by Yosef Kanefsky
July 7, 2013
Between September 1977 and June 1981 I attended Yeshiva University High School, commonly known as MTA. During that time Rabbi George Finkelstein was the principal, and Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm – a once and forever hero of American Orthodoxy – was the President of the University.. I of course knew during those years, that there were certain students whom Rabbi Finkelstein aggressively invited into his office to “wrestle” with him. I “of course” knew, because everybody knew. Everybody already knew about it in the years before I got to MTA, and everybody continued to know about it in the years following.
For 30 years after graduating MTA I never thought about any of this, until this past December when the stories of what we now call sexual abuse – committed by Rabbi Finkelstein and one other faculty member – were detailed in the Daily Forward. Also detailed by the Forward was Rabbi Lamm’s eventual decision to quietly dismiss the abusers, without either reporting anything to the police, or telling their subsequent employers about what he knew. The months that followed the Forward’s revelations brought only half-apologies and mumbled rationalizations from YU. But this past Monday, Rabbi Dr. Lamm, now 85 and in failing health, resigned as university chancellor, and spoke at length about the scandal in his resignation remarks. A few representative sentences:
“At the time that inappropriate actions by individuals at Yeshiva were brought to my attention, I acted in a way that I thought was correct, but which now seems ill conceived. [I submitted to] momentary compassion in according individuals the benefit of the doubt by not fully recognizing what was before [me]. And when this happens—one must do teshuvah. So, I too must do teshuvah. True character requires of me the courage to admit that, despite my best intentions then, I now recognize that I was wrong.”
I am writing about this today neither to applaud Rabbi Lamm for his honesty and courage, – although such applause is appropriate – nor to point out what was missing from his statement – which spokespeople for the victims have already quite correctly done. I am writing rather, in order to open the question as to how it hapenned that an entire generation of MTA students – including me – failed to speak up about what we knew was happening (even if we didn’t yet have the vocabulary to describe it)? And even more to the point, how is it that faculty members – our teachers! – as well as members of the administration remained silent, never raising their voices? Why did we remain silent, and what responsibility do we have now?
There are surely at least a half-dozen different explanations that can be offered for why people remain silent in the face of these kinds of things. They range from fear of ridicule or even reprisal, to apathy and indifference to the problems of others. But there is also our deep-seated – and not incorrect – belief in the vital importance of our basic religious institutions, and the tradition, stability, and reassurance that they provide. Consciously or perhaps sub-consciously, we are afraid to do something that might destabilize the couriers of our faith and identity, the shepherds of our historical continuity. Which is why we have a long-standing habit of overlooking institutional flaws and even misdeeds, in the name of preserving stability and continuity.
My father, my sister, all 4 of my brothers-in-law, my son and I are all graduates of one or more YU school. Every single member of the Modern Orthodox community is directly or indirectly a beneficiary of YU, its educational vision, and the services it provides. We all owe a historic debt of gratitude to the institution, and to Rabbi Lamm in particular. Which is precisely the reason why there are people, even as the investigation is going on, who feel that the most important thing to do is to continue to protect the institution. And which is undoubtedly why there were so many who remained silent back in the 70’s and 80’s when Rabbi Finkelstein’s bizarre behavior was a completely open secret within the school. But what must be obvious to us now is that it is both folly in practical terms, and corrupt in spiritual terms to think that we are in any way strengthening Judaism through turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the cries of the innocent. Indeed, if Judaism means anything at all, only the precise opposite could possibly be true. Rabbi Lamm, in his final act of leadership, opened this discussion. It is upon all of us to continue it.
I have come to realize that as a schoolmate of many of the victims I have my own teshuva to do as well. It is my hope and intentions to begin organizing my MTA classmates, not God forbid to bash our alma mater, but to communicate to the University that it still has the opportunity to model for the Orthodox world how an institution investigates itself and how it cares for the victims of its past failures. And to organize my classmates to offer our own apology to those whose distress we ignored.