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

By Olivia Wiznitzer & Estee Goldschmidt
On May 5, 2009

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.
Institutions just want to rid themselves of a problem-to clear its reputation, parents do not want people to know because of the negative effects such information can have on reputation, shidduchim [marriage], and publicity. The fact that a large percentage of people who sexually abuse children, are themselves victims of abuse also keeps families interested in silence. The Community does not want publicity either. However, silence does not help.

The Observer: What do you think the role of newspapers and the press is in terms of publicizing offenders/ sexual abusers? Is this something they should do or ought they to keep quiet?

Rabbi Blau: There's the theoretical answer and the realistic one. Theoretically, one should not want to try people in newspapers. Newspapers are not objective sources. People can be convicted over media which is unfair. Media is not a trial. It does not necessarily produce accurate results. But having said that, in a practical sense at the present time, the newspapers have proved to be a very effective tool, perhaps a necessary tool, because of the community. Obviously, the problem of abuse is not restricted to any one community; I don't want to even think that. The Orthodox Jewish community, which is one that is uncomfortable with acknowledging problems in the community, tends to therefore deny the problems. The media has turned out to be, to play a very important role in forcing the community to confront the issues rather than stay in denial. And in very specific situations, the media has been really responsible for something happening. There are specific cases- one well-known case in the Modern Orthodox community was the case of a very prominent, perhaps in many respects, the leading person at NCSY for a quarter of the century, very charismatic and unfortunately also very inappropriate in his behavior with teenage women in one way and in another way with teenage boys, sexual things with the women, kicking the boys in the groin, and nothing was done until a Jewish weekly ran articles. Similar things in the Chareidi community - the community gets angry at the newspapers and thinks they are anti-Orthodoxy. And sometimes, not always, that is true. But it's also true that if a community does not face the issues, they fester. Since in general (and there are exceptions to every rule) but in general, sexual abusers do not change. They do not get better. Even with treatment, the repeat rate of offense is extremely high. Even if there is a relatively small number of people [who are abusers], if they are not stopped, they can harm tremendous numbers. The examples I mentioned, this person who was a youth leader; there are also examples of teachers in schools, a teacher can affect hundreds and hundreds of kids. In our community, it is very hard, because of the way the community looks at people who have been victimized. There are literally people who think that if this information gets out it will hurt the victims' families for shidduchim. And the community has not, up until now, faced the issue squarely, so the media is the only way to get attention. Similarly, in New York, more attention was given when an Orthodox assemblyman in New York started commenting about sexual abuse cases on a radio program that he gives. That unfortunately makes it almost a necessity to publicize. Otherwise, these people just go and hide. So the media can play a very important role in dealing with it; it's important that the media be very responsible in this regard. If they spread stories about someone who is actually innocent, they can destroy someone's life.

The Observer: Do you think enough Rabbanim/ Roshei Yeshiva (both here at YU and throughout the world) know about sexual abuse? Do they speak out about it? Ought they to speak out more? What are ways in which they can help?

Rabbi Blau: I think that there are people who take an active role in dealing with it and I think it's important that we train Rabbanim to be aware of this because when such events occur, when a child was abused, they often go first to the Rabbanim! And if the Rabbanim are not well-trained and don't understand these matters, the Rabbanim can obviously not be helpful. I think this has started to change. One of the people who changes pastoral psychology in Yeshiva is Dr. Pelcovitz who is a well-known person in this area. Up until now, people don't know much about it and don't know how to give intelligent responses to it. This is also a very difficult area because we don't want to believe it's going on. For a couple of reasons. Because it's a horrible thing, because we don't want to believe it happens in our community and because part of our religious way of looking at the world is to believe that someone who keeps Torah and mitzvos you become a better person. So how can it be that someone who is nominally observant can do such a thing? I think there are answers to that question. The notion that when you are shomer mitzvos [keep God's commandments], you suddenly do no wrong is not found anywhere. Jews have a yetzer hara [evil inclination] like everyone else and do things wrong like everyone else. Without getting into what's an illness, it's clear that there are people who have ways of looking at a certain things that are sources of tremendous problem. It is our job to protect victims, not the image of the community. This is a big problem for the Orthodox community. The Orthodox community often feels threatened. The Orthodox community does not often get very good press; it's seen as strange and therefore feels like it has to preserve its image. In the Chareidi world there's an even bigger problem because they are endlessly concerned with maintaining the image of the community. Interestingly, the blogs play in a role in this. There are a number of blogs: Un-Orthodox Jew is the primary one, Failed Messiah, Harry Maryles now, because many of the people in the community feel that they have no voice and they can only call out their pain on a blog where they can be anonymous or use a pseudonym. I want to be fair. I think the leadership of the community has started to shift its concerns. This past March, the Yated Ne'eman, which practically never writes negative things about the Orthodox Jewish community, had an editorial about this. Now it's true the editorial is very defensive of Rabbanim and how much they have done, but this is not a publication that often writes about internal problems for others. Mispacha magazine interviewed Dr. Pelcovitz. Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz in Monsey who works a great deal with at-risk teenagers, kids who have dropped out of the system, observance, yeshiva, school, they're spending time on the streets; he has publicly said that the number of people who have been abused as children [and then leave Orthodoxy] is far greater than all the other reasons that people give. There's a growing awareness in the community.

The Observer: Sometimes principals of schools forgive abuse (physical abuse, usually) because they think they are doing a mitzva by allowing the teacher to stay on and make a parnassa. Do you think that is correct behavior?
Rabbi Blau: I think it's absurd. We don't have schools for teachers to make a living. We have schools for children to learn. And if we worry about people making a livelihood, we should find other ways of their making a living, but not at the expense of children.

There's a story that's told and I can't vouch for its authenticity that one of R' Aaron Kotler's talmidim [students] wanted to teach but was having trouble controlling the class. So the principal wanted to let him go but he felt terrible, so he asked R' Kotler whether he should let him go and R' Kotler said, "Oh, it's a rachmonos [a pity]" and the principal thought he couldn't let him go because it was a "rachmonos" for his wife and children. "No!" said R' Kotler; "it's a rachmonos on the children [that this man was teaching] !" I am speaking from my own perspective. It takes a lot of mesiras nefesh [self-sacrifice] to be in Chinuch [teaching]. If a teacher can't control himself and will beat the children, then what is the good of that? Some people think, by the way, that emotional abuse can be more traumatic than physical and sexual.

The Observer: The website (Reform the Statute of Limitations on Child Sexual Abuse) was recently started by Cardozo Law School, an affiliate of Yeshiva University. Did you have any involvement with that? What are your thoughts on the site and its aims?

Rabbi Blau: I was not involved in that directly. I participated in the one-day conference on March 3 that was held in Cardozo by Mark Hamilton and a group of Cardozo Advocates for Kids. It wasn't just Jewish things. They asked me to speak about the Orthodox Jewish community and I chose to speak about why the Orthodox Jewish community has difficulty going to the authorities on these things, because I felt it was important on the one hand for people to understand the factors that stand in the way of Orthodox Jews going to secular authorities. On the other hand, I wasn't trying to justify it; I was going to explain why I think the internal mechanisms are really incapable of dealing with this and why therefore I think they [members of the Orthodox Jewish community] have to cooperate and go to the police.

The issue involved is that a child being abused is extremely traumatic and very difficult and children rarely come forward. It's particularly problematic for them if they are abused by someone they see as an authority figure which could mean an adult, parent, close relative or a teacher, coach; anyone who is authority to them. And therefore abused children won't tell anybody. And only years later when the effect upon them causes them to get help, because something's off and there's something preventing them from developing normal relationships or they react strangely to certain stimuli, that they begin to be able to deal with what they went through. And because of it a statue of limitations that would seem reasonable in other settings is not in this case, because it often takes more time. Here's a very practical application: There was a certain Din Torah I was on involving accusations against this youth director at NCSY. The Beis Din put a 10-year limitation on these complaints; we said nothing has happened in the last 10 years; it can't be an ongoing problem. It turns out that precisely the people who were now adults and had spouses who had been hurt more than 10 years ago were able to come forward and we excluded them because we never thought it would take that long. So it's important not to have an early statute of limitations that would prevent people from being able to come forward. Two versions of the bill are appearing before the State Assembly; one would extend the age to which one could testify to 25, the other to 28 (as opposed to only 23). Whatever changes have taken place in the Catholic Church has been because of the many lawsuits against the Church. Orthodox community also worries about Orthodox institutions being sued, even though, within the Orthodox community, there is a great deal of reluctance to go to court and sue people. Also remember, that because of the nature of the hierarchy system of the Catholic Church, the responsibility can be easily established. If a parish priest is reassigned to another parish, that was a decision made by the Church because the Church decided to send him. In the Jewish community, it's very different! No rabbinic authority can force the congregation at which you pray to hire your present Rabbi. No one can force one school to hire a teacher who was let go by another school.

The Observer: How can a victim of sexual abuse react (what kinds of feelings, emotions, long-term effects can abuse have on someone?)

Rabbi Blau: I cannot really answer that very well. You should speak with psychologists and psychiatrists. But I do know, having had many conversations with survivors of abuse, that people are all different. If they had a teacher who abused kids for many years, or a youth director who abused kids for many years, for some kids they have not been seriously affected, others have been terribly traumatized. Some kids are able to talk about it, get professional help and some kids can't even acknowledge it; they have no idea what's going on. There's no single response that all people have to this. If you read books about trauma victims and soldiers after war, when they've seen people die around them or were seriously injured in bombings or the like, some of them move on with their lives and maybe are strengthened by it and are certainly not destroyed by it and others are never able to make a normal life. There's all kinds of studies to try to figure out why some people can handle this and why some people can't. Some studies talk about genetic predispositions and emotional things, supportive environments making a difference in people's lives and how they handle it. One of the things that enables victims to become survivors is the notion that they are not only victims, that they can respond, that they can not take revenge but works toward justice. If you were a kid in school, and let's get away from sexual things, and you're in 5th grade, beaten to a pulp, and you come back as an adult and see that Rebbe as an honored member of the community and his Torah is recognized, every time you see him paying no consequences for what he did to you, it hurts more and more. But if you know the community had stopped it and did not let it continue and there was a response, I think it would affect you as well! And you would be strengthened by it. Actually, a young man in Chicago made a film about sexual abuse, "Narrow Bridge." I've spoken to him. One of the ways that he responded was by making the film. One of the worst things about being a victim in any situation is being helpless and those who are not helpless become tremendously strengthened by it. When they are able to stand up to do something to prevent others from being abused. You talk to top psychologists, and you'll get more precise answers. I am an amateur.

The Observer: How is the attitude towards abuse changing in the Orthodox community?

Rabbi Blau: Different sectors of the Jewish Orthodox community are responding to the challenge very differently. So far, the charedi [ultra-Orthodox] society is dealing with issues of abuse as quietly and privately as possible since they want to protect rabbinic reputation and they do not want negative publicity to leave the community. Also, going public and giving over the case to authorities is viewed as taboo in the charedi community-mesirah (lit. betraying); although from a halakhic perspective one is allowed, even obligated to hand issue over to police, since the abuser is an ongoing danger to children.

There was a first grade rabbi in Brooklyn who abused his students and campers in summer camp for over thirty years. When word got out, the yeshiva supported him the whole time, without acknowledging anything. Parents and families did not react with the exception of one family who moved their kids from the school. If the community had reacted differently, if the yeshiva staff knew that as a result, all students would leave, they would dismiss the teacher immediately.

Lanner was a very capable man who worked in NCSY and brought many people closer to Judaism. Former youth of NCSY accused him of abusive behaviors. It was very difficult to have a proper proceeding in the bet din, since for many people who were present-he was a spiritual hero. Those people who covered up for him presented a huge challenge and embarrassment to the victims who were able to summon the courage and testify in public. Eventually though, the modern orthodox community did come to terms with reality, the bet din met with victims; rabbis held a public apology in Bet Midrash of Yeshiva University. Such an admission is not yet visible in the charedi world.

There is a tremendous scandal in the Catholic Church. Yet they are almost a perfect group for suing in justice court. They are guilty for covering up for priests who abused children. Unlike Jewish communities, where the congregation elects their rabbis, appointment in the Catholic Church is from the top-that is their Hierarchy. Therefore, one can trace responsibility back to the Church directly. Catholicism also believes in repentance; therefore, they often forgave priests and gave them a new chance by relocating them to another church. To be precise, the Church keeps records of all such transactions, which serves as evidence in court. To top it all off, the Catholic Church has lot of money, which makes it worth the fight for the victims.

It is harder to pin down authority in the Jewish community, since rabbis do not assign other rabbis to congregations.

The problems with the law are that: there is a statute of limitations of when one can sue for child abuse-up to twenty-three years of age. Although it sounds reasonable, it is not. A child does not report abuse at the age of nine years old. They are kids; traumatized, confused, often think that they are guilty, lack strength to respond, especially if the abuser was a semi-authority figure in their life. It takes time until those children grow into adults; surround them with a supportive environment; go through therapy. Therefore, congressional representatives are trying to up the stature to twenty-eight years of age and leave one year for those who did not come forward until now to speak up. Obviously, the church opposes this. There are sectors within the Orthodox community (Satmar Hassidim) which support the Church.

Joel Engelmann is a formerly religious young man; today he is unobservant. A rabbi in school abused him as a six year old. I met his mother who still is orthodox. She and her son approached the school requesting to have that teacher dismissed, and if not, they threatened to go to court. The school agreed and fired the teacher; over the summer when the Joel turned twenty-three years old (too old to go to court) the school reinstated the teacher to his previous position!

The Observer: Why would sectors of the Orthodox community, such as Satmar Hassidim, support the Church when it comes to not changing the statute of limitations on evidence?

Rabbi Blau: Because there is one particular case involving the Satmar community which I know of, and maybe more. Someone who was abused in a Satmar school and he and his brother's very involved (supporting him) went to Satmar last year and Satmar agreed to remove the teacher from the school. At that point the young man was 22 and years old. As soon as he turned 23, when the statute of limitations ended, they rehired the teacher. And he tried to sue them and he can't! He can't do anything because of the Statute of Limitations. Also, even though the issues are not restricted in any sense of the word to only religious institutions- saying that most abuses are perpetrated by rabbis and priests is clearly not true; there are all kinds of people, nevertheless, it is religious institutions that are most concerned about how they are perceived. They have other areas of common interest; for example, government funding for non-public education, vouchers an d things like that. There's a commonality of interests between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Jewish community. The reason why is quite obvious. They both run private schools and are concerned that economically it's extremely difficult to keep these schools going- expenses are great. Double program at Jewish day school, costs a lot of money- there's a limit to how much you can charge people. So the government supports vouchers and other programs, whether it's money for school textbooks or special education, there's a very strong joint interest between the Catholic community and Orthodox Jewish community so they become partners. There's an organization called Teach NYS and they honored the Cardinal and the Chief Executive of the OU! Because in this area [of education] they are working together. So there are people who are Jewish who think we should be supportive of the Catholic Church and work with them.

The Observer: What message would you like to give YU students?

Rabbi Blau: The situation in the orthodox community will not change until the people change their attitudes towards abuse. We must create a generation that will think in different terms. We must applaud bravery of victims who admit their experiences. We must support leaders who fight abuse. I would not be able to do the work I am doing without the support of the YU body. Do not tolerate silent leadership. Students as citizens have tremendous power as voters to vote for legislations that will prevent abuse and protect our children.

If someone approaches you saying that he/she is a victim of abuse, listen to him or her. I became famous [for sexual abuse activism] because I offered a listening ear to anyone who approached me, although I understand that some of the stories are not true.

It is time that the Orthodox community shows that it is in favor of protecting its children before its institutions and reputation.

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