Monday, April 20, 2015

Orthodox Kiruv, Rape Culture, and an Unrelated Interview with the Blogger

     I'd like to extend a warm thank you to all of the readers who have messaged me with their stories, their questions, and their comments about this blog. Over the past months, I've been ridiculously busy with many other projects. I was also touched to receive a request for an interview for the OTD Stories project, started by a good friend of mine. In this interview, I discuss my journeys both on and off the derech (path of orthodox Judaism,) as well as a bit about my current projects. I figured I'd share that here, in case you're interested. While you're there, take a look around. It's a really great site, and totally worth your time.

     I'd also like you point you over to this article, The Grey Area of Rape Culture in the Black and White World of Jewish Orthodoxy by Esther Tova Stanley, in which Ms. Stanley discusses how young women targeted by kiruv professionals are often put in very compromising positions in a relationship with rabbis who are seen as trusted authority figures. She states:
You see, there’s an odd relationship between male authority figures (“Rabbis”) and female students that is considered “normal” within the post high-school year abroad programs. It not only accepts, but actively encourages a relationship in which an adult male takes young female students under his wing in the name of “kiruv” (loosely translated to bringing someone closer to G-d.) [sic]

The Rabbis do this by cultivating a false sense of trust, telling the young students that they see something special in them, encouraging them to share details of their personal lives and sometimes offering (inappropriate) personal details of their own. As my seminary Rabbi once said to me in reference to “his girls” and his method of kiruv, “I like to break them and then make them.”  This creepy comment was followed by an even creepier wink. (Lucky for me, I left that school almost as fast as I got there.)
The idea is for this relationship to inspire the student, spiritually.  To see that living an ultra-orthodox life is the only REAL way to truly LIVE. Those Rabbis who engage in it are seen as possessing a gift, are considered selfless for giving up so much of their time to educate and uplift young, easily influenced souls and bring them onto the path of observance. It’s considered a mitzvah (a good deed.)1
     Most campus kiruv organizations push students to go on extended trips to Israel, many of which include time spent learning in yeshivas or seminaries, depending on one's gender. In addition to being away from home and healthy doses of skepticism, students are encouraged to spend time with rabbis, who often take on the role of spiritual advisers. This puts students in a position of heightened vulnerability, a position they may not even realize they're in at the time.
     I strongly suggest reading the article in full for a good understanding of how there really can be a grey area between trusted rabbi and sexual predator, and how the boundaries of appropriateness can easily be both obscured and crossed in the male-rabbi female-student relationship.

1. Stanley, Esther Tova. The Grey Area of Rape Culture in the Black and White World of Jewish Orthodoxy. qtd. on Not for Ourselves Alone: Gender Politics and Parenting in the 21st Century blog by Juliet C. Bond. April 20, 2015. 6:58am.


  1. In the article she writes,

    > Wow, how selfless of these 40+ year old men to go out late at night to a café or bar with an 18 year old girl. Tough JOB ! *sarcasm intended*

    I don't know. The author is assuming that the men have sexual motives. In other words, she's buying into the frum world's portrayal of men as uncontrollably lustful. If it's true that there's a sexual motivation, then this is very inappropriate, even predatory. On the other hand, if the guy is sincere, then yes, it is commendable that he's giving up his time to go to a place that makes him uncomfortable in order to connect with a young person he's trying to nurture.

    I'm sure that the job is attractive to someone looking to take advantage of girls half his age, but that doesn't mean that all or even most of these rabbis are doing it for that reason. I think that what they're doing, i.e., indoctrination, is wrong, but I think that most are sincere, and painting them all as sexual predators is unfair.

    The dynamic between seminary rabbis and their students clearly needs to be changed. Unfortunately, when discussing ways to combat abuse there is a tendency to go too far in the other direction. Painting all men (or seminary rabbis) as predators is coming at the old gender stereotypes from the other direction. It's accepting that men are uncontrollably lustful and women are objects for them to lust after, but instead of insultingly stereotyping women who expose their elbows as trying to entice men to sin, it's insultingly stereotyping men who work in positions of authority as opportunistic predators.

    There are men who look for opportunities to prey on women, just as there are women who dress to entice men, but most don't. To assume either is insulting and dehumanizing.

    1. You make an excellent point. All men and all rabbis are definitely not sexual predators. In the student-teacher relationship, I can see how lines may be blurred though--the opportunity for gentle flirting does present itself, and someone of authority can easily take advantage of his position to influence a younger person who is looking for guidance. I don't believe the influence needs to be sexual, nor do I believe that the result needs to be sexual, although I do think that there can exist a certain sexual tension or excitement that might serve as a pressure to maintain one's involvement with a kiruv rabbi or organization. My opinion is based on speculation and observation of male-female relationships in which the male holds more power than the female. Again, I don't believe that all relationships within kiruv are like this.

  2. A relationship does not have to include sex for a rabbi to be predatory or for his actions to be inappropriate. Kiruv workers aren't hoping less observant Jews will find them, they actively hunt down less observant Jews with the intention of making them more religious. Free dinners and Shabbatons lead to being flirtatious, to allowing "special" girls "special" privileges such as being allowed to spend "special" time with rabbis. If you think kiruv workers aren't predatory or don't use their power and sexual charm to lure girls in, you're living in a cave.



Your respectful comments are welcome.