When Rabbis Abuse: A Q&A With Elana Sztokman

In 2015, author and sociologist Dr. Elana Sztokman published an article on the subject of high-profile Jewish sexual abusers who had received high-profile support in the Jewish community. The response to that piece revealed that she had hit a nerve. “People began contacting me and sharing shocking stories of abuse and the aftermath…Although it was a long article that had explored recent events with abusive rabbis and other communal celebrities, it quickly became clear that I had barely scratched the surface.” 

That realization was part of Sztokman’s motivation in writing her latest book, When Rabbis Abuse, which explores the painful, and until recently, unspoken issue of sexual abuse perpetrated by religious, social and cultural leaders in Jewish communities. The book not only examines how people in positions of power choose and groom their victims, but also analyzes the silent complicity of others that enables the abuse. Sztokman writes that Jewish communities have yet to seriously address the phenomenon, and examines how turning a blind eye impacts communities as a whole. 

What was it about this subject that compelled you to investigate and write about it?

My life led me here. My decades of feminist activism showed me that almost every woman who became a feminist came from a place of trauma. It didn’t just happen. We arrived here from bad experiences – whether our own or our mothers’ or our teachers’ or our friends’ – that live in our bodies and consciousness. Certainly, for some people out there, debates about women’s bodies are just another thought experiment, like lines in the Talmud. Like the Republicans in Congress who talk about reproductive rights as if there is some kind of abstract philosophical issue. They have that privilege to talk about women’s bodies as if we are discussing whether there is life on Mars. But for so many of us, feminism is about our physical experiences. We are engaged in this work out of a response to something that happened to us viscerally. I encountered this over and over again, and my work just led me to this place. It is almost obvious, like the natural place for me to arrive at. 

Ultimately, though, the book is not just about women, or just about feminism. People of all genders can be victims, and people of all genders can be abusers. While the patriarchy is a very important component in the dynamics of abuse in many places, it is not the only component. There are a lot of other issues at play. Power, status, narcissism, and the willingness to exploit another person’s body and spirit for one’s own ego needs, are dynamics that surpass gender. 

In the course of your research, did you find any relevant differences between how abuse is handled in Orthodox communities, such as the one you were raised in, and more secular Jewish institutions?

The cover-ups happen everywhere. Everywhere. The grooming by charismatic leaders is almost identical across communities, even if rabbis of different denominations will use different code words for grooming – eg, Buber and tikkun olam in the liberal spaces versus mitzvot, kedusha, and shidduch prospects in Orthodox circles. The differences are in the minutiae. Reform rabbis have guitars, and Orthodox rabbis have language of halakha and purity. One has a mechitza and the other has hugs. But those are minor details. The similarities outweigh the differences. The absolute trust in rabbis cuts across all denominations and communities. Everyone puts rabbis on pedestals. Everyone teaches their kids to listen to the rabbi no matter what. Everyone values charisma, which is a trait of performance and not one of integrity or character. These are problems across the entire Jewish community. 

Mostly, the most jarring common denominator is that every single group wants to believe that the problem of sexual abuse lies elsewhere. Every group tells itself the lie that they are special. It’s a drilling down of the notion of chosen-ness. We all are taught that Jews are special, that we are different, that we are better, that this kind of terrible thing doesn’t happen by “us”. That impression of Jewish specialness goes not only for Jews on the whole but also for the subgroups. Each denomination thinks that they are the real truth-holders, better than everyone else. That language of specialness is so pervasive, and it is language that supports abusers, interferes with victims’ ability to identify and disclose the abuse, and becomes a mainstay of the cover-ups. 

One of the things you’ve done in this book is put together a “Profile of the Jewish Abuser.” Can you talk about how the term evolved for you, and why you felt that this sort of depiction was important. 

In some ways, the profile of the Jewish abuser is just like every other abuser. They are generally narcissistic, emotionally manipulative, charming, charismatic, beloved characters who are publicly endeared. They enjoy a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde persona that they are able to hide behind so that people believe they can do no wrong and victims must be lying or crazy or vindictive or whatever. 

But it’s more than that. Rabbis who abuse also have extra tools at their disposal to reel in their victims. They use pastoral intimacy – which remains an area of rabbinic life that is unsupervised, unguarded, and gives abusers free access to their prey. We as a community need to take a closer look at this. 

But in essence, rabbis who abuse are not that different from Catholic priests, baseball coaches, or camp counselors who abuse. They are all experts at using the tools at their disposal for exploiting people’s vulnerabilities, breaking down barriers, ingratiating themselves to victims, and getting victims to do whatever they demand. 

A vivid example of this is in Stephen Mill’s book, Chosen, in which he describes the sexual abuse he experienced as a teenager by his camp director. The abuser would routinely find boys with a specific vulnerability, give them presents and prizes, and emotionally manipulate both the boys and the boys’ mothers. It is a classic example of how this works. I highly recommend this book.

I wanted to show both points – that Jewish abusers are just like all other abusers, and also carry certain Jewish-centric behaviors based on communal values and cultures. 

The book makes the case that one of the enabling factors of abuse is a community’s willingness to turn a blind eye. In the wake of Me Too, when the problem of sexual abuse has finally been acknowledged as a rampant and critical problem with real social costs, how optimistic, or pessimistic, are you about the ability of Jewish communities and institutions to make a change in the way abuse is handled?

Optimistic or pessimistic? Depends on the day. It’s hard to know. There are certain signs of change – for example, initial reactions to the Chaim Walder were hopeful, in that he was fired from jobs and his works removed from shelves. But then a week later the chief rabbi visited his family, so there was that. I want to say things are changing, but at the same time there is already backlash. There is talk about forgiveness and now a lot of communities are discussing how to bring abusers back into the fold. I mean, a book about how to forgive abusers is already headed for the bestseller lists – just in time for Yom Kippur. I feel like, we haven’t even finished our reckoning with this, and already we’re back to new tactics for sweeping it under the rug. That was so fast! The needs of the abusers are still more important than the needs of victims. That language of forgiveness is SO TRIGGERING for victims/survivors, many of whom are still struggling with disclosure, reporting, and being believed. But the community is already to move past it all. So I’m not really sure what is happening. I wish I were more optimistic, but I’m not really sure. 

What was the most difficult thing for you personally about writing this book?

All of it. It was all hard for me. The stories are awful. The pain of the victims/survivors is tangible. The cruelty of our culture is shameful. And there were also many aspects of the stories that I have experienced and/or witnessed, so I often had my own visceral reactions, and many of my own memories coming up. Sometimes, I would be listening to an interview and having my own flashbacks. And then I had to write about it all and sit on this material, for months and years. During the writing process, I had to take pauses often. I would write a chapter, and then take a three hour walk on the beach to get it out of my system. I did that a lot.  

And let me just say, it’s very hard to unsee all this. It’s very hard to come back from this and walk back into a shul as if everything is okay. I don’t really go to shul much anymore, and I find myself distrusting rabbis. When I meet someone who is introduced to me as “rabbi,” I become very guarded. I find myself increasingly suspicious of the whole power hierarchy in Judaism. I participated in that for too long, even as it hurt me and countless others, because we all gave authority and esteem to people who were hurting others in private. I won’t be part of that dynamic anymore. 

It goes beyond Judaism, too. I often don’t trust people in authority, nor allow myself to be in a situation where I am alone in a room with a person in authority who is going to tell me something about myself, or try to look at me and measure me or judge me, or look me in the eye and tell me that they know something about what I truly feel or think. Because that right there – the emotional manipulation in which a person establishes their authority over your inner self, and your intimate relationship with yourself – is the very first step in breaking down barriers that abusers use with aplomb. That is how it starts, and I have become hyper-aware of that dynamic in our culture. 

This book tackles issues that until recently, weren’t seen as systemic problems. What kinds of response have you gotten from readers since the book came out? 

Reactions have been overwhelmingly positive and grateful. Many people are writing to me privately and sharing their stories. Many have thanked me for giving language and clear explanations for what they experienced, so that they no longer feel alone. Many people have said it should be required reading in places like rabbinical schools, teacher training programs, therapy programs, and the like. A few reviewers called it kind of “textbook” about this issue. I hope it doesn’t read like a textbook…. But I do think that the reactions have been very clear that this needs to be seen and heard. We can’t look away anymore. 

Janice Weizman is a historical novelist living in Israel. Her first book, The Wayward Moon, will be reissued in the coming months with Toby Press. Her second novel, Our Little Histories, will come out with them in 2023.