Q&A: Gary Rosenblatt on covering sexual abuse in the Jewish community

When Gary Rosenblatt announced plans to step down as editor and publisher of the New York Jewish Week earlier this summer, the news was widely reported within Jewish media and almost entirely ignored outside it. That failure was unfortunate and undeserved: in his 26 years at the Jewish Week and 19 earlier ones heading the Baltimore Jewish Times, Rosenblatt produced top-echelon investigative reporting under the unique pressures of doing so within his own religious community.

Rosenblatt, who will stay on at Jewish Week as a part-time editor at large starting October 1, made his name by courageously following Jewish news wherever it led, even to powerful institutions and individuals. He was a finalist for the 1985 Pulitzer Prize in Specialized Reporting —a first for any Jewish newspaper—for an investigation of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which raised questions about the ethics and style of the Los Angeles-based, Holocaust-education institution. With the New York Jewish Week, Rosenblatt wrote a penetrating weekly column that explored the growing rift among American Jews about Israel, and questioned the reliance of Jewish organizations on wealthy mega-donors who set programming priorities with their checkbooks. 

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Most importantly, Rosenblatt wrote, edited, and published pioneering work investigating sexual harassment and assault, long before the #MeToo movement gave such stories greater attention and impact. I recently sat down with Rosenblatt to discuss the challenges of reporting and publishing stories of sexual abuse within the Jewish community. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

One of the huge stories in American society and also in journalism in the past two years has been the #MeToo movement. You started doing that kind of story in the year 2000, when the Jewish Week began doing investigative work on an Orthodox rabbi, Baruch Lanner. What was the process like nearly 20 years ago?

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First of all, I think it’s still a problem. It’s certainly a problem for us, when we do those kinds of stories, to get people to speak on the record. Obviously, they were the victims, and sometimes the attention that they get is very negative, very critical, and they figure, “What do I need this aggravation for?” 

These allegations stretched out over 30 years. People had made complaints about him. When I first started calling people who had been victims, one was a guy who said he’d be happy to talk to me. And I said, “Because this is a very powerful and well-respected rabbi, I think it would be really important for the credibility for you to go on the record. He said, “I’d be happy to, but I’d feel more comfortable if you had other people on the record as well.” I said, “Fine.” And he said, “If you get about 30 or 40 other people, let me know.” 

That’s when I started to appreciate the magnitude of what we’re talking about. I think the real credit goes to the people who came forward. It was really courageous of them. 

I think one of the reasons that some of them spoke up is because it had happened when they were teenagers, and now some of them were in their thirties and were, you know, mature enough and upset enough to come forward. Some of them thought they were the only victims. Many of them knew there were others, but they didn’t realize how many. But after I spoke to a couple of dozen people, I realized that the MO was very, very similar. 

 

Even in this era, it’s never going to be easy to get people to speak on the record about assault, or harassment, or abuse they’ve experienced by an authority figure. What was your approach?

It wasn’t that different, I think, than doing a lot of other interviews I did. I try and be a good listener. Sometimes the impulse is to interrupt somebody when they’re sharing some personal or painful story and start asking details. But to me it was better, more natural—somewhat like a therapist, though I’m not a trained therapist—to let them talk at some length and then more gently go back and fill in some of the details. 

And I think it was cathartic for a lot of those people. They were anxious about what the result would be, but mostly they just wanted justice to be done, because they had gone to other venues. They had gone to the rabbis and made their complaints. There had been a beit din, a rabbinic court, which had failed to really do anything about him, and had kind of accused some of the girls of making these stories up. So by the time I got to them, or they got to me, they were ready to talk. 

 

You edited a Jewish publication and you’re an observant Orthodox Jew yourself, operating within this atmosphere of Judaic ethics. How did you parse what you were doing through the teachings and writings of Judaic ethics?

This issue was about lashon hara, which is based on a Biblical quotation about not speaking publicly about somebody. It’s been interpreted to mean not only saying something negative about them but also, in some cases, saying anything about them publicly, because human nature is that, once you start talking about somebody in public, people will say critical things. I see it as kind of the central tenet of ethical journalism—right there in the Bible, in one sentence. It basically says, You shouldn’t be a tale-bearer.

But you also shouldn’t let the blood of your neighbor go unattended. You should call out people and publicize when wrongdoing is done. 

About a year before the Lanner story, I was on a panel that was sponsored by the Orthodox Union on this very issue, about Jewish journalists dealing with lashon hara. One of the panelists was a rabbi who I was very impressed with. He was considered a posek, who would make decisions about Jewish law, and he was very erudite. When I was working on the Lanner story a year later, I realized the stakes were very high—we were going to write about this person, he would likely lose his job, he could be prosecuted. 

So I called up this rabbi one night, told him my dilemma, and said I wanted to know the parameters for this issue. He said, “Tell me as little as possible.” So I basically just told him it involved a powerful rabbi who was accused of abusing teenagers for many years. He told me, “The issue at stake is to prevent further abuse. If there’s any way you can prevent further abuse without publicizing it, you should do that.”

If the only way you feel that this is going to stop is by publicizing it, he did say, not only are you permitted to write about it, but you’re obligated to write about it. That helped me make the decision. I felt that the information would not have come out publicly if people were left to their own devices.

 

What pushback did you get after the stories?

What we would call “amcha”—sort of the general Jewish masses, the Jewish community—was very supportive. But there was a lot of pushback from colleagues of the rabbi, those from the Orthodox community, where, unfortunately, not unlike the Catholic Church situation, they’re more eager to defend their colleague than to look out for the safety of kids. And I did a series of articles, so some people said, The first article, fine. But you shouldn’t have kept going, it was too much. At one point the Orthodox Union took out a full-page ad criticizing me and the Jewish Week.

 

On what basis? 

They didn’t say it was inaccurate. But the sense was there was kind of an anti-Orthodox flavor to what we were doing. That we had sort of gone too far. We wrote a couple of editorials defending ourselves. 

 

Unlike a lot of secular reporters at larger news organizations, you live in a Modern Orthodox community, you go to synagogue, your kids went to day school, your wife and you socialize in a wonderfully thick community. Did you feel any shunning or get any criticism from people you’d known for a long time?

Yeah, I did. Even now, sometimes, if I go to a wedding or some big Jewish event, I’ll see some rabbis who’ll walk away from me. A rabbi’s wife will come over and start lecturing me about why I wrote about her husband. I lost a couple of good friends. It’s much easier to write critically about somebody else’s community. When you write about your own community, it’s that much tougher. Hopefully you get some credit for trying to balance these issues. But it’s a delicate balance. It always has been.

 

You oversaw Hannah Dreyfus as she developed a blockbuster, award-winning story about sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior on the part of one of the most influential philanthropists in the Jewish world, Michael Steinhardt. What is it like to look into the misbehavior of someone who is hugely influential in the American Jewish and the Israeli Jewish world by dint of his many multi-million-dollar gifts?

Including generous contributions he’s made to educational projects of the Jewish Week, within the same calendar year as the story broke. So that just ratchets up the delicacy of writing about somebody. You try and take into account the ripple effect. It’s not just about having a scoop or a good story, but how’s it going to affect this person’s family, community. A lot of our readers are very worried about how the Jewish community is presented to the outside world. So those are all factors. 

On the other hand, if those factors prevent you from doing this reporting, then you’re really not an independent Jewish newspaper. Almost anything we write, people are going to be critical about. In this case, the allegations about Michael Steinhardt’s behavior have been around for a long time. Many people said, “That’s just the way he is.” So that was like a defense. 

Hillel International, to which he’s contributed millions of dollars over the years, had launched a private investigation of his behavior based on allegations from at least two women who work there. They had removed his name from their board of directors, and they had said they were going to turn down a donation, a significant donation, he was giving that year. To me, that was a news story. And that was on a different level than just writing about somebody accused of misbehaving or speaking inappropriately. That was our lede, and that was the focus of the story. When the report was finalized, it affirmed our accuracy.

 

You mentioned the Catholic Church’s very large scandal of pedophilia and other forms of sexual misconduct by priests, and coverups by bishops and archbishops and even cardinals. There have also been examples of Buddhist teachers and leaders in evangelical Christianity who’ve been credibly accused of sexual misconduct. Is there something about religious settings that makes them particularly vulnerable to this kind of behavior?

I’m a layperson, I’m not a psychologist. It would seem to me that the issue is less about religion per se than about the charismatic figure who has certain influence or power over other people. In the instance of Baruch Lanner, even his victims told me what a great teacher he was. A number of them had gone into Jewish education professionally, and had attributed some of that decision to him and to his teaching. I think a lot of people have a hard time recognizing that people are complicated; you can have a dark side and a powerful bright side as well. Within the Orthodox yeshiva establishment, there was a sense that, in Lanner’s case, Well, this person is so learned and so quote religious, that these things couldn’t be true. And I think we’re finding out that you can be both.

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Samuel G. Freedman teaches journalism at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of eight nonfiction books and runs a renowned book-writing seminar each spring.