Making Things Better in the Aftermath of Scandal

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This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.

Three groups of Orthodox Jews have made several prominent appearances in the media over the last few weeks: The East Ramapo Central School District was profiled on National Public Radio because Chasidic Jews living in the district have wrested control of a majority vote on the school board even though their children attend private schools. The New York Times Magazine profiled the cycle of poverty and charity in the non-Chasidic ultra-Orthodox (Yeshivish) enclave of Lakewood, N.J. And the news media is covering a scandal involving Barry Freundel, a Modern Orthodox rabbi in Washington, D.C., who was arrested for voyeurism and the shocking allegations that he was filming women in the equivalent of a locker room as they showered and prepared to dunk in a ritual bath.

These three stories expose the underbelly of the three major groups of Orthodox Jews in America: Chasidic, Modern Orthodox and Yeshivish. Stories are interesting when they contradict conventional wisdom, and it is unexpected that Orthodox Jews, who hold themselves up to a higher standard of behavior and conduct, would find their most sordid secrets splattered across the press.

The public feels betrayed. Innocent bystanders and victims within Orthodox Judaism feel betrayed. Orthodox Judaism just doesn’t feel as trustworthy as it should feel. Recent affairs have whittled that trust away. Trust is the foundation of every relationship, and without it, religion is doomed, whether it is fundamentalist or progressive.

Orthodox Judaism needs to earn back the trust of the public. The media and their audience need to continue to believe that it is interesting when Orthodox Jews behave badly. Orthodox Judaism needs to get its groove back. It’s not impossible to regain trust, but it requires intent and effort.

One of the greatest gifts of Judaism is teshuvah — literally translated as “return,” and the Jewish word for repentance.108003346 Failure is inevitable. We are humans, and humans are flawed creatures who make mistakes. Judaism provides an opportunity to turn our errors into acts of goodness through the process of teshuvah. When we repent, we are actually closer to God than we were before we sinned. It’s as if a ribbon connects us to God. Sin cuts the ribbon into two, disconnecting us from God. True repentance ties the two pieces of ribbon together, reconnecting us. But the process of repairing the ribbon makes the ribbon shorter and reduces the distance between the two ends of the ribbon. Teshuvah reattaches us to God and makes us closer than we were before we sinned.

In any good relationship there will be mistakes that disconnect the two parties. These are opportunities for teshuvah. Whenever a relationship needs to be repaired, if it’s done right, the two parties should be closer after the “return” than they were before the relationship was harmed.

Traditionally, there are three steps to teshuvah: Acknowledgement, regret and reform. These are the three elements necessary to repair any broken relationship or any breach of trust. The Orthodox Jewish community must take these three steps to earn back the trust of Orthodox Jews and the general public.

The first step is acknowledgement. For most people, this is the hardest part of the process. We read about uncomfortable tactics and consequences in the situation in Ramapo. Our natural instinct is to argue that the Orthodox there have every right to run the school board. This is true. But that does not acknowledge any of the mistakes made along the way, or the pain experienced by the rest of the community. Also, without any acknowledgement, the public sees us as tone deaf to the issues raised by the status quo. We need to acknowledge that controlling the board has not been without error, and that criticism may be valid and that people have been hurt and harmed along the way. Only then can we express regret over mistakes and commit to making things better.

It’s true that Lakewood is a paradigm of kindness and charity. But implicit in the immense need for charity to support Torah study is that there is an accountability issue inherent in the kollel system. It is a system that perpetuates poverty and discourages financial independence. We need to acknowledge the problems that the system creates and exacerbates. This is obvious to observers, Orthodox Jews and everyone else. Until we acknowledge it, sympathy is harder to muster. Meanwhile, derision and condemnation by critics is harder to rebut. The first step is to acknowledge the problem. Then the process of fixing the systemic problems can be repaired along with the relationship between the kollel community and everyone else.

The mikveh scandal brings two major issues to the fore. Opportunities for women in positions of leadership and communal policy is a constant itch in the Modern Orthodox community. When men in positions of leadership harm women by breaching their privacy, the itch gets a lot worse. It’s hard to imagine that a woman with the kind of authority granted to Rabbi Freundel would have acted similarly. But this is not the first time a male religious authority figure acted inappropriately toward women in his religious role with regard to matters of intimacy. The scandal also challenges the status quo of conversion in Orthodox Judaism, especially when the convert is a woman. This is the second time a very prominent conversion rabbi has sexually exploited conversion candidates. These issues must be acknowledged by the community in order to begin the process of return. Slowly, trust can be earned back through the teshuvah process.

Generally, the pain inflicted by violence or abuse to an individual or a scandal that violates a group is not as damaging as the pain inflicted by the cover-up. The opposite of acknowledgement is the cover-up. Too often we have been doubly stricken by the pain of the act, and then our suffering is compounded by the cover-up.

Fortunately, the responses to the mikveh scandal by Kesher Israel and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) have been heartening. There is indeed acknowledgement of the pain they have allowed to occur under their noses. Kesher acted swiftly in removing the rabbi from his pulpit. The RCA already has charted a new path for conversions that includes women acting as ombudspersons as well as a commission of men and women to reform current policies. These are the second and third steps of teshuvah. Clearly, there is regret as well as a commitment to fixing the problems. This gives a reeling public a glimmer of hope that trust can be earned back.

Fred Rogers famously quoted his mother’s comforting words during times of tragedy: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me,  “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Look around. You’ll see good people trying to make things better. You’ll see Orthodox Jews who want to earn the trust of the public once again. There are Orthodox Jews who are helpers. Those people deserve your trust.

Hopefully, the “helpers” can replace the people who are harming individual people as well as Orthodox Judaism in general. They can tie that ribbon and bring us all closer to one another. It’s already happening. I can see it. Trust me.

  • This is Nonsense

    Are you really comparing Jews giving tzedakah and Jews exerting their rights as taxpayers to the mess in DC?

    • js36

      While the action taken in DC by the Rabbi was far worse than the other two items mentioned above, it was only done by 1 person(though the RCA is not blameless either). The issues in Rockland and Lakewood are institutional problems whereby in Rockland County, the Jewish leadership has no idea how to properly interact with non-Jews in a way that shows mutual respect for each others communities. In Lakewood, institutional poverty is a major drag on the entire orthodox community and puts us in a bad light when families and yeshivas have to mooch of government and communal assistance.

    • Never been to Lakewood

      Aside from the bizarre comparison, I would encourage the author and js36 to actually read the NY Times article. The article speaks nothing about institutional reliance. All it says is that beggars know where to go; to the one place they know where they can rely on a kind hearted and charitable community. Any other ideas purportedly espoused are projected from sensational bloggers on to the article. If you see Lakewood in a negative light from the article, you need to go back and read it again, cause you missed the point. It is the farthest thing from the D.C. scandal.

      • I agree with you. The article was very nice. But it also generated a ton of negative reaction (check out the comments on the article) because there is also a legitimate criticism that the story raises.

        • Never been to Lakewood

          That has nothing to do with the article, it is a result of mentioning the name of the township LAKEWOOD. Gentiles wouldn’t make such comments, they don’t know what Lakewood is; it’s a bunch of Jews commenting their own rancid slander.

          • That’s not true. It does have to do with the article. The reason there are beggars coming from Jerusalem is because of the idealization of a specific lifestyle and culture. There is legitimate criticism of that lifestyle and culture.

            • Never been to Lakewood

              The specific lifestyle or culture that is idealized is the idea that Jews can rely on each other. NO WHERE is taking government funds even remotely discussed. Even Aron Kotler failed to mention it. Only people who already complain about it would connect the two, and its not connected. Brooklyn is also full of beggars, and people there work.

  • Pinchos Woolstone

    this scandal will also pass, lives will change, hopefully new safeguards will be enacted