By Gillian Steinberg (The Jewish Week)
January 26, 2016
Twenty years ago, my Hillel rabbi, a bearded man in a black suit with a velvet kipa who presented himself as a committed Orthodox Jew, invited me to the Hillel building one evening to hang out with him and some other students. When I arrived, the building was dark, and he and I sat down to wait for the others. We chatted for a while, but when the other students didn’t arrive, I suggested that I call them to see when they were coming.
The rabbi inched closer to me on the sofa and said, “They aren’t coming. I didn’t actually invite them.” Taken aback, I asked what he meant, and he said, “Would you like to go for a drive with me?” I said no, and he began to tell me that he was attracted to me, that he wanted to be close to me, that he’d like to spend time alone with me. He reached out to touch me.
I was a new graduate student, just out of college, and he was in his 50s. I knew his wife from Shabbat dinners, and his older children were my age. I had seen him as a religious role model: an observant Jew interested in music, connected to the modern world, deeply spiritual but also an intellectual. And he was trying to cheat on his wife with me on the Hillel sofa.
In that shocking moment, I had the presence of mind to tell him how uncomfortable I was; I pulled away from him and left the building, shaking.
I spent the rest of the evening thinking about what to do, and I decided not to do anything. I assumed no one would believe me, and I didn’t know whom I would tell anyway. The decision plagued me for weeks, but I decided that pushing aside my anger and sense of betrayal was probably the best solution. I stopped attending Hillel.
A couple of weeks later, at a meal with local synagogue members, I heard some of them praising the Hillel rabbi for his exciting programming and dedicated leadership. To their surprise, I reacted strongly: “I hate the rabbi. He’s an awful person!” I exclaimed, without adding any specific details.
That might have been the end of this story. Nothing might have happened; I might never have said another word to anyone. They might have ignored me or judged me or gossiped about that strange outburst. They might have defended him and moved on.
Instead, one woman from that group, whom I only slightly knew, said, “Can you come talk to me privately?” We stepped into a different room, and I told her, in tears, about that terrible night.
She didn’t say, “You must have misunderstood him” or “But he’s a wonderful rabbi” or “Are you sure?” She didn’t ignore me. She didn’t make me feel crazy or stupid. Instead, she said, “We have to do something about this right away.”
Later that week, I sat with her in her living room, facing the regional director of Hillels for the area, also an Orthodox rabbi. I told him the story while she sat beside me. He looked at me skeptically and said, “I think you must have misunderstood him” and “But he’s a wonderful rabbi” and “Are you sure?” As I cried, the woman said, “Gillian didn’t misunderstand him. She knows what happened. You need to do something.”
After some discussion, the regional director agreed to pursue the issue and, as a first step, would speak to the rabbi himself. A few days later, the regional director contacted me and said, “I spoke with the rabbi. He corroborated everything you said. He admitted it all, and he’s sorry.”
I don’t know what happened after that, but within a week or so, the rabbi had been fired from Hillel and a statement was released suggesting that he had committed some financial indiscretion. I was told privately that he was being prevented from working for any other Hillel and was being required — I’m not sure how or whether this was enforced — to go to counseling. I never heard from him or saw him again. I can still locate him on Google, and he seems only to have worked in non-rabbinic fields since that time. Shortly thereafter, an Episcopal chaplain affiliated with the university very kindly reached out to me, presumably at the request of the Hillel board, so that we could meet to process what had happened, and I was offered additional counseling, which I declined. After a few months, I barely thought about the event again.
As I read the stories in recent years of terrible abuse perpetrated by rabbis and hidden or ignored by their colleagues and acquaintances, I think more and more about my very different story. Of course, unlike the many children who have been abused by rabbis, I was a legal adult at this time and not a young child; I was approached with the possibility of a sexual relationship and not forced into one; the rabbi in my story told the truth rather than trying to discredit me.
But another important difference stands out as well: someone believed me. How easy it would have been for that woman to ignore my outburst. How simple to have dismissed this student whom she barely knew as “having a bad day” or “being too emotional.” But she didn’t. She listened to me and, when I couldn’t speak for myself, she spoke for me. She pressed for change to be made, and it was made.
I don’t know what would have happened if this ordinary woman, invited to an ordinary meal, had not taken the time she did to pursue justice. I would certainly have permanently stopped attending Hillel, and, since I met my now-husband at a regional Hillel event a few years later, that decision could have changed my life significantly.
On a more fundamental level, I never had to reckon with feeling betrayed by the Jewish community. I never had to doubt my own worth or veracity. I never had to face the man who attempted to abuse his power over me or hear him lie about me. I never had to rebuild my faith or lose it altogether. I was able to maintain my (I believe, accurate) sense that he was one bad person among a huge pool of good people. This incident has hardly touched my life since it happened. I felt, as all our young people should feel, as important to the Jewish community as this “important” rabbi was.
Ordinary people, like all of us, can pursue justice the way that wonderful woman did for me. We can save the Jewish community from itself if we listen, and if we make sure that every voice is heard. We can all learn not only from victims of abuse and their harrowing stories but also from situations in which sexual impropriety is handled correctly. That this man tried to abuse his power is a sad statement on humanity and, perhaps, on the Jewish community; that he was prevented from continuing to do so shows how much power we each have to change the world for the better.
Gillian Steinberg teaches English at SAR High School in Riverdale.