In the wake of the article he and I co-authored (Jan. 27) on Rav Aharon Bina of Netiv Aryeh, a yeshiva for American students in the Old City of Jerusalem, Yedidya Gorsetman received a message on Facebook from Rabbi Ari Fuld.
“I don’t know who you are and I am not trying to threaten you in any way,” the rabbi began. “I see that you are friends on FB [Facebook] with many Netiv guys and I hope they come to their senses and drop you like a dead fish.
“I truly believe you are an evil person” for “trying to murder Rav Bina with your pen,” the rabbi continued, speculating that Yedidya, a senior at Yeshiva University and an editor of the school newspaper, “is not frum [observant]” and that he wrote the article because “you hate the fact that Rav Bina has such a positive effect on his kids [students].
“You are an evil immoral individual” whose intention “wasn’t the safety of the kids but how you can hurt Rav Bina.”
Rabbi Fuld wrote that he hopes one day Yedidya will have sons who will realize how “sick and immoral” their father is and run away to Rav Bina, who will take them in.
I cite Rabbi Fuld’s comments here because he is a rebbe at Netiv Aryeh, headed by Rav Bina, and which has the largest group of American boys spending their post-high school gap year in an Israeli yeshiva.
And while I suspect defenders of the yeshiva will rationalize Rabbi Fuld’s deeply disturbing comments as an aberration, as they do decades’ worth of complaints about Rav Bina’s treatment of some students, I worry that this rebbe’s comments reflect, at the very least, the antithesis not only of rabbinic behavior, but of the foremost Torah value of seeing each and every person as created in God’s image.
Yet Rabbi Fuld’s inflammatory words resonate with a large number of the comments posted online on our website from defenders of Rav Bina, who tend either to describe him in reverential terms and deny any wrongdoing on his part, or insist that his unique form of pedagogy — which includes publicly humiliating students, cursing them and expelling them without warning — is a misunderstood act of love for the good of the targeted students, who deserve his disapproval and often benefit from it.
I urge you to take the time to scroll through and read some of the literally hundreds of comments posted online on our website in response to the Rav Bina article — more than 55 printed pages worth, at last count — confirming the polarizing effect he has on students and parents who view the 63-year-old rabbi as either an extraordinarily compassionate, warm and insightful rebbe or a man using the power of his position to break down a minority of students emotionally, sometimes with long-lasting and disturbing effect.
As I read through the comments, many of them deeply personal, with a kind of morbid fascination, I worried for the health and stability of an insecure Modern Orthodox community that, consciously or not, seems to have struck a Faustian bargain with the Rav Binas of the world: do what you have to do to ensure that our sons remain observant, even at the risk of losing a few along the way to emotional distress.
As one woman whose son attended Rav Bina’s yeshiva wrote on our site: “Take the facts — we have a Rav who sometimes abuses his students and that’s OK? If we had babysitters that only behaved with one of our children that way, we would be OK? I don’t think so. … The question becomes, can we look at ourselves in the mirror when tolerating only a little abuse?”
Steven Bayme, national director of contemporary American Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee, notes that “Orthodox leaders intent on justifying Rav Bina’s approach and behavior are saying ‘what works, works.’ That is the moral equivalent of saying ‘the ends justifies the means.’ That’s Machiavelli, not Orthodox Judaism.”
Bayme wonders why Modern Orthodox parents and institutions “encourage day school graduates to attend institutions that not only are unsympathetic to Modern Orthodoxy but determined to undermine it.”
Michael Salamon, an Orthodox clinical psychologist and author of the book, “Abuse in the Jewish Community,” applies the term “cognitive dissonance” in observing how some Modern Orthodox Jews send their children to schools that offer a more rigid worldview, often teaching students to avoid intellectual encounters with modernity.
Salamon says that, consciously or subconsciously, these parents see a society around them with increasingly lax morals and feel it is better to put their children in an environment with fewer choices, even with the attendant risks.
“They’re looking for magic,” he says, expecting the year in Israel to suddenly transform their child into an adult firm in his or her religious beliefs.
Therapist colleagues in Israel complain to Salamon that American parents expect them “to fix all of their kids’ problems,” he said.
Salamon also applies cognitive dissonance to Rav Bina students who passively observe classmates humiliated in public, and rabbis and other defenders of Rav Bina who focus on his many good deeds rather than acknowledge the harm done to a significant minority of young men.
The psychologist suggests that it may be healthier emotionally for young Orthodox Jews to attend yeshivas in Israel after a year or two of college rather than right after high school. But he notes that the Israeli yeshivas “want them when they are malleable.”
In my conversations with a number of rabbis and others I respect in the community I found a willful ignorance on their part in discussing Rav Bina. They either didn’t want to believe the many stories over the years of young men who say they were emotionally scarred from the experience or suggested that everyone should know by now that Netiv Aryeh was a kind of Talmudic boot camp where “tough love” is doled out for the good of the students.
If that’s the case, maybe Netiv Aryeh should let visitors to its website know its methodology rather than trumpet its “warm diverse staff,” which includes Rabbi Ari Fuld.
In the wake of the Jan. 27 article and the hundreds of letters and posted comments we received, it should be noted that Yeshiva University chose not to comment on whether it would review its association with Netiv Aryeh, one of its largest feeder schools from Israel.
The issue is bigger than Rav Bina. It’s about parents taking greater responsibility for their children’s emotional as well as spiritual growth, and it’s about a community determining whether it wants to create strong, independent and morally confident young men and women willing and able to grapple with the complexity of blending tradition and modernity. Or not.