Who watches the rabbis?

November 24, 2016 23:28

Is there something particularly twisted about American rabbis? Over the past few months, American Jewry has been left reeling by a string of disgusting scandals involving its best-known modern Orthodox leaders.

In the most shocking case, Barry Freundel, formerly head of a prestigious Washington synagogue and head of the Rabbinical Council of America's conversion committee, was convicted of spying on women in the mikveh . He installed hidden cameras which he used to record his own congregants as they undressed, and lured other women to use the ritual bath under a variety of false pretences. He is serving six-and-a-half years in jail.

Now, the New York Times has revealed that another leading rabbi, Riverdale Jewish Center's Jonathan Rosenblatt - reportedly considered for the position of British Chief Rabbi - invited young male congregants and rabbinical interns to play racquet ball with him, and then shower and join him in the sauna , often naked. While he apparently considered the sessions "a key to his success", many of those involved - some allegedly as young as 12 - accused him of abusing his power, and of deeply inappropriate behaviour. As of press time, his board was urging him to resign.

Lastly, no one has forgotten the case of Michael Broyde who, just a few years ago, was revealed to have invented a series of fake identities, which he used to publish glowing evaluations of his work online and in academic journals.

Is there something in the American water? Or is it simply a matter of time, and the law of averages, before one of the UK's leading rabbis is revealed to have engaged in similarly depressing behaviour? The answer comes in two parts. First, it seems unlikely that there is anything unusual about the psychological profile of American rabbis, which makes deviant behaviour more likely than rabbis of other nationalities.

'We like to think rabbis are modest but they can have big egos'

But - and this is entirely speculative - it seems to me that the rabbinate in general, in common with some other caring professions, probably attracts a larger than fair share of "problematic" personalities.

The reason is that opportunities for abuse are inherent in the position of community rabbi. They hold influence (if not real power) over congregants, particularly in today's day and age, when rabbis are treated by many as pseudo-life coaches. They spend lots of time, one-on-one, with vulnerable people. If someone is looking for opportunities to take advantage of others, being a rabbi can make it easy.

The title, and deference afforded to the diaspora community rabbi, can also be a convenient camouflage for bad behaviour. And while we like to think rabbis are modest, they are just as likely to have large egos, and enjoy cultivating a following.

What the American Orthodox rabbis have that their British peers, certainly in the United Synagogue, do not, is almost complete freedom to operate as they see fit, with minimal supervision. Orthodox synagogues in the US are independent entities. Their rabbis answer to their boards, but otherwise are largely autonomous leaders of their own congregations.

The Rabbinical Council of America, to which most of them belong, is a peer-to-peer network, and in no way resembles the highly hierarchical US, where rabbis answer to a central authority and a chief rabbi.

The disadvantage of the British system is that it stifles the creativity and independence of local rabbis. The advantage is that, compared to their American peers, they have some supervision and therefore it is far more difficult for them to get away with outrageous behaviour. Not impossible - never impossible.

And, of course, every institution has an interest in protecting its own reputation. But at least someone's watching. Score, United Synagogue.

November 24, 2016 23:28

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