When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture, Part 2 by Dr. Elana Sztokman

Moderator’s note: This is a book excerpt in 2 parts. Part 1 was posted yesterday. When Rabbis Abuse will be published on June 14th, information on ordering below.

Grooming tactics: Targeting the victim

Although there are many ways to target a victim, there is a particular type of grooming that is available to rabbinic figures and other clergy, which comes in the form of pastoral care. Many stories involve glaring examples of this—funeral, bat mitzvah class, depression, or other moments of emotional vulnerability. Often the rabbi-abuser will target people who are going through a divorce—or even worse, recovering from sexual abuse. …

Brenda, for example, says that the rabbi targeted her when she was at a very stressful time in her life and having what she described as “emotional issues”:

I was making my son’s bar mitzvah, and it was a lot of work. I was having some emotional issues because I’m more observant than my family and most of my family is pretty secular and it’s always challenging to get my family to be engaged, and I was feeling stressed and hurt because a lot of my relatives had decided not to come.

Notice that Brenda’s vulnerabilities were very Jewish-centric. It had to do with a bar mitzvah, religiousness, and tensions in family over religious observance. This opened the door to the “help” of her rabbi. Reut, whose rabbi was found to have been abusing teenagers for decades, said that the rabbi would target kids who were “having a hard time.” He would “invite them into his private study and say, come pour out your heart to me. You can talk to me about your problems with your family and things like that.”

Cindy, who was abused by her rabbi-boss, was vulnerable because she was isolated and financially insecure, as well as a past victim of abuse:

As the sole income earner of my family, living several states away from any relatives other than my husband and child, thinking the responsibility of my immediate family was entirely on me, believing him because of his gender and experience and authority, plus having had a lifetime of being sexually objectified—I was the perfect target for him to ‘love.’

Nicole, who was “two weeks into a difficult breakup and starving for company,” shared that she was, “thrilled to be on the receiving end of these text messages at 10 p.m., having just walked into the house alone. I was hungry for a distraction. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect…. He would help me pass the time when I was lonely.” She invited him over, and then he forcefully tried to rape her.

 Other people in positions of power use this tactic, not just rabbis. Drori, who was raped by the director of a Jewish organization on her college campus, said, “I had recently told the rabbi about my father’s death, and then suddenly the director wanted to speak to me in private.” She believes that the director exploited the vulnerability she expressed to the office rabbi, using his position as caretaker of Jewish students to gain her trust…..

Charming generosity — becoming the “savior”

Once the abuser is able to target the vulnerable victim, they can move on to the next tactic of charming generosity, in which he exploits that vulnerability to gain trust. This tactic involves flirting, flattery, flowery language, attention, intelligent conversation, taking a strong interest in the victim, and being a “nice guy”—like the guy with the truck stopping for a woman in a wheelchair.

The rabbi abuser often combines these two tactics—targeting the victim’s vulnerability and using the guise of generous “savior” to gain trust and break down walls. The fact that a person has the title of “rabbi” is in itself a tool for breaking boundaries because victims often have a deep-seated reverence for the rabbi. They may not fathom, during this process of generous targeting, that the rabbi is also the person who is setting them up for sexual abuse….

Reut explained how the “savior” tactic is connected to preying on people’s vulnerabilities. The rabbi of her synagogue—who did not abuser her personally but many of her child’s friends—did this masterfully:

He chose to make that one of his areas of expertise—dealing with people at their most vulnerable moments. He comes into their life at their most vulnerable moments when somebody is ill, when somebody is dying, and you are there to nurture, to take care of, to comfort, to be the receptacle of anybody’s memories or anything that they want to share with you. He wrote beautiful eulogies for people, for people’s funerals. Beautiful ones. People adored him for this.

Esther similarly explained how these two tactics—targeting her vulnerability and becoming her “savior”—worked hand in hand. “I confided many things to him in our counseling sessions,” she said, including “troubles in my marriage,” which he later used to abuse her.

This can be hard to identify as grooming because, as Reut said, this was “the usual rabbi thing, to want to spend time with the bar mitzvah boy or offer to work on learning something with a kid before the parents had to make the speech,” or to counsel women after a loss. Moreover, people admired this about the rabbi. “He made people feel like they were important. You know if the rabbi pays attention to you, and he is supposedly so highfalutin, you may be ecstatic about all this extra attention when you need it most.” As you may recall, Zelda was so entranced by the fact a rabbi from her new community had been taking such an interest in her that she jumped up from her chair in her lab, “so excited and feeling lucky and blessed.”…..

Losing trust and faith

Sexual abuse that takes place within a faith community can have devastating effects on trust issues, especially when there is secondary trauma, but not only. As Chuck DeGroat writes in his book, When Narcissism Comes to Church, “Spiritual abuse bears a particularly sinister twist, as principles and maxims of faith are wielded as weapons of command and control.”[1]….

 The overall theme of losing trust emerged in many interviews. The loss of trust was often directed in ways that reflected the identity of the abusers. Blima, for example, said the assault made her “more cynical and less trusting of men in general.” Similarly, Janice said, “my naïve assumptions about the world were shattered with regard to powerful men in general.” Ann described the feeling of “pushing people away.” Dina, who was assaulted several times in different contexts and different countries, said, “I stopped trusting anyone. Whether he looked harmless or old, I just couldn’t trust anyone because my safety was at risk. It changes you into a person who simply can’t trust another man no matter who that is and often you couldn’t trust really good people because I was too afraid that I could get harmed or hurt.”

When the abuser is a rabbi, especially one whom the victim trusted, the impact on trust in rabbis can be intensified. Kayla, who was molested by a rabbi to whom her parents sent her for guidance, said, “I felt such a mix of emotions and completely alone. Injured. A rabbi could do this?” Indeed, victims whose abuse was connected to rabbis described their belief systems and communal lives being affected. The fact that the abuser presents himself as the gatekeeper to religion left them with a severe spiritual

 Cindy similarly said, “If a rabbi esteemed in his community can be like this, then really nowhere is safe.” Esther said, “Because my relationship with the rabbi and my relationship with God had become one and the same, losing my relationship with one meant losing my relationship with the other. I still cannot separate the two. Every time I reach out to God in love, I find the rabbi and his betrayals, the scapegoating by the community, and the utterable pain and loss of those many years, right in the center. It breaks my heart.”

[1] Chuck DeGroat, When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing you community from emotional and spiritual abuse. Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2020 p 125

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.

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