Orthodox Jews Begin to Reckon with Sexual Abuse

A manhunt has been underway this week for Brooklyn Rabbi Gershon Kranczer and his 21-year-old son Asher in connection with the sexual abuse of four of the rabbi’s female relatives. Two more of the rabbi’s sons, Yechezkel, 24, and a 15-year-old who cannot be named for legal reasons, have already turned themselves in to police.

The case is certainly odd. 58-year-old Rabbi Kranczer, of Midwood, has 14 children and the abuse, according to the New York City Police Department, has been limited to incidents within the rabbi’s family.

But the hunt for Kranczer comes at a time when federal agencies are taking a more proactive approach to prosecuting abuse in the Orthodox community. In Brooklyn last year, about 25 Orthodox men were arrested on sex abuse charges. This year in Lakewood, New Jersey, a predominantly Orthodox community, the local prosecutor has launched 29 sex crime investigations.

According to law enforcement officials in New Jersey and New York, more Orthodox abuse victims are coming forward than ever before. But perhaps more importantly, sexual abuse itself, once taboo, has become an increasingly talked about issue within the Orthodox world. Just a couple of months ago, two of the country’s largest and most influential Orthodox organizations, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union, co-sponsored America’s first National Jewish Child Abuse Prevention Week.

There’s nothing to suggest that sexual abuse is any more or less prevalent in the Orthodox community than anywhere else; but there are a number of peculiarities to Orthodox Jewish life that have made the reporting of abuse less common than in society at large.

“I think the subject of abuse is probably the same in any religious community,” says Michael Salomon, a Long Island psychiatrist, who has just finished working on an as-yet-unpublished book about sexual abuse in the Orthodox world.

“Different religions use different justifications for not reporting,” he says. “But it comes down to the theory that religious issues should be handled within the religious community, even though the powers that be within the community do not have the power to investigate and to prosecute.”

For many years, Orthodox rabbis have dissuaded victims and their families from going to the secular authorities with their claims of abuse. But as the Catholic Church has discovered at great cost, suppressing abuse allegations only makes the issue more damaging to the religious institution when it is finally exposed.

At the recent sentencing of an Orthodox abuser in Brooklyn, the mother of one victim, who did not wish to be named, told me: “They can’t keep it quiet any more. There are too many people screaming about it.” 

Going to Secular Authorities can have Terrible Consequences

In fact, there are many similarities between the way in which the Catholic Church and the Orthodox community have dealt with abuse. Both are closed, conservative communities. Both have a hierarchy and an infrastructure built around the idea that they are responsible for policing themselves. And both are deeply suspicious of the outside world and its values. Catholic and Orthodox officials even joined forces last year to block a bill in the New York State legislature that would have temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on abuse claims.

But the similarities end there. The Orthodox movement is much smaller than the Catholic Church and doesn’t have an overarching figure like the Pope to make decisions. In the Pope’s place are countless rabbinic leaders and authorities who wield enormous influence over their followers.

Mark Dratch, a modern Orthodox rabbi and former vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, says the influence of rabbinic opinion over everyday life—known as da’as torah—has increased considerably during the past few decades.

“There is a growing authoritarianism in the Orthodox community today,” says Rabbi Dratch. “There is a hierarchy and a deference to rabbinic opinion and these two forces play off each other.”

This means that the success of initiatives to hunt down abusers in the Orthodox community ultimately rests with the rabbis. And if the recent case of Yosef Kolko, a 36-year-old Orthodox schoolteacher, is any guide, the Orthodox world still has a long way to go. Kolko, of New Jersey, pleaded not guilty earlier this year to charges that he sexually abused a boy at a Jewish summer camp. Rather than supporting the alleged victim, the community rallied to Kolko’s defense. 

Historically, abuse victims and their families have often been urged—and then bribed or threatened—not to go to the police. Jewish customs and concepts, such as mesirah (not informing on a fellow Jew to the secular authorities), chilul hashem (the desecration of God’s name) and lashon hara (spreading gossip) are invoked to coerce people into keeping quiet. Going to a secular court without a rabbi’s permission can be interpreted as violating Jewish law. Simply speaking out can have terrible consequences. 

Last year, Yehoshua Finkelstein, a 20-year-old abuse victim from the Orthodox enclave of Lakewood, New Jersey, died of an overdose in an apparent suicide. After his death, Shua’s parents discovered a letter he had written criticizing the Jewish community for not facing up to the problem of sexual abuse. They published the letter online, reigniting the debate over abuse. Shortly afterwards, their house was destroyed in a suspected arson attack. 

The boy who now claims to have been abused by Yosef Kolko also comes from Lakewood. After the boy’s father—himself a rabbi—went to the police, a flier was distributed naming the father and accusing him of making “a mockery of the Torah” and of committing a chilul hashem.

A friend of Kolko’s, Shaul Luban, sent a text message to members of the community urging them to pressure the father not to testify. Luban has since been charged with witness tampering and faces up to five years in prison. Meanwhile, nine leading Lakewood rabbis issued a proclamation telling followers that if they suspect a case of abuse they must go to a religious court, known as a beth din, before alerting the secular authorities.

Protecting Children vs. Religious Concerns

The Orthodox community’s reliance upon beth dins is one of the central stumbling blocks to combating sexual abuse. Typically comprised of three rabbis, they rule on family and business disputes such as divorce, inheritance, and contractual disagreements. Small Jewish communities usually have a single beth din while larger communities, like those found in New York and New Jersey, may have many. These include beth dins that specialize in sexual abuse, though they are few; Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, says there are probably no more than two or three in the country.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, beth din rabbis are often reluctant to speak about their work. Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union, says that a beth din that investigates sexual abuse is usually comprised of rabbis with some knowledge or experience of abuse cases. They may also enlist the services of a consultant, such as a mental health professional or an attorney.  

Says Rabbi Weinreb. “It’s very difficult to assess an accusation of sexual abuse. It’s a basic rule in the whole field, especially when children are involved, that it’s hard to know how much credence to give to what they say.”

“However, there are experts in the field who know how to conduct these kinds of investigations and any beth din worth its salt will make sure they have some expert working with them so they can evaluate the situation.”

Rabbi Weinreb says that the Orthodox Union does not have an official policy on reporting sexual abuse. Instead, it directs people to the Rabbinical Council of America, which adopted a resolution earlier this year stating that informing the secular authorities does not violate Jewish law.

Nevertheless, as long as some community leaders insist that the beth din must be informed first, it will remain a route that many religious families take. And only if the beth din deems the allegation to be true will the family be permitted to go to the authorities.

Ocean County Prosecutor Marlene Lynch Ford, who brought the case against Yosef Kolko, is concerned that such actions limit a prosecutor’s ability to secure a conviction. “By having a diversion to a different type of tribunal, no matter how well intentioned the people involved are, it ultimately makes the job of getting a criminal conviction more difficult,” she says.

Furthermore, such practices may be illegal. Reporting laws related to sexual abuse differ by state. But there are few, if any, conditions under which an adult is not bound to report child sexual abuse to the authorities. In New Jersey, any adult with reasonable suspicion of child abuse must report their suspicion to the authorities, says Ford.

However, Ford admits that sexual abuse is a delicate issue and she is under no illusions that victims of all faiths often approach religious leaders for moral and spiritual guidance before going to the authorities.

“This is a type of crime in which people reflect on what the ramifications are to the victim and to their family,” she said.

“But when we are faced with the potential of repetitive and compulsive offenders, who are not amenable to treatment and who may, in fact, be a serial abuser, it’s in the interest of the state to bring to justice and remove these people from the community so they do not assault again.”

“When it comes to abuse, there’s an overriding state interest in protecting children and I think that has to trump religious concerns.”