Awareness Center a Clearinghouse of Concern — and Controversy
By Eugene L. Meyer
January 10, 2007
New York (JTA) — There is no unabridged database of rabbinic sexual abusers. But there is the Awareness Center.
It´s not a physical place, but a Baltimore post-office box, cell-phone number and Web site — www.theawarenesscenter.org — where online surfers can find a listing of scores of Jewish clergy and hundreds of other Jewish officials in positions of trust or authority who are alleged to be sexual predators. Some of them have been convicted of crimes; some have not even been charged or sued. A roster of them can be found on the Web site at: www.theawarenesscenter.org/clergyabuse.html.
Vicki Polin, 47, is the nonprofit organization´s executive director and only full-time staffer. A licensed clinical professional counselor and an art therapist, she founded the Awareness Center in 2001 after becoming fed up over what she deemed to be inaction in bringing perpetrators to justice and protecting the public.
Her biggest weapon: exposure of alleged wrongdoers.
Polin's efforts have won her loyal supporters and harsh critics.
"Vicki´s site is very valuable," said Rabbi Yosef Blau, religious adviser at Yeshiva University and a vocal advocate for victims of rabbinic sexual abuse and other forms of sexual misconduct. "Since you can´t get people arrested and there are no court cases, you have to use a standard that´s reasonable and [disclosure] works in that context."
The Awareness Center´s outing of alleged and confirmed abusers has inspired an army of Jewish bloggers eager to discuss the topic. Their anonymous postings appear on Web sites such as the Unorthodox Jew, the Canonist, Jewishwhistleblower.blogspot.com and Lukeford.net.
"In the Orthodox community it is much harder to be heard, so people go online instead of going to police and the rabbi," said a woman now living in Israel who reported being abused as a child by her father, an American rabbi who is principal of an Orthodox school on the Eastern seaboard. "The blogs are safe for survivors."
The Awareness Center and the bloggers not only have brought this sensitive subject to the attention of a wide audience, they have also stirred up considerable controversy over issues of fairness, attribution and transparency.
"The blogorai, as I call it, is the new way of making irresponsible accusations," charged Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the fervently Orthodox advocacy organization Agudath Israel. "Using a blog is a very easy and effective way of casting aspersions on people."
Blau said blogs are a mixed blessing.
"Since they are anonymous, they can say almost anything," he said. "On the other hand, until the community is more willing to deal with issues, I can understand why writers won´t reveal their identity."
One blog-intensive case listed on the Awareness Center site involves Mordechai Tendler, a disgraced modern Orthodox rabbi from Rockland County, N.Y., who was accused of having illicit sexual relationships with several women who had come to him for counsel.
The charismatic scion of distinguished rabbinic scholars, Tendler ironically was known as a strong advocate for Jewish women who were unable to obtain a get, or religious release from marriage, from their husbands.
Tendler was expelled from the Rabbinical Council of America in March 2005 for "conduct inappropriate for an Orthodox rabbi." The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance praised the RCA "for taking these issues seriously and instituting formal procedures to deal with them." Those procedures included hiring a Texas-based private investigative firm to conduct a probe of the matter and convening an in-house ethics panel to rule on the case.
In April, Tendler was fired from the congregation he had helped establish in the mid-1980s, Kehillat New Hempstead. Undaunted, he held High Holiday services this year in a public elementary school directly across the street from his former shul.
Tendler, married and the father of eight, has consistently denied the allegations against him, but did not respond to inquiries from JTA seeking comment. His attorney, Glen Feinberg, said his client retains a large following in Rockland County. JTA asked Feinberg to encourage Tendler´s supporters to contact JTA, but none did.
The scandal has spawned at least three lawsuits, including one filed by Tendler against his former congregation for alleged breach of contract. That suit has been dismissed, but the ruling is being appealed. The litigation filed against Tendler has publicized the sort of matters that once would have only been whispered about in private.
For example, a lawsuit filed in December 2005 by former congregant Adina Marmelstein states that Tendler, who portrayed himself as "a counselor and advisor with expertise in women´s issues," advised Marmelstein to have sex with him so that "her life would open up and men would come to her," and she would then marry and have children.
The suit also claims that Tendler told Marmelstein that he "was as close to God as anyone could get" and that he "was the Messiah." And when the relationship ended, the suit contends, Tendler encouraged congregants to "harass, threaten and intimidate" Marmelstein in an apparent attempt to discredit her accusations.
As for Tendler, his legal filings included petitions submitted in Ohio and California seeking to force the disclosure of the identities of anonymous bloggers who had been attacking him publicly for his alleged conduct. But he withdrew both petitions.
In the California case, a judge ruled Oct. 12 that Tendler must pay the bloggers´ legal fees — a decision that was praised by attorney Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen, who represented three of the bloggers involved in the case.
"The right to criticize anonymously on the Internet is a fundamental free-speech right and an important tool for whistle-blowers and consumers who speak out about the misconduct or corruption of big companies or public figures," Levy said in a press release.
A letter from Tendler to the judge who had ruled in the California case was posted Nov. 15 on a victims´ advocacy blog. In the letter, Tendler asked the judge to reconsider his decision on attorney´s fees, adding: "I have been the subject of a concerted and constant Internet campaign to destroy my reputation, livelihood, and family. Disgusting allegations of sexual impropriety, all of them false, have been circulated about me and amplified in such horrific proportions as only can happen on the Internet. These allegations and threats have, in fact, destroyed my reputation as a rabbi and teacher and have caused me hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in actual and future damages."
The letter described the bloggers as being "like poisonous snakes" who "want to continue to do their damage and spread their filthy vicious lies with no accountability."
The Awareness Center, also known as the Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault, has its own confidentiality policy regarding victims of sexual misconduct and others.
"As a victim advocate, I never name the survivors," Polin said.
The Awareness Center no longer names its board members, either, "due to harassment," according to Polin, who said she herself has been threatened repeatedly with physical harm and once was spat on by a woman who was angry over an Awareness Center disclosure.
In 2003, Polin said, a supporter of an alleged abuser named on her site did background checks on her advisory board members, "found something about them or someone they cared about and threatened to make it public." Half a dozen resignations ensued, she said.
Among those who were formerly listed but resigned for other reasons is Rabbi Mark Dratch, who chairs the Rabbinical Council of America´s Task Force on Rabbinic Improprieties and has founded the organization JSafe to deal with sexual abuse in the Jewish community.
Dratch said he left the Awareness Center board in "disagreement with [Polin] on the standards required for publishing on her Web site. I wasn´t satisfied with the threshold of verification. There are people who´ve been victimized and others who´ve been subject to false reports also being victimized. The big problem we have in this area is verifying the allegations and moving forward."
As of early December, the Awareness Center site still listed 236 "supportive rabbis." Polin said more than 500 people receive her e-mail alerts, and the Web page averages around 35,000 visitors per month.
One of the e-mail recipients is Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union and a trained psychologist.
"I read everything with a grain of salt," he said. "On the other hand," Weinreb said, the Awareness Center and the blogs "have served the purpose of keeping this in the public spotlight and keeping the pressure on established institutions to police their constituencies."
As of late December, the Awareness Center was in danger of closing for lack of funds, according to Polin, who was seeking donations to keep the organization afloat.
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