The decision of a leading association of centrist Orthodox rabbis to expel one of its members has highlighted for some in the community the difficulties of addressing sexual abuse in the Orthodox world. Following an investigation into allegations from several women of sexual harassment, the Rabbinical Council of America announced last week that it had expelled Rabbi Mordecai Tendler.
Tendler had “engaged in conduct inappropriate for an Orthodox rabbi” and refused to cooperate with the committee investigating the claims, the RCA said in a statement.
Tendler referred JTA to his spokesman for comment on the case, though he did say that members of his synagogue, Kehillat New Hempstead, located near Monsey, N.Y., have been “very supportive.”
Asked if he plans to remain in his pulpit he replied, “Of course.”
Hank Sheinkopf, Tendler’s spokesman, said the RCA procedure leading to Tendler’s expulsion was “reminiscent of the Salem Witch trials,” referring to fraudulent trials in colonial America.
“A decent man has been smeared, his family damaged irreparably and a community injured after a prolonged witch hunt,” Sheinkopf told JTA.
He complained that Tendler was not permitted to confront his accusers and that information on the case was leaked to the media.
The charges against Tendler include claims that over the last few years he engaged in sexual affairs with several women, among them women who had come to him for rabbinic counseling.
Brian Leggiere, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan whose clientele is comprised largely of Orthodox abuse victims and offenders, said the case highlights the fact that the Orthodox community is beginning to “wake up” to issues of abuse among its leaders, but still has “a ways to go.”
“We imbue our leaders with a great sense of kavod, respect, and usually it’s deserved,” he said. “It’s a wonderful value, but when you have a community that over-idealizes” its leaders at times, “that’s a recipe that allows abuse to occur.”
In the Orthodox world, where marital matches, or shidduchs, are highly valued commodities, even the victims of abuse often remain silent for fear they will damage their chances to find a husband or wife.
Tendler’s expulsion reportedly went into effect immediately, though expulsion from the RCA does not necessarily entail removal from the pulpit. Some 1,000 ordained rabbis in 128 countries have membership in the RCA.
“Synagogues and institutions are entirely independent entities,” Rabbi Basil Herring, the RCA’s executive vice president, told JTA. “Therefore, it’s up to every synagogue to decide how it will wish to deal with its rabbi or its clergy or employees.”
Herring declined to comment directly on the case, as did several other RCA members complying with official RCA policy.
One Orthodox rabbi who requested anonymity said it was the first time the RCA had expelled a member following sexual abuse allegations.
The expulsion was based on protocols, instituted in April 2004, for addressing accusations of sexual impropriety against RCA members. The new protocols followed the highly publicized conviction of Rabbi Baruch Lanner, an Orthodox Union official who is serving seven years in prison for sexually abusing a student when he was principal of Hillel Yeshiva High School in New Jersey.
The Lanner case, in which allegations emerged that victims’ complaints had gone unheeded, has been seen as a watershed in the way the Orthodox community addresses sexual abuse.
Tendler’s expulsion is a particularly sensitive issue for the RCA, Orthodox insiders said, because he comes from an important family of respected rabbis. His father is the well-known bioethicist and Yeshiva University teacher Rabbi Moses Tendler. His grandfather was the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who was among the Orthodox world’s leading experts in Jewish religious law.
Orthodox movement insiders said Tendler gained respect for his work on women’s issues within Judaism, particularly his approach to helping agunot, women unable to secure divorces from their husbands.
“As painful as it has been” for the community to start coming to terms with abuse issues, “I think it’s helpful when it comes to the fore because it helps people respond,” Leggiere said. “Generally people aren’t going to respond to a situation until you get past a level of denial.”
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