La Croix International [France]
March 24, 2023
By Héloïse de Neuville
Two independent journalists in France are using podcasts to report the findings of an unprecedented six-months-long investigation into sexual violence committed by rabbis of the country’s Orthodox Jewish community,
Salomé Parent-Rachdi and Lila Berdugo, who released the first podcast this past Wednesday, said they wanted to go beyond individual cases and look at the mechanisms within the community – such as the institutional silence or omertà – that has allowed the abuse to take place.
“It was my father, my God, my rabbi, my guru”
The first podcast, titled “Thou shalt not be silent”, identified three French Orthodox rabbis who have been guilty, in recent years, of sexual violence and spiritual control over Jewish women or those in the process of converting to Judaism.
The investigation is particularly interested in the actions of a former rabbi who served in communities in Aix-en-Provence and Grenoble. A professed feminist and progressive, he used his position as a religious leader to engage in sexual relations with at least three women.
The testimonies from his alleged victims are similar: they were all going through a period of personal fragility and they put all their trust in him as a spiritual guide.
“Family man, educated… He represented everything I imagined a good man to be. He was my father, my God, my rabbi, my guru,” says Deborah, whose testimony on social media in 2020 prompted another woman named Hélène to come forward.
A few years ago, the latter – now 40 – went through a period of extreme fragility after the death of her mother. The Grenoble rabbi became her “lifeline” in her misfortune.
“Very quickly, he became the only person around me, he showed me a lot of empathy and kindness,” says Hélène, a Catholic who is trying to reconnect with the Jewish origins of her grandfather.
In the podcast, she describes the “trap” of the hold that closed in on her when the rabbi convinced her that his sexual solicitations were the result of his affection for her.
“Fear of playing into the hands of antisemitism”
Beyond the cases of the rabbis involved, the two journalists wanted to investigate the “systemic” aspects of sexual violence in the Jewish community. How is it that after a first sexual case known to the regional consistory of Aix-en-Provence, the rabbi implicated by the podcast was moved to Grenoble, with the only injunction being to undergo a few psychotherapy sessions? Why are women who are victims of domination and sexual violence by a rabbi always afraid to speak out and denounce what has happened?
The investigators identify several factors that are conducive to the Jewish community’s omertà on these subjects.
“One of the first things that prevent victims from speaking out is the fear of playing into the hands of antisemitism and harming the community,” Lila Berdugo, the journalist, explains.
In fact, Janine Elkouby, a Jewish professor of literature and president of an association in Strasbourg that fosters Jewish-Christian relations, was herself accused of giving grist to the mills of antisemitism in 2020 when she published an open letter entitled “Predatory Rabbis… sexual abuse and silence”.
She denounced numerous cases of abuse. One was of a rabbi who was convicted of “sexual assault” and recently sentenced to two years in prison with a suspended sentence and banned from professional activity for ten years. Elkouby pointed out, despite this, he “continues today to practice in Marseille, with the blessing of the Consistory”.
She also revealed that a rabbi accused of “pedophilia” is currently director of a rabbinical court. And she reported that a rabbi in Greater Paris who allegedly took advantage of his position within his community to abuse a dozen young women continues to enjoy a very honorable place within the Consistory…
The experience of CIASE as a guide
It is following the publication of Elkouby’s letter, France’s chief rabbi, Haïm Korsia, created a commission in the Consistory of France on sexual violence. It met for the first time in the summer of 2022.
On the podcast, he tells the two journalists on much the country’s Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (CIASE) influenced his decision to set up the commission of the Jewish community.
“Having been interviewed by CIASE, I could see the suffering of the Catholic institution which had not understood the extent of the phenomenon of sexual violence within it,” he explains. “I said to myself that I had to create something similar to CIASE, so that this message would not come too late, and to send a signal to the Jewish community in France.”
The chief rabbi will likely be confirmed in his commitment to form the commission after seeing the other serious problems the two journalists discovered. They include the lack of training in affectivity in French rabbinical seminaries and the aversion to “lachon hara”. This Hebrew expression, which means “language of evil”, refers to the sin of gossip. It is particularly hated in Judaism, but it leads people to refrain from speaking negatively about others, even if what they say is true.
“We are moving towards a liberation of speech, but we are only at the beginning,” say the two journalists, who hope that their investigation will advance freedom of speech on these issues in Orthodox communities.