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Interview with Rabbi Yosef Blau on Sexual Abuse in the Orthodox Community

Published: Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Updated: Wednesday, June 29, 2011 12:06

The Observer: Could you please explain who you are and what you do (aside from your activism regarding sexual abuse), your role as Mashgiach Ruchani, etc- basically so everyone has some idea of who you are at the university. Rabbi Yosef Blau: You know what my title is [Mashgiach Ruchani: Spiritual Advisor]: how it plays out in Yeshiva is a good question. I do a lot of different things at Yeshiva. There's a traditional role of Mashgiach which I try to fulfill which involves periodically giving public talks and also being available and working on issues with students, religious or not, which are on their mind. This is the role I have played in Yeshiva over the years. Every situation evolves in its own way and one of the things it evolves into is because of my nature and my interest, I've become somewhat of a bridge between the Yeshiva and the College. And therefore there are issues that are brought to my attention, heated questions of when students don't know if they can take certain courses or don't know how to explain their religious concerns to a professor or vice versa where a professor doesn't understand where their students are coming from and needs someone to explain to the professor what our culture consists of, what the issues and concerns that a student has. In its most recent form, this has involved my literally giving tours to various people to the Beis Midrash to expose them to what we do since many of them have no idea as to what our students do in the morning. Obviously there are secular faculty who know of this, but for those who don't, you need someone to help explain. You could say this should go both ways, but once again, the Roshei Yeshiva have been to Yeshiva College themselves. I do a lot of things in between; I do a lot of different things representing and trying to be the glue in two parts of the institution to get it working well together. Whether that's the formal role of Mashigach: not necessarily. It happens to fit me, so I do it.

The Observer: How did you get so involved in issues of child abuse in the Orthodox community?

Rabbi Blau: In life we do not choose the things to involve ourselves in. God runs the world in a way that we get caught into and exposed to certain things. I was first involved because of small issues, ands later became aware of problematic individuals within the orthodox community. I was one of the judges in the beis din [court of Jewish law] of the Lanner case, which consisted of wonderful people who wanted to carry out a fair judgment. However, circumstances were awkward.

The system that we had until now was not able to deal with the problem of child abuse. I felt guilty before the people who came forward and brought testimony, therefore I took on the responsibility to prevent people from being hurt in the future.

The Observer: What exactly does your activism entail? Do you speak often about the subject of sexual abuse, meet with victims, have you joined an organization- in what way do you consider yourself an activist regarding sexual abuse?

Rabbi Blau: I try in general to separate this from what I do in Yeshiva so that much of the stuff that I do is more individualized. There are people who contact me about personal issues and concerns and I try to be responsive and helpful to them rather than activist in the sense of running organizations and the like. Now periodically I do participate in different things. There is now a Jewish Board for Children, so I have agreed to be on the Rabbinic Advisory Board. I keep this relatively low profile because my major responsibility is to do the job I do, and if I spend too much time in other areas then it would be taking away from the work I should be doing and the work they pay me to do. And therefore I try not to get involved too often. The context at which I spoke at Stern is that there was a Shabbaton where they asked me to speak and it was an appropriate forum. It happens to be a particularly appropriate time because there is 1) Legislation coming up in the state of New York 2) the Orthodox community has become much more aware of this problem in recent times and it is much more on people's agenda than it was in years ago.

The Observer: What were some of the things you learned from your involvement?

Rabbi Blau: I have been disillusioned in the following three areas:

Jews, respected in the community, who are extremely smart, talented and capable-can never the less have abusive personalities and can harm children.

I also learned that in general people do not change. Abusing children is not a sickness that vanishes after six months of therapy.

Despite the fact that it is unpleasant to hand matters over to secular authorities, I have realized that our community is simply not equipped well enough to deal with issues of abuse. We cannot investigate properly, and we cannot take measures strong enough to protect children from potential abuse.

The Observer: Can you provide us with a practical example of inability of the Orthodox world to respond to child abuse from a halakhic and legal standpoint?

Rabbi Blau: More often than rabbis and teachers abusing children, sexual abuse happens in the home by people whom the children view as authorities. Those acts are not committed in public, therefore, kosher witnesses are practically impossible to find. Even if the parents are guilty, the bet din does not possess the authority to take the children away.

We live in community that denies the problem of child abuse and therefore does not do anything about it. Members if the community must understand that it is not enough to fire a staff member who has abused children in the past. Such a person has to remain far away from children. There are countless stories of teachers who retired from their positions, only to find another job in a different institution. Even if the percentage of child abusers is relatively small, the traumatic effect it has on children is enormous.

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