By Beth Kissileff (Jewish Daily Forward)
May 6, 2013
I went to a high school that had high standards. Students at Horace Mann School, were primed and expected to excel in all areas: There were regular Intel International Science and Engineering Fair winners, students who performed with major symphony orchestras and award-winning writers.
As fellow alum Robert Boynton, who graduated in 1981 and who is now a professor of journalism at New York University, said to me in a telephone interview, those high standards across the board at the school are “the kind of elitism I can really get behind.”
Boynton is now also one of the driving forces behind the Horace Mann Action Coalition, an entirely volunteer organization of alumni, pressing the school to adhere to the rigorously high standards it set for its students. The HMAC was formed after 1982 graduate Amos Kamil’s New York Times Magazine article exposed how students at the school were sexually abused by a number of different teachers from 1962 until the 1990s.
The Horace Mann board and administration refused back then, and still refuses now, to apologize to the victims or to hold school administrators at all accountable. The attitude of the school is that it does not need to change much, since the abuse is in the past and none of the named past abusers are on the current faculty.
Yet students groomed to expect high standards are not satisfied with the excuses of the administration. The HMAC is the only alumni-sponsored and alumni-funded organization of its kind calling for and funding an independent investigation into the abuse that occurred and trying to establish new standards — both at Horace Mann and at other schools where abuse has occurred, like Poly Prep, Deerfield Academy, Buckingham Browne & Nichols, and Yeshiva University High School for Boys.
So why can’t the Jewish world demand similar steps from Jewish institutions where abuse has occurred?
Just like at HM, at Y.U.’s High School for Boys there was a systematic cover-up by the administration and then a sending off of the molesters to Florida and Israel. Guess what? They only continued their criminal actions.
The Forward has called for an examination of the case. One of the Y.U. victims is Mordechai Twersky, an Israeli-based journalist at Haaretz. He believes that the lack of action has to do with the Y.U. alumni. Whereas the students who went to Horace Mann have taken on this issue as a cause, those who went to Y.U., Twersky said, are “impotent and frightened” and are “waiting for their kids and grandkids to get in,” so they don’t wish to come forward.
The Rev. Joseph Cumming, class of ’77, was one of Horace Mann music teacher Johannes Somary’s many victims and is one of the school’s survivors who is able to speak publicly about his abuse and its effect on him. He was one of the driving forces behind the HM survivors website.
Cumming, now a pastor of the international church at Yale University, said that the main thing most victims want is “validation,” and that when reports of sexual abuse are “invalidated by the institution, the community, the family,” the experience is “re-traumatizing.” He is personally “grateful for many of the things that the HM Action Coalition has done,” primarily because “they take the story seriously and they believe us.”
Cumming believes, having spoken with Twersky, that there should be an “independent investigation at Y.U.,” like the one being undertaken for Horace Mann. As a gentile, he thinks “one of the marvelous things about Judaism is the example Jews set of the importance of self-examination and self-criticism.”
He adds that no other religious tradition “preserves as sacred scripture books that denounce their own wrongdoing,” such as is found in the castigations of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. Cumming added, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s rye bread and to believe that self-criticism is a virtue, not a vice.”
In his own prophetic voice, Cumming said, “Y.U. high school has clear moral standards to uphold. It should be a light to the gentiles, and I say that as a gentile.” He believes that “Y.U. should lead the way” and “should not have to be dragged kicking and screaming to do the morally right thing.”
Right now, even though I’m a religious Jew, I’d rather be affiliated with his church and with my high school alumni community than at any synagogue staffed by Y.U. administrators and those who refuse to take abuse allegations with the gravity that the survivors deserve.
Beth Kissileff is the editor of the forthcoming anthology “Reading Genesis”(Continuum Books, 2013).