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Protecting children from sexual misconduct at yeshivot

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TALI FEINBERG

In 2013, a prominent rabbi, Rav Moti Elon, was convicted of committing an indecent sexual act against a minor on two occasions.

A storm has now erupted around Rabbi Haim Druckman, a leader of the national-religious movement in Israel, who publicly backed Elon in spite of his conviction, even after evidence arose several weeks ago of new incidents of sexual abuse by Elon over the past 12 months.

In early January, a major anonymous philanthropist who has contributed millions of dollars to Bnei Akiva and its various institutions froze donations because of the expected participation of Druckman at the movement’s upcoming world conference, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Druckman, the chairman of Bnei Akiva yeshivas and seminaries – and perhaps the most influential rabbi in the national-religious sector – has been criticised for stating that the judge was wrong to convict Elon, and inviting Elon to lecture at his Ohr Etzion Yeshiva in Merkaz Shapira.

On 22 January, Druckman finally issued a statement expressing the importance of standing up to sex offenders and predators – and on the side of those harmed by such people.

Yet some feel this was not enough. Even the president of the Rabbinical Council of America and eight former presidents jointly called on Druckman to apologise to the victims of Elon, and acknowledge that he made a mistake in supporting Elon in 2013. They also said that he should establish professional guidelines to protect students of yeshivot from sexual molestation and abuse.

Last week, the leadership of Bnei Akiva Australia and the Zionist Federation of Australia wrote a letter saying that “child protection and welfare are of paramount importance to Bnei Akiva. This case reinforces the importance of being extra vigilant in protecting our channichim (participants) and channichot who are our foremost priority. It is for this very reason we are disappointed that Rav Druckman not only supported a continued sex offender back in 2013, but to date has failed to apologise or express regret for that support.”

Illan Biddle, the National Chairman of Bnei Akiva South Africa, said, “As Bnei Akiva South Africa, we see the protection of our channichim as our number-one priority. As a result, we have a zero tolerance policy towards any sexual harassment. Moreover, our madrichim have attended sexual misconduct lectures and training sessions by psychologists. With these high standards, we affirm the safety of our channichim on all our programmes.”

Nicci Raz, the National Director of the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF), said, “The SAZF supports the underlying principle recently expressed by the Australian Zionist Federation that protection of our children is the highest priority and abuse should never be condoned, nor covered up. It is for this reason that the SAZF works closely with the leadership of all the Jewish youth movements locally to ensure that those in positions of authority who are responsible for looking after our children are well educated on safety, security, and protection protocol and policies.”

She said that as a mother who is sending her daughter on a Bnei Akiva gap-year programme this year, she had full confidence that her daughter was in safe hands.

Manny Waks, himself a victim of child sexual abuse, and who started Kol v’Oz, which works to prevent abuse in the global Jewish community, said, “Rabbi Haim Druckman is the de-facto head of Bnei Akiva worldwide, so when we send our children on Bnei Akiva programmes, they go through Druckman’s institutions.

“At the same time, if there are other victims of Moti Elon and others within the national religious movement, this approach by Druckman would ensure that the victims remain silent because they have seen that the leadership prefers to stand with the perpetrators rather than the victims.”

In this context, “What are we doing to ensure that our children are protected by the leadership in Israel?” asks Waks.

In South Africa, Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein has taken a zero-tolerance approach to any forms of abuse, and has set up an Abuse Review Board as a safety net to ensure that every report of abuse is properly dealt with and that no victim is left unprotected.

“The threat of sexual abuse afflicts every society in the world. Therefore, as a community, we need to adopt an approach of zero tolerance, transparency, and accountability when dealing with these issues,” says Goldstein.

“For these reasons, I established the board to ensure that no accusation of abuse is swept under the carpet. We must confront this threat with fearlessness, honesty, and relentless commitment.”

The chief rabbi has thrown his support behind Koleinu SA, which is working to combat any form of abuse in the Jewish community.

“Once a report is made,” says Koleinu SA Director, Wendy Hendler, “it is absolutely critical that the organisation removes the alleged perpetrator from any involvement with children with immediate effect.” This was not done in the Elon case.

“The worldwide consensus of Halachic opinion holds that suspected or actual cases of child abuse need to be reported directly to the police without first obtaining permission from the religious authorities,” says Hendler, who is herself a rebbetzin.

“Do not make the classic mistake of believing that a rabbi who is your spiritual leader is incapable of such acts. Religious observance does not necessarily preclude people from performing sexually deviant acts on either adults or children,” she says.

But, are rabbis protected in these cases? “Yes, because people generally tend to want to believe that their religious leader – in whom they have placed their trust – is innocent. The psychological axiom is that we want to feel safe in our world, and admitting [the contrary] rocks a person’s world to its core,” says Hendler.

“Rabbis are also human beings who can commit heinous sexual offences. In fact, rabbis need to be held more strongly to account because they have a platform entrusted to them, and in a way this makes it easier for them to exploit vulnerable individuals, whether they be students or community members.”

Hendler believes that rabbis should be trained in the nature of sexual predators, their poor prognosis for rehabilitation, the danger they pose to the lives of unsuspecting victims, and the real damage caused to institutions which are soft on them.

“Furthermore, institutions should never deal with these cases internally as there is an unconscious bias towards protecting their institution and making sure that its reputation is unsullied,” says Hendler.

“This prevents the correct protocols being implemented. The result is that the rabbi continues to molest into the future. There are external bodies in every community worldwide which are well equipped and specialised to manage these cases in accordance with the law of their country.”

Hendler emphasises that parents should make sure that the institution their child is attending is compliant in terms of having a policy, reporting protocols, and training, monitoring and vetting staff.

“In Israel, Tahel [a crisis centre for religious women and children] has a certification process for child protection which ensures that the organisation becomes a safe space for children. Parents must find out this information before sending their children off to learn in Israel. There is nothing pushy or impolite about asking these vital questions, which could be life-saving. It also places pressure on these institutions to implement safety policies and procedures.”

  • Tahel can be contacted on tahel@crisiscenter.org.il. Koleinu SA can be contacted on koleinusa@gmail.com or its helpline: 011 264 0341.

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