Times of Israel by Shayna Goldberg [see also post by Paul Shaviv - his full article on "Charismatic personality and sexual abuse" is a chapter in my book Child and Domestic Abuse Volume I ]
Another scandal. Another rabbi/educator accused of all kinds of outrageous, inappropriate behavior with female students. This time it is severe enough that rabbis who live across the world, in Israel, New York and Los Angeles, and who span the Modern Orthodox-Chareidi-Chasiddishe spectrum, have come together to sign a letter warning the public to stay away. This time the person involved is thought to have performed hundreds (!) of indecent acts and to have ruined countless lives.
And yet with all the talking, I feel that the real issue is not being spoken about at all. And therefore, despite my deep reluctance to write publicly about any person or place, I want to tell another part of this story.
I knew this rabbi. Eighteen years ago, I came to Israel for the year to study Torah in a seminary where he taught. He lived on campus with his young family in the apartment right beneath mine. From the first time I met him, my overwhelming gut instinct was to stay away. There was something creepy about the way he knew all of our SAT scores by heart, even before we arrived. The way he knew exactly who was registered for an Ivy League college. The way he pursued and initiated chavrutot (study sessions) with very specific girls. Never the weak ones. Only the “best and the brightest.” It felt like a kind of game for him. A challenge. Could he crack the toughest ones? Break them down and then rebuild them? By some, it was considered flattering if he chose you. And there were girls who were hurt and devastated because they didn’t make the cut.
Once he forged that connection, he was manipulative, he played mind games, and he fostered dependence and hero worship. He was sarcastic, biting, and cynical, and he used his sharp mind and his Torah knowledge in cunning ways. He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. He knew Torah by heart, and, of course, his way of looking at things was always “right.” You could never really challenge his read or his understanding because he was held up by everyone as the ultimate talmid chacham (scholar). He had mastered Torah. And he was only 27.
I stayed far away, and yet the experience of coming into even limited contact with him was incredibly painful. There were a couple of times that he threw out such nasty lines to me that I was left crying so hard that I couldn’t breathe. And then there were the difficult feelings of confusion and abandonment that arise when you try to raise concerns with friends and teachers and, instead of taking you seriously, they make you doubt yourself.
This is the real issue that has plagued my mind for so long. The fact that this man was never, ever fit to be an educator. The fact that knowing all the Torah in the world does not on its own make you trustworthy enough to be given a classroom’s worth of young, impressionable souls. The fact that long before anyone suspected inappropriate sexual behavior, it was glaringly clear that this person employed all kinds of unhealthy teaching methods in order to cultivate relationships with students. And the fact that no one but a few innocent teenage girls seemed to notice.
And so I want to talk about it. I want to talk about teachers who use fear and guilt frequently and indiscriminately in order to motivate and inspire. Teachers who deliberately try to alienate their students from everything they come from — their parents, families, homes, previous schools, communities, shuls, and even shul rabbis. Teachers who break students down so that they can recreate them in their own images. Teachers who cultivate groupies and are dependent on their students for self-esteem. Teachers who lack real relationships with their own peers because they are “so devoted” to their students. Teachers who teach students not to trust themselves, not to rely on their instincts, and not to listen to their inner voices.
Unfortunately, teachers like this are not uncommon, and we don’t talk enough about the damage that they do. About the fact that the rapid growth and change that they foster usually doesn’t last or, if it does, comes at a heavy price. About the fact that their students, years later, often find themselves empty and lost. About the guilty feelings that can stay with a person forever. About the relationships that are ruined in the process. And about the dependence that has been formed.
We don’t talk about it because, in the moment, the picture is so rosy. The teacher is charismatic, “his” classes are well attended, “she” is so devoted to her students, and the growth seems so exciting and real.[...]
People like this are facilitated by an educational culture that celebrates and rewards brilliant and charismatic figures, despite the fact that they are often highly problematic and leave silent trails of ruin in the shadows of their successes.
As a community, we can be aware of this and do a lot to change it. Our schools, administrators, and lay leaders can think, and think again, about our educational goals and about the healthy ways in which to help our students reach them. And, in the event that there are staff members whose behavior is wholly inconsistent with our conclusions, then it’s time that we put our children’s well-being first.