Monday, 14 July 2014

Rabbi Meisels: One Case, Three Letters


Yerachmiel Lopin's Frum Follies blog has again brought to light very credible allegations of sexual misconduct by a leading rabbinical figure, which has sent shockwaves through the American Chareidi establishment.

On 11th July, Lopin published a letter (dated 10th July) from a Special Bet Din in Chicago, consisting of Rabbis Gedalia Dov Schwartz, Shmuel Feurst and Zev Cohen, explaining that they had heard evidence from alleged victims and heard the accused Rav Elimelech (Eli) Meisels.
First Letter - Chicago Bet Din

The Bet Din had concluded in favour of the plaintiffs, that "unwanted sexual contact" had taken place, and the letter was issued to warn against sending students to any of Rav Meisels' four seminaries, being: Pninim, Binas Bais Yaakov, Chedvas Bais Yaakov and Keser Chaya.

The letter concludes that the case had been handed over to an Israeli (ad hoc) Bet Din, consisting of Rabbis Mendal Shafran, Chaim Malinowitz and Zvi Gertner.

My reading of this letter is that it was intended to be a quiet memo, perhaps issued specifically to feeder schools and others who were in a position to advise girls against attending the seminaries.

As a response to the now widely publicised letter, the Israeli rabbonim published a statement (dated 13th July) saying that they had indeed been asked by three parties (one of whom, Rabbi Zev Cohen, was a member of this Chicago Bet Din) to look into allegations against an unnamed party (aka R.Meisels).

Second Letter - Israeli Bet Din

However, they said that Rav Meisels had been terminated from having any connections with the seminaries, and therefore parents should continue to enroll their daughters in these outstanding institutions of learning.

In the letter, the rabbis commit to examine the complaints in a timely fashion, and to review safety precautions at the seminaries, in light of their findings.

The rabbonim then warn the public against paying heed to any anonymous or pseudonym sources - an apparently irresistible swipe at Yerachmiel Lopin (not his real name) and his Frum Follies blog, who had brought this whole issue into the open.

No less concerning than an allegedly abusive seminary head, apparently is their fear of losing rabbinical control of sensitive information.

Having attempted to close the door on the informal media, and having apparently succeeded in separating out Rav Meisels from his (yes, HIS, he owns all four seminaries) educational establishments, it's back to business as usual (indeed, at $25,000 fees a pop, these four seminaries constitute a huge multi-million dollar business).

Fire's out. Big relief.

Letter Three - The Seminaries

Today, an (undated) letter from the Pnimim and associated seminaries, was circulated to parents and feeder schools, confirming the publicised story; they added an important detail that Rav Meisels resigned under a cloud, and under instruction of the Israeli Bet Din, eight weeks ago.

The letter further says that the Israeli Bet Din has been working on this for a while, including meetings with key staff members at the seminaries.

Unfortunately, the letter raises more problems than it purports to resolve.

According to the Chicago letter, there were complaints from girls regarding all four seminaries.
According to them, as of 10th July, all four seminaries were unsafe.

Either they were unaware of developments over the past few weeks at the seminaries, with the intervention of the Israeli Bet Din, and dismissal of Rav Meisels "8 weeks ago" - or they clearly believed that whatever steps had been taken were insufficient to ensure the safety of the girls.

If the Israeli Bet Din hasn't even started hearing evidence (as they state in their letter), much less undertaken a review of (according to the Chicago Bet Din, failed) safety measures at the seminaries, how are these illustrious rabbonim in a position to declare all the seminaries now safe for the hundreds of young female students?

If the top man was able to operate unhindered, who was protecting him, and who else may be currently operating in a similar manner? Have their been similar abuses in the past? If so, how were these handled? What is to avoid the same thing happening in future?

And where is the law and the police in this picture?

The alleged offenses of Rabbi Meisels ("unwanted sexual contact" with his students) constitute crimes in Israel, even if the girls were over 18 at the time of the offenses.

Aside from regular laws governing sexual assault (eg by a stranger), there are additional severe laws in Israel which protect people from being sexually harassed or sexually taken advantage of by people in a position of control or influence over them.

Rabbis are in such a privileged position, and indeed a rabbi is specifically referred to as "Cohen Dat" in the Israeli penal code.

Furthermore, as an institute of higher learning, there are additional laws covering sexual behaviour by school staff to students.

If any of the girls were minors, then the level of severity increases under the law - and level of responsibility of the school or other aware adults, to immediately report it to the police. Failure to report such crimes may itself have constituted a crime under Israel's mandatory reporting laws.

Why did the three rabbis apparently not called in the police and handed over the (criminal) investigation, where feasible, to the law enforcement authorities?

The Israeli rabbis' letter to the public, rather than presenting a gruff "hakol beseder" business-as-usual facade, should instead have been a call upon victims to come forward and for these important rabbis to clear their paths, with encouragement, empathy, support and protection, and not intimidation (read their letter and imagine you are a victim), to the police station and emotional & communal support.

The school's letter is too-little-too-late.

They are now publicly addressing the situation - but only once it has already been publicised by third parties, pseudonymed to boot.

The school admits that they knew about the situation for at least several months. Maybe years?

There is not a word of regret, of support for their students who were victims, while under their care, or of any human compassion.

Instead, the letter promotes the case that whatever was, was, that lessons for the future will of course be learned, that daas torah is being followed, and there is no concern for the safety of the girls in the current circumstance.

It is true that such patch-over jobs by the Israeli Bet Din and by the seminaries themselves may put out some of the short-term fires, particularly the practical educational and business ones.

However, they are not going to address a glaring systemic problem.

Thousands of young ladies are packed off by their American, Canadian, British etc parents, for a year or more of religious studies in Israel.

They are often far younger than their years, from a secular perspective - often entirely ignorant of healthy vs dangerous sexuality.

Charismatic, learned, personable Rabbinical teachers and educational/business power-brokers, are going to charm and potentially take advantage of their positions, and of the starry-eyes girls under their care.

In a position of absolute trust, power-enhanced egos, and natural hormones - the results can be catastrophic.

In chareidi society, with the exception of one's nuclear family, gender separation is almost total.

This rule is with the gaping exception of the seminary business, where female-restricted/starved mature men are given free access to hundreds of naive and admiring girls, who are far from home, vulnerable and without recourse.

In my eyes, a solution looks like changing the whole system.

Rather than educating these girls solely to become good wives to talmidei chachamim, the girls education system should also aim to educate frum women to be leading Torah scholars, teachers and heads of seminaries.

Particularly in an otherwise fully segregated society, men should only teach boys; and women should teach girls.

We all know that more than enough women are fully capable of achieving the highest levels of scholarship and educational leadership.

So, rabbosei, please hand over the criminal investigation to the cops, and the seminaries over to the women. 

2 comments:

  1. Thank you David for a clear presentation of the sequence and nature of events - and your insightful conclusions.

    ReplyDelete
  2. To the person who keeps putting anonymous allegations on the comments section of this blog, which I keep deleting: if you have a formal complaint to make, please contact the police; Magen is also willing to assist with all genuine allegations and complaints.
    Please do NOT use this blog as a platform to promote your complaint.

    ReplyDelete