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Rabbinate’s silence allows abusers to flourish

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A few years ago, I read in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) about a schism in a small American synagogue, and saw red. Rabbi XYZ had recently joined this congregation as a member after a stint in prison. Half of the shul objected to having him in the shul and having their children near him, the other half felt that he had served his sentence, and should be forgiven and welcomed back.

I was incensed. In 1989, the Cape Town synagogue to which I belonged had sent the same Rabbi XYZ packing after discovering that he had been sexually abusing their children. He had arrived some months before from New York, with glowing references about his abilities and his vast Talmudic knowledge. The New York rabbis who had composed those references knew what they were doing, and knew what he had done, and thought South Africa would be far enough away to avoid exposure. Our chief rabbi then ensured that no other South African synagogue would employ him, in spite of those references.

The implication of the JTA article was that for more than 20 years afterwards, Rabbi XYZ had moved from shul to shul in America, accompanied by glowing references from rabbis who thought it more important to keep quiet and take care of their own than to protect children from a known sexual predator until finally, some principled congregational leaders ignored mesira (reporting the conduct of another Jew to a non-rabbinic authority), and he was charged and sentenced to prison.

The Catholic Church has been rightfully condemned for protecting sexual abusers in its fold. Unfortunately, hiding behind the notion of lashon harah (derogatory speech about a person) and the unwillingness to admit wrongdoing among their colleagues, our rabbinate often does the same. Surely it should be as important to protect our children as it is to protect the reputation of rabbinical rascals?

When the scandal about Chaim Walder broke, many Israeli Haredi authorities chose to attack the journalists who had exposed him and caution against the harm of gossip, rather than focus on the pain of the victims and the culture of silence that had shielded the sexual perpetrator for years.

We are grateful to the SA Jewish Report for not conforming to the culture of silence, and for its willingness to publish articles like those from Rabbi Thurgood, Rozanne Sack, and Wendy Hendler, and to organisations like Koleinu SA, which take action to ensure that monsters like Rabbi XYZ will be exposed in South Africa and victims of abuse will be protected and supported.

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