By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Two Sundays ago, while having coffee with an Irvine woman hed recently met on the Internet, Rabbi Juda Heschel made the inevitable disclosure. He recounted the felony that, seven years ago, destroyed his marriage, estranged his children, forced his synagogue to fire him and sent him to federal prison.
Im a registered sex offender, he told his date, heart banging in his chest.
As an Orthodox Jew, Heschel wasnt accustomed to going to confession. Seven years ago, he was a highly respected rabbi at Mount Freedom Jewish Center, an Orthodox synagogue in Randolph Township, New Jersey. But he was also a lifelong porn addict, and his addiction peaked after he was shown how to use the synagogues computer. Two weeks before the High Holy Days, the synagogues computer technician discovered two pictures of child pornography that Heschel had viewed on an adult Web site. By enlarging the images, Heschel had unwittingly downloaded them to his Web browsers temporary-file cache.
It was 2000, Heschel says, explaining why the synagogues elders went directly to the FBI. That was during the height of the lawsuits against the Catholic Church.
Heschels nine months at Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution, one of which he spent in solitary confinement, were only the beginning of his downward spiral. Seven years after those fateful mouse clicks to illegally download child porn, Heschel has abandoned his last name (Heschel is his middle name) and lives an impoverished life in a tiny Venice apartment, decorated with the pictures of his three children who live on the East Coast. In Los Angeles, his potential employers and landlords usually assume that registered sex offender means rapist or child molester. He has been denied jobs and turned down for apartments. One of the most difficult moments came when a Los Angeles synagogue initially told him he was no longer welcome even as a congregant.
As Los Angeles Archbishop Roger M. Mahony becomes embroiled in new claims that he knew about and failed to stop sexual abuse by a California priest, a number of high-profile sex scandals involving rabbis here and elsewhere have created a simmering fear among believers.
We in the Jewish community are recognizing that we arent immune from these problems, says Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of The Board of Rabbis of Southern California one of the areas two main rabbinical bodies, along with the Rabbinical Council of California. For too many years Ive heard Jewish people say this is not our problem, it just affects other faiths and denominations. Were seeing otherwise.
Diamond was horrified, for instance, to see his close colleague Rabbi David Kaye ensnared last year on Dateline NBCs To Catch a Predator. (Kaye was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for attempting to seduce an actor who, working with Dateline, posed as a 13-year-old boy.) Around the same time, the principal of one of Los Angeles most popular Jewish schools, Rabbi Aron Tendler, stepped down amid allegations that he had sexually abused teenage girls. A few months later, Rabbi Mordechai Gafni, a popular leader in the Jewish Renewal movement, lost his chair at Los Angeles Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School after confessingto molesting several of his former female students.
Diamond says all of these episodes left him very, very pained. He isnt alone. A growing concern about unreported sex abuse and what to do with offenders when theyre caught or come forward has reshaped alliances within the local Jewish community and created bickering behind closed doors.
So discovered prominent Rabbinical Council member Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein last month, after he hosted a seminar dealing with the growing number of sex-abuse allegations surfacing on Jewish blogs. Adlerstein said he felt torn between the need to listen to victims and his colleagues concern that the Internet has simply created a venue for lshon hara, or anonymous slander.
But he found even bringing up the subject at all was tricky. Says Adlerstein, I immediately got flak from colleagues asking me, Why are you talking about the stuff when you know its going to get distorted?
The discussion has led to some positive results. In 2002, when Heschel began speaking about his struggle to overcome porn addiction and re-enter society after prison, he and Diamond helped organize a five-part seminar on the problem of sexual addiction among the clergy. It was the first time in years, says Diamond, that leaders of the historically estranged Board of Rabbis and Rabbinical Council found themselves sitting down at the same table.
Heschel says the discussion was especially needed in the Orthodox community, where the topic is dealt with less openly because of the shame attached to it. To rectify that, Heschel organized a 12-step group for addicted rabbis at the local rehabilitation center Beit TShuvah in Culver City, where he voluntarily resided before his sentencing and stint at Fort Dix.
Soon after, the Aleinu Family Resource Center the primary family-advocacy group for Orthodox Jews convinced 21 of 26 local Los Angeles yeshivas to agree to guidelines that encourage the reporting of sexual abuse by rabbis. (Council director Deborah Fox declined to identify the nonparticipating yeshivas to the L.A. Weekly, but calls their refusal to sign the guidelines an example of the lingering resistance to addressing the subject of sex abuse.)