When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture, Part 1 by By Dr. Elana Sztokman

Moderator’s note: This is a book excerpt in 2 parts. Part 2 tomorrow. When Rabbis Abuse will be published on June 14th, information on ordering below.

When I started this research in 2015, I was not expecting rabbis to be the headliners. I was looking at abuse in general in our community. When I began conducting interviews on this topic, I was startled to discover how many of the abusers described by interviewees were rabbis.

Discovering rabbis

Although anthropology does not claim to offer statistical evidence or representative sampling, and although I efforted to maintain listening neutrality and non-judgment, I was nonetheless swept away by hearing so many of these accounts of rabbis who sexually abuse. The title of this book is a result of an incomprehensible number of interviewees in which the abuser was a rabbi. I decided to examine the profile of the rabbi-abuser more carefully to understand what this means for our culture and our community, and to use those insights to analyze other cases of high-profile abuse using those paradigms of power in our culture….

The Rabbi Pastor

Rabbis often play a dominant role in people’s lives as a “pastor,” or emotional-spiritual carer during times of crisis.

Many interviewees confirmed that one of the most vulnerable circumstances for being abused by a rabbi was when they met privately with the rabbi who was acting in a pastoral role. These are often encounters when victims are emotionally fragile and seeking help, guidance, support, and trust. In 2018, for example, Rabbi Ezra Sheinberg—a kabbalist who was considered a rising star in Religious Zionist circles and had a massive following of people coming to him for everything from baby-naming to supernatural healing—was convicted of sexually molesting eight women who came to him for religious counseling. One of his victims, Michal Cohen, an Orthodox 30-year-old mother of two, came forward publicly with her story.

Michal met Sheinberg when she was 21, when her husband studied at Sheinberg’s yeshivah Orot Ha’ari in Safed. “The first time he touched me was after a year of meetings with him, in which he started up with me gradually in an intense, emotionally manipulative way. Before the sexual abuse, there was serious emotional abuse.” He preyed on her insecurities and vulnerabilities in a calculated way:

I thought there was something wrong with me, but everyone around me said he’s such a great man. Because it was so gradual, I entered this fragile emotional state where my boundaries were blurred and I couldn’t trust all the red lights that were flashing in my mind. As soon as I said ‘no,’ or dared to ask a question or challenge what he was doing, I heard things like, ‘You are not holy enough.’ ‘You are full of impurities. Maybe I made a mistake trying to help you. I thought you were on a higher level.’ With every sentence, I tightened up and believed that the problem was with me, that I’m not pure enough or holy enough for this sacred therapy….

Many cases described revolve around women seeking rabbis for counseling or guidance….

Marion was also targeted during a vulnerable time in her life, and she was raped by the rabbi who was supposed to be counseling her in her grief:

When my mother’s mother passed away, we went to a service at her temple. The young rabbi there was very dynamic, very popular, gaining a huge reputation. I didn’t know all that. When we were filing out of the service, the rabbi was standing at the door, and I stopped to thank him for his words. He engaged me in conversation and took a great interest in me and my grief. I mean that in the worst way. I met with him in his chambers, and I noticed he wasn’t listening. He interrupted me to say that he couldn’t listen because I was so beautiful, and he could feel himself being increasingly attracted to me. I was in a state of grief. I was very close to my grandmother. My grandfather had died two years previously, so now my protectors were gone. I was very susceptible to the attention. I needed kindness and was confused. The rabbi took great advantage of me… He [coerced me into having sex with him] in his chambers behind a couch on the floor. I found out later that there were scores of women who had had similar experiences with him. 

Here, too, the rabbi was able to gain access because her was supposed to be her carer offering emotional and spiritual support and guidance. What she got instead was rape by a rabbi.

Similarly, Yittel, an ultra-Orthodox young woman from a tightly knit Hassidic community, was sexually abused and repeatedly raped by a rabbi when she was 21, depressed, and in need of counseling. “He used the counseling relationship as well as my vulnerability and naïveté to groom me into a sexual relationship,” she said. The rapist used Yittel’s dependency on his pastoral care, as well as her innocence and fragility, to prey on her….

Continued tomorrow

For information and to order the book: At the website or on Amazon.

BIO: Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a feminist thought-leader, anthropologist, and writer whose research and ideas help shape a vision for a compassionate society. Author of six books (so far!) on gender in society, and a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Council award, Elana is the creator of the Jewish Feminist Academy (www.jewishfeminism.org), where she offers courses and content to help shape conversations about gender in Jewish life. She writes, speaks, and consults with groups and organizations around the world on gender issues and women’s experiences in the world. She also works to help women amplify their own voices and find their power through Lioness Books and Media. She coaches women through the writing process, edits and ghost-writes women’s books, and publishes women’s writing through Lioness.



Categories: abuse, Abuse of Power, Gender and Power, General, Women's Agency

Tags: , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. This first line of yours really struck me: “When I started this research in 2015, I was not expecting rabbis to be the headliners.”

    I think that everyone in their community doesn’t think it can happen to themselves and their loved ones. And yet it is so pervasive, not only in this community but in too many to count. I was in a shamanic community where abuse happened. We read it about it constantly in Christian contexts. I think even out of the religious communities, a “trusted” authority. I was reading about how the gymnasts are suing the FBI over mishandling the Nassar case and allowing him to go on preying for so long.

    It took me many years to understand my own situation. Has your own research found any reasons for this? What is it that we too often allow figures of authority to go on traumatizing their victims? It is so sad and I am sad you found it in this community as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the idea that it happens “somewhere else” was extremely pervasive in the research. Orthodox Jews think it’s a Reform problem, Reform Jews think it’s an Orthodox problem, and everyone has been taught that “it doesn’t happen to us”. Those ideas often make it easy for rabbis and leaders to groom their targets. They also make it very difficult to identify the abuse because it plays with vying texts in the victim’s head. And it also can be a real block to reporting. I heard way too many stories of not being believed because this idea that it can’t be true simply took hold. Well, that and other agendas for not believing.

      As to your second point, there is definitely an overlap between leadership and narcissistic personalities, which most abusers are. Unfortunately, our communities often value traits that are associated with charisma — which is a narcissistic trait — and mistake them for virtue and worth. I explore this at length in my research. It was very prominent.

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  2. Thank you, Elana, for your contribution on FAR. So many of us (women) have been taken advantage of by religious, male authority figures within our faith communities. More and more women are blowing the whistle, so to speak. Look forward to Part 2 tomorrow.

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  3. Alas, it seems that every religion has male leaders who seduce and abuse young women who come to them for counseling. Consider the Protestant Mexican megachurch pastor who has recently been tried and convicted. Consider the multitude of coverups in the Catholic church. Men in religious hierarchies are powerful, the young women they prey on are nearly always fragile. What kind of god gives men such power??

    Blessings to your work and to your healing and the healing of every young woman (and young men, too). I hope your book opens some eyes!

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    • yes….. it is across religions for sure. i had two experiences in yoga settings as well. almost every yoga school has a sexual predator somewhere at the top

      there are overlaps between narcissism and charisma, which abusers use to manipulate their targets. this is a problem across religious and spiritual cultures that overvalue charisma and mistake it for trustworthiness and virtue. Yes, it’s everywhere, unfortunately….

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