Sisterhood Blog

Confronting 'Religious Celebrities' About Sex Abuse

By Elana Sztokman

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It’s been an intense week for me as a parent. I’m torn between using this space to address my daughter’s experience of being verbally attacked by haredim, while she was praying at the Western Wall (and her writing about the experience on The Sisterhood) versus addressing Rabbi Mordechai Elon’s alleged sexual abuse of his students. Both stories fill me with dread at sending my children out there into the wide world, where evil lurks in the very places that goodness is meant to be. I’m confounded about how to provide my children with tools to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong. And I’m deeply troubled about raising young people to be part of a religious society that seems like it is drenched with iniquity at its very foundations.

The story of Motti Elon is at once shocking and expected. Shocking because of his squeaky-clean public image, but expected because his alleged misdeeds make for a familiar story: Powerful religious leader, vulnerable youth, sexual assault – been there, done that. There was Zeev Kopelevich of Netiv Meir, Baruch Lanner of NCSY, Chief Rabbi of Kiryat Byalik Rabbi Aminadav Krispin, Stanley Z. Levitt of the Maimonides School, and countless more. Many cases go unreported because of a “conspiracy of silence.” I can’t even count how many friends I have who have been sexually attacked by rabbis but ended up not reporting: my college flatmate was molested by a rabbi; another friend groped by her rabbi, while she was ill; a friend’s older brother raped by his Chabad teacher; a colleague harassed by her dean at rabbinical school. And on and on.

So many of the attackers are famous, with worldwide reputations, sparkling smiles and enchanting charisma, that these qualities seem to be part of the profile. As if, the more famous the man is, the more I distrust him; the more celebrity status he has, the more likely I am to assume that he’s hiding his dark side.

The Elon story has also unveiled some of the tricky dynamics involved in confronting religious celebrities about sexual abuse. “Takana,” the religious Zionist organization founded in 2003 to address growing concerns over sexual misconduct by rabbis, has dealt with the story in a complicated way, and I’m not sure if they did the right thing. On the one hand, its members are charged with taking this issue seriously, in a broad and professional forum that is completely unprecedented in its laudable mission. On the other hand, the fact that the organization dealt with Elon in “private” seemed to have made matters worse, not only by providing the alleged victims with a forum to avoid going to the police, but also by transmitting to Elon — who reportedly confessed in front of the private forum to having sex with male students — a certain peace of mind that comes with knowing he will not be criminally prosecuted, so much so that he moved up north and allegedly continued doing the same things. It is hard to tell if Takana’s “field justice” has helped or harmed the situation.

The forum seems to serve a purpose, though, for victims who don’t want to go to the police but want their attackers dealt with somehow. Actually, I understand why victims do not want to go to the police. One only has to look at “Aleph”, the woman who took on former president of Israel Moshe Katzav and went public with her story of rape, to understand how pursuing justice can ruin a victim’s life. “Aleph” has been in the public eye, subject to scrutiny, mockery, and threats, and has since relocated to the United States to escape the scrutiny. In Israel, a rape victim’s entire life is considered suitable material for the defense. Her psychotherapist can even be called to the stand, and anything the victim said during therapy can be discussed publically at length. Some rape crisis centers advise victims not to even start therapy until after the trial is done, in order to avoid the humiliation. “Women’s groups are going to hate me for saying this,” Aleph said at her last press conference, “but my advice to rape victims is, forget the police. Go get therapy and get on with your life. It’s easier.”

So ultimately, victims are forced to ask the question: Which is more important, public justice, or inner peace? Sure, there is a huge value to taking sexual predators off the street, but the process comes at the price of the victim’s life. If I were ever faced with this kind of dilemma, I’m not sure I would choose the path of justice.

As a parent, though, this issue is even more harrowing. Sending our children to educational institutions, encouraging them to trust their rabbis and their teachers, pushing them to build meaningful relationships with strong mentors — these were never meant to be such scary prospects.

I cannot help but wonder if the excessive obsession with gender segregation, body cover and repressed sexuality that are increasingly endemic to the religious community have contributed to the spread of this problem. It seems like the more religious society screams at its members to cover up tight, the more some men will seek out any outlet they can find to fulfill their repressed urges.

As for my other major parenting issue of the week, i.e., my daughter’s encounter with haredi vitriol at the Kotel and afterwards, I guess I’ll have to leave that to my next Sisterhood post.

moshe Sat. Feb 20, 2010

As for you last comment, given that this case is one of male on male abuse, what does tzniut have to do with anything? Further, Taknah has stated that they went forward only after it was clear that the victims were not going to go to the police. Furthermore, at a certain point several years ago, they did go to the Ministry of Justice and the AG ruled that Takanah should continue to handle the case, because the police investigation was unlikely to be productive in the absence of cooperating witnesses.

People have said a lot of negative things about Takanah, or like you shown reservations about their work, however, thus far I am aware of no evidence that would suggest that they did anything but a superlative job.

Shmuel Sat. Feb 20, 2010

Hi Elana,

I read in Makor Rishon that TAKANA did make the authorities (Atroney General &/or police) about the Elon affair and that there was not enough evidence to open a case. Do you know anything about this?

THere was an excellent interview with the woman (Shilat) who seems to be the head of TAKANA. She made a very impressive case for their approach.

I wonder what would have happened if TAKANA did not exist. Would this case also have been pushed aside?

My head is still spinning from all this.

Elana Sat. Feb 20, 2010

Moshe -- It's not just about "tzniut" but about a community that completely represses sexuality and personal passion and desire, and educates for obssessive-compulsive behaviors about body. There are bound to be unhealthy explosions, as we are seeing more and more.

Shmuel -- My head is spinning too. Yediot (Nachum Barnea) reported yesterday that Takana would not give the attorney general Elon's name when they originally spoke three years ago in order not to ruin Elon's life. As I tried to say, the whole Takana thing is very tricky. On the one hand, the fact that it exists puts the issue of sexual violence on the public agenda, and also provides an address for victims who really do not want to go to the police. On the other hand... is 'religious zionism' its own little cloistered enclave, like its own little mafia? Is the RZ community emulating the haredi community?

But I agree, the head of takana has been very, very impressive.

Dani Sun. Feb 21, 2010

Elana, your article is right on the ball! The whole Motti Elon story is awful. The most vile thing is that people still defend him- there is even a Facebook fan page of him. If he had a personal problem like gambling or drinking I can understand forgiveness. But he hurt children! OUR children- children who trusted him. For that he is a criminal, a low life that has no place in our society. The awful stories about his disgusting actions are still coming out from scared children and adults who were abused by him when they were his students.

shirel Sun. Feb 21, 2010

Dani, As A follower of Rav Elon's for years and as a member of his old time Jerusalem community I think it is important that you understand that while people are supporting him they are doing so because it is what he deserves! He did some amazing things for the Jewish Zionist world and the followers and fans on facebook for instance are many people who he actually helped. I personally am NOT defending his possible actions and think that it is very sad if it is true but none of us know all the details yet... You have to understand that people who know and knew him are in shock and dont and won't believe it! It's totally normal that they want to support him.

Elana Mon. Feb 22, 2010

Shirel --

If it were anyone else, just a guy off the street, accused of these acts, would the religious community be so forgiving?

I find it increasingly troubling how many people are reluctant to support the needs of the victims here, just because the accused happens to be a big celebrity. Sharansky, Drukman, Eliyahu... by coming out and declaring their love and support for the man accused of terribly hurting some of his students, they are sending a very distressing message to victims. That is, we don't really believe you.

It's hard enough for a victim to deal with the effects of sexual assault. To have to do it when people are scrutinizing you that way, not really believing you, defending their loyalty to the attacker, is just cruel.

Dani Mon. Feb 22, 2010

If a doctor treated 100 patients and then brutally kills a dozen children, do we stick up for the doctor? Do we say that he helped 100 people so therefore his murder of a dozen children is not so bad? I have also been part of Elon's world for many years. Bottom line, he deserves no respect and should be put on trial an sent to jail for his vile actions.

Menachem Petrushak Mon. Feb 22, 2010

What about Roman Polansky. He is a non-religious celebrity who had been charged with sexual abuse in the U.S.

He escaped to liberated "let it all hang" no sexual repression no tznius Europe. The entire secular and leftist European intelligentsia supported him. He lived and worked opernly there for decades.

A religious person cleans out his own stables first.

Sherlock Holmes Mon. Feb 22, 2010

Tzeniut in the frum male world hasn't changed very much in the past fifty years. We still wear dark suits and white shirts and various headware. Our females appear more 'modest' mainly because the outside world is that much less modest than fifty years ago.

There is a basic concept in Halacha that we judge a person according to their merit until proven otherwise. In idiomatic English this means, we assume a person is innocent until proven guilty. I have assumed the attorney general did not take on the case because what is deemed immodest behaviour in halachic terms might not be criminal in civil law. I have read a wide coverage and still don't know exactly how sexual this conduct was and whether it may have been viewed as a case of two consenting adults. His students need not have been children.

I am inclined to reserve judgment.

Joseph Mon. Feb 22, 2010

To Menachem Petrushak. Roman Polansky allegedly had sex with a thirteen year old girl. That is just as illegal here in 'no tzenius Europe' as it is the the tzeniusdik USA. I recall Polansky was living in Switzerland, not the most liberated of societies. For you to speak of 'Europe' as 'liberated, let it all hang out, no sexual repression, no tzenius Europe' suggests you don't understand just as big and diverse Europe is.

Menachem Petrushka Mon. Feb 22, 2010


My point was not to disparage Europe. I believe that Polansky was finally arrested in Switzerland and extradicted back to the states.

I was trying to question that author's seeming doube standard when it comes to people religious.

Not a word about Roman Polanski and the secular milieu that shielded and honored him for decades. Yet scorn and criticism for the religious miscreants and their society

In her world only religious woomen who are secually assaulted by Rabbis do nor report the crimes.

Secular women draftees and noncoms who are sexually assaultted by their secular officers have a 100% track record in reporting the crimes.

Secular women in the Israeli work place report 100% of their secular bosses' "illegal" adavnaces.

If you believe the above, I have a bridge to sell you.

Steve Mon. Feb 22, 2010

It seems to me there are pedophiles everywhere, and Elana's point is well taken that we need to find more ways to protect victims. But although I'm no fan of recent Orthodox trends with respect to women, I think that we need to remember this was a married man. It not like the Catholic priests who are dealing with an unnatural celibate lifestyle. Nor are we talking about some teenager. This was a guy with a family and a life. The plain fact is pedophiles are in every community. In the insular communities they seem to get protected more because the community has a certain defensive posture toward the outside world in general. Elana, thanks for a great post.

Fred Mon. Feb 22, 2010

Concerning Mr. Holmes comments above that Tziniut concepts havent changed in the frum world in 50 years. With due respect, thats hogwash. While I think its tangential to this discussion, the fact is that as recenly as the 70s' we didnt have seperate seating as much, women in the frum community didnt cover their hair as much. People didnt get out of joint about that. Sitting in the back of the bus in Israel had never occured to anyone. Never crossed their minds. Their have been *enormous* changes in just the last 20 years. (In my view, not all of this was for the better. )

Mike Mon. Feb 22, 2010

Does anyone remember the story of Gedaliah ben Achikam in the book of Jerimiah? There is a fast day for this guy. Gedaliah was appointed govenor in biblical times by the Babylonian types. He was very frum about Lashon HaRah. Didnt want to hear a bad word about anyone. The Gemmora says that when he was told that a friend of his was conspiring to kill him, he refused to believe it. Couldnt be. Innocent until proven... etc. That friend then killed him when he got too close.

The gemorah asked, what was his mistake? After all, loshon harah is a big no-no? The answer is that he didnt take prudent measures. Its one thing to want to assume the best about people. Its another thing to be a darn fool.

Yerachmiel Lopin, FrumFollies Blog Mon. Feb 22, 2010

Great article. Thanks.

1. "Tznius" standards have changed. I grew up in the chareidi world in the 50s and 60s. I was shocked at first by the modern orthodox standards. Nowadays the DL and MO are more cloistered and covered up than the chareidi women used to be. It is less in inches covered than in attitude. Even with no handshaking, chareidi women used to be more comfortable interacting with men. Now even MO/DL have developed more boundaries.

2. I get the impression that once the acts were not prosecutable, and once they got an Elon confession, Takana believed that his accepting exile up north and his agreement to abstain from counseling would be honored. I believe they made a mistake, but it was a mistake in good faith. I do admire their efforts and I am guessing they will not be fooled so easily in the future. However, if they make the same mistake again they will lose their credibility. To date they have shown courage and determination. So I will hope my optimism and confidence is not misplaced.

Rabbi Moshe Pesach Geller Mon. Feb 22, 2010

Thank G-d in the world where there is no notion of tzniut, where there is no sexual repression, where everything is free, there is no sexual abuse. Thank G-d it's restricted only to religious clergy and people.

Elana Tue. Feb 23, 2010

Dear Rabbi Moshe Pesach Geller

Nobody here suggested that in the secular world, sexual violence does not exist. Yet, an ongoing narrative in Orthodox culture is that all this body cover and gender segregation somehow 'protects' the Orthodox community from such evils. My point is that it does NOT and perhaps we should consider whether the obsessive-compulsive culture about body and sexuality in Orthodoxy actually CONTRIBUTES to the problem rather than protect from it.

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