Monthly Archives: September 2017

Footsteps Board Now in Crosshairs of OTD Activists

The sexual assault accusation that was leveled on an off the derekh (OTD) member of Footsteps, as reported here previously, has now morphed into a new campaign: to purge the Footsteps leadership of any influence by those who are not zealous enough in pursuing to the newly updated strict standards of sexual propriety being hailed by the activists.

Whereas the original campaign was directed against the accused –whose identity was (subsequent to our reporting) revealed by The Forward to be “Mike NY”– in an effort to get him expelled from Footsteps, the current campaign is directed toward and against the organization’s directorate itself, including a member of the organization’s board of directors –Shulem Deen– and its executive director –Lani Santo. The impetus for this new campaign can be traced to the sexual assault accuser’s initial statement in the Off The Derekh Facebook group that imputed some blame to the Footsteps organization:

[Mike NY] brutally and viciously raped me, with significant force, and causing serious bodily injury with complete disregard for my very explicit lack of consent. He did so to at least 6 other OTD/footsteps members before me. And the reason why he wasn’t stopped, the reason why I had to go through this horror; was because people behaved like a bunch of sweeping under the carpet frumies.

The implication here is that Footsteps had known about Mike NY’s allegedly improper sexual conduct, but preferred to dig its head and in the sand and pretend it wasn’t happening, akin to the way that Agudas Israel and other haredi organization reacted to accusations of sexual molestation in its ranks a few years back.

The accusing woman (A.B.) was first acquainted with Mike NY not in a Footsteps-organized event, but in an event organized by the meetup.com “OTD Meetup” Group. Also, none of the six women who allegedly reached out to the accuser after she had made her sexual assault campaign public had notified or lodged a complaint with a Footsteps officer prior to the incident. According to The Forward report Footsteps first learned about the sexual escapades of Mike NY in the week following the incident, sometime between Sep. 4th and and Sep. 7th:

Debra Fine, the chair of Footsteps’ board of directors, wrote in a September 14 email to the Forward: “No Board member or social worker was ever informed in advance of these current allegations that the accused had exhibited this behavior before.”

Ban Bauman –leading the crusade against supposed sexual impropriety

That did not stop an avalanche of outrage over the incident and a desire to heap the blame on Footsteps. Out of the chaos of the initial furious and passionate reaction to the allegation by the masses, emerged an informal leader in the campaign to attain justice for A.B.: Ban Bauman. In subsequent comments to A.B.’s Facebook post, Bauman and others urged a campaign to flood Footsteps’ board and executives with emails and phone calls in rebuke over its inaction and to urge it to make amends. A list of board members’ emails was posted in the thread for this purpose. One woman identified herself as a frequent donor to the organization and threatened to cut off donations over what she believed to be the organization’s complicity in the incident.

In the midst of the fervent uproar, Footsteps directorate struggled to find its balance. There just wasn’t much it could do to appease the angry masses clamoring for blood. Mike NY had not been charged with a crime, nor was Footsteps in a position of “mandatory reporting” to authorities to facilitate such a charge. Most importantly, according to the narrative of events reported by the alleged victim herself, there was no rape or chargeable offense: she had acquiesced to the events that occurred that night without any resistance, verbal or otherwise. Most of the other women that Forward interviewed for its article likewise did not make a claim that Mike NY violated them against their express wishes, though it does seem from the reports that Mike had a penchant for sleeping around, was persistent in achieving his goal, and may not have been astute in picking up signals of displeasure or unreadiness by the women he courted.

Nevertheless, apparently in response to the overwhelming pressure for action, the organization revoked Mike NY’s membership a few days later. It accused him of violating the rules of the organization’s private Google Group when he posted, in his defense, screenshots and a textual exchange between himself and A.B. that demonstrate that their tryst was not only consensual but amiable. In an unprecedented move, Footsteps announced Mike NY’s membership termination in an effort to placate the ranks, to little avail.

With the calls for action spreading and growing louder, a sanctimonious contest ensued, with the leaders of the movement and the ones most strident on the topic assuming instant stature among their peers. Behavior characteristic of a Mccarthyist witch hunt could be observed. A new target was identified in the personage of Shulem Deen, a member of the Footsteps board of directors who is also a member of the Footsteps beneficiary body.

Deen is the author of the acclaimed bestselling memoir All Who Go There Do Not Return (published March 2015), considered by critics to be the best and most accurate exemplar of the OTD memoir genre (rivaled only by Feldman’s Unorthodox). Prior to the book’s publication he had been one of the first popular bloggers on the subject (Hasidic Rebel) and later the founder of the website Unpious.com, a repository of an assortment of OTD-themed literature from multiple authors. His appointment to the Footsteps board following his book’s publication only further fomented envy on the part of some elements within the OTD community and others loosely affiliated with the OTD community who were vying for the esteem community’s esteem.

Pesach Sommer

Deen’s dalliances with Hasidic or ex-Hasidic women, ones that had not initially drawn any critical attention, suddenly were brought to the fore by his detractors around two years ago (following the release of his book). An Orthodox Rabbi by the name of Pesach Sommer sent Deen a stern rebuke via email over the matter. In the letter he accused Deen of sexually exploiting young, vulnerable, and fragile women decades his junior, as young 22-23, who came to him “for advice”. Sommer repeated a tale that he had heard or embellished of Deen “throwing such women out of the bed in the middle of the night”. He demanded that Deen confess, issue a mea culpa, and resolve not to sin any further. If not, threatened Sommer, he would expose Deen’s misconduct in the media and his career would be ruined. Sommer refused to name any specific complainant or reveal his source.

Shulem Deen, object of the OTD radical left’s witch hunt

While Deen does not deny engaging in trysts with Hasidic women in various stages of breaking away from their marriages and communities, he categorically denies the charge that he has manipulated, exploited or mistreated women in any way. “It’s absolutely false and defamatory… accuse me of something I did, not of something I didn’t” he quipped in a private message to a friend, obtained by HasidicNews (HN).

Undaunted, Deen not only refused to apologize over the slanderous reports, but filed a harassment report with the police over Sommer’s blackmailing message. Sommer subsequently recanted, labeling his initial message “clumsy” and promising to withhold the publication of any disparaging reports.

Batya Ungar Sargon

These old allegations against Deen, still simmering, are being revived by his detractors, newly emboldened in the aftermath of the popular outrage over the A.B. sexual assault complaint. Others outside of the Footsteps sector are collaborating with Bauman’s effort to take down Deen and others whom they view as either tainted by sexual impropriety or not sufficiently ardent in the witch hunt for sexual assailants. Rumors are swirling that the aforementioned R. Sommer along with Batya Ungar Sargon (Opinions editor at The Forward) along with some operative at Project Makom have formed a cabal to attempt to defame Deen and get him ejected from the Footsteps board. Af of now, however, the board is holding fast in support of Deen.

Bauman, Ungar-Sargon and their ilk assert the veracity of the allegations made in the Pesach Sommer letter to Deen. They believe that Deen was guilty of improprieties a long time ago but had mustered his masculine power to suppress the charges against him when they first surfaced, and had yet to face his day of reckoning for his misdeeds. The Bauman faction sees the A.B. sexual assault scandal as the perfect opportunity to purge the Footsteps leadership of the likes of Deen whom they see as promoting a culture of violence against women.

 

Luzer Twersky

Luzer Twersky –a preeminent OTD actor currently working on the documentary One of Us— is another putative target of the OTD radical left. He rose to the defense of Footsteps in an acerbic FB post against Bauman’s initiative after he and others collaborated with the Forward article. Sidestepping the politics on the substance of the “culture war” –on whether the Footsteps milieu is leaning excessively pro-masculine or pro-feminine– he insists that Footsteps should not be expected to respond harshly and decisively to the complaint of a member by instant retribution against the target of the complaint. “A large organization with a lot on the line should not be expected to respond [to the A.B. sexual assault accusation] in the same reactionary and sanctimonious way as an individual with no dog in the fight might”, Twersky opined when contacted by HN for this article. Twersky, too, is rumored to be in the crosshairs of the OTD radical left’s Robespierrian reign of terror.

Critics note that an enticing motive of power-seeking and self-aggrandizement is in play here. Bauman, a virtual nobody prior to the A.B. incident, feels empowered by dint of his heft in having successfully elicited a remorseful response from Footsteps’ executive director Lani Santo to the A.B. incident, to pursue the matter further thus compounding his relevance, esteem and adulation by the Footsteps masses who have uncritically rallied in A.B.’s sympathy and are in thrall to the OTD radical left’s assertion that sexual assault culture is pervasive in the OTD and Footsteps sector.

 

Deborah Feldman

Deborah Feldman, author of the acclaimed Unorthodox (and the flopped sequel “Exodus”) also promotes this narrative. Presently sojourning in Germany and far removed from OTD and Footsteps politics, she nevertheless took the effort to comment on the recent event in an email message obtained by HN:

To be frank, rape culture was established at footsteps pretty early on, and it was clear that no efforts were to be undertaken to combat it, given a) the overwhelming male majority b)males in positions of power c) the impossible task of rooting out misogyny in a group of people seeking freedom from religious restrictions without sacrificing the male privilege that was always part of that package
Addressing rape culture at footsteps would require a massive overhaul of the entire organization, and that’s not in the interest of the current power structure. I’ve always advised women to stay away, and try and get by on their own, or form small independent groups for support.
Feldman had had her own vendetta with Deen. At the time of her ascendancy following the publication of her first book, Unorthodox, she was courted by Footsteps to assume a position on its board of directors and help the organization attract donors, but she declined so long as Deen was on the board. Deen had written a critical review of her book at the time and was considered a powerful literary rival of hers for influence in the OTD community at the time.

“Forward” Stirs the Pot on Recent Intra-OTD Sexual Assault Allegation

NOTE: The following is an opinion article. It is a follow-up to a previous article we published. It is meant to refute a slanderous and prejudiced article on the topic published today by The Forward. We urge you to read it first, before proceeding with our analysis thereof.


The Forward, after researching the recent sexual assault accusation in the OTD sector for a few days, has released its own narrative of the story, one that differs from ours, one that promotes victimhood culture; one that hypes and exacerbates the problem of alleged-rapist naming and shaming; one that overreacts in response to hazy sexual encounters where the woman is either unclear about her boundaries or subsequently regrets the encounter. The story does much to trump up the affront experienced by the accuser, and that of the other women who allegedly were mistreated by the accused, but it does not much represent his version of the story and his defense thereof as clearly demonstrated by the screenshots and text messages between the two.

This is not surprising. The Forward is known to have a strong liberal bent in general and an affinity for finding and highlighting victims. It has demonstrated it amply on a range of topics. But its presentation of this story in an ostensibly objective tenor is deceptive and ought to be exposed for the sham that it is. The dissembling article contains numerous inaccuracies, omissions and prejudices. In the following piece we will parse through it and present a critique.

Following are a series of quotes from the article and their respective rebuttals.


…the man, who regularly attends social gatherings for people who have left Orthodoxy, preys on women who are dealing with the fallout from leaving their communities. They say he presents himself as someone who can help them navigate family court, or as someone who can commiserate about the difficulty of going through divorce with young children, or merely as a friend who can help them hang a TV on the wall. He then allegedly approaches them at their home and attempts to have sex with them — sometimes succeeding either through persuasion or physical intimidation.
1. The Forward here paints him to be a connivingly devious predator  –one who plans his nefarious actions with malice aforethought to achieve his sinister objective. That is not the picture painted either by A.B. (the accusing woman) or by the text messages and screenshots of the event. For example, A.B. describes him as: “he didn’t seem aggressive or narcissistic or suffering from a personality disorder. Just a quiet slightly depressed boring non-attractive lonely jewboy”.
The text messages between the two, and A.B.’s later recounting of the event do not suggest that he was presenting himself as trying to help her with her custody. In fact she mentions that he confided to her about his own divorce custody battle but not that she elicited, or listened to, advice from him regarding her own custody battle in turn.

The Forward has agreed not to name any of the women who reported the man’s sexual misconduct. Each asked for anonymity, fearing reprisals from the man, their families or the religious communities they left.

2. Hogwash. The Forward lifted this hackneyed line from the hoary boilerplate legalese text now ubiquitous in our corporate society. There are would be reprisals against government whistleblowers. There are reprisals against corporate employees who rake the muck and complain to authorities. But there are no “reprisals” against women who report sexual misconduct. The accusing women are publicly supported by the overwhelming majority of members in the OTD community and in the liberal sector at large. Their families know that they sleep around, and have no reason to shun them for any particular event, let alone take deliberate punitive action for it. The women’s ties to their religious communities have been severed long ago. They don’t care what the religious community thinks of them, nor does the religious community care what they do, so long as it’s not done publicly in the community’s neighborhood for all to see. If the women want to be anonymous, that’s fine. Some people might ascribe somewhat less credence to complaints voiced anonymously, but that’s their prerogative. But let’s not pretend that it’s out of fear of reprisals.


In a public Facebook post early Wednesday morning, the man accused of the alleged sexual assaults protested that he is innocent of these accusations. The post, also sent to an email listserv used by members of the OTD community, was made under the name “Mike NY.”

3. Tell me dear Forward: you agreed to keep the women’s identities anonymous, out of fear of reprisals or whatever. How much more so should you keep the identity of the accused anonymous. You are are giving a public voice to his accusers in a situation that is far from adjudicated as to his guilt. It’s okay to talk about the event for the sake of the public’s edification. But exposing his identity so that this accusation defames him and accompanies him for the rest of his life? Where is your conscience? How do you so callously and hypocritically care about the phantom reprisals that an alleged victim would get and not about the real reprisals that the accused is getting as I write this? I’m not talking about purported or potential reprisals. Real reprisals! He has already been ejected from Footsteps, not because of his actual crime (that hasn’t been tried yet), but because there is such an outcry against him by other members; and now he faces immense opprobrium, ostracization, a lasting stigma, incessant anxiety, not to speak of the thousands of dollars he may have to spend now on lawyers? Is his blood not red?


On September 2, the woman received a message from “Mike NY” suggesting that he bring a bottle of wine to her apartment, according to screenshots of social media messages posted publicly. Though she says she doesn’t drink, she agreed, telling him to come by after she had bathed her children and put them to sleep. Almost as soon as he walked in the door, she said, he began to kiss her. She says she tried to shove him off, but failed. Terrified that he might hurt her, and that she would wake her children if she screamed, she convinced him to wear a condom, but after a few seconds he took it off, and then penetrated her anally, without warning. Then she screamed.
4. What The Forward fails to mention is that the two had plenty of romantic interaction before “bringing a bottle of wine to her apartment”. Whatsapp Screenshots show dozens of remarks –including many voice messages– exchanged between the two on that day alone, not counting presumptive prior encounters in person and electronically. The messages were breezy and romantic in nature –the sort of banter men and women typically exchange in the process of courtship (e.g. she wrote that “I love pet therapy… I love horses”, apparently in response to a voice message from him on the topic).
When he proposed “I feel like bringing wine over later”, her immediate unhesitating response was “sure thing”. Now that’s a sure thing. What the woman later recounted that she didn’t really want to drink is the questionable part, for which there is no evidence here or there, although C.D. (the man) contends that they both drank and smoked weed of their own volition prior to copulation.

In the woman’s later retelling of the incident in the OTD Sisterhood group she didn’t suggest that he started making out with her “almost as soon as he walked in the door”.


The man refused to leave until some point after she fell asleep.
5. Refusing something clearly implies that a request was made. That is not the story the woman told. In the OTD Sisterhood group she writes:
After the act I took a shower for over an hour and was hoping that when I came out he would be gone. He wasn’t gone yet. Then I told him that my kids wake up super early and I’m afraid that if he sleeps over they will see him, hoping he gets the hint and leaves. But he just slept in my bed anyways.

Did he exhibit grace and tact? No. Did he get the hint? No. But was he obstinately defiant? No. Did he refuse a request? No.


After the attack, the woman said she did three things: She completed a rape kit, she posted about her experiences on private OTD Facebook groups and she contacted a staff member at Footsteps, a not-for-profit that offers support services to people who have left Orthodox Judaism. On September 13, she went to the local prosecutor’s office, intending to file charges. (The prosecutor’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)
6. First of all, who said there is an “attack”. That is taking a whole lot of liberty with the way the word is traditionally understood and with the circumstances of this event. By the woman’s own account in the OTD Sisterhood group (which nobody suggests was given under duress or in which she would have any reason to lie or prevaricate) she had never said “no” to him, though she did repeatedly say “slow down”. That is not, on its face, an “attack”; nor do the accusing women call it such. “Event”, “intercourse”, “coitus”, or some other substitute word here would have been far more apropos.

Second,  from the order of the three things, it seems that she had completed the rape kit soon after the event (which is the only timeframe for the rape kit to be completed in order for it to be effective), had gone to Footsteps to report it sometime last week (Sep 4th-7th) but decided to pursue charges only on the 13th. What is conspicuously not explained is why the woman would consider the event violent enough to perform the rape kit immediately but not to file charges immediately. Did the rape kit evidence turn out negative? Did she perhaps only come to the conclusion that she was raped later after the outpouring of sympathy and support by the masses in response to her OTD Sisterhood post and later the Off the Derech post? In other words, is the fact she was violated an objectively real occurrence or is it a retroactive redefinition of an event in response, at least partially, to subsequent social pressure for her to claim victimhood and wrap herself in its mantle?


After she wrote about what happened to her, other women reached out with their own stories about the man who she said assaulted her. The Forward has spoken to four of those women. Two say he tried to sexually assault them, one over a year ago and one this summer. Two others say he insistently tried to have sex with them after they clearly rejected his advances, one over two years ago and one this August.

7. He tried to sexually assault them? How does one try to commit assault but doesn’t quite do it? Does it mean that he started making out with them against their will but did not consummate? Does it mean that he used physical force with them against their will but he didn’t penetrate? If one tries to woo a woman through chivalrous actions and seductive words, –no matter how crude the tactics– and yet fails to capture the woman’s affection, that’s called a failed courtship, not “tried to sexually assault them”. If that’s not what you mean by “tried” please explain. Otherwise, don’t publish such a vague, unfalsifiable, smear.


One woman who asked not to be named said she met him at a small Footsteps gathering about two months ago. She only spoke to him for a few minutes before he left. A week later he invited her to his home. She agreed, but told him she was a virgin, and that she did not want to have sex with him. At first, he agreed, and told her so in a text message viewed by the Forward. That night, however, she said that he “changed his mind” and penetrated her. “When he went in, I hadn’t agreed to it before,” she said. “Then I pretended [it was] okay. It wasn’t my decision.”

8. Okay, so here we have a description of the second assault alluded to in the headline. Except, that the woman evidently did not see it as an assault at the time and perhaps still doesn’t see it as an assault. She did not report it to Footsteps, nor to police. She only reached out to A.B. (accuser) after A.B. had published her story to the Facebook group, the purpose of which was to confirm generally problematic behavior on the accused’s part. Words matter, my friend. Simply “not agreeing before” intercourse that intercourse was about to happen doesn’t make the spontaneous, unexpected act an assault. At least not according to a classical common-law definition of the term, one that still constitutes the law of the land. (“affirmative consent” proponents beg to differ but that standard is not normative). Is it reprehensible of him to initially promise not to have intercourse and then “change his mind” without first consulting her? sure! But if the woman ultimately “pretends it’s okay” after the man changes his mind then I don’t see how you call this an assault (assault definition: a violent physical or verbal attack). Is he supposed to read her mind? How is he supposed to know that she didn’t change her mind too, something that happens often between couples in the heat of romance?


A third woman says that she met the man at a club a year and a half ago when she was out with friends. She says that he gave her his number after she told him she was recently divorced. He told her he was divorced as well.

One night, according to the woman, he suggested that they get up early together to work out at the gym they both frequented. She says she agreed to let him sleep over, since she lived closest to the gym, and that even though she told him repeatedly she did not want to have sex, he insisted.

“He ended up just doing it — just pushing it through,” she said. According to the woman, he wasn’t wearing a condom.

“It took me time to realize that this was something really bad that happened,” she said. “Because I tend to blame myself a lot. So I ended up saying, ‘No, it’s my fault, I let him come to my house.”

9. Okay, finally we have an account by a woman which, if true, would seem to constitute sexual assault. I say “seem” because “it took me time to realize that this was something really bad that happened” implies that she didn’t consider it “really bad” at first. (Did she consider it “somewhat” bad?). Regardless, she did say “no” repeatedly, and there’s no excuse for a man to force intercourse on a woman against her express wish. So this would prima facie be a criminal case. And yet, there are always two sides to a story, as every judicious adjudicator and jurist knows, and we only have one side of the story here. So we still need to be cautious when we talk of such an event so long as we haven’t heard his side of the story (he refused to talk to The Forward) or the case has been tried by a judge or jury.


Leah Vincent, author of the memoir “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood,” said that women in ultra-Orthodox Judaism are not raised to understand the concept of consent.

“The notion of female agency is so negated and so minimized that it’s really hard to understand what consent means,” she said. “OTD women are at such brutal disadvantage because of the ways we’ve been groomed to acquiesce to men.”

Vincent said that both men and women who have left ultra-Orthodoxy struggle with un-learning the repressive elements of that culture.

“A lot of OTD men don’t even realize that they’ve absorbed a deeply misogynistic worldview,” she said.

10. Aha, so that’s where you get your pernicious ideas. From Leah Vincent. The one who repeatedly, as an adult and out of her own volition, whored herself out to men in a psychologically troubling epoch of her life, during her tumultuous transition away from Haredism and into secularism, but then described it all as rape and wrote a salacious book about it. That’s the woman you take your cues from? That would explain.

For the record, there is no such thing as “female agency”. It’s a made-up term that sounds highfalutin to make her Harvard-educated condescending ego feel better relative to the contemptible masses beneath her in status.

As to the substance: no, OTD men are not misogynistic. There’s zero empirical or anecdotal evidence for that. If anything it’s the exact opposite: many are sexually naive, have never been with a woman, adore and look up to women, and would do anything to ingratiate themselves with women in order to prove their self-worth and establish respectable social status among their friends. OTD men may be crass, they may be boors, certainly by your Harvard standards. But that doesn’t make them misogynistic.


 

OTD Sector Roiled by Accusation of Rape

A Note about sources for this article: Some of the information here was gleaned from the nominally private Off The Derech Facebook group. Group rules urge members to be mindful of the fact that some members are “still in the closet” and to be respectful of that by “not reposting anything from this group”.

Nevertheless, we have decided to base some of the reportage in this article on what is accessible only to members of the private group, owing to the following:

  • The incident has now become a cause celebre among thousand in the OTD sector and beyond, whether intended to or not, and is no longer, de facto, private.
  • Where possible we are not reposting content verbatim from the Facebook group, and never with attribution to the real identity of its commenters.
  • The accusation was originally posted to a 2,525-member group with the express intent that as many people become aware of it as possible. Many others have been notified through illicit emailing and screenshots. At this point the OTD and the public’s interests are best served through a more complete, accurate, and balanced version of events.

A woman in the OTD community whom we shall call A.B. has publicly accused a fellow man who we shall call C.D. of raping her. Her initial announcement was made on September 11 in the Off The Derech Facebook group:

[C.D.] brutally and viciously raped me, with significant force, and causing serious bodily injury with complete disregard for my very explicit lack of consent. He did so to at least 6 other OTD/footsteps members before me. And the reason why he wasn’t stopped, the reason why I had to go through this horror; was because people behaved like a bunch of sweeping under the carpet frumies.

It is unusual in general and unprecedented in the OTD sector that a supposed rape victim makes her accusation public and names her alleged perpetrator. (The law usually protects the identity of rape complainants in order to encourage them to come forward; hence genuine rape victims who seek justice avail themselves of that protection.) The blunt Facebook post therefore engendered a heated response of 143 likes and 82 comments. Virtually all of the commenters were unquestioningly and unconditionally sympathetic and supportive, even though the accusation did not include any details about the event, e.g. whether A.B. had known C.D. prior to the event, how they went about courting, if any, and whether she had at any point willingly participated in the acts leading up to the intercourse that the A.B. now defines as “rape”.

The tone of the response was rage and indignance. The mob directed their ire not just on the alleged perpetrator but also on Footsteps, believing that Footsteps should have done more to protect A.B. from her alleged rapist. The mob was also furious that Footsteps wasn’t swiftly and decisively banning C.D. from the organization now that the event has come to light, or meting out some other punishment.

Others debated whether A.B.’s refusal to report the event to the police was tying Footsteps’ hands on the matter given that the organization is not equipped to investigate, let alone punish criminal behavior. Still others questioned why the organization hadn’t reported the incident to government authorities as “mandatory reporters” of molestation or abuse, to which the retort by the legally proficient members was quickly provided: mandatory reporting only applies with respect to minors. Adults can and ought to report to authorities alleged assault themselves. Besides, a Footsteps report would be useless if A.B. then refused to cooperate with a police investigation and press charges.

Later in the day, Footsteps issued a rejoinder: it affirmed its commitment to the safety of its members, and the organization’s policy of limiting or terminating members who break the organization’s code of conduct. But it cautioned that “Footsteps is not a law enforcement agency and as such cannot investigate alleged criminal behavior. Any unlawful conduct should be reported to the authorities.”

Footsteps offered to provide comfort to the alleged victim, to offer educational workshops on sexual misconduct, and to formulate a more detailed policy on member safety, but it declined to discuss specifics of the case citing confidentiality and the privacy of the accused.

Footsteps members were livid. Many drew an analogy between the legal hedging in the Footsteps’ response to this event with a similar tone evinced by the Agudath Israel a few years back when accusations of child sexual molestation by Haredi school personnel were becoming widespread. It seemed that these large organizations were either actively seeking to protect sexual offenders, or –in the case of Footsteps– that they were deterred by a fear of a lawsuit on the part of the accused if he is ejected from the organization unjustly or without due process.

The Accused Defends Himself

C.D. had been inactive in social media at first and was not responding to the accusation. Nor was anyone questioning the narrative. The groupthink was unanimous that he was guilty and should be punished severely, some even voicing wishes for vigilante justice.

This morning, however, C.D. responded after somehow becoming privy to not only the OTD Facebook thread wherein the accusation against him was discussed and his verdict sealed by the mob in absentia, but also of a message posted in a much more limited and highly secretive group of OTD women in which A.B had first broached the topic about a week earlier, on September 4th.

In that September 4th post, a highly detailed and much more nuanced story is told. A.B. recounts how the two had known each other from OTD meetup groups and how C.D. had “invited himself over” to her house that evening. Whereas she was “clearly uncomfortable and overwhelmed” and had asked him “to give her space and slow down”, she stated that “I did not say ‘no’ or ask him to leave, which I should have”.

C.D. made that message public in demonstration of the consensuality of their courtship and the eventual intercourse. C.D. also took the opportunity to repudiate some of the assertions in A.B.’s account of the story. For instance, regarding the accusation that he removed his condom mid-act without her permission and proceeded without it, C.D. attached screenshots of later phone text messages between the couple in which A.B. expressed gratification with how things went down.

Other things revealed and proven in the attached text messages:

  • On the night of the event A.B. wrote to C.D. “you should totally come [to visit]”.
  • C.D. offered to bring wine and weed, to which A.B. acquiesced.
  • On the morning after, C.D. wrote that he had fun, to which A.B. responded “aww, I’m happy to hear, me too”. And the two proceeded with some brief banter.
  • On the evening of the next day, when C.D. expressed interest in seeing her again, A.B. responded:
    “Thank you, that’ll be nice. I can’t sleep with [you] again, though. I’m really hurting. We’re not a good match sexually, if you now what I mean 🙂 I hope I’m not making you feel bad. It’s a compliment if you really think about it. But I’m just sore and hurting.”
  • In A.B.’s later recounting of the incident in the FB post to a select group of OTD women, as now made public by C.D., A.B. contended that she really felt violated by the event but she had framed her not wanting to see him again as a compliment out of tactful consideration for his feelings.

The Six Women

In A.B.’s account of her “rape” she tells of six other women whom C.D. had raped before her. This claim was then repeated, unquestioned, by the alarmed activists, as if it was independently corroborated by anyone else. Critics contend that there is no entity that has looked into A.B.’s accusations to confirm or deny. There is also no authoritative entity that is officially entrusted with the task of hearing allegations of sexual misconduct among OTD’ers or Footsteppers, to whom the six women could report. The “six women” are as ethereal as angels: no one has ever heard of them directly or knows their identity. But the “six women” is taken as an article of faith by the mob whose sole objective is the execution of justice, not the discovery of circumstances of the event and the determination of whether guilt exists. The argument went that even if there were no legal case against C.D. and even if Footsteps did not have the means or authority to investigate the allegation, if six women make a complain that should be sufficient to banish C.D. from the organization.

Parallels in the Mainstream Culture

If the picture that emerges here is correct, as demonstrated by the accused, of a woman who initially consents to intercourse, but later regrets it and therefore consider it rape retroactively, then there is ample precedent for this in the mainstream American culture, which likely would have been a model of behavior for A.B. in this instance. It is possible that someone had convinced her subsequently that the act was considered rape, that she was the victim of a crime, and that social justice warriors stand by to rally behind her cause. The promise of sympathy, popularity and possibly even Gofundme campaign money to be gained from victimhood would have been alluring. As explained by David French in the National Review: “Once ‘victimized’, a person gains power, but not through any personal risk. Indeed it is the victim’s hypersensitivity and fragility that makes them politically and socially strong”.

Nobody knows for sure what specifically prompted it, but sometime early in Obama administration’s first term a sudden hysteria about “rape on college campus” erupted. Advocates of the newfangled cause alleged that male students were imposing themselves on women and coercing them into sex against their express will. Under Biden’s leadership, the Obama administration took decisive and draconian action to quell the uproar. It issued decrees requiring schools to thoroughly investigate all rape and sexual assault accusations and take punitive action based on a “preponderance of evidence” (defined as a mere greater than 50% likelihood that the man had committed an act of sexual assault). Women were encouraged to come forward and report any and all incidents of perceived assault under the belief that sexual assault complaints had been thitherto ignored and dismissed by incompetent and complicit schools administrations and women were therefore afraid of reporting them. The Obama-era rules and procedures were promulgated under a new interpretation of title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in education. Schools that did not comply were threatened with a termination of federal funding.

The result of the Obama-era crackdown on sexual assaults on campus was, among other things, a broadening of the definition of what constituted sexual assault, a prima facie belief in the veracity of the account given by a sexual assault complainant, and an assumption of guilt on the part of the alleged perpetrator.

Closer to home, A.B. may have been inspired by fellow OTD’er Leah Vincent, who centered her magnum opus memoir “Cut Me Loose” on the dubious but trendy assertion of being a rape victim. Leah Vincent is a highly respected member in the OTD sector and her book was promoted by Footsteps.

Many people, even elements in the liberal camp, (see NYTsee also Slate) now recognize that Obama-era “reforms” went too far. Sec. of Education Betsy Devos is now rolling back the Obama-era rules, and media publications are only now recounting the horror stories experienced by men who were unjustly accused of assault and rape and saw their whole lives and careers shattered in consequence.

What is particularly telling is that in a recent comprehensive expose in The Atlantic on this subject, a very similar incident is described: a sexual encounter (in which the woman gave the man fellatio while he was largely passive) between two students that appeared to be mutually consensual as described by observers as well as by the alleged victim herself, but that the woman later reclassified as having been a coercive assault. In The Atlantic case, the tryst was interracial and took place in his fraternity house. It appears that the woman felt embarrassed when others in the house, fraternity men and sorority women alike, found out that she had made out with him. Her decision to retroactively consider the alcohol-influenced act as having been coercive was a way for her to clear her reputation with her friends. The incident is extreme in the way the school punished him, eventually barring him from classes and effectively ejecting him from the school, even though the alleged act was not only consensual but the woman assumed the active role in it. Other, similar, hyped-up accusations and draconian measures taken by universities in response, abound.

In many such incidents the male students, after being raked through coals –their reputation smeared, their career tracks derailed, and being emotionally devastated– have successfully sued the schools in court for redress. Prudent schools now know, even absent the recently announced Devos reforms, that overreacting and being too zealous in compliance with Title IX as interpreted by the Obama admin poses as much a liability as taking too little action.

Observers note that Footsteps and OTD sector in general are highly attuned to mainstream developments in the liberal consensus of New York City. The community, in its quest to prove its liberal “mainstream” credential, follows such mainstream developments closely and learns to emulate their attitudes, mores, and sensibilities.

Following 2008, the height of the Catholic Church sexual molestation of children scandal, OTD folk leveled similar accusations against Rabbis in the haredi sector, e.g. the one by activist Chaim Levin. In their passion over the issue they once interpreted footage of an innocent scolding of a boy by his teacher as being an act of sexual abuse.

Other urban-elite liberal mores on which the OTD sector follows closely behind pioneering trends:

  • An obsession with privacy. In Footsteps a member’s name may never be revealed to others, even within the community, nor mentioned anywhere in social media, even in closed forums. Pictures of group events are verbotten. It is a highly structured and bureaucratized organization where applications, deadlines, rules, referrals and red tape are endemic.
  • Third-wave feminism, micro-aggressions, victimhood culture, safe spaces.
  • Transgenderism. Following the highly publicized Caitlyn Jenner archetype, OTD now boasts its own Caitlyn Jenner: Abby Stein.
  • A hostile environment for men seeking to date women, as women are taught to see men as uncouth aggressive sexoholics and to reject their advances, to look out for their own interests, and learn to say “no”.
  • Suppression of free speech when some claim to be offended by it, however frivolous the complaint may be.
  • Eating out in fancy restaurants, dressed to the nines, and comporting themselves in genteel fashion (including the requirement to leave a generous tip to demonstrate affluence).
  • Disdain for blue-collar employment and its culture.
  • Idolization of college, notwithstanding the dubious occupational benefits it confers in modern times.
  • Trump-bashing.
  • and so on.

 

Open Orthodoxy Makes Inroads Into Hasidic Williamsburg

The recently revitalized GreenPoint Shul on the Northside of Williamsburg is now headed by Open Orthodox clergy and is attracting New York City residents from many Jewish stripes, including Hasidic neighbors from South Williamsburg (also known geographically as Hasidic Williamsburg and The Williamsburg Triangle).

Under the pastorship of its recently named Rabbi, Maurice Appelbaum, the synagogue has undergone a virtual resurrection from the dead. After seeing its membership decline for decades through the late 2oth century (as was true with all prewar New York City synagogues except for the haredi ones) and being left for dead, it has recently turned around and become a hub of vigorous socio-religious events. Eminent speakers are regularly invited to lecture, communal meals are hosted every Friday evening following the liturgy, a recent sun-eclipse watching event was held, and it has even adopted the lag baomer bonfire custom from contemporary Hasidim.

The development is notable because post-World-War-II Hungarian Hasidism, under R. Joel Teitelbaum guidance, has been hitherto unusually reclusive, eschewing not just mainstream American society but also every modern form of Judaism, including Modern Orthodoxy.

Open Orthodoxy, at the far left of the Orthodox spectrum may seem at first blush a particularly ill-suited catnip to hard-right punctiliously observant Hasidim. Open Orthodoxy is distinguished from its “Modern” counterpart, from which it emerged in the late 90’s, by a deliberate effort to implement reform on matters of gender and sexual orientation. It shook up the Orthodox world when in 2004 it named the first “maharat” female Orthodox rabbi, and it is the only Orthodox movement that openly embraces LGBT individuals. Other than its attempt to bring Orthodoxy up to date with the prevailing feminist-egalitarian and gender-expansive winds of the time, it is largely loyal to halokho.

But Open Orthodoxy features a unique combination of community and spirituality that no other division within Orthodoxy, barring Hasidism, has been able to offer. The Modern Orthodox, for instance, lack in warmth, exuberance and mystic symbolism that is so comforting to religious adherents in the 21st century. And with an abandonment of Yiddish and the embrace of College it lacks the cachet of traditional authenticity. The Lithuanians can claim greater adherence to tradition but similarly are seen as cold and uninspiring.

Open Orthodoxy’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah selects its rabbinic-track students based on very strict criteria. It demands that candidates demonstrate an excellent secular academic record, thus proving able to attract prospective parishioners who are intellectually sophisticated and seek a cerebral experience. It also demands that rabbinic candidates show an ability and interest to self-motivate and lead. Unlike other Rabbis, who are handed a pulpit on a silver platter, Open Orthodox Rabbis, such as Greenpoint Shul’s R. Appelbaum, must craft the congregation they wish to lead on their own. When taking over the reins of a synagogue as moribund as Greenpoint Shul was at the time, no salary can be expected for several years to come; there are simply no members to speak of, let alone, members of means and donors.

Greenpoint shul’s (and other OO shuls) closest competitor is the Chabad of North Brooklyn, located in the Northside of Williamsburg. It too accepts all Jews as they are, seeks to amplify their Jewish connection incrementally and at their own pace. It too highlights community, dance, song and spirituality as central to what it offers a disenchanted New York Jew lost in a vast and turbulent sea of materialism, searching for meaning and purpose in life. It too is nominally Orthodox and adheres to halokho. It too compels the Rabbi or sholiah (emissary) to be a pioneer: carve out his own turf and build his congregation from naught.

There is, perhaps, no better epitome of the Open Orthodoxy ideal (as is now gaining ground among Williamsburg Hasidim) than a dominant figure in the movement who hails from a Hasidic background: R. Ysoscher Katz, Chair of the Talmud dep. of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah and director of its Center for Halakhic Studies.

Born in Williamsburg, Katz distinguished himself as a remarkably assertive and brilliant student. Always thinking originally and expansively he chose to pursue the “Brisker” method of study back in the 80’s when it was still considered risque among the more classical Hasidim of Borough Park, and was practically unheard of in Williamsburg. After marrying into a Borough Park family he attended the B.P. Kolel of R. Yehezkeel Roth, then a Satmar dayyan, and received his rabbinic ordination there.

It is not clear what exactly triggered him, but he apparently became disillusioned with the Hasidic lifestyle. Perhaps he considered it too closed-minded in dogma; perhaps it required too rigid an interpretation of halokho; perhaps it was the perceived sexism and minimal role for women in public and religious affairs. Katz son’s waywardness, having gone off the derekh in 2008, may have also played a role in his religious transformation. He eventually gravitated to the emergent Chovevei Torah movement, divorced his Hasidic wife, trimmed his beard and donned a necktie, relocated to be closer to the movement’s epicenter in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, and became a star in the nascent community there.

Katz’s level of erudition and Talmudic fluency is nigh nonexistent outside the Haredi sector. Coupled with confidence, assertiveness, eloquence in the English language, and Jewish philosophical-ideological conversancy, Katz has become a darling of the OO movement and a thorn in the eye of Modern Orthodoxy, the latter of which is envious of Open Orthodoxy’s accomplishments even as MO withers.

A recent online exchange between R. Katz and the Lithuanian R. Avrohom Edelstein over the circumstances of a federal fraud indictment of some dozen Lakewood residents turned acerbic when Edelstein accused Katz of dishonesty and having an ulterior motive in his presentation and analysis of the case. After Edelstein doubled down on the vitriol in his second rejoinder to Katz, Katz chose to disengage.

Critics note that underlying the disputation by R. Edelstein is a prejudiced, deep-seated envy and disdain toward a competitor in the field of kiruv. Edelstein has distinguished himself as a preeminent figure in the kiruv movement, writing and speaking on the topic to large crowds of disciples. R. Katz, a newcomer to the field and many years his junior, represents not just the Hasidic movement –a classical enemy of dispassionate Lithuanianism– but also a Jewish outreach movement that employs a radically different approach to bringing people back to their heritage at a time when traditional “scientific” approaches advocated by Edelstein are no longer working.

Along with the assortment of Jewish characters who gravitate to the Greenpoint Shul, including Israeli expatriates, some of the shul’s southern Satmar neighbors see nothing wrong in indulging it too. It is Orthodox, check. It is Hasidic-inspired, check. It adores Torah learning, check. It is hip and cool, in the contemporary Williamsburg spirit, check.

Yeah, it’s avant garde and unconventional to be sure. But for the young millennial generation of Williamsburg Hasidim, if they can accept Lipa Schmeltzer’s antics, surely R Maurice Appelbaum and his mentor R. Ysoscher Katz couldn’t possibly be that much worse.

Is Gezel Akum (stealing from idolators) permitted?

In response to the recent federal indictment of some dozen haredi denizens of Lakewood, NJ over defrauding the federal government, a tiff broke out between two prominent figures in Orthodoxy over whether such stealing is halakhically forbidden.

The exchange was initated by R. Ysoscor Katz, an immensely learned Rabbi who grew up haredi but is now classified as “liberal Orthodox”, or “open Orthodox” (“OO” –for those who regard “liberal” as a bad word). A defining tenet of Open Orthodoxy is that halokho is not static; that as mainstream society and culture evolve, halokho allows, and even calls for, updating certain aspects of it, such that its prescriptions are aligned with prevailing modes of living.

On the question of stealing from a gentile, Katz originally asserted in a column on Times of Israel that the Lakewood indictment is a manifestation of a lingering sense within the haredi sector that stealing from a gentile is “technically permitted” (as R. Katz later clarified) even if frowned upon by the rabbis. This sense, which conflicts with one’s intuitive sense of morality, is a result of a shortcoming inherent in Haredi Judaism: by dismissing out of hand any and all modification to the halakhic code, the sector is also unable to update and apply its sense of morality, thus allowing it to countenance such a glaring misdeed. By contrast, argues Katz, liberal Orthodoxy allows a Rabbi to confidently pronounce an act such as gezel akum as emphatically forbidden; but that also opens a can of worms by allowing one to wonder: what else in the halokho can be changed over time?

R. Avrohom Edelstein is a leading haredi outreach specialist. He grew up frei in South Africa and has subsequently not only adopted a haredi worldview but emerged as a preeminent leader and expert in the “field” of bringing estranged Jews near to (a.k.a. “be mekarev”) their heritage. R. Edelstein was incensed by Katz’s column. Though he doesn’t expressly state the reason for his outsize ire, it is apparent that he sees such a pronouncement as a hilul hashem (a profanation of God’s name) and a liability to the kiruv movement. After all, who would want to join the ranks of a sanctimonious community that purports to be morally superior to mainstream America, and yet inexplicably (and hypocritically) allows stealing from non-Jews.

R. Edelstein repudiates Katz both in fact and in law. It is not commonplace, he says, for haredi Jews to consider gezel akum permitted, nor to follow through on this and steal from goyyim. It was only 14 alleged cases in a sector of nearly half a million. No sociologist would generalize from such a sample. Halakhically, too, it is not true that gezel akum is “technically” allowed. Rambam, Shulhon Orukh, and most Rishonim and Aharonim consider it forbidden, some of them attributing it to the Toroh (mideoraisoh).


Who is Right?

It seems that R. Edelstein’s emotions on this subject got the best of him. He is patently wrong on both counts. Official statistics pale in relevance in the face of knowledge of and experience with a Lakewood-type haredi community (which Katz has but Edelstein doesn’t). Just because more people are not being indicted is, logically and anecdotally, not proof that theft from gentiles isn’t more prevalent than fourteen cases out of a half million.

There is incontrovertibly a clear distinction in Judaic literature going back millennia between stealing and cheating from a Jew on the one hand, and stealing and cheating from an alien on the other. The former is categorically forbidden according to the Torah: Thous shalt not defraud thy neighbor, neither rob him (Leviticus 19:13), whereas the latter is hotly debated and qualified by rabbinic scholars “between the walls of the besmedraosh” up to this very day. Whereas it is true that halokho (as expressed in the shulhon orukh) forbids it, the question remains whether it is biblical or Rabbinic; furthermore, if it is rabbinic, so as not to cause a profanation of God’s name, then under what circumstances would it be permitted when there is little to no fear of the act’s becoming public thus constituting a hilul hashem.


Yerushalmi on stealing from an alien

The most telling clue to this question is a Yerushalmi (Bovo Kamoh 4:3) that relates a story of how the Roman government dispatched officials to learn Toroh from R. Gamaliel. After a comprehensive Toroh course they said to him “Your entire Toroh is pleasant and praiseworthy, except these two things that you say…: that all stealing from an Israelite is forbidden and from an alien is permitted”. The Talmud concludes that at that time R. Gamaliel decreed that “stealing from an alien shall be forbidden due to profanation of God’s name”.

This Yerushalmi is important because it demonstrates that R. Gamaliel, the leading Rabbi of his time and an indispensable link in the Judaic tradition, a) did not consider alien stealing forbidden by the Torah; and b) he only forbade it thenceforth and only so that gentiles not condemn Judaism for its discriminatory attitude.

In the Bavli it is the subject of dispute between tanoim. One holds that it is permitted by the Toroh since the aforementioned verse reads “thy neighbor”, i.e. a fellow Israelite, implying that there is no prohibition against stealing from a non-Israelite. Another points to the biblical law of Jewish slave redemption that states that the redeemer shall pay a price to the gentile to redeem the Jewish slave as proof that simply walking off with the slave without paying, a.k.a. stealing/robbing the gentile, is forbidden.

Nevertheless, Rashi assumes that even the tanoh that forbids it does so not “by the Toroh”, but “by the Rabbis so as not cause a hilul hashem”:

It seems that Rashi considered the tanoic adduction of the Jewish slave redemption law as an asmakhtoh (a mere “leaning” on a Biblical verse to justify a decree that is Rabbinic in origin).

In diametric opposite to the Ashkenazi Rashi, the Arabic Maimonides does not brook any such discrimination, even according to the Toroh:


Maimonides ignores the “neighbor” component of the prohibition against fraud and stealing. He apparently interprets it either as an expression merely of whom an Israelite is most easily and likely to defraud, or as meaning, roughly, “someone in society” whether that “neighbor” be an Israelite or a gentile.

But the logical Maimonides may have been somewhat prejudiced in this. He was, akin to R. Gamaliel, well integrated in gentile society, living as he did in the Arabic Golden Age and being highly regarded by both Jew and gentile a like. He functioned as a court physician at the Egyptian sultan for some time. Maimonides, in his logic, could not see how a righteous and true Toroh could possibly distinguish on such a basic and universal moral question as that of appropriating someone else’s property against his will.
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Another question, almost never brought up by any of the rishonim or aharonim, is that of “who is an alien”. In some of the passages in the Talmud on this, it is from a “kuti” (a 6th century offshoot of Judaism) that stealing is permitted. This would imply that from outright gentiles it would be permitted even more so. In other places the term “akum” is used, implying that it is only permitted, if at all, from an idolater, thus prima facie excluding modern-day Christians from this category. Finally, there is the Yerushalmi mentioned above that uses the term “alien” which is most nebulous of all. (While no fellow observant Jew could plausibly be considered an alien, the epithet could be ascribed to non-observant Jews and beyond, or it could be considered a euphemism for idolater.