In 2010, well-known religious Zionist rabbi Mordechai (Moti) Elon was accused by the religious forum Takana of forcible sexual acts on young men who approached him for counseling. Last December, Elon was convicted and sentenced to six months of community service.
It’s hard to imagine the shock within the community when the events were revealed. The national religious public revered Elon. He started a movement called Mibereshit, which published weekly pamphlets featuring stories, games and quizzes with versions for younger and older children. (Here is my take on one of the stories.) The movement attracted many from outside the community, and offered rallies and study sessions. I brought my kids to a weekly Mibereshit study session at a nearby synagogue for a year or so. Our school encouraged using the sheets, and Elon came and held a huge rally. His weekly classes at Bar-Ilan University on the Torah portion attracted hundreds, if not thousands.
After his conviction, Elon continued to give a weekly class at the Ohr Etzion yeshiva. A small group of protestors headed by Emunah Klein visited the yeshiva each week holding signs in protest. As a convicted sex offender, Elon is not allowed to work at institutions that serve minors. However, Ohr Etzion is a post high-school yeshiva even though some students may be under 18 and prospective students have visited and attended Elon’s class. For the last several months, the class has not taken place. The yeshiva did not make an official announcement and refused to answer questions, so we don’t know why it was canceled.
Rabbi Druckman, Elon’s boss at Ohr Etzion and the current head of Bnei Akiva institutions in Israel, is not the only one who continues to believe in Elon’s innocence. To an outsider it must seem incomprehensible. Why take a risk that this teacher could harm young people? After all, he was convicted in court. And the Takana forum, made up of prominent leaders and professionals from his own community, concluded that the complaints had basis and reported that Elon confessed to them that he had sexual contact with young men who had come to him for counseling.
In order to believe that Elon is innocent, you would need to be convinced that all of the members of Takana were lying about his confession. You would also have to explain to yourself young religious men would undergo the humiliation of testifying in court against such a powerful leader, if the abuse hadn’t really happened.
So why do so many continue to defend Alon?
I’ve heard all kinds of excuses. The victims were all over 18. He’s sorry for what he did. The victims misinterpreted his actions. All the good he’s done outweighs his crimes. If he committed them, of course. Who can believe the secular court anyway?
But surely his personal charisma is the largest factor. During his long career, he cultivated connections. This Maariv article describes how he kept contact with former students for years and years, stayed to answer dozens of questions after his Bar-Ilan class, and gave individual attention to needy students who remembered him forever. But engendering trust and popularity is the flip side of a sex offender. When so many people love and admire you, you get more space to operate. People send you victims to “counsel” because you are warm and sensitive and give generously of your time. When you do something suspicious, they give you the benefit of the doubt. And when their doubts become stronger, they fear that if they speak out, others won’t believe them. Successful molesters choose victims least likely to file a complaint because a) they have something to hide, b) they don’t have a strong family to back them up or c) they feel insecure or guilty.
Many in the national religious community have family ties with Elon. And pity for his wife and children also keeps people quiet.
Finally, Elon’s professional connections within the rabbinate caused many leaders to hesitate before speaking out against him. How many people has Elon hired over the years? Even after his confession to the entire Takana forum, Takana sent him out of town where he continued to teach and make connections. The forum waited for four years, until other victims came forward, before publicizing his actions.
You can see some of the issues at work in this letter sent to Rino Zror, an Israeli journalist, from a mother of one of Elon’s victims.
Thanks to reader Edit Molot for the translation. The letter first appeared in the Facebook group “Support for the Victims of Rav Moti Elon”
Requesting an apology – a letter from a mother harmed by Rabbi Elon:
I am a mother of a young man, who went to consult with his teacher and mentor, and he [the rabbi] mortally harmed him – I cannot contain my feelings, after many years of living with my son’s experience, with the enormous difficulties he faces (in an admirable fashion), since his “meeting” with “Rabbi” Elon.
My son had a dilemma and turned to his rabbi for advice and asked if could speak personally with him. The rabbi immediately agreed, an appointment was made and when my son went into the rabbi’s office, the rabbi locked the door, with the false and cruel explanation that he wanted to give my son his full attention. In this way, in a closed room, the rabbi implemented his scheme. How can I be silent when a rabbi, a spiritual teacher, a wise man people turn to for advice, took advantage of a vulnerable person, for his own satisfaction and thus smashed an innocent soul – how can anyone be silent?!
It was impossible to mistake the look on my son’s face when he came home! It was clear that he had suffered a terrible incident. In spite of my insistent pleading, my son refused to tell us what had happened. He immediately went to his room and stayed there for hours. All our attempts to get him to talk, to get him help, failed. He adamantly refused to talk about what had so distressed him. After several days, during which he hardly ate, had difficulty falling asleep, hardly did anything beyond basic, necessary activities, did not see his friends and was entirely withdrawn, we appealed to him to tell us what had happened – he burst into tears and after several minutes he said he could not describe what had happened because he was certain we wouldn’t believe him. After we assured him that we would believe him, he fully revealed what had happened to him.
I will admit, despite my deep love for my son, my belief in his integrity, honesty and ethical behavior, at first I could not believe what I heard. I never thought he was lying, I had no doubt that his description was reliable and accurate, but I couldn’t correlate my extremely positive view of Rabbi Elon with the searing description of what my son told me. For this reason, I immediately asked, “Maybe you didn’t understand Rabbi Elon? Maybe he was trying to calm you down? Comfort you? To show that he cared? To show you that he was doing his all to help you?” My son didn’t answer, just gave me a pained look, as if to say: “I wish, I would also like to think so ….”
After a long pause he continued to tell us what happened. When he finished, we had no doubt about the nature of our son’s ordeal.
There are no words to describe the feeling: your desire to think it can’t possibly have happened that maybe there was a misunderstanding, maybe we’re dealing with people who are overly sensitive, and a respected and revered rabbi could not have injured our children so badly. And simultaneously: uncontrollable rage , a desire to scream , to confirm the truth , to point fingers, to demand a confession, to warn others, to cry over the end of your son’s innocence, the wounds inflicted on his very being . . .
We couldn’t sink under these unbearable feelings, we mobilized all our efforts to help our son.
After a long while, to my delight he agreed to the help of a sensitive, smart and professional psychologist (a woman) who, quite simply succeeded in lifting him out of the hell he was in and made him want to “return to life.” If there are angels in this world, she is certainly one of them. Fortunately we found a few more.
After we were sure that our son was “back on his feet” we tried to include him in telling his story so as to prevent the same thing from happening to others. But he wouldn’t do it! He flatly refused! “No one will believe you, don’t you understand?” he shouted. “Do you actually think anyone will take your word over those of the great rabbi?! They will laugh at you, denigrate, boycott, ostracize you, and besides, no one wants to hear your warning, you won’t be able to prevent anyone else’s suffering! And I’m not willing that anyone else to know what happened to me! You don’t understand how powerful he is, people will say that I think that Rabbi Elon did something to me, (of course that’s how it will be portrayed, that I’m imagining things, that I’m the screwed up one who doesn’t understand, that I’m the one in this story with the problems and it’s because of my problems that I didn’t understand that he was only trying to help me . . .) the people close to him will make sure to shut me up!” He paused for a moment, then shouted: “Promise me you’ll never talk about it with anyone! Promise me! “We promised. With heavy hearts and a lot of pain. We had no choice. I thought to myself, “If this happens to one other boy, if one other mother goes through what I went through, if one another family goes through this just because we didn’t say anything – how will I be able to live with myself?!” But, like I said, we had no choice. We promised our son because we felt if we didn’t provide assurances to our son that we would keep his secret his state would deteriorate, which thank G-d had improved due to a slow rehabilitation process and which was achieved with great effort. We promised, which is why I have to write anonymously.
One evening, many months later, a friend called me in great distress. “Have you seen the news? Have you heard what’s going on?” I asked her, “What happened?” “You don’t understand,” she continued. “On the news it said that an organization called Forum Takana issued a public statement warning that Rabbi Mordechai [Motti] Elon has not behaved in a manner in keeping with the values of morality and holiness. I have no idea what this organization is, and what they mean by this warning, but they said it had something to do with relationships with boys.” I felt like the ground was shaking beneath me, I could hardly stand, I heard my friend shouting: “Are you there? Can you hear me? What do you think? This can’t be true, right? Obviously there’s a mistake!” I couldn’t speak. I sat down. I couldn’t believe that someone else had experienced the same terrible trauma my son had, had had the courage to talk to people whom he thought could prevent further incidents and therefore decided go public with these injustices that could have been avoided.
When I learned who the Forum Takana was and I understood the rabbis behind the warning to the public, the steps to prevent Elon from harming others and why it was decided to issue a warning to the general public that evening – I was relieved. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Unfortunately, now I know in hindsight, that this was only the beginning of a long and painful process, but at that point, I felt that if there is an entity that operates according to Torah values and takes responsibility with all the inherent difficulties to eradicate evil from within us – there is hope.
However, despite our feeling of optimism, as time passed I found it harder and harder to contain the public’s reaction to the warning. I know it is my duty to mobilize all my efforts, to forgive, to forget and to move on, but – I find it hard to forgive Torah sages, heads of educational systems, who again and again ignore the cry of the victims. How am I supposed to feel when an important rabbi – one of my community’s leaders – invites a rabbi convicted of sexual assault to teach at his high school?! Have we become Sodom, that no one protests the behavior inconsistent with Torah values and basic ethics of those responsible for the education of our children?! Can there be a greater expression of lack of trust of the victims’ deep pain?!
I find it hard to forgive all those rabbis, who betrayed their responsibility to the public and remained silent, in the face of the rabbi and his associates’ responses to the warnings issued. I find it hard to look my son in the eye and continue to teach my children that Torah and mitzvoth are the path of truth, the way to be sensitive to and help others and the way that to prevent harm to them? How can I look in their eyes, given our clear expectations of them to show respect to their rabbis and scholars, leaders who advise the public to follow the path of Torah?!
With searing pain, I realize that one of answers to the prophet’s question: “Why does evil prosper?” is the public backing the wicked receive too frequently, from the nation, but particularly from those who are supposed to be leaders, to take responsibility and instead, out of fear, actively or passively support, in deed, or in silence taken for consent, the convicted criminal’s control.
I find it hard to forgive the journalists, both from the religious and secular media, who gave Elon an outlet and a public platform to publicize his explanations, which again and again injured his victims, and never once demanded a satisfactory explanation for his behavior and the charges against him.
I remember very well how I felt when I read one of national religious website of forensic analysis allegedly published before the verdict:
“Takana’s defense will show that the forum was established to deal with things that are not necessarily criminal . . . Anyway, Elon’s innocent verdict will generate widespread criticism of Forum Takana.”
I wanted to scream: “Tell me, are you crazy?! Does the Forum need a defense or the public that didn’t listen to them?! Should the criticism be for those gave their lives to uphold the Torah precept, “Do not stand by the blood of thy neighbor” in spite of the immense difficulty involved! Or for the person who consciously harmed others, again and again?! Have we completely lost our conscience? Our moral compass?!”
I want to shout, but I said nothing. I was afraid my son would hear me and feel how hard it was for me to deal with my the frustration , but my silence also stemmed from the knowledge that I acquired in recent months, that very few , if any, will hear my screams and listen.
I can’t understand how people of Torah and community leaders, educators and therapists, waited until the judge’s verdict, and only then expressed their opinions about the rabbi and his behavior, and some even after the judicial decision, kept silent. Was it not enough to hear the stern warning against a beloved and popular rabbi to form a barrier against his attempts of to silence and deny, against the man and his supporters!
I find it hard to forgive Rabbi Elon’s followers, who did everything possible and used inappropriate means to deny their leader’s actions. But even if I can understand the difficulty they had in accepting the truth, but I cannot find any virtue in the hundreds of people who attend Elon’s classes all over the country, to look into my son’s eyes and say to him and all the other victims: “We don’t believe you, even if perhaps you suffered an injustice – our hearts are numb to your suffering , we ignore your pain and continue to “learn Torah” from the person we set upon us as a leader, as one who is true to Torah values.”
How can one understand the hundreds of people around me at a wedding, where Rabbi Elon conducted the ceremony, and not one person in attendance cried out. I couldn’t believe my eyes when at the end of the ceremony, dozens of men and women, girls and boys, approached the rabbi for his blessing and his embrace.
Although I anticipated my son’s difficult reaction when I returned home from the wedding, I remained quiet when he asked, “He conducted the ceremony, right?! I told you so! He continues to lead the community with an iron fist and no one says a word, the public continues to carry him on their shoulders! See? Even after rabbis said that he’s dangerous – people don’t believe, and you wanted to warn the public?! And you thought that someone would listen to you, believe you?!”
For the pain that I feel together with my son, for the injustice done to him, specifically by a person who pretends to uphold Torah values but actually trample Torah and its values, I believe it is my duty to describe the beams of light that illuminated or path through the darkness. Even though I have never had any contact with the Forum Takana’s members, these are people of Torah who restored Torah’s glory and splendor in difficult days. For the light they spread, handling such a difficult case, I will be forever grateful to them. In addition, I feel a deep appreciation for all those men and women who boldly voiced their views, as individuals, against the harm and perpetrator, despite the public opinion which, in my opinion, supported injustice and its perpetrator.
In addition to all of these, I’m amazed and ask where did A. – the plaintiff on whose testimony the case was based – find the physical and mental courage to undertake this difficult struggle? How did he withstand the legal process, which involved clarifying his complained and that attacks directed against him, during this entire period? I don’t know the source of his strength, but, if I had the chance, I would loudly and clearly say to him: “You have no idea how much you helped my son and all the other victims, May there never be any more in the future! Your determination proved to them that you can stand up to a loved and admired personality, whom you know well, the source of your and be determined to deny him the chance to harm others, by demanding financial compensation for the harmful behavior. You have helped many people and it’s clear to me that you have prevented pain and suffering for many others. May the Almighty reward you and fulfill all your heart’s desires for good – you deserve even more!”
This is the end but it’s not over, I have shared part of what’s in my heart, hoping and praying for deep reflection, sensitivity, assistance and taking responsibility when there others among us suffer.”
Someone told me over the holiday that we are making progress. More and more people are willing to condemn sexual abuse and testify against molestors in court. But our community has a long way to go when we allow charm and charisma to blind our eyes to the intense and ongoing suffering of victims.
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