Center Field: Rabbis and educators beware — You are responsible for perceptions of you

"I wish we could return to the freer and easier 1970s and 1980s, when mentors could comfort with a friendly touch as well as soothing words. But the cost of discomfort is too great."

Shadowy figure uses cell phone (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Shadowy figure uses cell phone (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
This week, while tabloids revealed that a prominent evangelist groped girls, including his sisters, when he was 14, The New York Times exposed the creepy behavior of a leading New York rabbi, who enjoys naked sauna visits with young men. Both stories reinforced the cynical, media-stoked view mocking morality and authority, treating every moral leader as a yet-to-be revealed pervert. Clearly, both behaviors are appalling. Still, I am more outraged by the grownup rabbi who doesn’t touch than the former teenager who did.
While condemning Josh Duggar’s crimes, I believe, as one friend remarked, “there’s a reason why juvenile records are sealed.” Duggar has been an upstanding adult, part of the famous TLC-TV reality family show “19 Kids and Counting.” Increasingly, our infinite loop culture’s delight in scandal overrides any sense of a statute of limitations, any sensitivity to the possibility of people maturing, any opportunity for redemption.
Judge Josh Duggar based on the virtuous adult he became not the troubled teen he was. By contrast, the rabbinic lech, Jonathan Rosenblatt, remains unrepentant, as his defenders emphasize that he never physically abused his protégés. But this is a married man, a spiritual leader, a supposed role model, who repeatedly made boys as young as 12 uncomfortable with his leering.
Apparently, Rabbi Rosenblatt is a charismatic, inspirational leader who flattered many with his intense attention. But he not only violated the accepted rules for decent moral behavior, spiritual leaders and charismatics should adhere to higher standards.
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My Zionist youth movement, Young Judaea, cultivated a charismatic leadership style that empowered both leader and led. Passionate visionaries inspired us to believe we could change the world and encouraged us to challenge each other, intellectually, ideologically, personally.
We learned, however, three essential lessons this rabbi missed. First, the deeper you enter into Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationship, the more important respecting particular boundaries becomes. Second, one of the clearest boundaries is the physical, certainly the sexual – which we reinforced puritanically. And third, in an exciting, hormone-charged, educational environment such as the summer camp, only fools with fragile egos take the temporary adulation seriously.
At the same time, by transcending the flash, genuine, exciting, soul-stretching and long-lasting friendships flourished.
In 1985, when I was a young “Merakez,” Unit Head, at Camp Tel Yehudah, Young Judaea’s flagship camp, we were lounging around one Shabbat, singing after the meal, when one of my 16-year-old campers sat on my lap. Back then, this was not exceptional behavior. The camps were touchy-feely places, although we drilled into staffers the clear red line distinguishing casual, friendly contact and any sexual relationship.
For me, this camper’s gesture represented a breakthrough. She was an influential kid who had been unhappily exiled to our camp, Camp “Bet,” and separated from her friends in “Aleph.” We had clashed over her desire to transfer during the first few days of camp. Her sitting on my lap was a peace offering – she stayed with our group and had a great summer.
Almost immediately, I felt our problematic, manipulative camp director staring at me, enjoying catching me in the act of being inappropriate. I wanted to stand but I also did not want to embarrass this young girl by acting abruptly. I waited for the song to end – those extra rounds of “la, la, las” never took so long! Finally, when the song ended, I called for “birkat hamazon,” the grace after meals, and smoothly stood up to lead.
I learned that day about the power of optics. Even though my behavior was passive and innocent, as an authority figure, working with wonderful, rollicking, volatile, charged teenagers, the burden was on me to appear prim and proper – yet open and accessible. A few years later, when a lifeguard was too touchyfeely with the teenagers, two of us pulled him aside, and told him what Rabbi Rosenblatt should have known – and should have been told: “you are responsible for perceptions of you. This is not a court where you are innocent until proven guilty. The burden is on you. You are failing by making others uncomfortable, diminishing this institution and our mission with your behavior.”
That fall, as a rookie teaching assistant, an undergraduate started crying, explaining that her paper was late because her boyfriend had just broken up with her. I bent forward, ready to give her a legitimate, comforting touch, camp-style. I stopped abruptly, aware that I should never touch a student, a policy I have maintained for decades.
Years later, a departmental administrator complimented me for always keeping my office door open. I replied: “if students have something personal they wish to share, they stand and close the door, but my policy is open door all the time.”
Most recently, rather than having my desk against the window, and turning with a swivel chair to speak to students with no barrier, I sit behind a desk, comfortably protected behind a massive piece of treated wood from any charges of impropriety.
I wish we lived in a more open, innocent world. I wish we could return to the freer and easier 1970s and 1980s, when mentors could comfort with a friendly touch as well as soothing words. But the cost of discomfort is too great – and the ambiguity for those with bad judgment, like this rabbi, is too confusing. Remarkably, as of this writing, the rabbi has not yet resigned or been fired. He has embarrassed himself, his family, his community, and all of us who revere tradition. It is time for him to go, no matter how smart, charismatic, or loving he is. His inability to realize that reflects yet another moral failure.
We would have kicked him out of our camp long ago.
The author is a professor of history at McGill University and is teaching this semester at the Rothberg School at Hebrew University. His eleventh book, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, will be published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martins Press this fall.
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