Rumors of rabbi’s sexual misconduct raise tensions among UK Haredim

Long-simmering scandal threatens to divide those who want to involve secular authorities and those who want to deal with abuse internally

A Channel 4 documentary scheduled to air Wednesday comes at a particularly sensitive time for London's Haredi community. (Illustrative photo: Flash90)
A Channel 4 documentary scheduled to air Wednesday comes at a particularly sensitive time for London's Haredi community. (Illustrative photo: Flash90)

London’s ultra-Orthodox establishment is investigating one of its most senior rabbis following a barrage of rumors that he engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with a woman, The Times of Israel has learned.

The rabbi wields considerable influence in the city’s Haredi institutions.

Over the past few weeks, he has been accused in blogs and on the street of a variety of sexual misdeeds with at least one woman — for whom he was allegedly acting as a counselor — and possibly with others. The allegations range from serious criminal offenses to actions which, one rabbi said, may be halachically dubious, but “in the non-rabbinical, non-Haredi world, wouldn’t raise eyebrows.”

The rabbi at the center of the rumors did not return a phone call.

Since mid-October, his London colleagues have met twice to discuss the handling of the case, once in the Orthodox suburb of Golders Green in North West London, and once in the considerably more Haredi Stamford Hill.

Now a prominent London rabbinical authority has appointed a small committee to investigate the claims. The committee apparently includes a mental health professional and a legal professional; at least one of them is Jewish.

Gabriel Schleider, a clerk at the North Square Chambers legal firm, refused to comment on reports that he was on the panel.

One local Haredi rabbi, who like all the British interviewees for this article requested anonymity due to the case’s sensitive nature, said he did not believe the rumors, which “seem incompatible with [the rabbi’s] personality.”

Because of the accused rabbi’s senior status and popularity, if the most serious allegations were proven, “it would send shock waves through the community. It would be on par with the chief rabbi being accused of such a thing,” he added.

Another rabbi said the fallout “would be like a mini Shabtai Tzvi,” a reference to the 17th century false messiah who, before his eventual conversion to Islam, legitimized sexual excess as part of religious ritual among his followers. The story is regarded as one of the most disruptive incidents in early modern Jewish history.

Whatever the outcome in this particular case, the severity of some of the allegations has sparked a discussion within the British Haredi community about sexual abuse by members of the clergy — problems that have received scant attention to date.

The discussion will likely intensify in the coming months, as a television investigation into the community’s approach to child sex abuse is currently in its final stages. The program, which is being fronted by journalist Annamarie Cumiskey, has been in the works for more than a year and a half, and The Times of Israel has seen evidence that suggests it will be aired on a major British network, Channel 4, as part of its “Dispatches” current-affairs show.

A looming TV report will apparently allege that sexual crimes are systematically covered up in the Haredi enclaves of London, Manchester and Gateshead

The program will apparently allege that sexual crimes are systematically covered up in the Haredi enclaves of London, Manchester and Gateshead, and will feature testimony from both victims still in the community and several who have left it.

In contrast to New York, where high-profile allegations of abuse in the Orthodox community have become a regular occurrence, in London, they are still relatively rare and low-key. Cases do sometimes come to court — just last week, 40-year-old Menachem Mendel Levy appeared before a London judge to face charges of regularly raping a young Orthodox woman — but the last major abuse scandal occurred more than 20 years ago.

A number of British rabbis told The Times of Israel that they had seen little evidence of significant incidents of sexual abuse among London’s Haredim.

However, Ben Hirsch, the president of Survivors for Justice, a New York-based advocacy group for survivors of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, called this naive. He says his organization regularly fields calls and emails from the UK.

“We were quite surprised — it was notable,” he says. “We were getting panicked phone calls from people in London, Stamford Hill, Gateshead and Manchester. Many were so frightened, they wouldn’t give us their names. Those that did were referred to people that were able to deal with situations in the UK. Some were looking for therapists; others just wanted to talk. They were panicked because they were not prepared to go to the authorities, and didn’t know what else to do. People were afraid. We even received calls from several therapists who wanted help dealing with abuse in the Haredi communities in the UK. ”

There is no British equivalent organization to Survivors for Justice, nor any communal organization that deals solely with sexual abuse.

Hirsch says he would expect the rates of sexual abuse in the UK’s ultra-Orthodox community to be similar to those in Haredi communities elsewhere.

“The culture is very similar, and the culture is the source of the problem,” he says.

Referring to Hasidic and other very insular Orthodox communities in particular, he says that in both the US and the UK, “You’ve got a few community leaders in power, and members of the community afraid to cross the road without permission, knowing that if they call the police, they’re on the outs.”

If anything, he says, “based on everything we know of the coverups in London and Gateshead, they are worse, more egregious than the coverups in New York.”

He blames this on the UK communities’ more formalized, top-down rabbinic structure, which gives rabbis even more power than in the US.

In New York, secular authorities have cultivated relations with the ultra-Orthodox community for help in cracking down on sexual abusers, a process that has yet to take place in the UK. In addition, even if offending rates are similar, the absolute numbers of abusers in UK Haredi circles would be minute compared to those in America, as there are fewer than 300,000 Jews of all streams in the UK altogether, as compared to 250,000 Haredim in the New York area alone.

Some rabbis believe that change is afoot. One rabbi says he hopes that the upcoming TV report will make a difference.

“I can’t say [the program’s allegations] are not true. We are unable to deal with these issues effectively. We’re much better than we were in the past, but we’re not moving fast enough. A lot of it is naivete — people really sometimes don’t believe it’s happening, or they believe that an abuser can stop if you beat them up or if you treat them. If a person shows remorse, they accept that as genuine, and that they will never do it again.

“If the program is done responsibly, maybe it will be a catalyst. If not, it will be counterproductive.”

The same rabbi claimed that a group of colleagues belonging to the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations was trying to band together to become “the address” for families whose members have experienced sexual abuse. The group would be the final arbiter on whether the families could go to the police.

The purpose, he said, was to circumvent a number of other rabbis who regularly obstruct efforts to report abuse to the secular authorities.

“The group will have the whole support of the rabbinate, and whatever they say, for good and for bad, will be the verdict. No rabbi can start terrorizing families [not to go to the police] — the rabbonim will be standing behind the families.”

Another Haredi rabbi said that the large number of cases in New York has not gone unnoticed in London.

When it came to the recent allegations against the senior London rabbi, he said, “The rabbis don’t want a repeat of New York, where [the rabbis] were accused of not dealing with these issues. They want to be seen to be stamping it out.

“If any discoveries lead to an indictment, they will be the first to expose, condemn and deal with it. The last thing they want to do is try and hush it up.”

The latest scandal burst into the public domain over Sukkot, when a London rabbi reportedly confronted his colleague and demanded that he leave the city

There have also been claims of police involvement in the Haredi investigation of the London rabbi, but The Times of Israel was unable to verify this.

Regarding the current case, rumors surrounding the rabbi’s behavior have been circulating for several months, but other senior rabbis were unwilling to approach him, according to a source familiar with the details of the case.

The allegations burst into the public domain over Sukkot, when a local rabbi reportedly confronted his colleague and demanded that he leave the city.

For Hirsch, this is “standard operating procedure for frum communities. Running the perpetrator out of town is what generally happens when complaints are brought to the rabbinic leadership. Usually the person reporting will be cajoled or intimidated into silence, and the case gets covered up. If the case gets too big, too well-known, there are too many complaints and it cannot be controlled, the attitude is, let’s just get rid of the problem. This means sending the perpetrator to another Jewish community. In cases of child abuse, the perpetrators are almost guaranteed to reoffend.

“Because of the lashon harah [gossip] and shidduch [matchmaking] issues, there is a very strong push to keep it quiet, protect the perpetrator’s family and children from negative impact. They are completely blinded to the dangers this attitude poses to future victims, and the deep injustice to past victims.”

If the rabbis want to bring about real change, he says, they have just one option: involve the police in every case. Rabbis who are not trained professionals cannot investigate allegations of abuse, or even correctly diagnose abuse, nor can they be trusted to fairly investigate their own colleagues or to put the needs of victims above the reputation of the community — there is simply too much conflict of interest.

“If the rabbinical leadership says, ‘We’re not qualified to investigate; go to the authorities,’ that’s when change begins,” he says. “Then there’s no stigma.”

The plan for a permanent group of rabbis to decide whether the police should be approached, he says, was “a classic coverup.

“It’s the fox guarding the henhouse. It needs to be left to the professionals. If these rabbis really want to stop obstructionist rabbis, they need to find the courage to issue a clear and unambiguous statement that says, ‘Don’t go to rabbis to ask permission. Always report child sexual abuse directly to the secular authorities.’ They should put themselves in the firing line and openly praise and support those victims and their families who report abuse to the secular authorities. That would be heroic. Any other rabbinical involvement leads directly to coverup.”

The same applies, he says, to an investigating panel that includes people with ties to the community.

“If the purpose of the panel is to determine whether a rabbi should be defrocked or ejected from a member organization for improper conduct, that’s appropriate. But if the panel seeks to provide an alternative to a formal criminal investigation by trained law enforcement officers, they are playing with fire.”

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