October 23, 2018

A better Orthodox reaction to the mikveh, East Ramapo scandals

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. 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.


Rabbi Eliyahu Fink is the spiritual leader of Pacific Jewish Center.