A prominent Israeli educator convicted of sexually abusing his students is being allowed to continue teaching. That move has drawn protest in Teaneck.
Last Friday, the International Rabbinic Fellowship posted a statement reaffirming its “…support for the victims of sexual harassment and abuse…” and urging “…educational institutions to refrain from hosting R. Elon to deliver lectures and teach Torah to their students…”
It was sent out to a wide mailing list by the IRF’s treasurer, Nathaniel Helfgot of Teaneck, rabbi of that town’s Netivot Shalom.
That makes the ongoing situation in the Bnei Akiva schools in Israel a local story, but to tell it properly demands backing up and starting closer to the beginning.
The religious Zionist movement in Israel has been rocked by charges that one of its most charismatic teachers, Rabbi Moti Elon, sexually abused and harassed some of the young men whose education and moral development he was charged with overseeing.
Rabbi Elon had headed the Yeshivat HaKotel, a flagship religious Zionist institution in Jerusalem’s Old City for young men seeking a closer relationship to God and to the Jewish people. He was convicted in August of two charges of sexual indecency against male students – charges he continues to deny – but last week he was sentenced to probation and community service rather than jail time.
Saying forcefully that he thinks the conviction was wrong, Rabbi Chaim Druckman, the revered 81-year-old teacher who heads the Bnei Akiva youth movement and who won the Israel Prize in 2012, has made clear that he intends to allow Rabbi Elon to teach in Bnei Akiva institutions.
The Bnei Akiva youth movement is an old and proud pillar of the religious Zionist movement, inculcating a love of the Jewish state. Its schools emphasize a love of Zion as well as a deep and sound textual understanding of traditional Jewish texts. Its flagship school in Israel, Yeshivat Or Etzion, is a hesder yeshiva, which readies young men for both the Israel Defense Forces and a religiously observant life during and after their service.
Reaction to the sentence and to Rabbi Druckman’s decision has been mixed, loud, and furious.
According to Allison Kaplan Sommer in Haaretz, Miriam Zussman of the Israeli town Beit Shemesh “sent a letter to Bnei Akiva supporters abroad, asking them to alert members of the board of American Friends of Yeshiva Bnei Akiva to the issue.
“In that letter,” Ms. Kaplan Sommer continues, “she describes Elon as a ‘dangerous, habitual sexual predator.'”
Allowing him to teach, the Haaretz story continued, “reflects very badly on Rabbi Druckman’s judgment, and calls into question whether he should be entrusted with the welfare of the 24,000 students in the school network…”
In a radio interview last week, on the other hand, Rabbi Druckman said, “At the end of the day, we’re talking about an incident in which two people were in the room, Rabbi Elon and the complainant…” It was a basic “he said/he said” situation, and he chose to trust Rabbi Elon rather than the alleged victim, Rabbi Druckman said.
This response further enraged victims’ right advocates.
The American Friends of Bnei Akiva so far has declined to address the issue, although it has held out the possiblity that a statement might be forthcoming later in the week.
The IRF’s statement also was in response to Rabbi Elon’s sentence.
Supplying necessary background, Rabbi Helfgot said that the group had been founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx and Rabbi Marc Angel, rabbi emeritus of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in Manhattan, “about a decade ago, as a modern Orthodox rabbinic organization that would be a safe space for discussion and conversation in a non-authoritarian context. It has grown to over 150 members. It is a fellowship of Orthodox rabbis and community scholars who come together in conversation. We also do a little bit of writing, and put out a couple of publications. We have a very vigorous listserv, where people discuss issues in an open context.”
Some of the IRF’s members also are members of the Rabbinical Council of America, the mainstream modern and centrist Orthodox rabbinical association; the largest number are Yeshiva University graduates, some come from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, where Rabbi Helfgot heads the Bible department, and others from seminaries around the world, Rabbi Helfgot added.
This is the text the IRF posted:
“In the wake of the conclusion of the trial of Rabbi Motti Elon in the Israeli court system, and the explicit findings of the respected Takanah Forum, the International Rabbinic Fellowship today reaffirms its support for the victims of sexual harassment and abuse.
“It strongly supports the call by the Beit Hillel rabbinic organization, and other leading figures in Israeli society such as Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennet, calling on all educational institutions to refrain from hosting R. Elon to deliver lectures and teach Torah to their students, particularly in light of his refusal to acknowledge his inappropriate actions and behavior.”
“We thought it’s important to express support for victims of sexual harassment and sexual abuse in our day and age,” Rabbi Helfgot said. “We also want to support the work of the Takana Forum.”
Takana is a small Israeli by-invitation-only organization, made up of Orthodox rabbis, psychologists, and social activists who “wanted to address the challenge of sexual abuse and harassment, and to address the issues that the court system can’t necessarily address, because of such issues as the statute of limitations or of not having enough proof,” Rabbi Helfgot said. “They see their goal not as criminal prosecution but as helping the community address these issues, and letting the community know when they feel that someone has abused his standing or his power.”
Takana has found that Rabbi Elon indeed did commit acts of sexual abuse.
This is not the first time that he has been found guilty of such acts, or that Takana has agreed with the finding. A few years ago, the body decided that Rabbi Elon should be kept away from students. He returned to teaching nonetheless; the result was the most recent guilty verdict.
“It’s important to make a statement about the fact that we feel that this is an important issue,” Rabbi Helfgot continued. “And it is an issue where both the Israeli court system and Takana, which did a very serious investigation, have spoken. Takana is led by very honest and preeminent people across the spectrum of religious Zionism.
“We feel that their work, and the ruling of the Israel court system, should be supported, especially given the fact that there are voices within the religious Zionist community that unfortunately express support for Rabbi Elon continuing to teach.”
What should parents looking for a gap-year program for their children do? “They should vote with their feet, and not attend Rabbi Elon’s classes,” Rabbi Helfgot said. And should parents send their children to the schools that allow him to teach? “I don’t think that you’re actually sending your child into a dangerous situation, but it’s a very questionable decision to have him teach,” Rabbi Helfgot said. “I think that it does raise real questions about the school’s values and judgment, even outside this particular case.”