Richard Joel was unequivocal: one strike and you should be out.
The head of the Jewish campus organization Hillel, and chairman of the commission convened to look into the Orthodox Union’s mishandling of the misdeeds of former youth leader Rabbi Baruch Lanner, said any religious leader behaving in a sexually or physically abusive manner should be kicked out of whatever position he inhabits.
“It’s a no-brainer,” said Joel. “Leadership is a right, not a privilege.”
If rabbis mess up, “they forfeit their leadership,” he said. “Teshuvah [repentance] is not the issue. The community does not owe them a second shot at communal leadership.”
Joel was one of three panelists at a discussion convened last week by the Modern Orthodox group Edah at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, and Dr. Michelle Friedman, a psychotherapist who often counsels victims of sexual misconduct, also spoke at the Jan. 29th gathering, which was titled “Jewish Town Hall: Moral Offenses by Religious Leaders.”
While the topic was broad, the evening’s informal theme focused on how the OU and the Orthodox community have handled the “Lanner case,” as it has come to be known.
“The topic is something that should be of ongoing concern to our community,” said Rabbi Bob Carroll, Edah’s program director, in an interview after the discussion. “It’s something the community needs to confront, and not just because of the governance issues of one organization.”
About 50 people attended the evening, and nearly 500 tuned into a live videocast on the Internet.
Friedman, who teaches counseling to rabbinical students at the Modern Orthodox seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, spoke about the psychological framework in which sexual offenses take place, calling it “an incestuous kind of boundary crossing.”
“When a rabbi is having a sexual relationship with a congregant or young person, it is never mutual,” she said. “It can’t be. There is always an imbalance of power.”
Friedman said she has never seen offending rabbis be rehabilitated, but they are often shuffled between positions and communities while their behavior continues.
The Conservative movement’s Rabbi Meyers spoke more protectively of his constituents, the rabbis who are accused. He said there are cases, though relatively rare, in which a rabbi who engages in sexual misconduct stays in his congregation and everyone is able to move ahead.
Rabbi Meyers warned against gossip about rabbis, and said that many of the complaints he hears are simple mistakes of judgment or miscommunication between a rabbi and congregant rather than true wrongdoing.
Joel voiced confidence that the new OU executive vice president, mental health professional Rabbi Tzvi Weinreb, would bring about the necessary changes. But laypeople must make sure change occurs, he said.
“If you and I together keep their feet to the fire, then the OU will be reinvented,” Joel said. “All of us have a responsibility to support the OU in its transition [to a new administration] and to expose them if they don’t.”