Thursday, August 28, 2003

Is It Less Sinful to Molest a Conservative Teenager?

On Tuesday, July 29, a federal judge in Chicago sentenced a former youth counselor who is now 33 to a nine-year prison term for molesting teenage boys on a cross-country trip sponsored by the United Synagogue Youth of New York. The sentence is one of the longest given in any sexual molestation case involving a Jewish group. The story has received scant attention in the Anglo-Jewish press, although it has been covered by leading Chicago newspapers. This is in contrast to the extraordinary attention given to misdeeds involving the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the Orthodox Union’s youth arm.

This story gives me no satisfaction and I will not give the name of the offender who apparently committed other acts of sexual abuse. As for USY, the Conservative youth agency, it does some good work and to its credit it removed the counselor once it learned of his actions. The point I want to make is the absence of Jewish media coverage. Why is the story being neglected, especially after what seems to be at least a million words – and still counting – about NCSY’s problems? It cannot be that it is less sinful to molest a Conservative teenager.

There was, in fact, another sexual scandal at USY and it, too, fell under our vigilant media’s radar screen. As I recall, not long before the initial NCSY expose, it was revealed that at the national convention of USY there had been a disgusting point system which compelled teenage girls who wanted to be popular with the boys to engage in explicit sexual acts. There were a few lines in the Forward about this, but nothing in this newspaper.

Even when misdeeds in the other denominations are covered, there is nothing approaching the tenacity and intensity that inform the treatment of Orthodox wrongdoing. When the major Reform leader was removed because of marital infidelity, there was a quick story and then silence; he has landed a top job elsewhere in the vast American Jewish bureaucracy. When it comes to the Orthodox, we are in the painful grip of yenta journalism, of reporters with contacts in Orthodox circles who relish writing about this or that inconsequential flap in some shul, while the far more important story of what is transpiring in Reform and Conservative congregations – for example, the hundreds of thousands of empty seats each Saturday – goes unreported, probably because the journalists do not have a clue about the larger picture of American Jewish life.

I am not advocating a free journalistic ride for the Orthodox. What I advocate is balance and fairness in coverage, specifically a curtailment of the consuming bias that characterizes our media’s treatment of Orthodoxy. The situation is made worse because much of the yenta journalism emanates from Jews who are at the periphery of Orthodox life. There is much self-hatred in this cohort, as was described decades ago by Kurt Lewin, one of the great social psychologists of the last century. Alas, he is all but forgotten, but his writings remain central to an understanding of the American Jewish experience.

It’s apparently impossible to write about any problem within Orthodoxy without including the formulaic claim that there is a cover-up. This is a falsehood that gains currency because of repetition. It is a lie that needs to be challenged. There are dozens of Orthodox self-help groups that deal directly with all kinds of intra-group problems. This results in far greater confrontation of problems within Orthodox circles than obtains elsewhere in Jewish life. I acknowledge that the NCSY matter was handled dreadfully, probably largely because of how bureaucracies tend to deal with internal problems.

We have been treated in recent weeks to abuse charges against an Orthodox rabbi who now lives in Israel, including a Forward’s front page story which apart from the already routine dredging up of NCSY contained the following perfect example of McCarthyistic writing: “Some Orthodox Jews say the cases are part of a pattern of abuse and cover-up.” This is written about a case in which Yeshiva University acted quickly once it learned of the charges, a rabbinical court was quickly convened in New York and now there is a similar body in Israel! It’s apparently acceptable to distort, even lie, when the Orthodox are the target.

Jewish media coverage of abuse cases are the unholy union of anti-Orthodox bias and the growing obsession about the sexual abuse of children. Although I should not have to say this, I feel strongly that all abuse must be confronted, condemned and punished. There is a website that provides information about cases involving rabbis and other Jews. It includes a) charges against persons who are dead, b) cases that were dismissed because of a lack of evidence, c) cases which resulted in acquittal, d) cases that have nothing to do with the abuse of children and e) one case that involved a person who was not Jewish when he did what he did. It’s abusive and, I am certain, contrary to religious Jewish law, civil law and the most attenuated ethical standards to lump together all of these situations.

Dorothy Rabinowitz has demonstrated in many Wall Street Journal articles and now in an important book that dozens of innocent persons, including clergy, have been wrongfully accused and even convicted of the sexual abuse of children. Lives were ruined, families were destroyed; if this isn’t abusive, I do not know what is. In the recent period, there has been an accumulation of reliable evidence of prosecutorial abuse, including at the FBI, as evidence has been fabricated and/or distorted in order to get convictions. There are reasons to believe that prosecutorial abuse is more pronounced in situations involving allegations of abuse against children.

Being vigilant against abuse does not justify the abandonment of basic rights and while our media seem to think otherwise, these rights extend to the Orthodox.