Thursday, August 14, 2014

Of Batei Din, Girls Seminaries, Vulnerable People and the Internet...

Guest post by RaP

Something very radical has happened especially in the last five years! Vulnerable populations in the Charedi and Orthodox world have found their voices and are being heard.

The current dispute between a respectable Bais Din based in Chicago, USA ("CBD") and one in Jerusalem, Israel ("IBD") is the latest of an ongoing new phenomenon. Previously defenseless and voiceless people, often silenced or buried by legal tricks if one applies the strictest interpretations of Halachah, have found a way to make their cases openly and publicly with dramatic results -- namely the downfall of their tormentors.

What is now coming to the fore at the core of the dispute between the CBD and IBD is the credibility and reliability of the people at the center of the crisis, the alleged victims the seminary girls who evidently are being "protected" by the CBD while the IBD is indicating that without clear and direct reliable testimony ("eidus") from someone reliable the entire case stands on shaky grounds. But while this may be true from a narrow beit din perspective, in a broader context were the alleged victims of sexual abuse to launch a case in secular courts in the USA, as they now have, and go public (as they have to a degree indirectly via the CBD) the IBD could lose in the court of public opinion not to mention in dina demalchusa dina secular courts that have shown a predisposition to favor the rights of the victims of abuse over those of the accusers and their enablers and protectors in recent years as trends have shown.

Who are these vulnerable people and populations in the Charedi world? It is not hard to put together a very disturbing pattern that has merged with many commonalities and in the end predictable results.

The current vulnerable people are the American seminary girls, usually they are very immature and naive and spoiled, that go to "sem" in Israel for a year. They are a VERY vulnerable population primed unwittingly for the wiles of cunning predators of all kinds, not just rabbis. There are boys who are looking to pick up these girls.

 There are adults who wait for the girls like fishermen waiting for migrating sardines to catch them in their nets of seduction. It is very easy to take advantage of such a weak population of flighty females far from home, lonely and bursting with hormones and romantic imaginations. After all a lot of the talk and the shiurim are about dating, tznius, shomer negiah, and all sorts of "talks" that are really about the "yetzer hora le'arayos" meaning sexual drives and how to deal with this force of human energy. A topic than can and does easily go awry as we see in the current scandal when a so-called notable principal Elimelech Meisels was outed as molesting his students for at least a decade.

Probably the start of this problem as a public discussion goes back to the days of the Mondrowitz case in the USA decades ago. He tricked and groomed boys and girls into trusting him as a "therapist" and when word got out that he was allegedly molesting them he fled. But not before powerful rabbis in the USA accused him of his terrible misdeeds and he was forced to flee to Israel protected by the some in the Chasidic establishment. There have been other cases like this from the Chasidic world.

The real watershed case is the Kolko case where after decades of complaints and again battles between US-based rabbis versus Israel-based rabbis a tug of war ensued, and then real legal cases were launched that forced Kolko's resignation from his yeshiva. The victims were vulnerable young boys who were not believed for many years until too many added up and the cases went viral in secular courts of law per din demalchusa dina and also on the Internet. Kolko was forced to resign in shame.

Another serious case pitting groups of rabbis and batei din against each other was the Tropper and EJF fiasco. At the core of the accusations that finally brought Tropper and the EJF crashing down and in disgrace was the revelation that vulnerable prospective geirim (converts) and baalei teshuva had been coerced into immoral sexual behavior to either get their conversions or get the approval of their rabbi. In the end serious revelations on the Internet following much debate back and forth and always every side claiming it had the support of Gedolim on its side did not help because of the weight of the revelations that in the end were graphically recorded and posted on the Internet and no one could argue. Is this what the IBD wants? graphic videos to be posted on the Internet to prove the alleged victims' cases, it can easily be done with blacking out the faces of the victims to protect against invasion of privacy.

Other cases involved another type of vulnerable person, the "off the derech" (OTD) population. Such was the situation in a case where a father, Michael Hersh with the backing of his rabbi Aron Schechter, sent his young teen son to a far-off island to a "boot camp" to "set him right" to try to change the OTD behavior. It backfired because the case was taken up on the Internet and a huge battle erupted between Gedolei Yisroel about whether to rescue the boy or not eventually involving the US  State Department and civil rights lawyers. Is that what the IBD wants for the current case to reach such proportions? Teen girls have been sexually molested by a sexually-hungry beast in the guise of a "rabbi" and they and their parents are hurting and they seek justice, and they will get it in today's milieu. When kids are desperate they will find protectors and in today's world merely citing strict Halachic "guidelines" is not enough, one needs to have a broader understanding of the world.

 Besides Halacha does not require that victims be ignored. The Torah requires that the voice of a "ger, yasom, ve'almana" (convert, orphan, widow) NOT be ignored! Similarly in the case of a Chasidic "counselor" from Williamsburg where eventually an OTD teen was brave enough to press charges and tell her story to a jury regardless that all the gutte Yidden in Williamsburg did not like it. Because at a certain point vulnerable people get tired of the abuse, then they seek out and find protectors and the alleged perpetrators even land up behind bars for a very long time. Is that what the IBD wants by resisting the demands of the victim teenage girls who were allegedly groped and raped by Meisels as his cohorts covered up and protected him?

Another sad trend are the cases of incest where previously respectable rabbis in the Chasidic and the Litvish world sexually abused their own children for years. In one case after the daughter accused the father a huge court case erupted and the father was jailed even though Gedolim backed him. In another case a daughter revealed her torments to a friend who reported the situation and the father had to flee to Israel.

Israeli batei din and Yiddish-speaking Chasidish communities are better "enforcers" and have "bouncers" and even "hit men" imposing ""group think" and "group disciple" and deploying arguments to defend the more powerful rabbis who have been accused of alleged sexual and abusive behavior. While the English-speaking Charedi world especially in the USA has a relatively easier time going to the secular authorities, as one would call the police if a mugger or burglar or rapist attacked a victim, making their case in courts, and revealing and explaining themselves via advocates on the Internet. That is why so many of the rabbonim speak out against "blogs" what they are saying is we are stronger than you, just come to a bais din (ha ha) and we will prove that you are a "NOTHING" -- which is why the victims are frightened because they know they will be attacked and ripped to shreds.

Another scenario is vulnerable and lonely and needy women who go to rabbis for counseling and somehow find themselves ensnared in compromising situations. This has led to terrible disputes between various batei din and notable rabbis in the USA, UK and Israel. Many notable rabbis have been forced to resign in disgrace!
Yet another group of vulnerables are kids in summer camps and kids in orphanages who have little power to protect themselves against stronger campers and staff members who specialize in terrorizing and abusing campers and the weak. Such cases too have led to major scandals and an awareness of the dangers.

After all when you have, either vulnerable seminary girls, potential geirim, baalei teshuva, lonely women, young boys and children in families all at the mercy of powerful rabbinic authority figures and if that figure happens to be a charismatic rabbi who in turn is backed up by even more powerful rabbis and institutions what chance would the vulnerable people have in facing their accusers in front of a bais din? No wonder they sometimes go off the derech and give up on Yiddishkeit, some tragedies occur when they get deeply depressed and commit suicide out of sheer hopelessness, or turn to dina demalchusa dina in secular courts and are prepared to go to the media even and they win at the risk of being labeled "rodfim" and "mosrim", and of course make use of that great equalizer the Internet from which nothing can be hidden.

Any bais din or posek faced by such challenges and who wants to know how they can believe these kind of weak people ("shvache mentshen") when evidently they assume Halacha tells them to brush them aside, maybe Rav Eliashiv had it right that if there are "raglayim ledavar" essentially meaning "where there is smoke, there is fire" then the victims should be believed because that too is the Halacha and it is yashrus and the truth (emes)!