Communal complicity

Communal complicity

When good people make bad mistakes

Rabbi Shmuel Krawatsky
Rabbi Shmuel Krawatsky

Last week’s investigative report in these pages focused on Rabbi Steven (Shmuel) Krawatsky, the Baltimore educator alleged to have sexually abused three young boys in his charge at a Jewish day camp in the summer of 2015. But the subtext of New York Jewish Week staff writer Hannah Dreyfus’ deeply reported account is the continuing failure of our organizations and institutions to deal effectively with child abuse on a communal level.

Pledges of zero tolerance, and policies to protect innocent children are admirable, but not enough. The problem, beyond the perpetrators themselves, is that institutions are led by good people who too often make the wrong choices. Some, in the face of allegations of abuse in their midst, choose not to believe it. Some feign ignorance or look the other way. And there are those who act to protect their own group and its reputation, but fail to warn others. Such a moral meltdown leads to the perpetrator being quietly let go, only to move on to another position, another community, and continue his or her cruel activities.

These behaviors are not limited to our community, of course. Just this past week Pope Francis, who has spoken out forcefully against sexual abuse among priests, offended many Chileans during his trip to their country by defending a prominent local priest believed to have covered up sexual abuses by fellow clergy. And here at home, more than 120 young women are giving searing testimony against the disgraced national team doctor for the U.S. gymnastics federation who abused team members for decades. He’ll go to jail for a long time, but the federation has not been held accountable for its silence. 

The question reverberates: What did they know and when did they know it?

An air of complicity hovers over some of the Baltimore Orthodox community’s leaders who, aware of serious allegations against Krawatsky, not only allowed him to continue working with children every day, but proclaimed his innocence until the very end — and perhaps beyond. 

Even after the article was posted, the educational director of the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, where the rabbi taught Judaic studies in the middle school, issued a statement that appeared to support the rabbi. 

A day later, though, she issued another statement, this one announcing Krawatsky’s immediate termination, based on information uncovered in the article. The statement asserted that the rabbi “will not be on the premises and not have any contact with our students.” It sought to assure the community that “this decision is in keeping with our school’s commitment to the safety and wellbeing of our students, which we consider to be paramount.”

Noble words, but why did it take a journalist in New York to motivate the long-overdue act in Baltimore? It seems that the decision to reinstate the rabbi at the school — following a 2016 review of the allegations by Maryland authorities — was based on the educational director’s conclusion that in her words, “[he] hasn’t been found for sure guilty.”

That sounds like an awfully low bar for allowing someone accused of abusing three boys, ages 7 and 8, back into the classroom with no further monitoring procedures.

On Monday night, the board of trustees of the school issued a statement that seemed intent on placating both Krawatsky and his critics — but mostly to remove any responsibility from Beth Tfiloh. 

The board defended the school’s handling of the Krawatsky matter from the outset “professionally, sensitively and with the utmost concern for the safety of our children.” It charged that “much” of the article published by NJJN “is incorrect and subject to question,” though it offered no details. 

But the board did not say the school would reinstate the rabbi. Rather, it said that “the explosive nature of these allegations and the associated publicity made it impossible for Rabbi Krawatsky to effectively carry out his educational duties at Beth Tfiloh.” 

If he had a blameless track record at the school for 15 years, as the school suggests, why not suspend the rabbi rather than fire him? Hire an independent, professional organization to investigate. That should have been done two years ago. Surely the burden of proof for a person working closely with our children need not be the same as for the criminal justice system. 

And why did the Orthodox Union (OU), its national special needs division, Yachad, and its youth arm, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), not respond sufficiently after allegations about Krawatsky became known?

In the wake of its Baruch Lanner scandal almost 18 years ago, NCSY instituted solid policy and behavioral standards, including background checks for those interacting with children. But it seems those procedures weren’t applied in the summer of 2016 when Krawatsky was invited as a Shabbat guest at an NCSY all-boys sleepaway camp. And the OU, so persistent in investigating member synagogues where women have clerical roles, failed to act on warnings about a rabbi and teacher suspected of being a child abuser. 

The director of the OU’s Yachad program for disabled youngsters said he notified the Beth Tfiloh school and the local synagogue where Krawatsky led a minyan for teens with disabilities. He produced no proof of such contact; the school said it wasn’t advised. (The synagogue has not responded to requests for comment.) 

As officials pass the buck or remain silent, one suspects someone isn’t telling the truth. It’s unseemly, when the stakes are so high, for our leaders to say, in effect, it’s not our responsibility.

Because protecting children is the responsibility of all of us. That’s why communal institutions need governance, clear guidelines, follow-through, transparency, and process, not just proclamations. Saying “trust us” is no longer enough, if it ever was. But it’s never too late to do the right thing, starting with acknowledging past mistakes, apologizing publicly, and being responsible, accountable — no longer complicit.

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