Union heeding wake-up call

On the assumption that most of you are not devotees of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, or in full paid-up membership of one of its numerous conventicles, I need to bring you up to speed on developments within the Union and its affiliates that are without precedent. Not only do they offer a very public window into a world that has shunned all publicity hitherto, they constitute a landmark in the slow but hopefully steady progress of the Anglo-Charedi world towards some semblance of an emotional maturity sadly lacking hitherto.

Towards the end of last year a number of leading rabbis based in London put their names to a remarkable statement declaring that an unnamed rabbi was "not fit and proper to act in any rabbinic capacity". This being the Charedi world, addicted to nothing so much as gossip and innuendo, the name of the rabbi soon emerged, but what also emerged were very serious allegations against him of an explicitly sexual nature, relating to the way in which he had allegedly counselled women who came to him for guidance over their marital problems.

At first the UOHC seemed reluctant to act. This being the Charedi world an attempt was made to hush matters up by establishing a special Beis Din to hear the allegations, doubtless in the hope that this would head off any involvement by the police. But, this being the Charedi world, the attempt was clumsily executed and failed miserably. As the Union rabbinate must have known, this was always a police matter, and the police should have been involved as a first resort, not a last. Once they did become involved a number of arrests were made. These were accompanied by a very sensible public statement from the desk of the most senior police officer in the borough of Barnet (where the arrested men were being held), chief superintendent Adrian Usher, who reassured the Jewish community that those so detained were being treated "with fairness, dignity and respect".

On such matters the law will take its course. All those already charged or who might be will come before the courts, where their innocence or guilt will be established. Meanwhile the Union has taken some very welcome steps to put its own house in order. At the end of May, through its recently established "Committee for the preservation of purity in the camp" (my translation) it inserted an astounding notice in the Charedi press, drawing attention to the fact that "the behaviour of rabbonim in some counselling and marriage guidance workshops in our area is inappropriate and disrespectful towards their female patients and falls below expected standards of modesty". Some days later another UOHC announcement (behind which there must be lurk a collection of unsavoury stories as yet untold) condemned "the behaviour of staff in some tailoring and dressmaking workshops in our area" as "inappropriate and disrespectful towards their female customers and [which] falls below expected standards of modesty."

It's too easy to snort and snigger at such pronouncements. I imagine that those in charge must have thought long and hard about making them. What they tell us, on the record, is that the UOHC acknowledges wrongdoing of a sexual nature by some of its rabbis - and clearly, by its own admission, by the use of the plural "rabbonim," more than one rabbi was involved. They also suggest that such inappropriate behaviour extends beyond the very private arena of marital counselling into the somewhat less private milieux of dressmaking.

I have before used this column to draw attention to incidences of sexual impropriety in Charedi circles. But these recent public admissions are in no sense an occasion for smugness. The Union has at last commenced the journey that it knows it must undertake, as the Catholic Church has painfully done (or rather, been forced to do). But in permitting the rabbi at the centre of last year's allegations to officiate at a recent wedding in London the UOHC has also demonstrated that its grasp of the need to act appropriately and with integrity is still far from perfect.

And in agreeing to officiate in this way the rabbi concerned has merely given his detractors further ammunition to use against him.

Last updated: 10:45am, June 18 2013