Synagogues with predatory rabbis must protect their members, not their reputations

When I read the recent article in The New York Times detailing the accusations against Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of the Riverdale Jewish Center, I was deeply saddened.

This is the synagogue and community where I grew up. My parents moved to Riverdale in the 1950s and are among the RJC’s founding members. Rosenblatt — like the synagogue’s four rabbis before him — played an important part in the life of my family. However, my focus is not the RJC or any one rabbi.

My concerns are with the institutions in which we place our trust — institutions that seem to ignore the simple fact that rabbis and teachers are human and subject to temptations and personal demons. We hold our leaders in high esteem, but our institutions fail to monitor them to ensure that their power is not being abused and that the esteem is merited.

Whispers, like those in Riverdale, have been present in dark corners of many communities over the years. Those whispers have been hushed by men and women who choose to protect the institution to the detriment of those it’s supposed to serve. This is what happened at Penn State, which ignored or mishandled numerous episodes over the years in which football coach Jerry Sandusky sexually abused children. Our leaders often demonstrate poor judgment, pretending that if they ignore the underlying problem or handle it quietly among themselves the behavior will stop and the problems disappear.

But today social media amplifies whispers. Victims hear the whispers of other victims, awareness grows, and what happens behind closed doors is exposed and headlined. I have seen this in my work at Jewish Women International — on college campuses, on football fields, even in the military. Victims are speaking out.

Our synagogues and rabbinical institutions need to wake up. Responding in secret or in an ad hoc manner — being reactive — does not work. This modus operandi inhibits response, discussion and community resolution. Secret “solutions” end up being neither secret nor solutions.

Instead, we repeatedly see the accused relying on his or her relationships with powerful supporters, and together they spread the fear of public revelation of scandal. Time and again, the message to the victims and communities is that only with silence can the institution be protected. That is another way of saying that those who are victimized are less important than the institution itself.

This past Shabbat I was at the RJC, down the street from where I grew up, visiting my parents, who still consider the RJC home. We went to shul there, we went to school there, we served on committees and boards, shared countless meals, danced and wept together. We felt safe at the RJC.

What a delusion. The very organizations — synagogues, community centers, schools — that should be protecting and nurturing constituents instead seek to protect reputations. But reputations worth protecting are not made by marginalizing victims.

The back-room, hush-hush solution is inappropriate, dangerous and unsustainable. We need policies and protocols for organizational responses to these situations.

Make no mistake about it: Despite all the vetting and background checks, creeps will attain leadership roles and use their power for their own ends. We need processes to examine rumors with speed, transparency and neutrality. We need guidelines that will reduce the risk of sexual harassment, abuse and assault by staff, lay leadership and volunteers, and we need a process for redress. This approach enables a neutral response free from the influence of wealthy donors, powerful members, colleagues or former interns.

Policies should reflect the character of the organization, but certainly some standard provisions should be included:

  1. Anyone who feels victimized or is aware of any misdeeds must be able to speak with someone who has no personal stake in the institution — for example, a social worker, therapist, lawyer or all of the above — on retainer to the institution.
  2. Any investigation must be done by a third party, not someone from within the institution.
  3. Rules for communication and confidentiality must be established and followed.
  4. All lay and professional leadership must be trained in the laws of mandated reporting.
  5. Educational and prevention programs should be made available to members.
  6. Relationships should be established and maintained with a local sexual-assault response agency and local law enforcement.

Institutions responsible for protecting and nurturing our communities must focus on protecting those who are in their charge rather than protecting those who are in charge.

(Deborah Rosenbloom is the vice president of programs & new initiatives at Jewish Women International.)

Educating Riordan

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s choice of former Mayor Richard Riordan for state education secretary has education experts worried that despite his reputation as a pro-skills, pro-reform guy, Riordan’s not all he’s cracked up to be. These experts see Riordan as the power broker who spent far more time trying to fix school construction than classroom instruction — the source of California’s long education nightmare. Indeed, among a throng of educators who see California’s new, intensive skills-based instruction producing miracles in grade schools, where achievement is up significantly after a generation of downward spiraling, Riordan might be stunned to hear that he is Worry No. 1.

"Riordan’s scary — we don’t know if he gets it," said math reformer Martha Schwartz, a Los Angeles education consultant. "The most important thing he can do is hold course on things now in place — the standards, the framework, the textbooks, the tests — and listen to Marion Joseph."

California’s reforms — curriculum and textbooks tied to teacher retraining, subject-matter standards and testing — are succeeding only due to heroics by the state Board of Education. Joseph, a Democrat appointed to the board by former Gov. Pete Wilson, has been reform’s greatest champion.

Under Gray Davis and Wilson, the board, using publicized test scores as its cudgel, has painstakingly forced reform onto thousands of failing, often belligerent, grade schools that had chronically followed union demands and political trends in setting goals for children. Middle schools and high schools are next.

The Wilson-Davis reforms emphasize explicit instruction. The reforms end the 25-year dominance of "group projects" (in which lagging children relied on successful ones to do their group’s work), and a "go at your own pace" philosophy that left California children far behind. During those 25 years, teachers who stood in front of class and directly taught skills were treated like poison.

Joseph, no longer on the board but a major force anyway, said, "Without the state requiring these fundamental teaching changes of every district and requiring these standards and timetables, we would see as much illiteracy among children now as we saw five years ago. But achievement among [kindergarten through fourth-graders] is up substantially. It’s not some testing blip."

It’s not clear Riordan is listening. He’s talking about empowering principals, reminding some of a failed plan in Los Angeles. LEARN (Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now) was supposed to boost learning by handing control to teachers, parents and the principal.

It backfired when the teachers’ union outmaneuvered parents at most schools. Bickering, not learning, ensued.

Riordan must show reformers he is with them and convince Schwarzenegger to fill the state board with reform experts.

But does Riordan trust people whose expertise outstrips his own? When Riordan was elected mayor in 1992, it didn’t seem so. He ignored advice to go slow on his idea for privatizing wasteful services, scrappily announcing that trash pickup could be contracted out. This spawned a feud with a powerful union Riordan couldn’t beat, and weakened him in labor dealings.

On the other hand, Riordan cleaned up Mayor Tom Bradley’s crony system, which had loaded City Hall with inept bureaucrats. Despite controversies in the police department, even critics agreed that he left most departments in better shape than they’d been in for years. The Jewish community can play a hand in helping Riordan succeed. Some 60,000 Jewish children attend public schools, while about 9,000 attend Jewish schools. Reformers say parents can ascertain whether their grade school embraces reform by their textbooks. Sacramento’s majority Democrats, who oppose reform because unions oppose reform, still fear angry parents.

Grade schools using so-called Saxon math books, which emphasize classic arithmetic such as memorizing multiplication tables and dividing fractions, are avidly pro-reform. Whether rich or poor, childrens’ scores are skyrocketing. Anti-reform schools cling to Mathland, a book-less "fuzzy" program that peddles easy work. Most schools’ books aren’t as good as Saxon, or as bad as book-free Mathland.

In reading, achievement at grade schools using wildly successful Opencourt is soaring. Schools using less effective Houghton-Mifflin books see more modest gains. But if a school says its program is "balanced," that’s usually anti-reform code meaning they barely cover phonics and use ineffective "whole language."

The community can also register its displeasure with legislators who author bills attacking reform. Each year, Davis angered teachers’ unions by vetoing every crop of Democratic anti-reform bills.

The unions especially want to end crucial second-grade testing. The tests inform principals exactly which teachers are failing to teach reading and arithmetic at this critical age, even as teachers down the hall do just fine. Because of union bargaining victories, parents cannot see these telling classroom results.

Authors or co-authors of bills to roll back reform include L.A.-area legislators such as state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles); and Assemblymembers Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), Marco Firebaugh (D-South Gate), Dario Frommer (D-Glendale), Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood), Herb Wesson (D-Los Angeles) and Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys). Goldberg is the most outspoken, often praising the past 25 years as an era when children went at their own pace and teachers did their own thing.

Here’s hoping Riordan realizes that those 25 years, while not disastrous for survivors who acquired skills, represent chronic failure by adults who sent California children to the absolute bottom of the academic barrel.

Jill Stewart is a syndicated politcal columnist and can
be reached at

An Ethical Vision

Dov Seidman is used to riding a little ahead of the curve.
Back in 1998, the Los Angeles-based attorney and founder of the legal research
firm Legal Research Network (LRN) decided to expand his business to include an
online course in business ethics.

 At the time, no one could have foreseen the coming scandals
involving companies like Enron and Arthur Andersen. As soon as the wave of
corporate corruption hit, Seidman became the man to call — both by the media
for quotes and by companies seeking to ensure their reputations remained

“In 1998, we were starting to write pamphlets and handbooks
that lawyers could proactively give to business managers and employees to start
putting out fires, so to speak,” Seidman said. “That was really a shift from
working with lawyers and helping them to be great firefighters to helping them
produce fireproof enterprises.”

Seidman, who dubbed his ethics department “LCEC,” or Legal
Compliance and Ethics Center, said he views sharing ethical principles as
crucial to a democratic system of law. He sees the Internet as the perfect 
tool to educate employees about legal ethics and “the rules of society’s road.”

The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Western regional office
will honor Seidman for his vision of bringing a new ethical standard to
businesses here and abroad at its Jurisprudence Award Dinner on March 12. Other
honorees will include California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who will
receive the ADL’s Distinguished Community Service Award, and Joseph D. Mandell,
UCLA’s vice chancellor of legal affairs, who will receive the Stanley Mosk
Liberty Through Justice Award for his many years of public service.

“The award [Seidman] is getting is usually given to someone
in the legal profession who is doing something a cut above the rest of the
legal community,” said Barbara Racklin, director of development for the ADL’s
Western regional office. “Looking over what he’s done in his short career, we
felt he fit the bill for this award.”

Seidman, 38, attributes much of his career success to the
lessons he learned from his eclectic childhood. His father, Alex, a physician
born in Vienna to Holocaust survivors, lived in San Francisco and maintained
close ties with the European Jewish community there until his death in 1992.
Seidman said his father helped shape his outlook as a “citizen of the world.”

But it was his mother, Sydelle, who changed the course of
his life when she took him and his siblings, Ari and Goldee, on a trip to Israel
shortly after the end of the Six-Day War. Although she spoke no Hebrew and had
no family there, his mother decided to remain in the Jewish state.

“My mother had a very deep sense of intuition. Her bravery
and adventurism were really off the charts,” Seidman said. “In Israel at that
time there was a sense of euphoria and magic. All three of us kids grew up
bilingual and bicultural. It’s given me the ability to be creative and see
things from a different point of view.”

The family bounced back and forth between San Francisco, Tel
Aviv and Jerusalem for years, finally settling in Los Angeles. Seidman said
that 11th grade at Beverly Hills High School was the first time in his life
that he spent two consecutive years in the same school.

In addition to the challenges of always being “the new kid,”
Seidman also had to contend with dyslexia. He said he got into UCLA as a
“hardship case” and ended up majoring in philosophy, because it was the only
major where it was easy to get classes. In Horatio Alger fashion, he worked
hard, received his degrees, studied for and earned another bachelor’s degree
from Oxford and eventually graduated from Harvard Law School in 1992.

Two months out of Harvard, working at O’Melveny & Myers’
Washington, D.C., office, Seidman was doing research for a senior partner when
he came up with the idea to create a professional legal research firm in lieu
of using inexperienced lawyers for research.

“It’s hard to describe what it’s like to be in the grip of a
vision, but I was,” Seidman said. The young lawyer quit his job to build the
company. The risk paid off.

Within weeks of launching LRN (now called the Legal
Knowledge Company), Seidman’s company drew a mention on the front page of The
Wall Street Journal. Soon, companies like Motorola, Johnson & Johnson,
DuPont and Chevron were signing on for LRN’s services. LRN doubled its revenues
to more than $100 million in 2002, said company spokesman Ken Montgomery.

Determination and passion for the goal does indeed pay off,
Seidman told The Journal. “I think one of the qualities that makes someone a
true entrepreneur is the inability to contemplate failure,” he said. “You
really focus on what you have to get done.”

To make reservations for the ADL’s Jurisprudence Award
Dinner, call Les Williams at (310) 446-8000 ext. 267.