The Israeli Seminary Scandal

We’ve stayed out of it, because we had nothing particularly insightful to add. Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, who has been a fearless crusader against abuse in general, does have some special insight, and has been very much involved in the unfolding of the story. A few paragraphs taken from his recent blog post are so critical that they must be spread far and wide:

1) As nashim tzidkaniyos (righteous women) who, at great personal risk, did the right thing to protect others from what had happened to them?

2) As troublemakers and m’saprei lashon ha’ra (gossip-mongers), who ruined the career of Rabbi Meisels and jeopardized the very existence of the seminaries?

3) Or they are not mentioned at all – basically, “Let’s-Not-Spoil-the-Party-by-discussing-sordid-things-like-this.” (In the month of Elul, no less)

My dear friends, we at Project YES feel very strongly that the only responsible position for the leadership and faculty of these seminaries (and all seminaries) is to take option #1.

We propose that option #2 and even #3 are unacceptable as they send a very dangerous message — should current or future students have their boundaries violated, the wisest and safest route for them, would be to remain silent.

This is the quintessential “teachable moment” to educate our innocent and sheltered young ladies about hilchos yichud and their right to personal space. They also need to be taught that it is not a violation of hilchoslashon ha’ra to speak up, if these boundaries are violated in any way. Quite to the contrary, they should be informed that they are obligated to do so – and assured that they will be supported unconditionally when they do so.

Giving the young ladies messages contrary to these — either by commission or omission — after such a public scandal occurred, will create a toxic and unsafe environment for them both physically and spiritually.

We write these lines to encourage the current leadership of these seminaries, and to the educators in all high schools and seminaries, to convey these critical messages to their students, and to empower the parents of the students to insist that they do.

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27 Responses

  1. Chaim says:

    Great post, though a few people might not understand the 3 options without the preceding paragraph, namely the introductory question that the three options are the answer to:

    “how are the supremely brave talmidos of Rabbi Meisels, who came forward to the Beis Din, being portrayed to the incoming classes of young ladies in those seminaries:”

  2. A A says:

    what if a Rebbe makes fun of a student in front of the whole class and the kid is in first grade, the boy happens to be deaf and can not speak, what does Yaakov Horowitz suggest that he do?
    He is scared to take on this Rebbe who today is a very powerful figure.

    [YA – If he thinks that others are still being victimized by this rebbe, perhaps he should ask someone like Rabbi Horowitz. His identity will be safe with him.]

  3. Daniel says:

    One of the comments makes a very important point which I am excerpting here. I did not write it but I think it bears paying attention to:

    “I feel equal praise should be given to another group of nashim tzidkaniyos — those who reported the ways in which other staff at the seminaries enabled the abuse. These are young women who were never touched, but they observed disturbing violations of din yichud and went to administrators, house mothers, dorm counselors and teachers to complain.

    Without exception they were rebuffed, silenced, given empty promises to keep an eye out on Meisels, or had their complaints invalidated with excuses…

    In addition, a blog at the service of the current hanhalah has threatened to reveal the identity of one of those who testified in private to the Chicago Beis Din.

    Education is essential. But education without staff who listen to complaints is wasted. We need to praise those who educate students to resist intrusions by anyone, no matter how powerful, respected or learned. But we also need to condemn those who silence the products of such education when they speak up. Most of the abuse at the Meisels seminaries could have been stopped just by listening to those students who already learned the lesson.

    I say yes, let’s deliver the ultimate educational lesson to staff in seminaries: if you are caught enabling abuse you will lose your chezkas kashrus and your job.”

  4. Dr. E says:

    This episode is merely a symptomatic microcosm of the broader issues in this parsha. My observations are:

    ▪ The Israel seminary scene is largely an unregulated industry. Each is an independently owned and operated business, each seminary having the discretion to develop its own reputation, admission standards, and rules. There are some quality educators who teach there, but as we have seen some rogue players in administrative roles who capitalize on their charisma and feel entitles to prey on vulnerable young women many miles from home. And if the family dynamic back home is dysfunctional, the Yetzer Harah experienced by these characters in enormous, as they rationalize that their hashpa’ah will help turn the young women around. The “grooming” really begins during the recruiting period where I have heard of anecdotes of interviews by administrators playing self-rationalized mind games with the girls, under the guise of “getting to know them”. I have heard other stories of the “elite” seminaries playing hard-to-get and making applicants travel at distance and expense for the “privilege” of interviewing with their institutions.

    ▪ There is much collusion which happens behind-the-scenes among the Bais Yaakov High schools in America and the seminaries, based on financial and marketing interests. It goes something like this: A seminary, new or old, wants to make inroads in a particular high school (or maintain the symbiotic relationship) to get students to apply (yes, there is significant revenue in the application fees themselves, even if the student does not eventually go there). The seminary makes a deal with the HS to agree to admit X number of students (per year) from that HS. In return, the HS gains: (1) perceived “leverage” among its parents to get girls into that place; (2) the reputation within the community and among parents as being affiliated with a certain (prestigious) institution; and (3) the notion that they have done their due diligence and know what’s best for each girl, when making their recommendations.

    Unfortunately, regarding point #3 is where things can unravel. Inasmuch as the HS is the ultimate gatekeeper of information and access, parents (many of whom are clueless to the [contemporary] Israel seminary scene, are lulled into relying solely on the guidance they receive from the HS. And that guidance may be less-than-objective. Many parents probably do more investigative work before buying a minivan than prior to making this critical decision. All they know is the address of where to send their check and for how much. Very few have had actual direct contact with the Seminary administrators in person or even by phone. I’d be curious as to how many parents ever actually met the rogue character in this episode before making their payments, often with funds elusive to them for which they had to go into hock.

    ▪ Seminary attendance has become an increasingly critical part of “the resume” which is now crucial to try to preemptively out-fox the Shidduch Crisis. “Did she attend?”. “Where did she go?” Therefore, the entire endeavor is stressful both on the parents and the young women themselves. The result is often “settling” for something less than optimal, for fear of their daughter being included in some 15% hopelessness statistic that one reads about in Mishpacha.

    I would humbly submit some practical guidelines to parents:

    ▪ If you happen to be in Israel a year or two before the seminary year, plan to make a visit to meet the teachers, students, and administrators of the place which might be in the ballpark. Find out about the values, Hashkafa, and graduates. Make a determination as to whether that packages is consistent with your Hashkafa and aspirations for the young women. If you find that you are not on the same page, move on.

    ▪ Demand that the HS’s develop a forum for parents to meet the seminary Directors in-person when they come to recruit. This will likely mean the schools calling the shots as to when the places come to recruit during the Senior year, in order to allow the parents the opportunity to meet, compare, and contrast.

    ▪ Encourage the BY seminaries to develop some association whereby they will have to come to an agreement about recruiting practices, common policies on Yichud etc. and respect for personal space, and adjudication processes to hear complaints. And such guidelines should also include the involvement of law enforcement authorities in Israel, instead of relying on what is a ridiculous post hoc bickering between two totally disconnected Batei Din. The resulting quibbling over “Daas Torah” jurisdiction merely deflects from the two most important issue here which are: (1) the safety of young women; and (2) finding a fit which will lead to a year of intellectual growth and maturation.

  5. Sarah Lerner says:

    These girls did the right thing. Too bad they didn’t get him on tape saying something that could be spread all over the internet…

  6. S says:

    so sad, people need to have a safe place to learn. This Elul is actually an opportune time to work on fixing situations. We need to face the issues and do what we can to rid our communities of corruption, so we can be the people we should be. Please Hashem protect us from anyone who tries to hurt us. May the Jewish schools be secure places where people can learn and grow in a secure environment. We need to keep our learning centers holy so we Jews can continue to nourish our soul and spread light

  7. Benshaul says:

    I spoke to a young lady who had Meisels for one of her classes(in a different seminary), and she described to me certain actions and a pattern that was noticed by ALL the girls, and of mildly inappropriate behavior that should have raised many red flags. Sad to say, but one wonders where the administration was when he was dropping off girls at 12 or 1PM from their “private talks”- that everyone knew he was having. Her initial reaction to hearing the news was A “I am not surprised”, and B “there is no way the hanhala could not have had have any awareness of this”

  8. Etzbosai lamilchama says:

    Here is the question: if you knew that a girl had been intimate with her principal, would you date her ? The whistleblowers here are brave!! Let those who signed the letters that the seminaries are safe have their sons and grandsons, date and marry the girls who were preyed on. We are quick to call them heroes and heroines. Vietnam veterans were heroes too!! They are always homeless and collecting charity on the side of the road. Let’s make sure that we respect the victims, and make sure they are taken care of first. How about, no one in lakewood can date, until each of the whistleblowers is a kallah ???

  9. joel rich says:

    Speaking truth to power is a challenge in many hierarchial system, how much more so in one where one is taught if your rebbi tells you right is left, you must believe him.


  10. micha says:

    RJR: WADR to Rashi, the Yerushalmi (Horios 1:2, [vilna 2b]) says the exact opposite: יכול אם יאמרו לך על ימין שהיא שמאל ועל שמאל שהיא ימין תשמע להם ת”ל ללכת ימין ושמאל שיאמרו לך על ימין שהוא ימין ועל שמאל שהוא שמאל — Could it be even if they tell you about the right that it is left, and about the left that it is right, you should [still] listen to them? Therefore it teaches “to go right and left”, when they tell you that the right is right, and that the left is left.

    One commonly cited resolution is the Ramban’s. Rashi is quoting a medrash that refers to a derabbanan — they can make a law that prohibits the permitted, and even in some cases, tell you to ignore (through inaction) an obligation. But the Yerushalmi discusses interpretation of existing law, where you don’t ignore what’s obviously correct.

    Which would be espectially true if Rashi was quoting the Sifrei, which has words not in our version of Rashi: אפילו נראים בעיניך … — even if it looks to your eyes that they are saying….

    Meaning, if it’s open to interpretation, follow the Rabbi’s interpretation over your own. But if the matter is open-and-shut, do not follow them.

    Whatever the halachchah, though, RJR is right that this is the culture. Even if it is based on everyone knowing Rashi, but not the entire sugya.

  11. Someich al-Nissim says:

    As an affected parent, I am quite disturbed by the lack of cooperation between the Batei Din, and the lack of information from the Chicago Beis Din on why it continues to have concerns. Our local high school and rabbonim were not informed on this, so I feel quite “in the dark”.

    Needless to say this kind of disfunctionality is not a kiddush HaShem.

    I agree with the comment critical of elite seminaries that will not conduct North American interviews outside NYC, even where there may be dozens of girls applying from a place. It causes huge unnecessary expenses for parents to fly them to NYC.

    An organized and centralized application process would be very helpful to all concerned.

  12. Toby Katz says:

    “if you knew that a girl had been intimate with her principal, would you date her?”

    As reprehensible as this man’s behavior was, you do need to keep some sense of perspective here. A late-night heart-to-heart talk between a student and teacher — while clearly inappropriate — is hardly what the world thinks of when you say they were “intimate.”

    Is it true that no boy will date a girl who had confided in a male teacher, and even been a bit flirtatious? If so, then the shidduch crisis is about to become a whole lot worse — as the vast majority of girls (and boys) will never be able to get married.

    When the late great Bill Clinton was dishonoring the Oval Office (and the whole country) I observed that simply following basic yichud laws would have saved him and the whole country a world of shame. Kal vechomer that Jewish men with a modicum of Torah knowledge should be expected to follow these laws. I wonder if high school girls are gaining the rudimentary halachic information that they need to protect themselves. They should not go to seminary (or to college, or to work, or on a date) without learning some basic protective halacha.

    Admittedly, flirtatious banter in a classroom may not clearly cross a red line. So this is also something that should be taught to girls: be careful, be careful. It’s the women teachers who need to warn the girls and give them the guidance they need for this delicate area of life.

  13. cvmay says:

    Excellent points as usual from Rabbis Horowitz & Adlerstein EXCEPT “waste of ink”.

    To change any system you got to reach the HANALAH/Administrators.
    So, send off these questions (1.2.3.) to those in charge and demand answers before any applications will be distributed by the high school or applications sent off to the seminaries. Get the principals/parents/hanalah of the AMERICAN high schools on board and an ultimatum be issued – unless you deal with this issue honestly and with integrity (no. 1) – We do not invite your representative to our school for interviews.

    YOU WILL THEN SEE CHANGES!!! & fast!!!

  14. Baruch says:

    The elephant in the room is the fact that the situation of a man hired to develop close relationships with 18 year old girls is not healthy. And, please correct me if I’m wrong, this arrangement would never have been considered normal up until a generation or so ago. Let’s face it, when a 30-yr-old man spends his day around 18-yr-old girls, there is reason to be concerned about trouble. Any healthy male teacher, even if he has the happiest marriage possible, will feel sexually attracted to at least some of his 18 year old female students. It’s just human nature.

    I am not suggesting that we drop the whole seminary model, but as is often the case, recognizing the problem, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist, is half the solution.

  15. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    You want an answer to the seminary far away from home problem? Make aliya! Parents have no business sending their daughter off to a place thousands of miles from home and family. You are throwing dice! It could be a great experience, it could be a terrible one. Even if everything is kosher, no yichud or negia or whatever, the lonely girl could suffer from toxic relationships with peers and have no one to go home to, far away from home. That setup creates vulnerability. Regardless of whether the mouse steals or the hole steals, it puts a girl in a difficult position. Hareidi rabbonim in EY oppose Sherut Leumi because girls are living away from home a mere couple of hours away. Anyway, in this day and age, with the economic factors getting worse in America and anti-Semitism increasing, the handwriting is on the wall. A Jew should live in Eretz Yisrael, where there are no Santa Clauses and everything else. Don’t pack your daughter off for a year, go with her and stay!

  16. Cvmay says:

    Rabbi Horowitz’s 1-2-3, aptly describe the choices that Mosdos/organizations make when confronted with abuse cases.

    Seminaries are functioning due to three pillars, 1. Students & parents 2. High School principals/administrators 3. The Seminary itself. #2 is the strongest pillar of success. Schools open their doors to seminary representatives, for interviewing and for suggesting/coercing/placing their high school graduates.

    They and they only are the KEY to foster PLAN #1. In other words, we, the school will open our gates to your seminary only if you discuss & communicate proper protocol to your students. If not, our Baus Yakov/ high school will blacklist your seminary UNTIL YOU DO!!!

    Whether high schools can or will adopt this process is dependent on their board members, parent body and if the schools’ mission statement includes “safety of our Students” under all circumstances.

  17. Simi Peters says:

    In addition to teaching our young women the laws of yichud and negia, it might be a good idea to teach them how to think. One of the reasons they have trouble standing up to dangerous authority figures is that we have not taught them to ask questions or express doubts. Add that to the numbing effects of social media on their social development and you have low hanging fruit for predators. If they cannot effectively exercise either their minds or their intuitions, what is to protect them?

  18. CJ Srullowitz says:

    The other elephant in the room is the financial angle. It is difficult to make a living in Israel and a teaching position at an American (read: monied) seminary is not something one would give up easily. The nisayon faced by the teachers (what did they know and when did they know it?) in not reporting Miesels’s behavior was literally one of financial suicide. They failed the nisayon.

    Yet another example of how/why the dire financial circumstances in Eretz Yisrael abets bad behavior.

  19. L says:

    I fear that aside from the trauma inflicted on the obvious victims-the girls who were not only abused by their trusted rabbi, but are being re-victimized by his supporters-the entire seminary system is being called into question unfairly as a result of his despicable actions, with many making wildly unjustified claims that seminary in Eretz Yisrael is either an unnecessary waste of time/money at best, or a dangerous gamble at worst. While the high cost of tuition and associated expenses may render a year in seminary a non-option for those who cannot afford it (which is a tragic reality), for those who are able to make it work, it should be seen as no less critical to the spiritual development of our girls as a year (or two or five) in yeshiva is for our boys. And yet we would never hear voices from within the Orthodox community crying for the elimination of yeshivos, G-d forbid. This is not to say that the seminary system is free of problems; other commenters have addressed issues of elitism, costs, high schools pushing students towards seminaries that they might not be suited to for the sake of their own PR, or other wrongful considerations. There is also, as we have now seen, a great need to educate our daughters (and sons) of how to protect themselves from unscrupulous or dangerous individuals, and of the Torah’s clear guidelines for how to avoid questionable situations in the first place. Certainly parents should take a keen interest in the schools their daughters apply to, and high schools need to be able to vouch for the programs and leaders they steer their students towards.

    All that said, I can attest from personal experience that my years in a well-regarded seminary (nearly a decade and a half ago)were the pivotal years of my life with regard to identity formation, honing my Torah learning skills, forming iron-clad friendships, finding an array of spiritual mentors, and perhaps most importantly, developing a passionate love for Eretz Yisrael, which remains a huge part of who I am and everything I stand for today. Without the education I received in seminary, I would never have gained the advanced knowledge base and skill set to become a teacher of limudei kodesh, which I am today. And I will unequivocally state that every rabbi, teacher, and administrator conducted themselves with the utmost propriety and concern for halacha, while still succeeding at forming close and healthy relationships with students. I am saddened at the thought that so many careful and guilt-free individuals are now by default under the shadow of suspicion due to this tragic scandal. I suppose this is essentially just a plea not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”, and damage the Torah character of a whole generation of young women by deeming seminary in E”Y an unnecessary indulgence or unacceptable risk.

  20. Marty says:

    “Lev Yodaya Moras Nafsho”

    This is a concept that is used in Halacha for assessing one’s own health situation regarding whether to fast when he/she feels their life may be at risk, and should also be used by any man considering to work with Chinuch of girls.

    The type and strength of the Yetzer Harah varies from person to person. One need not feel ashamed to determine that he is better off by avoiding certain situations/professions. “Kol Hagadol Mechavero Yitzro Gadol Heimenu”, a strong Yetzer Harah may be indicative of strong spiritual potential.

    I once heard a story about Rav Eliyahu Lapian A”H. Rav Lapian told a Bochur that the Bochur should avoid going to a certain city for a Chassuna because that situation would expose him to Tznius issues. The Bochur told him “I am not affected by these things”. Rav Lapian told the Bochur that before going to the Chassunah the Bochur should visit so-and-so. When the Bochur made the visit he discovered the said so-and-so was a doctor.

  21. Alexandra Fleksher says:

    It is natural that any girl who attended these seminaries or any other seminary will have questions of faith regarding trusting her rabbis after this incident. Innocence has been lost in a horrific and terrible way — and not just the innocence of these “nashim tzidkaniyos” who came forward.

  22. Alexandra Fleksher says:

    It is natural that any girl who attended these seminaries or any other seminary will have questions of faith regarding trusting her rabbis after this incident. Innocence has been lost in a horrific and terrible way — and not just the innocence of these “nashim tzidkaniyos” who came forward.

  23. Dr. E says:

    Random reactions:

    Yehoshua Friedman: Your call for Aliya is well-taken and important. But, the real reason why Chareidi Rabbonim oppose Sheirut Leumi is that it is a government sponsored Chessed program. In America at least, no one has a problem sending their daughters from “out-of-town” to larger communities for shidduch purposes.

    Toby Katz: If this was a one-time innocuous late-night talk with one or two young women, I don’t think that we’d be discussing the case or the phenomenon in general. What has come to a head is the result of years of grooming and “shtick” by this perpetrator, not only towards those who are part of the case but towards others as well. And there are definitely other problematic contexts out there in the seminary system which should be addressed as well.

    While there have been many solid programmatic suggestions in the positive direction, what is perhaps equally important is to turn down the volume on the rhetoric (of protests and name calling) in a more enduring fashion. The effect of that is that it sabotages any positive developments which have occurred.

  24. L. Oberstein says:

    One of my daughters went to one of those seminaries headed by the rabbi you mentioned. She never complained about this specifically but she also wasn’t shocked to hear of it.There were suspicions but no one was willing to do anything about it. Why? Shiduchim is reason number 1. Our single daughters and thier parents live in a state of great anxiety because it is so hard to get a shiduch in today’s yeshiva world. It seems like there are few boys and more girls and the fear is palpable. Who is going to marry a girl who was molested? End of story.
    How about other educators in other institutions accused of inappropriate contact with students,male and female and rabbis of major shuls? Is there a problem in frum society that we simply are in denial about?
    In both cases recently, a Seminary head in Jerusalem and a Yeshiva head in the NY area, i spoke to people who supposedly have intimate knowlege and both defended the accused vehemently, both laid the blame totally on the accuser ,who is “troubled”,etc. Both said that the accused is the victim and not the other way around and both said that there is absolutely no corroborating evidence,it is his word against her’s or his mother’s. Then you have competing Botei Din issuing injunctions without speaking to the comnplainant. I hope Rabbi Horowitz keeps it up and that his message gets through and that he is not silenced or turned into a pariah because he says what needs to be said. Perhaps if we did not deify our leaders we would not be so unwiling to see imperfections in a few of them. They are human and have a yetzer horah and they sometimes deserve criticism,which is not allowed in our society. What can be done to change the situation?

  25. S. Bechhofer says:

    I do not believe the problem is “seminary,” or “seminary in EY’ or “the frum society.” The problem is a warped concept of what constitutes chinuch.
    Let us take a moment to critically question what has developed as a new set of accepted propositions regarding chinuch:
    (a) Because so many families are “messed up” and so many schools do “a terrible job,” much of chinuch really is kiruv;
    (b) “Today’s students” do not really need that much Torah knowledge or skills; what they truly need is to be “built up into a person” and to develop “love of learning.” Since the rebbi/morah “represents Torah,” therefore it is through love and adoration of the rebbi/Morah that the student will come to love Torah. It is not enough to have a positive, respectful relationship with your students; a mechanech must use that relationship to “shape” the students, especially in seminary when it is the “last chance;”
    (c) Use of one’s charismatic personality in order to “reach” the student is considered chinuch; thus charisma is one of the primary indicators of a great mechanech(es);
    (d) Kiruv must often be done by emotional manipulation, creating highly charged moments of intense disequilibrium in order to “open” the kiruvee to change and then have a frum authority figure step in to “mentor” them into the correct path;
    (e) One legitimate purpose of seminary (and in many cases, yeshiva) is to “save” students and “turn them on” to Torah learning and Yiddishkeit;
    (f) Several otherwise questionable behaviors have been approved by poskim for the purpose of kiruv; therefore kiruv (whether seminary or NCSY or whatever) is an art, which cannot be constrained within strict rules;
    (g) A great mechanech(es) operates like a therapist or actually more like an analyst, using the one-on-one interactions, lowering of boundaries, transference, and counter-transference to help the client/student; except mechanchim/os do not need actual training in order to embark on this journey with their students because psychology is treif, or because they are such incredible Torah scholars that they have da’as Torah;
    (h) The alternative to the seminary-as-clinic model is dry, impersonal teaching that has no impact on students;

    In a backlash against a truly impersonal, judgmental, detached form of education that takes place all too often, we have allowed ourselves to swing to the other extreme. Maybe it is wishful thinking, or fear, or a need to maintain the illusion of success; but we have just replaced one unacceptable form of authority with another. Neither coercion nor manipulation is in fact chinuch.

    There is a healthy, normal middle ground of kavod haTorah, warmth and caring, and boundaries. We should insist on it, even for those students we wish someone out there would “fix.”

    [YA – For those who didn’t stop to read the name associated with this comment, it belongs to one of the most gifted and talented women in chinuch in the United States.]

  26. Bob Miller says:

    It could be helpful if S. Bechhofer supplemented the useful comments above with a discussion of the methods and atmosphere of women’s seminaries that right now carry out their missions responsibly without going to extremes. Schools need balanced role models, too.

  27. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Etzbosai lamilchama: Your point seems well-taken, but how would you get people to actually do what you propose? Offhand, I would not give such a move much of a chance.

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