The following sermon was delivered by Rabbi Jesse Olitzky at Congregation Beth El during Kol Nidre services 5782/2021. The text of the sermon can be read below the video.
Content Warning: I’m going to be talking about sexual abuse this evening.
“It’s out there and it’s going to get you. You have no control over it. It will take over your life. And you will love every second of it. That which I am talking about is United Synagogue Youth. USY.”
This was the first line of a speech I gave over two decades ago when I ran for USY President. I meant every word of it. I still do. The Jewish youth group of the Conservative Movement was my entire high school experience. In a pre-social media world where Zoom, FaceTime, and video conferencing was reserved for Sci-Fi futuristic adventures, I lived from convention to convention, from Shabbaton to Shabbaton. I waited months to see some of my closest friends who lived hours away. I waited months for 72 hours of a weekend utopia, where we all felt safe, coming as we were, accessing that sacred community – a community that we created together.
Some came from small Jewish communities in different pockets of the state, but in USY, we were no longer the “token” Jews; we didn’t have to be afraid to express our Judaism proudly. USY was the place where no matter one’s popularity in High School, no matter how they fit in with the “in” crowd, they felt at home. USY was where I traveled across the country, and davened Shacharit at sunrise at the Grand Canyon. USY was where I led Kabbalat Shabbat services for the first time, ironically overlooking a Virgin Mary statue in Butte, Montana. It is with USY that I traveled to Israel and hiked up Masada. It is with USY that I chanted the words of Eicha while touching the cold Jerusalem stone of the Kotel. And it is because of USY that I became a rabbi. And I know that USY – and many other Jewish youth groups – had an important impact on so many of our members – in fact, many of you I’ve known since USY!
It is because of that impact of USY, and our growing teen community, that we have hired our first full-time Teen Program Coordinator, Talia Feldman, to work exclusively with adolescent congregants, to build meaningful relationships with them. Because we believe in the power of teen programming. We believe in the power of youth groups. We understand that it is often a teenager’s Jewish experiences that they have, rather than those in preschool or elementary school, that shape them. It’s those experiences one has when they are a teenager and begin making decisions for themselves that make or break them. It’s those very experiences that made me. And yet, reflecting on the news about USY over the past month, I am broken.
Last month, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Jordan Soffer, was quoted in an article that subsequently made the rounds in Jewish and non-Jewish media publications, an article that went viral on social media. He mentioned how much he loved USY and still does. Like me, he mentioned how in high school it was his life, how he wouldn’t want to do anything to hurt the organization. He talked about how he contacted the organization for years to make complaints, but when they went unanswered and were swept under the rug, he finally spoke out as a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a longtime USY staff member.
Rabbi Soffer is one of dozens who have come forward in recent weeks to acknowledge that they too are survivors of sexual abuse, victims of the same predator who staffed USY functions for decades. I know many who have since reached out to me and let me know that they are survivors of such sexual abuse, some victims of the same predator. And I weep.
I weep for the victims, for their fear and sense of betrayal, and for their hesitation of coming forward over the past decades. I weep for those who did come forward and had such accounts of abuse swept under the rug, not acknowledged, or tried to quote-unquote be handled behind the scenes. I weep that at times, USY turned a blind eye to the predatory acts of some, and at other times, actively dismissed and denied the wrongdoings of others.
In a post #MeToo world, where so many brave souls have stood up and spoken out about their experiences with sexual abuse and assault, I can’t help but wonder how USY and United Synagogue, how our sacred institutions, continued to allow for such predators to be hired time and time again. And I wonder, as an eighteen year old youth leader, was I complicit, refusing to believe the rumors concerning certain staff members?
I remember when I was elected USY International President. A rabbi pulled me aside and told me some of the most important advice that has stayed with me in my rabbinate: remember to teach Torah, he said. More than membership numbers, or cool programming ideas, it is the Torah that you teach that stays with people. So here goes:
In Parashat Vayishlach, right in the middle of the story of Jacob’s sons, we read about his daughter mentioned in the Torah, Dinah. And in the Torah, we learn that Shechem, son of Hamor, sees Dinah and sexually assaults her; he rapes her.
Vayishkav otah vay’a’neha. And he lied with her, oppressively, afflicting pain on her and weakening her. Three verses later, Jacob returns and is informed of the abuse and assault that his daughter was victim to:
V’Yaakov Shama ki Ti’meh et-Dinah vito u’vanav hayi et-Miknehu ba’sadah, v’he’cherish Yaakov (Gen. 34:5). Jacob heard that his daughter was assaulted, but his sons were in the field with cattle, and Jacob remained silent.
Jacob’s silence is deafening and disturbing. He is opting to ignore the sexual abuse and assault of his daughter because it doesn’t fit his narrative, but it deeply defines Jacob and defines us as well. Dr. Ellen Frankel acknowledges that Dinah is silent in the entire Torah, never speaking a single word, and she equates her silence to her father’s. When no one believed her, stood up for her, or spoke up for her, she gave up on trying to speak up for herself. The same way Jacob refuses to speak up and stand with his daughter, a victim of abuse, we too, the organization Jewish community have failed to do so. After all, we are B’nai Yisrael, Jacob’s descendants, guilty of the same silence.
We too have refused to stand with victims, choosing to prop up predators because of their influence or name recognition. Rabbi Soffer acknowledged that he was not participating in a lawsuit, for monetary damages was not his goal. He was looking for a public reckoning for USY. He wanted to understand how an organization could continue to employ an alleged abuser and allow them to have access to its adolescent members and then after explicitly being notified of these allegations four years ago, have that individual continue to work at a United Synagogue-affiliated congregation. He wanted to understand why – and how – an institution could remain silent like Jacob.
Jacob is cowardly. This is the same biblical character that, when he thought his brother brought an army to him to seek revenge, sent his concubines and their children – essentially those family members he loved least – to the front lines. He was silent when he daughter was raped. Later, in Genesis 35:22, he finds that one of his many wives Bilha had been sexually assaulted and raped. The Torah tells us that he hears what happened, but nothing else. There is no immediate reaction.
This silence is not unique to USY. And it is also not unique to Jewish institutions. It has plagued other faith groups, including and especially the Vatican itself, and other youth organizations like Boy Scouts. We must confront how our institutions have been far too silent. It may be out of fear of turning away those who put their trust in our institutions. But silence does not comfort us. We cannot put trust in that silence. It only ends up doing further damage – to the victims of such abusive behavior and to the institutions as a whole. Al Chet Sh’chatanu lefanecha. We have sinned against you in our silence.
On this holiest of days, we acknowledge our mistakes. So let us say it here, we as an organized Jewish community have failed to keep our children, adolescents, and adult members safe. And we – the collective way – have all too often chosen the path of silent complacency.
It should not be up to the bravery and courage of survivors to come forward. It should be up to us to protect them.
In the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, we say U’v’shofar Gadol Titaka, v’kol demama daka, the great shofar will be sounded and the still small voice will be heard. While this is initially meant to be a theological statement, that we must look for God in the silence, I believe it to be an ethical statement as well. We must speak up and stand up so that we don’t have to depend on victims to do so. And when they are brave enough to do so, we believe them.
Teshuvah is hard work. We are taught that during these days of awe that, prior to doing Teshuvah, we must first do Cheshbon Hanefesh, an accounting of the soul that does not merely promise to be better in the future but acknowledges the transgressions of the past and asks for forgiveness. We must do this Teshuvah not just as individuals, but as community. May that introspection call on all of us, including and especially the organizations and institutions we depend on to shape our souls and guide us on our Jewish journeys, to do Teshuvah. I want to believe in these institutions. They shaped me. And shaped so many of us. I want them to shape our children as well. But in order to do that, they – and we the Jewish community – must do Teshuvah. We ask forgiveness for our unknowing silence and commit to elevate the voices of the oppressed.
Prior to recited the words of the Kol Nidre, we chanted these words – three times in fact to ensure their authority and prominence – By the authority of the heavenly court on high and the earthly court below, with consent of the Holy One, God, and consent of the community. We acknowledge that power and authority that we have as community to make a difference. We begin Yom Kippur by not just turning to God and asking God for forgiveness. We turn to each other. And we understand and acknowledge that we have the power to make change, to right wrongs, and to hold those who have done wrong accountable. Even when we pour our hearts out to God, we do not expect God to be the One to make the necessary changes to build a safe community. We must do that. The Yeshivah shel Mata, as our liturgy says. The court of public opinion must do that. We must be the voices to ensure that our youth groups, camps, schools, synagogues, and institutions are safe. Only then, can they truly be sacred. May we do the necessary work this year, the Yeshiva shel mala and yeshiva shel mata, us along with God, to build a Kehillah Kedosha, a sacred and safe space, for everyone. Gmar Chatima Tova.