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Protecting our children: a passion of Rabbi Yitzchok Eisenman

Rabbi Ron Yitzchok EisenmanTO all outward appearances, Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman fits easily into the comfortable stereotype of an Orthodox rabbi — the long black coat and broad-brimmed hat, the full beard of red gradually surrendering to gray, the “yeshivish” accent, spoken in the quiet tones of a contemplative and modest man.

Outward appearances, however, can be deceiving.

While all accurate, the descriptions above reveal only part of the man. Although they hint at the Torah that inspires him, they say nothing of the determined sense of justice that drives him, the streak of fearlessness that emboldens him, the simple compassion for the victim that sustains him.

These are evinced not in his appearance, but in his deeds.

For the past few years, Rabbi Eisenman has taken a lonely and sometimes precarious stance as a vocal combatant against sexual molestation — especially when it victimizes the young — in the Orthodox Jewish community.

He has not done this quietly or timidly or half-heartedly, but with a directness and sense of purpose that has drawn considerable attention and encouraged others to follow his example.

From his pulpit at Ahavas Israel, located within the young and growing observant community in Passaic, NJ, Rabbi Eisenman has repeatedly denounced both the act of molestation itself and the subsequent hushing of such molestation that has plagued many communities.

The rabbi has opened his shul to victims of sexual molestation, offering them a platform from which to speak and an open microphone — with no restrictions imposed — with which to tell their stories.

He has announced the names and given out the addresses of known and alleged perpetrators of such crimes, not shying away even when those names belong to prominent members of the Jewish community, including rabbis.

He has called the police when accusations have been leveled and watched as some of those perpetrators were hauled off to jail.

In the process, he has, in his measured and soft-spoken way, let his fellow rabbis know that none of their calls for caution, none of their warnings of damage to the Jewish community, are going to stop him.

Rabbi Eisenman knows full well that the stories he’s encouraging Jews to tell are difficult for people to listen to. His own discomfort is obvious when he discusses sexual abuse and pedophilia in an interview setting.

“It’s not pleasant,” he says, “particularly in Judaism, like all religious communities, where sexuality is a subject that is usually not spoken about in the family setting. If somebody touches a private part of your body, that’s not easy to speak about.

“But it has to be done.”

RABBI Eisenman, 50 years old, a father and grandfather, and a native of Brooklyn, spent last Shabbos in Denver, leading a shabbaton on the East Side on the subject of preparing for Shavuot. He addressed large crowds at a unity minyan Friday night at Tehilat Hashem, at EDOS on Shabbos morning and the DAT minyan Shabbos afternoon.

He addressed the older students at the DAT school and Hillel Academy on Friday morning. On Sunday morning, he addressed the issue of sexual molestation at EDOS.

The Orthodox nature of his speaking sites and subjects is not coincidental. Rabbi Eisenman is firmly ensconced in the Orthodox world. Asked to describe the religiosity of his Passaic congregation, he gave it a seven on a scale of 10, with 10 being the most observant or haredi.

“There are,” he adds, “no non-Orthodox Jewish houses of worship in Passaic.”

Asked whether Ahavas Israel got involved in the recent dispute over the role of women in Orthodox Judaism — including whether they should serve in roles similar to rabbis — Rabbi Eisenman indicates that it wasn’t even an issue at the shul.

His only serious policy difference with normative Orthodoxy has been on the subject of sexual abuse within that community. He has no tolerance for keeping reports of such abuse quiet and out of public view, Rabbi Eisenman says.

Whatever anger his activism on behalf of victims of sexual abuse has generated has been over-matched by his own anger in return, he adds.

“What I’ve learned,” he says, “is that suppression is the most normal and desirable reaction to negativity in the Jewish world. In this case, the suppression of molestation and pedophilia — meaning the suppression of the publicity of the act — is also precisely the greatest weapon in the arsenal of the molester and the pedophile.”

It may be wise and prudent for a rabbi to counsel and discipline a child who was, say, caught smoking on the Sabbath in a quiet and non-embarrassing way, he says.

“But if it’s a rabbi who is taking children and fondling them in his private bathroom, if you say, ‘Let’s deal with it quietly or let’s transfer him to another school,’ unfortunately you’re just empowering him, enabling him, facilitating him to go on.

“The only weapon that we have that is somewhat useful is not just the fear but the actual unmasking of the monster.”

RABBI Eisenman’s first “monster” — and his introduction into the dark world of molestation — was a convicted pedophile who moved from Brooklyn to Passaic several years ago. Informed by a therapist who had worked with some of the pedophile’s victims, the rabbi suddenly faced a tough decision for which he had absolutely no preparation.

“I had no formal training or experience with pedophilia,” he explains.

“I knew the words existed but it wasn’t in my orbit. It wasn’t as if I was a survivor myself or there were survivors in my family. It was by default. It came to my doorstep and to my community.”

The informant not only told Rabbi Eisenman but several other rabbis in the Passaic area. It was at a meeting with his fellow rabbis that he realized that he had little choice but to act independently.

“It seemed to me that as much as I had hoped or thought that it would be taken care of by others, whoever the others happened to be, I realized that there was a vacuum of proper attention given to the subject,” he says.

When he informed his colleagues in the rabbinate that he intended to denounce — and identify — the offender from his own pulpit, the other rabbis were enraged, Rabbi Eisenman recalls.

“On a personal level,” he adds, “I was enraged myself that my colleagues were not as passionate as I felt they should have been.”

When Rabbi Eisenman followed through on his plans, the pedophile fled to Israel. The rabbi then informed Israeli authorities who arrested him and extradited him back to the US. The offender ended up in prison.

Similar instances followed and before he knew it, Rabbi Eisenman had become something of a folk hero in Passaic — a rabbi who was unafraid to confront not only the issue of molestation, but the offenders and their defenders alike.

A culmination of sorts took place last fall when four victims of sexual abuse spoke at Ahavas Israel. To maximize the effect of this unprecedented event, Rabbi Eisenman scheduled the panel on the day before Yom Kippur.

“I brought in four survivors. And some names were mentioned — of some prominent rabbis.”

Although he feels he made the right decision to provide a platform for victims of molestation, last fall’s event also helped Rabbi Eisenman reach a more mature and measured perspective, he says.

When he found out that one of the victims who spoke may have been dishonest about at least some events in his own past, the rabbi gained a little understanding about why some rabbis can be hesitant or reluctant to give point blank credence to all such stories they hear.

“I guess I went through a little evolution myself,” he admits. “I went from being totally enraged at [his fellow rabbis] to probably coming to a more mellow position. I don’t think any of them wants anybody’s child to be hurt. I think they are decent men. I came to understand that you have to careful who’s speaking and what they’re saying. It’s a very delicate balance.”

RABBI Eisenman has also learned that sexual molestation is far from a simple issue, either in legal or religious terms.

It’s often difficult to be certain that accusations against individuals are accurate.

It can even be difficult putting a precise definition on the crime that was committed.

“I hate to be graphic in this, but to be honest there is a difference between fondling someone and outright . . . sex,” he says. “There are differences even by law. And there is due process. I hate to say it, but no matter how you go about it, there’s never an easy solution.”

Since getting involved with the issue Rabbi Eisenman has sought to understand more about those who commit such crimes. One of his early lessons came from an unlikely source.

“Somebody sent me a tape of one of the Oprah shows,” he says of television host Oprah Winfrey. “Never in my life have I seen this woman. I had heard the name but I never knew who she was. I don’t have a TV.

“When somebody sent me the tape, I thought it was extremely well done and extremely important. One thing that she was hammering on is that it’s not the man in the shadows wearing a trench coat and saying, ‘Psssst, come over here.’

“It’s regular people. It’s people who are well-educated, often people who are very good at what they do, often people who are very charismatic. Because of that, if I were to go over to anybody, Jew or Gentile, and say, ‘This role model, who has been teaching for 30 years in this day school or in this public school, or this pediatrician who has thousands of letters from people who will attest to his greatness and compassion, that such people also molested hundreds of children’ — people say, it can’t be.”

The rabbi has also had to struggle with the ethical dimensions of what motivates an individual to commit as heinous a crime as pedophilia, especially when the perpetrator may be a religious person, sometimes even a rabbi.

“From conversations with psychiatrists and therapists, I’ve learned about the term disassociation, where literally both the victim and the perpetrator are able to disassociate themselves,” Rabbi Eisenman says.

“When they’re involved in the criminal act, they’re one person. When they get back to the synagogue and put their tallis on top of their head, they’re somebody else. I’ve realized this on my own, and when I spoke to therapists they validated this.”

Often, the rabbi adds, the pedophile or molester fits a mold that was fictionally described by Robert Louis Stevenson, as the “Jekyll and Hyde” dual character, in which one aspect of the personality doesn’t even remember what the other has done.

“Exactly,” the rabbi says. “They live with an inner conflict and the conflict is very, very deep. When they pray, they pray with sincerity. Unfortunately, when the addiction takes over they become a different person. It’s very scary.”

NO matter how scary or complex sexual abuse might be, however, Rabbi Eisenman is crystal clear about one basic conviction: Such acts are wrong.

His grounding in Torah law and ethics leave him with no room for doubt about the sinfulness of such behavior and the imperative to fight it.

“From the Prophets and onward, you see that G-d and the Prophets always take the side of the underdog and the oppressed,” he says.

“The Torah speaks about the orphan, the widow, the convert, the stranger. Someone once pointed out that the Torah mentions over 30 times the mitzvah of loving the convert, loving the stranger.”

The Torah is clear in instructing Jews not to mistreat or ignore the needs of the disadvantaged and the weak, the rabbi points out. The Torah’s message is clearly one of compassion, in his view.

“So, what could be more naturally Jewish than being compassionate for the children?” Rabbi Eisenman asks.

“The second thing is a little more theological,” he continues. “Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, where there is a dogma that the pope is infallible, Jews don’t possess that. So who are we protecting? What are we protecting? The system is not going to collapse.

“Built into the system is the realization that everybody has a lot of human frailties. That’s what convinced me that I wasn’t doing the wrong thing.”

The experience of the Catholic Church — currently overwhelmed by its own sexual abuse and molestation scandals and its longstanding policies of concealing the issue — might provide Jews with a valuable lesson in reverse, Rabbi Eisenman suggests.

He is putting forth a basic plan that he hopes will serve as a beginning in helping Jewish communities cope with sexual abuse.

“First of all, I’m a very big believer in the laws of the land. I will tell people, notwithstanding those who disagree with me, that the first call has to be to the authorities, for the simple reason that we have no power — as no other ethnic group has the power — to enforce the law.

“The next thing is that everybody has due process in this country. I don’t demonize anyone.

“Within the schools, I think that the teachers should be told very clearly — and I’m not sure they are being told — that we have zero tolerance. You have to know from the start that if you have a problem, if you even think you have a problem, there is zero tolerance. You will be let go. I think that would be a very big deterrent to start with.”

Notwithstanding the risk of false accusation, Rabbi Eisenman adds, the testimony of victims of sexual molestation has to be carefully listened to, as a component of firm community policy.

“When children do make accusations they have to be taken very seriously. Either the law has to be involved or steps have to be taken publicly or both.”

The model of concealment in favor of disclosure, of darkness in favor of sunlight, Rabbi Eisenman says, is a doomed and wretched option.

“I don’t think that sweeping these things under the rug is ever going to be successful,” he says. “The rug can last maybe 500 years, but eventually the rug wears out.”

RABBI Eisenman, in a touch of ironic humor, says he isn’t sure that his advocacy on behalf of molestation victims really amounts to courage on his part. “I hope it’s courage,” he says with a faint smile. “I hope it’s not foolishness.”

One can tell that he really doesn’t believe the foolishness part, however. Not only does the rabbi obviously believe in the cause in the microcosmic sense — as it exists within his congregation and in Passaic — but in a larger sense.

There is a potential that the example currently being set in Passaic could spread to Jewish communities well beyond the New Jersey enclave.

“In general, I think people — not just the rank and file, but people in charge — are positive, even after the shock effect.  There’s a tremendous sensitivity that’s opening up to this issue.”

Recently, a case came up in a community neighboring Passaic in which a molester moved into the neighborhood. Through the grapevine, Rabbi Eisenman learned that the rabbinical leadership debated among themselves which course should be taken. When the old solution of hushing up the controversy was discussed, it was summarily dismissed, along with the adage: “Be careful — Eisenman may do something public.”

That’s exactly the message which Rabbi Eisenman wants to convey, not only to the molesters and pedophiles, but to Jewish community leadership.

“I think it is a beginning and I think it is changing — changing very much for the better,” he says. “Even the detractors have to respond to this publicity.

And that’s positive.

“It can only be good. Anything that will protect the children will only be good.”

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor | ijnews@aol.com

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