Keeping Children Safe — Our Sacred Mission

Written by Dr. Michelle Friedman on . Posted in Op-Ed

Jewish community is built on a code of moral and ethical action. This fundamental principle understands that human beings are flawed and will commit bad, harmful acts. It follows that a functioning society requires rules and oversight to protect vulnerable members. Straightforward as this may seem, we all want to believe that our communities are intact, wholesome places where terrible things do not happen.

Right now the Baltimore Jewish community is torn; concerned, thoughtful people are struggling with the news that a well-liked rabbi and teacher is accused of molesting children. As a psychiatrist involved in Jewish community and the pastoral counseling education of rabbis, I understand the power of cognitive dissonance — the psychological mechanism by which we reject information that contradicts core beliefs and feelings. We protest and deny evidence that threatens our most cherished tenets especially when those alleged of terrible wrongdoing are also known for kind and caring deeds.

When a popular, talented rabbi is accused of committing multiple acts of abuse but the criminal justice system does not pursue the case to trial, what is the community to do? Assume the allegations are false? Should the rabbi be allowed to participate in community activities like coming to services or interacting with children?

In order to protect our precious children and other vulnerable people, we must recognize that sexual molestation is a reality in every community and set up proper guidelines and systems to ensure safety. I encourage you to read Dr. Shira Berkovits’s recent article in the journal Tradition (“Institutional Abuse in the Jewish Community”) for a brilliant and thorough overview of this topic.

A bottom-line principle is that employment or participation in synagogues, religious schools, and other institutions is not a right, but a privilege that can be revoked if a threat to the community surfaces. Jewish communal settings are not courts of law and do not subscribe to the same rules. The primary responsibility of the institution is safety, not determination of guilt or innocence. If there is credible concern that a person is causing harm to members, that individual must be removed from any position of access.  Children almost never lie about sexual abuse. They are hesitant to disclose abuse, especially when the offender is someone they trust or love. They feel ashamed and scared.

But let us consider the extraordinarily rare possibility that three young boys falsely accused the alleged Baltimore perpetrator. Such a case, as would be true of any substantial case, warrants a full and transparent investigation. Experts in abuse investigation must conduct the inquiry and come from outside the community; neutrality and clear sightedness is critical.  Transparency about the investigation and its findings is also important because, without it, the rumor mill will continue to grind on with no respite for either side in this saga.

How should the community treat an alleged perpetrator until the conclusion of an investigation?  Under no circumstances should such a person have access to children. This includes attending religious services. While the person might be supervised during his time in the synagogue, he might also use it as an opportunity to curry favor with sympathetic members and garner invitations to their homes, thereby expanding the potential sphere of affected children.

Manipulation and power is at the heart of darkness of sexual abuse, and a core principle of Jewish community is to protect the vulnerable. It is our sacred duty to institute guidelines and protocols that promote healthy, vibrant communal institutions. When breaches occur, and they will, it is simultaneously our religious duty to err, as it were, on the side of protecting our children, but also to seek the truth.

Dr. Michelle Friedman

 Michelle Friedman, M.D. is chair of pastoral counseling at YCT Rabbinical College and the author, with Rachel Yehuda, of The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths, Routledge, 2016