June 20, 2003

Rabbis on the Defense


It's not easy these days being a rabbi. With nearly every day bringing fresh news of an indictment or scandal of some kind involving fellow clergy members, there is a sense of weary embattlement in the United States among the nation's spiritual professionals.

Indeed, if public temperament is any indication, sexual misconduct among clergymen is as serious and widespread an epidemic in America as SARS is in China-and far more people in the U.S. seem to care about miscreant priests and rabbis than they do about the deadly respiratory infection.

With so much focus on the issue of malfeasance in the rectory, some in the Jewish community are beginning to take steps to ensure that rabbis stay out of trouble in case the eye of public scrutiny ever stops on them.

To some extent, of course, their efforts are too late. Last year, Baruch Lanner, an Orthodox rabbi and day school principal who served as a director of the Orthodox Union's youth organization, was found guilty of sexually abusing two teenage girls. Two months ago, another rabbi, Matis Weinberg, a yeshiva instructor and well-known Talmudic scholar, was accused of sexual misconduct. Last November, a Reform rabbi from New Jersey was found guilty of hiring a hit man to kill his wife; she had been bludgeoned to death in her home in 1994.

Despite these episodes, most rabbis-and Jews-say they are not worried that sexual predators are running rampant in the Jewish clergy, or that murderous rabbis are on the loose. Instead, they say, they are worried about the law when it comes to more mundane issues, when rabbis doing everyday things expose themselves to potential litigation.

Guilty or not, experts say, rabbis should expect to be in the crosshairs of both the law and the media for the foreseeable future. That's why a few experts from those fields held a seminar recently to address rabbis' concerns about protecting themselves from litigation.

"Everybody is trying to get a rabbi today," said Benjamin Brafman, a criminal defense attorney whose clients have included such ignominious figures as P Diddy (a.k.a. Sean "Puffy" Combs) and mobster Vincent "the Chin" Gigante. "For every 100 priests, they have to get one rabbi."

Henry Sheinkopf, a New York political consultant and Orthodox Jew, said, "All rabbis are equal-opportunity targets."

The typical synagogue rabbi is exposed to a host of legal liabilities in America. Some are fairly obvious, such as financial malfeasance. In a typical case a few years ago, a hassidic rabbi named Hertz Frankel was caught bilking millions of dollars in government funding in a scheme in which he fraudulently diverted $6 million to a girls' yeshiva in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

More commonly when it comes to financial wrongdoing, rabbis may not fully realize that their actions are criminal, Brafman said. For example, if someone approaches the rabbi of a synagogue at the close of a shul fundraising event and offers, in exchange for the cash on hand, to write the synagogue charity a check for a slightly larger amount than the sum collected, that constitutes criminal fraud and is punishable by jail time-both for the financier and the rabbi.

Improper use of discretionary funds is another common source of wrongdoing. Some rabbis borrow from the funds for personal use; others unilaterally decide where the money is to be spent, in some cases making dubious allocations.

Many cases are even less clear-cut, particularly the ones that involve counseling. Pulpit rabbis often find themselves playing the role of psychological counselors, though few are trained to do so. Consequently, the advice they offer or information they are told can open them up to the possibility of lawsuits.

A congregant who confides in a rabbi about a crime he or she has committed exposes the rabbi to immediate legal liability-particularly if the rabbi decides to withhold the information from the police. Likewise, rabbis who dispense advice to the emotionally distraught may find themselves the subjects of a lawsuit if that person later harms others or himself.

"You can't just make this stuff up," Brafman said, addressing a group of about 100 Orthodox rabbis at a seminar on confronting the crisis of accountability in the rabbinate. The seminar was organized by the Rabbinical Council of America, North America's largest Orthodox rabbinical group, as part of its recent annual conference.

"Don't become something you've never been trained to be," Brafman counseled. Whenever possible, he advised, rabbis should refer congregants seeking counsel to trained professionals, rather than try to handle things on their own.

Even rabbis who have committed no wrongdoing may find themselves in the thick of legal battles. They may be called upon to testify in court about things they witnessed or were told. They could be called as witnesses in divorce proceedings. They can end up testifying against members of their own congregations.

"Many states have laws on the books that make it a legal obligation to go to the law-enforcement authorities," Brafman said. "You are more vulnerable today than you've ever been, and because of that vulnerability you have to be more vigilant than you've ever been."

Fortunately for most rabbis, these problems are merely theoretical. The vast majority of rabbis do not get sued-even if they are not beloved by their congregations. Still, in the course of doing their work, it practically is impossible for a rabbi not to be exposed to some form of liability. The question for most rabbis, then, is where exactly to draw the line.

"There are constant situations in a rabbi's life when you can make a mistake that has legal consequences," said Rabbi Hershel Billet, president of the RCA and spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Woodmere, Long Island. "You have to watch what you say and what you do. I don't think that every day we're falling into traps, but the potential is there when you're counseling a family, when you're making a speech, when you're meeting a child studying for his bar mitzvah."

Anyone is fair game for a lawsuit in the litigious climate of contemporary America.

"I think that any professional has to be concerned about litigation for professional misconduct, especially in the world that we live in today," said Billet, who had a hand in organizing the seminar at the RCA conference on rabbinic accountability. In its capacity as a union-like professional organization, the RCA provided its members with information about how to protect themselves in the workplace.

"There is a tendency in the society that we live in to scrutinize professionals and to sue, and clergy are not exempt from that," Billet said. "Innocent people should take steps to make sure they don't allow themselves to be compromised. Sometimes you can't help it.

Generally, if people take the appropriate action, they will get an appropriate response."

Not so, contended Brafman.

"You can be the most scrupulously honored mensch and still get into trouble," Brafman warned. "I'm not certain that the rabbinate understands how serious some of these issues are."

Marc Stern, the assistance executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said the sex scandal in the Catholic Church has helped jettison all American clergymen from places of honor to subjects of suspicion.

"The clergy generally have lost their sacred place in American life," Stern observed.

The rabbis at the RCA conference said they were not all that concerned with the issue that prompted the discussion of legal liability in the first place: sexual impropriety. Perhaps that's because none of the rabbis present were known to be the subjects of sex-abuse allegations.

Yet while sexual impropriety among rabbis is not nearly as ubiquitous as it seems to be in the Catholic Church-the Church's strict celibacy rules draw a different type of clergyman than the rabbinate-rabbis are as open to allegations of sexual abuse as any pastor, teacher or counselor. As such, they would do well to maintain orthodox observance of the halakhic rules governing yichud-strict regulations that prohibit one-on-one meetings between men and women who are not husband and wife or family, experts said.

When it comes to the prospect of allegations of sexual abuse, the best defense is complete transparency. Leave the door open to the rabbi's office, the experts cautioned.

"If you're counseling married couples and you're alone with the woman, you're just asking for trouble," Brafman said.

Rightly or not, rabbis should stay on the defensive for the foreseeable future, Brafman recommended. "Rabbis are still held to a higher standard, so they have to hold themselves to a higher standard," he said.

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Community hoopla notwithstanding, the number of rabbis that actually get taken to court still is relatively miniscule compared to the bulk of rabbis in America. More often, rabbis find themselves under fire in the court of public opinion, where judgment can come as swift as in Judge Wopner's courtroom and be as arbitrary as the shifting of the winds.

In the age of image, media training, too, is on the rabbinical agenda.

"We have to do a better job of dealing with the press," Marc Stern of the American Jewish Congress told a group of rabbis last month. "The press has served a useful function. If you want to reach the American community, the media presents a golden opportunity."

In many communities in Jewish America, particularly the smaller ones, rabbis often are called upon by local media outlets to weigh in on all matters Jewish. Some are well suited to the role of public figure, but others do not quite know how to heed the advice of the Ecclesiast on when to speak and when to stay silent.

Recently, one Orthodox rabbi, Barry Freundel, of Washington's Kesher Israel synagogue, found himself at a roundtable discussion on Da Ali G Show, a satirical cable TV program hosted by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. Unaware that Cohen's interview was an elaborate prank, Freundel, who ministers to such figures as Sen. Joseph Leiberman, was forced to answer questions about Jews like, "Why does you lot chop one of your nuts off?"

To be fair, Cohen also has managed to fool the likes of a former U.N. secretary general and a former American national security advisor.

More often, rabbis get asked to comment on unfolding community crises. After the first major story on sexual abuse by a rabbi was published by the New York Jewish Week, several rabbis made public statements that turned out to be misleading or misinformed. Reputations suffered, and organizations' credibility plummeted.

To be safe, the best approach for rabbis in such situations is to stay silent, political consultant Henry Sheinkopf said. "If there is a crisis, do not put your name in the newspapers," he said. "Why are we so careless when we talk to reporters? No matter what your intentions are, they will always come out wrong."

As allegations of sexual abuse by rabbis began to be reported more widely by the Anglo-Jewish press, many rabbis criticized the media for airing the Jewish community's dirty laundry in public. Stern said such characterizations are unfair.

"Criticism of the press should not divert attention from the fact that people have abused their positions to do things that are wrong," he said. "In our community, there's a tendency to blame everybody else for what was wrong, and in the case of abusive rabbis the problem wasn't the press. The problem was the abuse of children."