Friday, February 09, 2001

Orthodox Rabbi stands publicly against a sexual predator

Torn up inside
by Tovah Lazaroff, Jonathan Bloom
 The Jerusalem Post Magazine
February 9, 2001

Protecting his daughter was Rabbi Jonathan Blass's first instinct. Blass had privileged information that a man in his small Samaria community of Neveh Tzuf had repeatedly sexually molested a young teen there. She never reported the crime to the police - only to Blass and his wife.

So when this same man asked Blass's own daughter, then 16, to work on a project with him, Blass forbade her to do it.

That was when Blass realized how unfair it was that he could keep his daughter safe, while the other 220 families who live in the community did not even know their children needed protecting.

So much did he fear the man's possible guilt, Blass spoke out against the alleged sexual abuser. By doing so, he opened himself up to attacks in his home town, in the media and in the rabbinical court.

In a country where, according to crisis center experts, 60 percent of convicted sexual offenders do not serve time (and then often less than two years) and only an estimated 5 percent of sexual-abuse cases are ever reported, some communities seek alternative solutions to handling abusers. This is particularly true in religious communities, where the victims fear public exposure in court, says Debbie Gross, director of the Crisis Center for Religious Women.

She says it is particularly hard for a young religious woman to report an instance of sexual abuse. The resulting exposure often impacts more negatively on the life of a religious woman than on thelife of a secular one.

When religious communities attempt to deal with such situations outside the legal system, a local rabbi is often a key figure in negotiating a solution. Yet the rabbi, along with the community, is
in a double bind: On the one hand, the rights of possibly innocent people can be trampled on; on the other, without the threat of imprisonment, efforts to deal with the guilty can prove ineffective.

American-born Blass, who has served as Neveh Tzuf's rabbi for 14 years, had no idea he was stepping into just such a situation when his car broke down in the winter of 2000. Blass hitched a ride with one of his neighbors. During the drive, the man told the rabbi his wife had been raped three years earlier by a member of the community, prior to their marriage.

"I was quite taken aback," Blass says. "My feeling was that if someone wants to tell you something like that, they make an appointment." Blass stored it in the back of his mind, but didn't think too much about it.

The man's wife, who wishes to remain anonymous, had reported the incident to the police three months after it happened. She and the man had been very good friends. "At a certain point, he decided that he wanted me," she said. She let him know she wasn't interested. He started touching her. Eventually, she said, he forced himself on her

sexually. The man, she said, reported to the police that she had wanted a sexual relationship with him.

The police dropped the matter for lack of evidence.

Three months after Blass's conversation with the husband, another Neveh Tzuf woman, in her 20s, told Blass's wife she had been repeatedly sexually abused between the ages of 13 and 15 while baby- sitting for a local family. The man she named was the same man accused by Blass's hitchhiker.

The incidents sometimes occurred in the alleged abuser's home, sometimes outside, and once in her own home when she was alone.

The young woman adamantly refused to go to the legal authorities. She feared the man and did not want the risk of exposure.

After speaking with the woman, Blass consulted with the police, who told him that without the alleged victim's testimony, it would be impossible to make a case.

At the urging of Blass and his wife, the young woman did tell her mother. Blass then referred the former babysitter to a rape-crisis center. Counselors there told the rabbi they believed her story was true because of its level of detail and her response to the experience, which was consistent with sexual-abuse victims. They added that the accused posed a danger to other girls in the community because people who sexually abuse children are often addicted to that behavior.

Hoping the victim could be swayed to report the matter, Blass waited. Then the man approached his daughter. The request might have been innocent. But Blass couldn't take that chance. Neither, he thought, should any other parent. He knew more immediate action was required.

But he didn't want to move forward alone. Along with a social worker from the Binyamin Regional Council, Blass convened a committee of four long-time community members to investigate the matter.

According to one of those four, Nehemia Schneider, no one on the small investigative committee had anything personal against the accused. "All of us had been on good terms with him," Schneider says. Some even considered him a friend.

A second member of the panel, Rachel Loberman, says she was shocked when she heard the story. To the best of her knowledge, there had never been a case like this in the community.

The committee members checked out the details for themselves. Schneider spoke to the staffers of the rape- crisis center; Loberman met with the former babysitter.

"She came and she told me her story. I had the feeling she was telling the truth. We both cried together; it was very emotional," Loberman says. "Two stories about the same person at the same time - it's not likely they are made up."

Loberman spent many sleepless nights wondering what to do. "With a story like that you can never know if it's true. On one hand, if we do something and the story isn't true, we hurt the family [of the accused]. But if we don't do anything and the story is true, then we might be hurting many other girls. We had to weigh both things."

The committee met with the accused man, and his wife, and informed them of the charges. They told him they felt compelled to inform the community, but wouldn't do so if he voluntarily left. He responded by claiming his innocence and offered to take a polygraph test.

He later presented the committee with three polygraph test results which he said proved his innocence. According to Blass, the committee lacked faith in the first two tests because they did not ask appropriate questions, and only one of the two was carried out in a licensed center. The babysitter took a polygraph test as well, which showed she was telling the truth, says Blass.

The man then underwent a third polygraph, with appropriate questions. But he did it in an unlicensed center, according to Blass.

In what seems to indicate the depth of mutual suspicions raised by the case, the man refused to go the same polygraph center as the babysitter, claiming, Blass says, that it was a front for the General Security Service. He also accused Blass of working for the GSS and said Blass was persecuting him for his political beliefs and activities on behalf of the settlers' movement. Blass firmly denies these charges.

The story spread beyond the borders of Neveh Tzuf. The religious daily, Hatzofeh, published an article also claiming that the GSS was using the rabbi to frame an innocent man and the story was picked up by Israel Radio's Reshet Bet.

Realizing that the issue had grown too big for them, the initial four-member committee gathered a group of 15, including many of the community's leaders, and explained the problem to them.

Amy Rosenbluh, Neveh Tzuf's council head, was among those invited to the meeting. She was stunned. "You don't expect it to happen in your backyard, with someone who has a lovely wife and children."

This larger committee agreed that the community should be informed. At a general meeting the following week, they reported everything they knew about the man and the accusations against him.

The incident split the community, with the majority supporting Blass.

Blass and Loberman say that at one point the man agreed to leave Neveh Tzuf. But then he backed out of the agreement and still lives there with his family. Rosenbluh says that a few weeks ago, the man's wife starting yelling at the rabbi outside the synagogue.

"We are still reeling from it," says Rosenbluh. "The dispute has spread to every level of the community, even among the children."

The accused man has tried to press counter-charges against Blass in a hearing before the rabbinical courts.

He first approached the office of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, which began investigating the matter. To help Blass, the former babysitter who claims she was molested spoke with a representative of the chief rabbi's office. She finished the conversation feeling as ifthey thought she was somehow to blame, even though she had been a minor at the time.

In a letter subsequently written to the chief rabbi's office, she writes: "I am a real woman who still suffers today from the pain inflicted upon me by the actions of this man.... I am the one who is suffering because I have to live day by day, hour by hour with the memory of what happened to me."

Blass then refused on principle to take part in a rabbinical court hearing in which he, not the alleged sexual offender, was the defendant. He said he would participate only if the hearing were public and if the press could be present. No such accommodation was made, Blass says.

A spokesman for Lau, Rafi Frank, says the case was then dropped, since in a matter like this the rabbinate has authority only if both parties agree to mediation.

The accused man then took his counter-attack against Blass to the office of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi- Doron. In a letter written to Bakshi-Doron last summer, both the man and his wife asked the chief rabbi to get involved in the matter, saying that the issue had harmed their reputation and their employment possibilities.

Bakshi-Doron referred the matter to the rabbinical courts. Blass was again asked to appear at a hearing and advised not to speak elsewhere about the matter. Bakshi-Doron's spokesman, Rafi Dayan, says the intent of the rabbinical inquiry was to help Blass, not punish him. He adds, though, that a rabbi should not be acting as a judge and jury outside the law. Furthermore, the charges that Blass was acting as a GSS agent are of concern to the court.

Blass again refused to appear at a rabbinical court hearing in which he was to be the one being put on trial.

"It is improper and not halachicly appropriate for a community member to sue a rabbi when he is only acting in performance of his rabbinical duties," says Blass. He adds that he is willing to have the court review his actions to ensure they did not involve personal malice. "But I'm not willing to come as a defendant."

Blass did participate in an informal rabbinical inquiry held by rabbis in the Binyamin region. It cleared him of any wrongdoing and concluded that rabbis should act as Blass did in these instances.

Blass's desire to help other rabbis in similar situations led him to talk about it with The Jerusalem Post.

Blass says he is sure that other rabbis are facing, and will be facing, this same type of dilemma. He is hoping his story will help someone else. But if Blass is feeling hounded by his role in this affair, so too, do the accused man and his wife.

In an initial phone conversation with the Post, the wife of the accused man was eager to talk, to explain in detail how the publication of some of this information in another newspaper had shattered their lives.

Her husband, she insists, is completely innocent.

On numerous occasions, she adds, they attempted to bring Blass to a rabbinical court to settle the matter, and each time he has refused. She and her husband spent $500 of their own money to do the three polygraph tests, and allowed a psychologist to do a criminal profile.
Her husband, she says, came out innocent each time.

By accusing her husband of crimes he never committed, she says, Blass has done an awful thing.

"He has turned our lives into something terrible," she says. "There are rabbis who walk with God; he does not. He doesn't have the right to make accusation against my husband without bringing him to a court."

If her husband did anything wrong, she says, "a rabbinical court will decide.

"It's hutzpa," she adds regarding her husband's accusers. "They have spilled the blood of a family. We are talking about people who took the law into their own hands. They acted like gangsters. I never believed that something like this would happen."

In a follow-up phone conversation, the accused man says that after reflecting on the matter, he decided not to talk with the press. Hesays he had consulted with rabbis and decided it was better to not to practice lashon hara (speaking evil of others). His innocence, hesays, will eventually come to light.

Rabbi Chanoch Yeres, head psychologist of the Binyamin Regional Council, says he understands Blass's position. A rabbi in a situation such as Blass's is struggling between two different legal edicts set out in Leviticus.

On one hand, the Bible warns a person not to speak ill of another, "You should not be a gossip monger." At the same time, it says one has a duty to protect people, "You should not stand aside while blood is shed."

To act in this kind of matter, a rabbi must set aside one edict in favor of the other, says Yeres. If a rabbi chooses to speak out and not stand aside when he believes someone is in danger, Yeres advises the rabbi to focus first on the victim and then to seek professional advice. If he moves forward to expose the abuser, he shouldn't do it alone, Yeres says. The role of the rabbinical court here should be to support the rabbi in his actions to protect the community.

"It is commendable for a rabbi to stand up [in this type of situation] and take action," says Yeres.

People in higher authority need to have their awareness raised regarding this topic, Yeres adds. There should be clear policy guidelines established by the rabbinical court that rabbis can follow, since in cases like this, in small communities, the rabbi or his wife is often the first person a sexual-abuse victim turns to.

To focus attention on this issue, Yeres and Michael Strick, director of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel, in December held a conference in Jerusalem on how rabbis should deal with sexual abuse in their communities. The council runs ongoing workshops on "The Rabbi's Role in Crisis Intervention," in which the topic of sexual abuse has been raised , but it does not have a workshop specifically geared toward such cases.

Avraham Giesser, a rabbi in the Samaria community of Ofra, says that the legal position of a rabbi in these matters needs to be strengthened. The rabbi has an obligation to safeguard his community, but he has a hard time doing it without authority.

"A small community is like a family," says Giesser. "It's hard to deal with a family member, and it's hard to get a conviction in court. The victim is often a very weak person, and the abuser is often a strong man who is bolstered by friendships and institutional ties. It's difficult for the victims to stand up in court, for them to deal with the issue at all. So the rabbi has an important role as the victim's advocate."

Gross says the need for anonymity among sexual-abuse victims can be seen in statistics from her center's hot line. Fifty percent of those who call the Crisis Center for Religious Women are haredi; 30% percent are modern Orthodox, 15% are traditional and 5%, secular.  This does not mean there are more problems with sexual abuse in the haredi community, says Gross, it means an anonymous hot line meets the needs of that sector.

"No one is trying to sweep things under the carpet," Gross says, but public disclosure is an issue.

In religious communities, particularly the haredi one, when a woman starts to look for a husband, a background check is done, even before the couple meet. While in the secular world a man might be in the middle of a relationship before he discovers a woman is a rape victim, in the haredi world he would know it even before they met, Gross says.

"If a man could choose between two wonderful women, one who was raped and one who wasn't, any man, religious or secular, is much more likely to chose the woman who wasn't," Gross says.

"The system doesn't make it easy for the victim. She has to prove it. It's her word against his. The laws are excellent, but the judges mete out low sentences," Gross says.

According to Jerusalem criminal-law attorney Noam Lerner, telling the police about a sexual abuser rarely protects the community. Reaching a conviction takes time and punishment doesn't always follow.

He recalls an incident from when he was working as a police detective. He had to interview a man suspected of sexually abusing a woman in the workplace. Eventually the man confessed and was convicted in a well-publicized trial.

Two years later, Lerner saw him in the police station as a volunteer officer. He was allowed to keep that position because he had been granted a pardon after the conviction and the crime was considered erased.

This was particularly upsetting because during his confession two years earlier, the man had told Lerner that when he had lived in New York, he had used his volunteer- policeman uniform to take advantage of women.

Lerner suggests to anyone trying to stand up against an abuser - both inside and outside of the regular system: Get good legal advice. "It's the easiest thing in the world to have a guy turn around and sue you."

What should a rabbi do when he learns about sexual abuse in his own congregation?

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