds Rabbi Steven Dworken, the popular professional who died suddenly earlier this year and was memorialized at a tribute dinner at the convention.
Confronting sexual misconduct and the weave of related issues "is part of an ongoing maturation process for the community in general to have the courage and determination to act aggressively against problems which have always been with us," said Rabbi Dratch.
"A lot of factors are forcing us to deal with it, to assert leadership, and not just to look for cover. We need to do what is necessary for the welfare of the community and the integrity of the Torah."
One of the central elements of the "Resolution Regarding Members Accused of Improprieties" is the exploration of why reporting rabbis suspected of child abuse does not constitute mesirah, which can be translated as one Jew "informing" on another. The principle has long shaped a culture of suspicion toward civil authorities in much of the Orthodox world.
Mesirah is also one of the reasons supplied by Agudath Israel for its opposition to a bill that has passed the state Senate and is currently working its way through the Assembly. The bill would add clergy to other categories of professionals, like educators and health care workers, who are required to report suspected child abuse. A similar bill was killed last year.
The law, if passed, would also require clergy and religious institutions to review records from the preceding 20 years and turn over old allegations to civil authorities.
This would be an "unconstitutional" law, said David Zwiebel, the Agudah’s executive vice president for government and public affairs. The group is working behind the scenes in Albany to defeat it.
"It is a sensitive issue now especially with some of the attention that’s been focused on allegations within our own community," he said. "The last thing we want to be seen as is obstructing whatever legitimate inquiries may be made among our own rabbinate.
"At the same time," said Zwiebel, "it would be unfortunate if the stories that have made their way into the papers and TV programs were to cause the kind of overreaction that this represents by perpetuating the notion that clergy, of all people, are more suspect than any other profession or group in society."