In the wake of the arrest last week of Rabbi Israel Kestenbaum in a police Internet sex sting operation, the director of a Los Angeles-based residential treatment program for Jews with addictive and behavioral disorders believes a similar program is needed here and has offered to assist.
“If we can share what we have learned in our 16 years of existence, we would be glad to help,” said Harriet Rossetto, director of Beit T’Shuvah, believed to be the country’s only residential program for Jewish adults.
Rossetto said three of the 110 Jews in her program are rabbis there for sexual addiction. She is convinced that their cases, as well as the arrests in recent years of rabbis accused of sex crimes, are “just the tip of the iceberg.”
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, for whom Rabbi Kestenbaum worked as the director of chaplaincy for the past nine months, said he would discuss Rossetto’s offer this week with the officers of the Board of Rabbis.
“Anything that strengthens the character of the people and deals with issues that years ago were not as obvious or open as today we should [consider],” Rabbi Potasnik said. “When there is a problem of this nature, the organization has to confront it and not conceal it. That is why the decision was made to cooperate with authorities; the public really wants the authorities to investigate fully.
“We have heard of instances in which organizations have not been forthcoming, but we have to be committed [to cooperating with the authorities].”
Rabbi Kenneth Hain, immediate past president of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America, of which Rabbi Kestenbaum is a member, said he was unaware of Beit T’Shuvah “but I certainly would be interested in talking with [Rossetto].”
Rabbi Hain said his organization’s 40-member executive committee would be meeting within the next two weeks and could be expected to discuss the status of Rabbi Kestenbaum’s membership.
“When you have a situation in which a person is charged with conduct that would be regarded as improper or unbecoming a rabbi, there is an obligation to allow the judicial process to take place,” he said. “There may still be the option to suspend a member during that judicial process. The executive would decide that after reviewing the situation.
“We would act appropriately for the dignity of the rabbinate and to be compassionate to any member and his family.”
Rabbi Hain said he could not recall any instance in which a member of the RCA had been suspended for sexual improprieties.
The call for a treatment program for rabbis comes after a string of much-publicized cases involving Jewish clergy charged with sexual abuse of minors. They include Rabbi Baruch Lanner, who last June was sentenced to seven years in prison for sexually abusing two girls when he was principal of a New Jersey yeshiva in the 1990s. Rabbi Lanner is free pending an appeal.
Also, Cantor Howard Nevison of Temple Emanu-el in Manhattan was charged last spring with sexually abusing his young nephew. That trial has not begun.
Rabbi Kestenbaum’s arrest is not the first involving a rabbi accused of using the Internet to lure minors. In December 2001, Rabbi Jerald Levy, 58, of Boca Raton, Fla., was sentenced to six years in federal prison for downloading child pornography and luring teenage boys to meet him for sex. He was arrested when he arrived at a rendezvous arranged by an undercover detective who had posed online as a teenager.
Rabbi Kestenbaum, 54, of Highland Park, N.J., was arrested at his office following a monthlong sting operation. The rabbi allegedly entered an on-line chat room called “I Love Older Men” and struck up a conversation with a detective from the New York Police Department’s Computer Investigation and Technology Unit who was posing as a 13-year-old girl named “Katie.” He is said to have called himself Kestenbaum1.
Rabbi Kestenbaum allegedly had about a dozen on-line chats with Katie and propositioned her using graphic language. He reportedly asked her to describe herself, including her bra size, sexual experience and whether she had ever been with an older man.
He is said to have asked to meet Katie and gave her his cell phone number, which was registered to the New York Board of Rabbis. A female detective placed the call and they reportedly arranged to meet Jan. 16 at a coffee shop. Authorities said he showed up and left when no one was there to meet him.
Rabbi Potasnik said Rabbi Kestenbaum was director of the board’s Jewish Center for Spiritual Care, where he trained and supervised rabbis who serve as chaplains at correctional institutions, hospitals and other health-related facilities.
Following his arrest, Rabbi Kestenbaum immediately was placed on administrative leave.
His salary is to be paid into an escrow account, Rabbi Potasnik said.
Rabbi Kestenbaum has six children, five from his first marriage. Published reports said his second wife began divorce proceedings before his arrest and that she feared for their 9-year-old daughter’s safety.
The rabbi pleaded not guilty to five felony charges of attempted dissemination of indecent material to a minor and 10 misdemeanor counts of attempting to endanger the welfare of a child. His lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, said he is confident the facts will prove that Rabbi Kestenbaum did not violate the law.
“The evidence is very clear that Rabbi Kestenbaum did not intend to engage in any sexual activity with the person he was communicating with, who was in fact an undercover police officer,” Brafman said.
“This is obviously a very sad case because Rabbi Kestenbaum appears to be a very gentle, sweet man who has suffered public humiliation over this incident that nobody deserves,” he added. “Even if at the end of the day the charges are dismissed or he is completely exonerated, the reputation of a wonderful man will have in my judgment been unfairly tarnished.”
Rabbi Hain pointed out that in the last few years the RCA has included such issues as divorce, spousal and child abuse, and families at risk in its rabbinic continuing education conferences.
“There has also been a greater inclusion of issues … that a generation ago did not confront rabbis, from addiction to eating disorders and homosexuality,” Rabbi Hain added. “These are issues that are in our midst and we obviously can’t stick our heads in the sand. We have to confront them and learn about them so that we are equipped as rabbis to deal with them.”
Rabbi Jack Bloom, a psychologist and author of “The Rabbi as Symbolic Exemplar: By the Power Vested in Me,” said he believes instances of rabbis engaging in deviant and criminal sexual behavior is no greater today than in previous years.
“It’s just that what has happened in the Catholic Church has made the issue more prominent and people are less afraid” of going public with accusations against the clergy, he said. “And it makes great press because people believe the clergy are supposed to be better than other people.”
In the aftermath of two highly publicized child abuse cases involving a rabbi teaching at a day school and a kosher butcher, the Chicago Rabbinical Council a number of years ago established a special bet din, or rabbinical court, to address allegations of sexual abuse of children. The court consists of four rabbis who consult with a team of area rabbis, social workers, psychologists and lawyers in reviewing complaints.
Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski, executive director of the Chicago Rabbinical Council and a member of the bet din’s advisory board, said if the bet din believes there is truth to allegations of sexual abuse involving children, “we will get that person away from that sector of the community.”
“We don’t want to destroy a human being, but at the same time we have to protect the community,” said Rabbi Ozarowski, formerly of Long Island. “We don’t compete with the police. Once the person has been arrested, the bet din does not have a role.”
He stressed that Jewish law has different standards of proof than criminal law and something that would be considered immoral may not be criminal.
Rabbi Ozarowski said he recently received a complaint of sexual abuse against someone who was a youth adviser 20 years ago and is now living in the Chicago area.
“If he is now working with teens, we would want to remove him” from that position, he said.