A Haredi Town Confronts Abuse From The Inside
Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman has used the pulpit of Congregation Ahavas Israel to take a public stand against sexual molestation in the Orthodox community.
by Steve Lipman • New York Jewish Week
On the night before Yom Kippur in September, Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman stood before his Orthodox congregation, in a room crowded with men wearing black hats and women wearing sheitels, and moderated a panel discussion among five Orthodox Jews who said they had been the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of other Orthodox Jews. The rabbi regularly uses his pulpit to preach against the evils of sexual molestation.
On another recent day Michael Lesher, an Orthodox lawyer and author, welcomed four young Orthodox Jews into his home, two men and two women, who told him their stories of sexual molestations committed by Orthodox Jews. For more than a decade he has served as the legal “advocate” for sexual abuse victims and as “their voice,” since first handling a custody case that involved a sexually abused child.
Also not long ago, Brochie Neugarten, an Orthodox mother who works as a purchasing manager, described to a friend her plan to establish an organization that will offer financial support to victims of sexual abuse in the community. Neugarten became an activist a few years ago, after someone she knows became the target of a molester.
The efforts by Rabbi Eisenman, Lesher and Neugarten, rare steps against sexual abuse in a religious community, took place within a few blocks of each other in Passaic, a middle-class suburb with a growing haredi community 10 miles west of Manhattan in northern New Jersey.
Following more than a decade of sensational accusations of rapes and molestations committed by members — often leaders — of Orthodox Jewry, and increasing criticism of the Orthodox community’s leadership for ignoring or attempting to cover up the accusations, Passaic is slowly and quietly building a reputation as an exception.
The work of several members of Passaic’s Jewish community, which has taken on a haredi, “yeshivishe” and “chasidishe” character in recent years, has established Passaic as a place that is taking a stand against sexual predators and the people who protect them. And it’s a place where abuse victims are urged to take their allegations to the police and not simply rely on rabbis to handle the cases inside the community.
In addition to Rabbi Eisenman, who coordinated the event at his shul, as well as Lesher and Neugarten, Passaic is also the home of Mitch Morrison, a magazine editor who has lobbied rabbis in his area to openly discuss the topic, and Marc Stern, an attorney who has served as a pro bono advisor to local rabbis about the legal ramifications of sexual abuse accusations.
The grass-roots advocates sometimes work independently, sometimes together.
Twice within the past few years, several pulpit rabbis in Passaic, Rabbi Eisenman among them, announced in shul when men accused of being sexual molesters had moved into the community. One, Stefan Colmer, left Passaic soon thereafter, likely because of the public exposure, Passaic residents say, and is now in jail having been convicted of eight counts of criminal sexual act in the second degree; the other, Mitchell Levinton, pleaded guilty to child endangerment last month and faces a five-year prison term.
The pair of disgraced molesters who had lived there played a role in energizing Passaic’s Jewish community, residents say.
To an outsider, Passaic’s Orthodox community — which features a wide variety of synagogues and Shabbat-only shtiebels [minyan sites], a strip of kosher restaurants along Main Avenue and notices posted around town about upcoming Torah lectures and chesed projects — seems like any other.
But, Morrison wrote last month on the FailedMessiah.com blog, Passaic “is unlike many Orthodox communities in New York and New Jersey. It is neither Modern Orthodox nor Chassidish.” It has, Morrison wrote, a demographic distinction that may explain why its Orthodox community is responding to the sexual abuse issue more aggressively than others. “It is, per capita, home to one of the largest populations of baalei teshuva and is among the fastest growing religious Jewish communities in the country.”
“The people who came out” to the Ahavas Israel program “were largely from the [baal teshuvah] community,” says Lesley Schofield, a member of the congregation who attended the panel discussion.
Baalei teshuvah, people from non-religious backgrounds who turned as adults to lives of traditional Judaism, have “a lesser fear of dealing with controversial things” than many “frum from birth” (the so-called FFBs) Orthodox Jews do, Schofield says. Because their family members are outside the community, they are less fearful of harming relatives’ marriage prospects, a motivation that keeps many Orthodox people from drawing attention to themselves or speaking out on controversial matters.
Rabbi Eisenman says he put the program together on short notice — he intentionally scheduled it during the High Holy Days, for the greatest spiritual impact — and proceeded when other local rabbis dropped out. The other rabbis reportedly expressed concern about what the panelists might say, including giving names of molesters who have not been formally accused, indicted or convicted.
“It’s just easier to do it alone,” Rabbi Eisenman says.
He did not tell the panelists what to say or what not to say; such limitations, he explains, would limit the emotional impact of their words.
“It opened him up to criticism ... some felt it was irresponsible for him to allow people to have an open mic,” Morrison says.
In his FailedMessiah post on the Ahavas Israel program, Morrison called Rabbi Eisenman “a maverick rabbi.”
“He’s very much an independent person,” Morrison says. “Rabbi Eisenman is an emotional person. Passaic is a passionate community. In a lot of [other Orthodox communities] there’s an intellectual response that’s devoid of passion.”
“Do I want to shake things up? For sure,” Rabbi Eisenman says. “Is there a side of me that is anti-establishment? Yes. I don’t have any stage fright. I love the stage.”
For two and a half hours, Schofield and the other members of the audience heard the abuse victims describe their experiences and the often-unsupportive reaction they got from family and friends. The program, she says, “was an eye opener. There was hardly a dry eye in the room.”