The rabbi I thought I knew

I suppose it was inevitable. For years, I’d read about scandals in various religious communities with a sense of growing … Continued

I suppose it was inevitable.

For years, I’d read about scandals in various religious communities with a sense of growing dread. The words jumped out as sensationalized headlines: cover-ups, Christians, schools, Muslims, churches, evangelists, lawsuits, Mormons, statute of limitations, victims, settlements. The details of individual cases provided unimaginable horrors and secrets, broken trusts and shattered childhoods.

Still, that happened to other people, in other religions.

Recently, there was a well-publicized case among the Satmar sect of Hasidic Jews, in which a brave young girl confronted her molester in front of her entire community. She was threatened, ostracized – even bullied in court – but she remained resolute and ultimately got some measure of justice with a quick conviction.

Yet it still felt strangely removed; the devout Hasidim, with their ultra-strict codes and secretive practices, were probably as much an enigma to me as to non-Jews. They were the odd cousin that shows up at family events– we’re related but nobody is quite sure how.

I grew up in a traditionally orthodox Jewish household – 18 years of yeshiva education, keeping kosher, synagogues, circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, weddings, shivas. I’ve always felt a powerful connection both culturally and spiritually to my religion and wear the mantle of Judaism and my unique upbringing proudly. In the industry where I make my living –entertainment –the old axiom that Jews run the media couldn’t feel further from reality. Most people I’ve dealt with drop the term nachas with ease but – witnessing their behavior – have no idea what the core tenets of Judaism actually mean.

Finally, the day I’d always feared arrived. An e-mail from a childhood friend with a link to a story in a Jewish paper: investigations into murky events from many years ago involving rabbis and young boys at an Orthodox school, long-ago complaints and hushed-up dismissals. As I read the account more closely, I realized that it wasn’t just my religion or my people. These were my peers. This was my neighborhood.

This was my rabbi.

I spent my childhood with this man – listening to him speak every Saturday at our local temple, eating Sabbath meals at his house, playing with his sons. He spent countless hours preparing me for my Bar Mitzvah, my singing and learning “skills” required Job-like patience on his part. All in all, the amount of time I spent in this man’s presence is literally incalculable. I never heard, saw or experienced a single moment of anything improper in all those years, and I’d never heard anyone claim otherwise in the years since.

But here it was in print, for everyone to see, with his name and accompanying photo. In this viral age, the story spread throughout the world’s Jewish community with lightning speed, the whispers of gossip not far behind – “Did you hear?” “Did you suspect?” “Did you know?” Everyone has an opinion, with most all too willing to share.

Despite my cloistered upbringing, I live in the real world and know the facts. Bad things happen in every walk of life; regardless of religion, race, sexuality, ethnicity, gender, there’s no discrimination when it comes to wrongdoing. The sole tie that binds us all is our humanity, and it can be our salvation or our undoing.

But I suppose I see trauma through my own prism. I’m embarrassed when I hear that a crime has happened and the name sounds Jewish. History may not distinguish between a Mark David Chapman and a David Berkowitz, but I know which one was Jewish and which one wasn’t. And always, through the most public and shameful of evildoers – Bernie Madoff stole from The Elie Wiesel Foundation! – the same thought, almost logical for a religion whose already tiny population was shredded by the Holocaust: This won’t help, we all think, there are enough people out there who already hate us.

Along with everyone else, we cry for humanity whenever a child is harmed, no matter the circumstances. The most important part of any story like this are obviously the children themselves. Yet now this most horrid of scandal involving innocent kids, an all too frequent one nowadays, has arrived at the doorstep. I try to remain objective, without judgment, and pray for awareness, change, resolution, healing, protection, prevention. The truth.

Can I also pray that my faith won’t be shattered?

Rick Schwartz is a leading independent film producer and financier based in New York, whose credits include The Aviator, Gangs of New York, Macheteand Black Swan. His writing has appeared in many publications, including The London Times, Grantland, The Huffington Post and Daily Beast.

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  • Vanka

    “Can I also pray that my faith won’t be shattered?”

    The Divine Immanence of G_d is manifest in both Nigleh and Nistar dimensions/interpretations of Scripture, and Rabbinical authority to amplify the Law (“gezerot”, “taḳḳanot” and “minhagim”), expound the Law (hermeneutics), impart additional instruction based upon tradition, and on critical occasions to abrogate or modify the Law constitute the Divine Immanence.

    So it is that when those who speak for G_d, manifest G_d in the world, and who wield this “authority” (“reshut”), are clearly and obviously NOT representing G_d, we must wonder what about such a “faith” is worth saving from obliterating shatter?

  • SODDI

    Well, if you harbored a sexual predator in your midst as a valued member of your “community”, that really means that your community wasn’t really a community at all.

    If the victims of this predator had no where to turn, were esentially on their own and were villified in court, it means that that community didn’t function as a community for them at all. In fact, your community turned on THEM.

    This is one of the problems with the top-down hierarchical paternalistic structures of religion- if the person at the top of the community is bad, the community spends most of its energies defending its leader until it’s too late. It happens in all religions – judaism, christianity, islam, buddhism, hinduism – even the amish.

    I would suggest that you gather your community together as an organic whole without a leader and determine where you go next – but that isn’t going to happen, is it? Number one, jews exclude women from the deep parts of their religion and the decision-making processes, so you’ve lost over 50% of your organic whole right there. Second, you can’t imagine what it’s like to do without a leader, am I right?

  • Who Is Jesus?

    You don’t stop sending your children to school when there are teachers or football coaches who sexually molest other children do you?

    The PTA or school board/staff is still a community, top down and “hierarchical”. So dont blame the religious community, blame the sin in mans heart, and the “innocent till proven guilty” laws we have in America, which may cause some to defend their leader, religious or not.

  • HarryfromLA

    OMG. Is this the same Rabbi that I read about on another blog – – aka — “ariweisbrot.com” ? Or, are there a bunch of sex-crazed rabbis running around? Definately two different perspectives if it IS the same rabbi, but the blog seems to have millions of readers so I am guessing THAT guy’s rabbi is a bigger creep.

  • ProductionAmber

    Harry, I also read that other blog. I was thinking the exact same thing but you beat me to the punch. Scary stuff but that weisbrot blog is so funny. I love it.

  • Kingofkings1

    Mr. Schwartz,
    I believe that instead of having Iyour faith shattered by the news of the improper conduct of a rabbi, it should be strengthened. It seems you had the wrong impression that people who shared your faith were not capable of making mistakes, i.e. that they were not humans

  • Secular1

    What in this fairy tale peddler’s character would lead one to believe that he is fine upstanding person, other than thta he is a peddler of fairy tales? Given that no one needs to assume that he is any better than any other run of the mill person. In fact I would put a lot lower stock in teh fairy tale pddlers than in say the proverbial used car salesman. In fact these are more dangerous than the proverbial UCSes, because there are enough people that hold them in high regard just because they are teh fairy tale peddlers, which make sthem arrogant, sense of entitlement and lots of chutzpah that they can get away with a lot.

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