Life & Culture

My soul-crushing research on abuse

American writer Elana Sztokman's new book is shocking - and important


Dr Elana Sztokman, sociologist and anthropologist, looks relaxed as she leans back in her chair. Her latest research, a labour of love which has taken seven years to bring to fruition, has just been published. She’s had a busy week, speaking to those who have contacted her to say how deeply moved they are to see their narratives in print, and also preparing for the book launch that’s taking place in few days’ time. But finally, on a gloriously sunny Friday afternoon, we find time to talk.
Sztokman is not one to shy away from controversial themes: previous books have examined the erasure of women’s rights in Israel, and argued that Orthodox Jewish schools socialise their pupils into unhealthy gender identities and relationships. However, the subject of her most recent research is especially challenging.

When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture is a searingly painful analysis of sexual abuse perpetrated by those in positions of power within the Jewish community. Some of the memories recorded in this book have been silenced for decades; but it’s much more than just a collection of narratives. Rather, Sztokman examines the common threads and repeated patterns of behaviour which occur when sexual abuse takes place in a Jewish cultural context. Her book forces us to acknowledge the structural nature of the problem: in short, that the Jewish community has supported charismatic and often high-profile Jewish leaders when they perpetrate abuse, through mechanisms of trust, denial, cover-up, forgiveness, and other forms of protection.
Sztokman began her research in 2014 after revelations that hundreds of women had been the victims of non-contact sexual abuse at the hands of Barry Freundel, a rabbi in Washington DC who was found to have spied on women using the mikveh. She was concerned when some in the Jewish community questioned whether his actions were really that serious, on the basis that there had been no physical contact involved. Then it transpired that the Rabbinic Council of America had decided to take no action against Freundel after it investigated earlier allegations of sexual impropriety. But above all, it struck her as especially harmful that the abuse had taken place in a sacred space within women’s religious and spiritual lives. So Sztokman set out to answer one question: what were the dynamics that sustained the practice of sexual abuse within Jewish communal settings?
Her first interviews took place in early 2015. I remark that she could not possibly have known how much change there would be between her first interview and her last. She nods. “So many things happened during this period. I started before #MeToo, before Trump, before Brett Kavanaugh. It was like a spiralling process — we kept coming back to things. I would do more research and find more people, and then the goalposts kept changing and the conversation shifted again.”
Through a systematic analysis of in-depth interviews with 84 people, Sztokman reveals patterns of how abuse happens at the hands of Jewish communal leaders. She shows how cultural factors within Jewish communities result in barriers both to disclosure (whether to friends, family, or intimate partners) and also to reporting (both religious and secular authorities). She highlights uniquely Jewish codes, ideas and practices that protect abusers and silence victims. She also documents the damaging impacts of this abuse on the wider Jewish community, from people leaving their synagogues and social circles, to a loss of skills and talent in Jewish workplaces as victims decide they no longer feel comfortable in communal organisations.
I ask Sztokman about the book’s title: why the focus on rabbis, when the book also discusses sexual abuse by lay leaders, teachers, donors and others in positions of power? She doesn’t skip a beat. “The initial discovery of how many people had been abused by rabbis was very shocking. I wasn’t expecting rabbis to be at the centre of the story.” It was hard to hear so many accounts which involved rabbis: there were “an incomprehensible number of interviewees in which the abuser was a rabbi”.
Many of the narratives of rabbinic abuse involved adults, mostly adult women. Sztokman is critical of the “communal gaslighting” that happens when relationships between a rabbi and a congregant or colleague are referred to as “an affair”. Rather, she says, they are clergy sexual misconduct, and the community needs to learn to assign full responsibility to the person who held religious, spiritual and moral authority.
Sztokman also shines a particular spotlight on abusive behaviour faced by women working in fund-raising roles. Charitable donors appear to abuse with impunity; the book includes some cases where a Jewish employer knew about a donor’s inappropriate sexual behaviour towards their staff, but turned a blind eye so as not to jeopardise a potential donation. “That whole idolising of the donor is everywhere,” she tells me. “Nobody touches donors. Anywhere. You can’t say anything about donors. Getting money is more important than anything else.”
Part of Sztokman’s achievement is to document that sexual abuse is as prevalent in Jewish spaces as it is everywhere else. But When Rabbis Abuse also evidences uniquely Jewish elements of abuse. These include the harnessing of Jewish spiritual ideas to justify abuse, the use of Jewish codes to imply safety and to create a false sense of connection, and the co-opting of Jewish values to silence victims.
In addition, she explores specifically Jewish expressions of denial. Some Jews still hold the view that, while there might be the odd bad apple in the Jewish community, Jewish values and religious practice mean that cases of sexual abuse are extremely rare and much less prevalent than in other faith groups or in the wider population more generally. “Everywhere you go”, says Sztokman, “the thought is, ‘well, Jews are special, we have a special ethos to bring into the world, we have this tradition that we are a light unto the nations, a chosen people’.” When Rabbis Abuse shows that this perception of exceptionalism is misplaced, and furthermore that it does enormous damage since, in effect, it denies the abuse experienced by victims.
Through her interviews, Sztokman evidences a second type of denial of abuse: inter-communal deflection. Here, there is a recognition that abuse happens in the Jewish community — but it’s always other Jews. “I would have an Orthodox [person] say, ‘yeah, well, you’re talking about Reform people, right?’ And then the non-Orthodox community would be like, ‘oh, that’s them, the chareidim; they’re all problematic’. Everywhere, a lot of people are invested in making their own place seem better than the other one.”
Sztokman is clearly pained by the evidence she has uncovered of sexual abuse in Jewish spaces that are supposed to be feminist. She reflects on how narratives she heard from women in the USA have impacted her. “In the Reform movement and the Conservative movement, some of the rabbis who were abusing women for years were also, on the outside at least, great champions of gender equality. That is really head-twisting: the people you really, really were hoping were going to be safe, are not. It’s soul-crushing, because you’re like, ‘oh my, can you not trust anyone? Is there no one who’s the same on the inside and the outside, who’s the same in public and in private? Can we go nowhere?’.”
Her sadness is palpable; and so I change the subject. What, I ask her, does she enjoy doing when she is not studying gender? Her face lights up. “I love music. I play piano. I’m teaching myself ukulele. I recently took up the drums; I’ve been wanting to play the drums since I was a kid, and I now belong to this Jewish-Arab music group in Jaffa.” Playing the dholak drum has given her a great feeling of affirmation.
I wonder out loud whether there are any signs of affirmation in her professional life. Has she seen change in terms of the way Jewish communities handle sexual misconduct since Freundel’s conviction nearly a decade ago? Is there recognition that there needs to be support for, rather than retaliation against, those who come forward with disclosures? “There are hopeful signs — the #MeToo movement, and #GamAni in the Jewish community, has shown us that. Processes do take time. But there are trickles, there are signs of change.”
Although her book is complete, Sztokman is clear that publication does not represent the end of her task. Change is needed: policy improvements, but also cultural change. “There is power in testimony. There’s something about this book that feels like a historical record. We’re telling the truth about what is happening. I don’t see the book as an end product as much as I see it as a launch — as a launching of a communal process. I mean, I hope. That’s my hope. My hope is that this is just the beginning. And that it will spur debate.”

When Rabbis Abuse is published by Lioness Books

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