From the cover “When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture” by Elana Sztokman
From the cover “When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture” by Elana Sztokman

New books shine light on sexual abuse in Jewish world

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J.’s coverage of books is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

It can be difficult to recommend books one finds deeply upsetting. But as I call attention to two new books that cast light on sexual abuse in the Jewish world, I’m cognizant of the importance of not looking away when it comes to this extremely difficult topic.

Stephen Mills, the author of “Chosen: A Memoir of Stolen Boyhood,” experienced hardship from the beginning of his life. His father, a World War II vet, had developed multiple sclerosis and died when Mills was 4 years old. When Mills’ mother remarried, adjusting to the new situation was painful.

Cover of "Chosen: A Memoir of Stolen Boyhood" by Stephen MillsMills found some respite in attending Camp Ella Fohs, founded decades earlier in Connecticut by New York’s United Jewish Appeal to serve the children of immigrants. In 1968, when Mills was 13 years old and participating in his third summer at the sleepaway camp, he found himself singled out for special attention by Dan Farinella, the social worker who served as camp director.

The attention continued in the off-season, as Farinella ingratiated himself with Mills’ mother and asked that Mills join him for occasional weekends, and even on a trip to the Bahamas. On these trips, and during additional time spent at camp, Farinella forced himself on Mills sexually. 

The abuse ended after two years, but its impact colored the following decades of Mills’ life. He was unable to sustain relationships; he took drugs; he stole; he lost sight of goals. And he told nobody about what had happened. 

A supportive girlfriend and the drug MDMA helped Mills acknowledge his tortured inner life. He writes, “If denial is the body’s way of damming up what desperately needs to be felt, then the little green capsule opened the floodgates … When the drug wore off that night, I began crying. I cried for the boy who had been enslaved by a sick man. I cried for how utterly alone I’d been throughout the years of my ordeal. I cried for the young man whose self-hate drove him to try to erase his life for a crime that was not his own.”

As Mills developed greater self-awareness, he sought to ensure that Farinella would not be able to do to others what he had done to him. While assembling evidence against Farinella, Mills learned to his horror that Farinella had been abusing other Ella Fohs campers at the same time that he was being abused. Strikingly, a number of these boys had also experienced deaths or other disruptions in their families; Farinella’s modus operandi was to prey upon the most vulnerable children in his charge.

Mills’ efforts in the 1980s to involve both Farinella’s employers and various law enforcement agencies ultimately came to nothing. Farinella, who had gone on to lead other Jewish summer camps and left a decades-long trail of abuse, died without ever suffering consequences for his actions.

Concluding the journey with Mills after two tense sittings reading his book, I wept a while, not only from imagining his pain, but also from realizing that the culture that so badly failed its children is our own.

RELATED: How a rabbi suspended for sexual misconduct stayed in his pulpit

It would be nice to think that Mills’ experience was an anomaly in the Jewish world, but Elana Sztokman’s “When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture” makes a strong case that we Jews have a significant problem within our tents that we have yet to adequately address.

Cover of "When Rabbis Abuse" by Elana SztokmanMost of us recall those rabbis whose crimes have received media attention, such as Barry Freundel, who set up a hidden camera system to spy on scores of women using the mikvah under his supervision, or Baruch Lanner, who served a prison sentence after using his leadership positions in youth movements and schools to molest teenagers for decades. But there are many lower-profile or unreported cases — in part because the rabbinate can be a comfortable place for an abuser. As Sztokman writes, “Wherever the rabbi is revered as a source of knowledge, authority, and/or power, the rabbi is assumed to be someone who will care, protect, and not violate. The ‘rabbi’ title also awards access, intimacy, and most of all, trust.”

While no shortage of exploitative rabbis are portrayed in the book, Sztokman also brings to light abuse occurring in many spheres of organized Jewish life. (Sztokman lives in Israel, but most of the cases discussed are in the United States.) Perpetrators include organizational leaders, philanthropists, school principals, camp directors and counselors and others. What they tend to have in common is the benefit of a power imbalance. 

Drawing from a large number of interviews and testimonials, Sztokman chronicles and also analyzes a wide range of damaging behaviors, from verbal harassment to rape. Upfront about the limitations of her work, she notes that “there has been no comprehensive, community-wide, quantitative study” of sexual abuse in the Jewish community. And this is reflective of a problem, she argues: The issue has not been understood to be of sufficient priority to merit adequate research.

While it is not clear that Jews have a bigger problem with sexual abuse than other groups, Sztokman identifies characteristics of Jewish life that make getting away with it easier for abusers. For example, the religious prohibition on lashon hara (gossip) can end up shielding perpetrators. And our strong communal emphasis can actually be detrimental, as we may close our ears to stories that risk creating rifts in our communities. Even our sensitivity to antisemitism can come into play, as there is a fear of the consequences of “airing dirty laundry.”

Interestingly, Sztokman identifies women rabbis as being in a unique predicament. They are in positions of leadership but are often themselves subjected to extensive harassment. In mapping out paths for addressing abuse in the future, Sztokman sees hope in the growing number of female clergy: “It is possible that, in some places, women bring new understandings about abuse that can bring change both publicly — as in from the pulpit, from their teaching — and privately, in the way reporting is handled and cultures are shifted.”

“Chosen: A Memoir of Stolen Boyhood” by Stephen Mills (Metropolitan Books, 336 pages)

“When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture” by Elana Sztokman (Lioness Books, 444 pages)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.