Silly me! It took me so long to open my eyes to the fact that we could have religious leaders who appear outwardly very pious and above reproach, but really aren’t. Waking up is a struggle alright.
Over thirty years ago, after searching for spirituality in many religions, reading the book, A Tzaddik in Our Times, had such a powerful effect on me. I saw for the first time that a pure, simple, kind and spiritual life could be found within my own religion. It seemed like a way of life that most valued those who courageously cared about the downtrodden. If this was the way a true Jewish hero could be identified, this was the kind of Judaism about which I wanted to learn. And, thank G-d, I got to do that. The teachers in the women’s division of Ohr Someyach, at Neve Yerushalayim and at Aish Ha Torah all seemed to embody these kind of beliefs as well. They offered such a wonderful world view, an idealistic and yet practical one that I was so grateful to finally find.
Getting married and leaving the baal teshuva yeshivas to settle in an apartment and find work, was sort of like landing with a thud, though. We discovered that the real Orthodox world we moved into wasn’t all that much like the idyllic picture that had been painted, but we were determined, with G-d’s help, to make our own beautiful world within it. With tapes and seforim and shiurim as encouragement to stay on course through the years, we were able to keep on overlooking all the behavior that didn’t seem to fit in with the lifestyle we’d chosen. And we were OK with making excuses for each seemingly crooked, arrogant or illegal action we’d encounter. As baalei teshuvas, we figured that we probably just didn’t get the whole picture. They must have great reasons, based on the Torah, for doing what they were doing – and we just probably didn’t understand them yet.
For many years we were blessed to cultivate a genuinely happy frum home, thank G-d, just overlooking what we thought were a few “bad apples” or seemingly wrong behavior that we couldn’t understand fully. But then something hit us in the face that was so traumatic, we couldn’t look away anymore. The intimidating cover-up that followed was probably even more shocking and horrifying than the initial trauma, however. We learned overnight that we were trying to be dan l’chaf zechus (giving the benefit of the doubt) too often, even when it wasn’t appropriate. We found out that could sometimes be extremely dangerous.
Naïve and way too trusting, we were hurt to the core of our beings, but not disillusioned enough to leave. We knew there was nothing better out there anyway– we’d been there and done that already. And checking out would just give the frum perpetrators and their Mafia-style supporters, that much more power and free rein as well. So we came to see that what we needed to do was ask Hashem for help to try to encourage others like us who lack the confidence and courage as we did, to work on addressing the denial and strive to actually implement improvements. Everybody has to pick and choose what they are willing to stand up for, but if frum people are less fearful of standing up when they see smaller wrongs, they hopefully won’t have to get a brick thrown in their face to wake up, like we needed.
We can’t blame our rabbis or the institutions and organizations they lead for not having courage if we don’t have it. As we take on the responsibility to clean up the dirty business we encounter, their actions will reflect ours. We initially were drawn to Torah Judaism because it seemed so sweet, and for so many of us, it really is. At the same time, we need to accept the difficult truth that power corrupts in this way of life too. We really thought that in this more spiritual lifestyle, money, power and political machinations would not sway our community’s leaders. We were taught stories about great rabbis in the past who wouldn’t take one coin for a yeshiva if the funding might have been somewhat tainted from some unsavory source. And since it is emphasized repeatedly in the Torah that bribes are strictly forbidden, we actually thought that those in positions of authority who dressed like they believed in these precepts, would actually be scrupulous about following them.
To take just one area in critical need of improvement as an example: we can wait for the administrators of our schools to create basic safety plans and written policies for dealing with sexual predators. We can wait for community leaders to demand that our day schools conduct background checks and fingerprinting of their employees, just as public schools do. We can wait for somebody harmful to teach our children about inappropriate touching. Or, each one of us can decide to take responsibility when our children are being left unprotected. We can “vote with our dollars” if that’s all that will get our administrators to pay attention. But first we have to stop fearing them.
Before the destruction of our Second Beis Hamikdash, corruption was widespread among the Kohanim Gedolim. Much more recently, in the past generation, there were many Jewish people that turned away from Orthodoxy after widespread corruption in the kashrus industry became apparent. The corrupt flaws proliferating in our midst now involving financial scandals, prostitution and abuse are being highlighted, so that we can remove them. We have a lot of work to do on ourselves if we really want to be shining lights to the world, and not just dim bulbs.
The Vilna Gaon reminds us that just as water (which is often compared to Torah) helps plants to grow, it also helps weeds to grow. Alongside the wondrous blossoming of our Torah communities, abusive and corrupt behavior can also grow, strangling what is most valuable, if left unchecked. In order to have a beautiful garden, we can really never become complacent about the weeding that goes along with it. The weeds look so much like the real thing, but they are out to strangle all that is good.
Scandals are G-d’s way of nudging us to get weeding. So after the denial, the shock, and the disillusionment have passed, we can be grateful that G-d still thinks we are up for the job.
Abuse causes agony not just for the victim, but for the victim’s family members as well, who are shunned and silenced, while well-connected perpetrators are supported. And yet, when I asked my husband just last week, what he would say if he had to tell a person in one sentence why this way of life was valuable, he responded that he would still say, “It brings the deepest pleasure possible.”
What’s different about my family now is that we are finally no longer so complacent. If it feels in some ways like we’re living under an oppressive regime in our midst, we are coming to understand now that we’re the ones responsible for letting that situation develop. Through education, however, we can enlighten each other about the frum-style intimidation and cover-up tactics that have become so successfully entrenched. In the future, things can really be the way we thought they once were.
We want to wear the outer garbs and perform the rituals as long as they are vehicles that can continue to bring us to a higher level of consciousness about G-d. Unwilling to surrender the soul of Judaism, we’re craving integrity. Parents can devote their lives to instilling purity in their children, and then have their efforts destroyed overnight. May Hashem give us all the courage to keep waking up.
Bracha Goetz serves on the Executive Committee of the national organization, Jewish Board of Advocates for Children. She also coordinates a Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters Program in Baltimore, Maryland, and is the Harvard-educated author of eleven children’s books, including Aliza in MitzvahLand, What Do You See in Your Neighborhood? and The Invisible Book. For presentations, you’re welcome to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Press (4/23/10)