Of Sexual Abuse, Yeshiva, and Teshuva by Yosef Kanefsky

Between September 1977 and June 1981 I attended Yeshiva University High School,  commonly known as MTA. During that time Rabbi George Finkelstein was the principal, and Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm  – a once and forever hero of American Orthodoxy – was the President of the University.. I of course knew during those years, that there were certain students whom Rabbi Finkelstein aggressively invited into his office to “wrestle” with him. I  “of course” knew, because everybody knew. Everybody already knew about it in the years before I got to MTA, and everybody continued to know about it in the years following.

For 30 years after graduating MTA I never thought about any of this, until this past December when the stories of what we now call sexual abuse – committed by Rabbi Finkelstein and one other faculty member – were detailed in the Daily Forward. Also detailed by the Forward was Rabbi Lamm’s eventual decision to quietly dismiss the abusers, without either reporting anything to the police, or telling their subsequent employers about what he knew. The months that followed the Forward’s revelations brought only half-apologies and mumbled rationalizations from YU. But this past Monday, Rabbi Dr. Lamm, now 85 and in failing health,  resigned as university chancellor, and spoke at length about the scandal in his resignation remarks. A few representative sentences:

“At the time that inappropriate actions by individuals at Yeshiva were brought to my attention, I acted in a way that I thought was correct, but which now seems ill conceived. [I submitted to] momentary compassion in according individuals the benefit of the doubt by not fully recognizing what was before [me]. And when this happens—one must do teshuvah. So, I too must do teshuvah. True character requires of me the courage to admit that, despite my best intentions then, I now recognize that I was wrong.”

I am writing about this today neither to applaud Rabbi Lamm for his honesty and courage, – although such applause is appropriate – nor to point out what was missing from his statement – which spokespeople for the victims have already quite correctly  done.  I am writing rather, in order to open the question as to how it hapenned that an entire generation of MTA students – including me – failed to speak up about what we knew was happening (even if we didn’t yet have the vocabulary to describe it)?  And even more to the point, how is it that faculty members –  our teachers! – as well as members of the administration remained silent, never raising their voices? Why did we remain silent, and what responsibility do we have now?

There are surely at least a half-dozen different explanations that can be offered for why people remain silent in the face of these kinds of things. They range from fear of ridicule or even reprisal, to apathy and indifference to the problems of others. But there is also our  deep-seated  – and not incorrect – belief in the vital importance of our basic religious institutions, and the tradition, stability, and reassurance that they provide. Consciously or perhaps sub-consciously, we are afraid to do something that might destabilize the couriers of  our faith and identity, the shepherds of our historical continuity. Which is why we have a long-standing  habit of overlooking institutional flaws and even misdeeds, in the name of preserving stability and continuity.

My father, my sister, all 4 of my brothers-in-law, my son and I are all graduates of one or more YU school. Every single member of the Modern Orthodox community is directly or indirectly a beneficiary of YU, its educational vision, and the services it provides.  We all owe a historic debt of gratitude to the institution, and to Rabbi Lamm in particular.  Which is precisely the reason why there are people, even as the investigation is going on, who feel that the most important thing to do is to continue to protect the institution. And which is undoubtedly why there were so many who remained silent back in the 70’s and 80’s when Rabbi Finkelstein’s bizarre behavior was a completely open secret within the school. But what must be obvious to us now is that it is both folly in practical terms, and corrupt in spiritual terms to think that we are in any way strengthening Judaism through turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the cries of the innocent. Indeed, if Judaism means anything at all, only the precise opposite could possibly be true. Rabbi Lamm, in his final act of leadership, opened this discussion. It is upon all of us to continue it.

I have come to realize that as a schoolmate of many of the victims I have my own teshuva to do as well. It is my hope and intentions to begin organizing my MTA classmates, not God forbid to bash our alma mater, but to communicate to the University that it still has the opportunity to model for the Orthodox world how an institution investigates itself and how it cares for the victims of its past failures. And to organize my classmates to offer our own apology to those whose distress we ignored.

If you are an MTA alum, and would like to join me in this, please email me at yosefkanefsky@gmail.com

13 Responses to Of Sexual Abuse, Yeshiva, and Teshuva by Yosef Kanefsky

  1. Yasher Koach. You are a mentch among men. I am a YUHSGB graduate and it pains me to hear that my alma mater has caused such damage to the boys division while we were so lucky to have received such support and encouragement.

    I believe you have the right attitude. One cannot blame only the head of a school. Everyone that knows about a crime has the same obligation to NOT keep quiet and just stand by and allow it to happen. Bystanders are an accomplice to a crime. They are obligated to do what they can to stop it. Of course as children one cannot expect you to realize that at the time. Unless of course you were taught that in Gemara classes.

    At any case recognizing that now is extremely appropriate and I want to acknowledge that and ecourage all alumni who knew about this to stand up.for righteousness and justice. Stand up for the victims today because you were not mature enough to do so back then. You surely can offer them the support they sorely need and teach the administration that it is never too late to do teshuva. The entire board and administration should follow Rabbi Lamm’s lead and do teshuva.

  2. “And to organize my classmates to offer our own apology to those whose distress we ignored.” As father of a victim in Australia who went public, I commend you.

  3. Zephaniah Waks says:

    “to organize my classmates to offer our own apology to those whose distress we ignored”. As father of a victim in Australia who went public, I commend you. Apart from easing the pain of the victim, every bit of public, non-anonymous support for victims and their families helps counteract the still strong forces of evil and coverup. See our fun and games here http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/features/the-shunned/story-e6frg8h6-1226645236603

  4. Bat Sheva says:

    As usual, thoughtful, and thought-provoking and beautifully expressed. But I think you underestimate the fact that “we had no vocabulary to describe it.” It is like blaming a tinok shenishba, a child who has no context or understanding.

    Thank G-d, we live today in a world that has evolved to the point where there is a a vocabulary and a standard of behavior that people can articulate. Looking back, hindsight is always 20/20 but I’m not sure you can assign blame (or forget blame — just understanding) for behavior that was outside of the realm of comprehensible to those of us who were high school students during those years.

  5. Ken Sperber says:

    Yes to this and t’shuva is important. But repairing the past is only part of t’shuva. The future must be repaired as well. It is *unconscionable* and a *distortion* of halacha and Torah to boot that Lo Ta’amod al Dam Rei-echa is not taught and modeled. Clearly. Unambiguously. “Do not stand idly and/or quietly by ‘on the blood of’ your comrade.” Being an “upstander,” as my children are being taught in their Jewish Day School, is not merely virtuous. It is *required.* It is *inconceivable* that *anyone* would *ever* think institutional loyalty trumps this clear Torah edict. Lo ta’amod al dam rei-echa. But it *was* thought, and it all too often is *still* thought, that maybe it does, because the very top of the educational hierarchy–Normal Lamm himself!–thought it. In many cases thinks it still. Now he comes to correct the thought. Good. But with all respect, not *nearly* good enough. 1) The educational messaging has to be *completely* transformed at *every* level of this and all of our institutions as necessary. And 2), again with all respect, R. Lamm must answer for his crimes. Knowingly shielding a predatory pedophile is not addressed merely with an “oops, sorry. Bygones.” These are acts for which the actors–*and the institution itself*–should be called to answer *in court*–civil as well as criminal though there is probably an idiotic statute of limitations that shields everyone from most if not all consequences of their actions. Everyone, that is, except the victims. I believe this for the Catholic Church and I believe it for us. We are not special *unless* we act special. This episode is nothing short of *disgusting* and it is the stuff of nightmares to consider the probable number of victims involved. The number of boys who were *Molested.* *Fondled.* *Raped.* *Sodomized.* The words sting pretty bad. But those are the words. What now? What, exactly, does “t’shuva” even mean?

  6. Adam says:

    Very well said. You were quiet because it didn’t happen to you. The same reason why for 30 years students of Rav Aron Bina at Netiv Aryeh (formerly of Yeshivat Hakotel) remained silent while Bina emotionally abused other students. Calling them gay, fat, shvartze, etc. (http://binaabuse.wordpress.com). Kicking students out on the first day just to show the other students he has power. Where is the oversight in these yeshivot? Who in our community, besides Gary Rosenblatt from the Jewish Week has shown any backbone in holding these “spiritual” leaders accountable.

  7. Ron says:

    Adam – were you there? Could it be that Yosef had no idea anything really wrong was going on? I was there the same years that he was. I knew he ‘wrestled’ with and joked around with some students but had no idea there was anything blatantly sexual or inappropriate going on so why would I say anything. 30 years later complaints are coming out of the woodwork. Why now? Were you aware of students that suffered silently but were afraid to speakup? Something that does bother me is that after Rabbi Lamm summed up a 60 year career of amazing accomplishment in a farewell letter to his ‘community’ he felt compelled to apologize and did; one paragraph in 9 pages and one incident in 60 years. When the NYTimes decided that that was the one point worthy of a news story I dismissed it. But when rabbi after rabbi focuses on that one paragraph of his farewell letter in their public comments I think something is wrong with us and our priorities.

    • Ken Sperber says:

      “Could it be that Yosef had no idea anything really wrong was going on?”

      Funny you should ask that question. Perhaps we should allow R. Kanefsky himself to answer it, as he already has in the first paragraph of the article you are ostensibly commenting on.

      “I of course knew during those years, that there were certain students whom Rabbi Finkelstein aggressively invited into his office to “wrestle” with him. I “of course” knew, because everybody knew. Everybody already knew about it in the years before I got to MTA, and everybody continued to know about it in the years following.”

      “But when rabbi after rabbi focuses on that one paragraph of his farewell letter in their public comments I think something is wrong with us and our priorities.”

      Couldn’t disagree more. That we are finally insisting that when this paragraph exists it demands our complete and undivided attention and effectively pushes all else to the background tells us that something is, at long long last, finally *right* with us and our priorities. Where sexual abuse of children is taking place, nothing else matters. I don’t care how much “wonderful things” is going on. There is no “yeah, but. . .” in responding to the sexual abuse of children.

  8. Efraim Gotthelf says:

    The Forward article said that George used to wrestle with boys and one said he got a hard-on, safely within the confines of his pants, while doing so. Is that criminal?
    Don’t get me wrong. It’s creepy as all hell. And I think that anyone who wrestles with teenage boys should be checked out – not because everyone who wrestles with boys is a pervert, but because if I were a pervert I would seriously consider becoming a boys’ wrestling coach. So, ridiculously creepy. But criminal?

    The other fellow, Macy Gordon, allegedly broke the law when practicing his odd version of anal hygiene or whatever he was doing when he shoved a toothbrush up a kid’s tuchus. That wasn’t as well known as George’s wrestling, though, which every MTA kid ever knew about and thought was creepy and strange, not criminal.

    Thus, Rabbi Kanefsky, you and your classmates are hereby absolved of feeling any sort of faux-guilt or sanctimony about these episodes, baruch Hashem.

    The student body’s lowest moment thus remains the 1993 Salute to Israel parade, when YU threatened to boycott if an LGBT synagogue participated, the latter lined the parade chanting, “YU, shame on you!” and the students responded with a robust chant of “MTA, we’re not gay.”

    Which, when you think about it, is pretty ironic.

  9. Steve Wagner says:

    Ron-I was there from 1973-1977, and was one of the “chosen” invited to the office for wrestling and punching. I, along with another of the “chosen,” also was invited to Rabbi Finkelstein’s home for Shabbos. And I want to make it clear. It was weird and creepy, and from a current perspective, completely inappropriate, but, in my experience, it was not sexual. When the news broke a few months ago, I spoke at length with my friends from that era. We were pretty much in the same chevra (on the various teams, etc.) and we all saw it the same way. It was not sexual (and no, I am not in denial. I was there and know what happened). How far do we take this? One revered rebbe in RIETS adopted the Lithuanian custom of kissing talmidim when they came to say good-bye. That also was weird for us in the 70s, early 80s, but no-one would accuse this saintly man of abuse. Other Rabbeim did tzitzis checks. Again, weird and creepy, but not sexual. Rabbi Finkelstein was wrong, and he has admitted that. But there is a reason why for 30 years Rabbi Kanefsky did not think anything of it. Not because he wasn’t a “victim.” I was, and I didn’t think about it for almost 40 years. Because it was weird and creepy, and we go through many weird and creepy periods in our lives. But it was not sexual abuse. I do wholeheartedly agree with Ken’s point that we need to be upstanding and look forward, and assure that this type of behavior is eradicated. But let’s not blow it out of proportion. Two caveats: One, I have no comment regarding the other accused teacher. Two, I fully realize that other people who were called into the office feel differently and I do not question those feelings. As we are all victims of our experiences, I speak only for me.

  10. Ron says:

    Ken – Can I assume you were at MTA in those years? We will have to wait for the law suit to see if there is more than Rabbi Kinefsky, I and my friends recall but I think you are badly exaggerating. A pedophile is one who wants to or engages in sexual acts with prebuscent boys. As a physician you know that was not going on in our HS by anyone. I don’t know where you came up with “*Molested.* *Fondled.* *Raped.* *Sodomized.* ” but I am not aware of any of the ‘favorite students’ of the assistant principal of my era that were raped, molested or sodomized. I am thinking you have some teshuva to do.

  11. Ron says:

    I wondered ‘why now after 30 years’? Now I understand http://forward.com/articles/180007/former-yu-high-school-students-file-m-suit-cla/
    1) the Forward wants make hay by besmirching the ‘oldest and largest Orthodox Jewish institution in the USA’ AND
    2) There is money to be made.

  12. Sammy Zimmerman says:

    I fully agree with my dear friend and MTA classmate Steven Wagner on this. He articulated my feelngs precisely

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