The Danger That Remains To Be Addressed
This has been a very distressing week, with the announcement about Rabbi Meir Pogrow being a serial predator. Although I haven't seen much of him in the last few years, I first met Meir and his extended family over twenty years ago, when they gave me much hospitality and help, and his ex-wife and her family are truly wonderful people. I feel immense pain for them and for all the victims.
However, while the revelations about his actions were not as wholly unsurprising as was the case with Rabbi Leib Tropper (with whom, several weeks before the revelations came out about his predatory actions, I warned that he was a dangerous manipulator), I can't say that it came as a complete shock. I first heard reports about Meir's inappropriate behavior over a decade ago. That itself, however, obviously raises a question. While these cases are complicated, and there are all kinds of factors to consider, there remains to be more light shed on why it took so long for the condemnation to appear, and how last week he could be perfectly acceptable as a maggid shiur but this week he is a rasha with whom one must not associate. (I am not saying that there aren't any good answers to this question - there may well be. But I think that, if there are good answers, they should be made known, rather than leaving it up to people to speculate.)
One very important essay about this case was written by Shayna Goldberg, an experienced seminary teacher, at The Times of Israel. It is similar to the excellent material written by Paul Shaviv about the problem of "Pied Pipers" - overly charismatic teachers who manipulate their students in harmful way. The essay is definitely worth reading in its entirety, but here is the second part:
...This is the real issue that has plagued my mind for so long. The fact that this man was never, ever fit to be an educator. The fact that knowing all the Torah in the world does not on its own make you trustworthy enough to be given a classroom’s worth of young, impressionable souls. The fact that long before anyone suspected inappropriate sexual behavior, it was glaringly clear that this person employed all kinds of unhealthy teaching methods in order to cultivate relationships with students. And the fact that no one but a few innocent teenage girls seemed to notice.
And so I want to talk about it. I want to talk about teachers who use fear and guilt frequently and indiscriminately in order to motivate and inspire. Teachers who deliberately try to alienate their students from everything they come from — their parents, families, homes, previous schools, communities, shuls, and even shul rabbis. Teachers who break students down so that they can recreate them in their own images. Teachers who cultivate groupies and are dependent on their students for self-esteem. Teachers who lack real relationships with their own peers because they are “so devoted” to their students. Teachers who teach students not to trust themselves, not to rely on their instincts, and not to listen to their inner voices.
Unfortunately, teachers like this are not uncommon, and we don’t talk enough about the damage that they do. About the fact that the rapid growth and change that they foster usually doesn’t last or, if it does, comes at a heavy price. About the fact that their students, years later, often find themselves empty and lost. About the guilty feelings that can stay with a person forever. About the relationships that are ruined in the process. And about the dependence that has been formed.
We don’t talk about it because, in the moment, the picture is so rosy. The teacher is charismatic, “his” classes are well attended, “she” is so devoted to her students, and the growth seems so exciting and real.
There are healthy and positive ways to educate and to inspire growth, whether the trajectory in mind is chareidi, “modern,” or something else. These ways are usually rooted in respect, humility, responsibility and trust.
Deeply respecting our students means wanting to understand and appreciate where they come from and who they are. It means valuing their relationships with family and friends and encouraging positive interactions as much as possible. It means wanting growth to be organic and slow, to follow a continuum and to not demand a total break with the past.
Humility includes being able to admit our own failings and limitations. It is the ability to tell our students when we don’t know something. Humility also means realizing that our way is not the only way, and that sometimes someone else might know more, or know better, or simply have a different take on things. Humility means understanding that each person is an individual; that it is important for students to cultivate and develop that individuality and not suppress it; and that the goal is not to create miniature versions of ourselves.
Responsibility is required with regard to the teaching methods that are employed. Fear and guilt work effectively for inspiring quick change, but, in the long run, they often lead to self-doubt, resentment, and depression. Responsibility means being honest about the ups and downs of life. It means describing hard moments that might arise and preparing students to deal with them. It means letting our students know that we also have challenges, questions, struggles and doubts. Teaching with responsibility means having patience, because real growth is a process that takes a long time. It means understanding that in order for something to be truly internalized, a student needs to work hard to make it that way.
Finally, we should educate our students to develop trust in themselves. Trust in their ability to think, to weigh things, and to make good decisions. Trust to pay attention to their gut and to notice when something doesn’t feel right. We should trust that our students are good at heart and want to do the right thing. And we should not betray their trust when they come forward with a concern, but should listen very, very closely to what they are telling us.
Even if we want to disagree about what exactly constitutes a healthy education, let’s at least agree on what does not.
I hope that in the wake of this scandal, we don’t just talk about one outed, sick educator and then move on as if everything were okay. Let us not get so distracted by the outrageous details that we forget what was so grossly inexcusable about his conduct as a teacher, even had he never touched anyone.
People like this are facilitated by an educational culture that celebrates and rewards brilliant and charismatic figures, despite the fact that they are often highly problematic and leave silent trails of ruin in the shadows of their successes.
As a community, we can be aware of this and do a lot to change it. Our schools, administrators, and lay leaders can think, and think again, about our educational goals and about the healthy ways in which to help our students reach them. And, in the event that there are staff members whose behavior is wholly inconsistent with our conclusions, then it’s time that we put our children’s well-being first.
Let’s talk about that.
I truly hope that this message sinks in, because it is a very serious problem. Furthermore, while Mrs. Goldberg discusses cases where staff members are manipulative and dangerous to their students, that can potentially be addressed by other staff members and by the heads of the institution. What about when the head of the institution himself is a deeply problematic person? I remember, after the brouhaha several years ago regarding charges about problems with Rav Bina's educational approach, a friend of mine, who knew Rav Bina very well, told me that while all the reports were true, they pale into insignificance compared to a certain other Rosh Yeshivah in Jerusalem. He explained to me that at least with Rav Bina, there are other staff members who temper his approach, but with this other Rosh Yeshivah, his exceedingly manipulative and emotionally abusive approach is not only vastly more harmful than that of Rav Bina, but it is untempered by any other faculty members, who are all devoted chasidim of this Rosh Yeshivah and who amplify his approach.
Previously, in a post on the question of why do so many centrists send their kids to extreme charedi yeshivos, I noted that many parents do not do proper research, or are misled by the yeshivah. Perhaps it is up to high schools, who often host rebbeim that are recruiting for various yeshivos and seminaries, to find out whether these yeshivos and seminaries have severely inappropriate teachers on their faculty or running their institutions.