Rabbis And Tough Love: Can A Bully Be Compassionate?


Like many, I have been following the story coming out of Rutgers University about alleged abuse by its basketball coach, Mike Rice.

I take particular interest in this story because Rice is not accused of sexual abuse but of psychological and verbal abuse, and of creating a hostile environment to those under his care and employ. My personal interest stems from my being one of very few people who allowed The Jewish Week to use his name in a similar story it published last year about a prominent rosh yeshiva in Israel; that rabbi there runs a program for post-high school non-Israeli students, and he was abusive to me when I attended many years ago.

The reactions are very strikingly similar: most of Coach Rice’s players never perceived his behavior as abusive; ditto this rosh yeshiva’s students. A good portion of the commentary after both stories broke suggested that this was all an overreaction. Many people justify the behavior of both the coach and the rabbi by saying that such psychological abuse is an eccentric but effective teaching style, that everyone under their care knew about this tough love in advance, that both have done so much good and affected a good majority of their students in a positive manner. Finally, many say that the actions of the two is not abuse at all but the actions of strict disciplinarians.

Recently, a story broke about allegations of inappropriate physical behavior by a rabbi at Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan between the 1970s and ’90s. Yeshiva University President Richard Joel issued a statement saying that YU had a zero-tolerance policy toward any form of abuse. As a former YU student I sent President Joel an e-mail and asked him if in light of The Jewish Week story from last year and the zero-tolerance policy, why the university still had a formal relationship with this particular rosh yeshiva? Joel referred me to the outside investigators that YU retained to do a full inquiry into the allegations. Apparently, these investigators have been given wide latitude to look into not just those specific allegations, but also any others that they could uncover. Thus, when I was interviewed I was shocked by the line of questioning and taught a valuable lesson.

Having been a student at Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Brooklyn and therefore not at the Manhattan campus where the alleged abuse happened, I was jolted when the investigators asked me about a Talmud instructor I had at my high school. This particular rabbi, a Holocaust survivor, had a reputation as being tough as nails and a strict disciplinarian. And yes, in retrospect he would not get away today with some of the barbs he threw at us back then. He also happened to be my teacher at a very difficult time in my life, shortly after I lost my mother to cancer and while I was suffering a severe depression.

     The Talmud says that a man can define his life in one solitary moment, and to me this rabbi did. One day, seeing me in his class, depressed, seemingly lost, he stopped his lecture and called me outside. He put his arm around me and asked me what was the matter. I broke down instantly and this bear of a man held me for what seemed an eternity and talked me through it. He continued to follow up as the school year progressed. We remained close, I spent Shabbat at his house and he was one of the rabbis who performed my marriage ceremony. Until today I have nothing but the warmest of feelings towards him. However, I also see how his screaming and bullying was problematic and likely turned off many students.

Today this is no longer a paradox. We are more aware than ever about where the red lines are. Discipline can be achieved without bullying. Strictness can be accomplished without insult. Results can be obtained without scapegoating and educators can maintain authority without diminishing a student’s dignity. As these stories surface and many of us are torn between conflicting emotions, it is important to remember that addressing these issues makes us stronger and that good people sometimes do harmful things.

To me one rabbi — the rosh yeshiva in Israel — was abusive, while to a majority of others he was loving and kind; to others one rabbi — the one in high school — was a bully, but to me he was a knight in shining armor. We are all human and have a chance at redemption. I hope that the next story we hear about Coach Rice is one that tells of a humbled, repentant basketball coach positively influencing another team.

Yoel Moskowitz is a writer and businessman living in Lawrence, L.I.