This past month the administration of Yeshiva University launched an investigation into the inappropriate conduct of a mashgiach of one of the Stern Cafs, ending in his termination. A particular event involving the Rabbi in question this past month put the investigation into motion; however, there have been several complaints and concerns about the Rabbi before this incident.
In November, several members of the Feminist Club were tabling in the lobby of the 245 building, offering a space to “ask a feminist” about anything related to feminism. They hoped this would raise awareness and understanding about what a modern Jewish feminist looks like by offering an open dialogue with all students in the school. However, this non-belligerent approach to having a conversation soon took a turn toward conflict when the Rabbi approached the table. In light of the recent media explosion about Harvey Weinstein, the Rabbi began to argue that the Weinstein situation negates feminism altogether, because feminists believe women and men are the exact same.
While the event was in a public space, and there were many witnesses, the Rabbi was not stopped. The women at the table continued to defend themselves, but the altercation quickly escalated, as the Rabbi called one of the women at the table a “whore.” In what became an hour long quarrel, the Rabbi made a slew of offensive and inappropriate remarks. He claimed that women shouldn’t learn Torah, because, “if they are smarter than their husbands, it will make their husbands feel bad.” As a mashgiach for Yeshiva University, comments such as this clearly go against the nature and values of the institution. However, the Rabbi did not stop there.
He went on to claim that gay couples are “disgusting,” and to take money from them to bake a cake [in reference to the controversy over bakeries making cakes for the weddings of LGBT couples] is akin to “prostitution.” He also made racist remarks about affirmative action, claiming that white people are smarter than people of color; however, he used far more offensive and derogatory terms.
Clearly, such comments and this kind of altercation altogether are unexpected and unprofessional for any employee of the institution, particularly a Rabbi and mashgiach. One student who was there claimed that “I had never spoken to him before this incident, but had heard things from friends about his unprofessional conduct.” Some other allegations are as follows: one student has complained about the Rabbi approaching her several times, and making her feel uncomfortable when he saw her in another neighborhood in New York; students have complained that the Rabbi has made comments about their physical appearance; and students have also alleged that the Rabbi has gotten physically too close on many occasions during interactions in the Caf.
When asked how the students at the table handled the issue, one anonymous student said, “I responded alongside my fellow tablers with facts and with a calm demeanor, even when he was yelling merely a few inches from our faces. We countered his every point and remarks but he was not reasonable and wouldn’t listen to us. We also explained the table was for students and was bipartisan and had no political agenda, and that his questions and concerns were more appropriate for the Democrats Club.” However, clearly these attempts at de-escalating the situation failed, as the mashgiach did not leave or stop confronting the women for an hour.
After the event, the shaken and upset students knew they needed to do something about what had happened. Together they wrote an email to the Dean of Students, Dean Nissel, with a list of the things the Rabbi had said, including the context of the conversation. When asked about how the students felt about the presence of this mashgiach in the meantime, one student said, “I felt nervous after, because every time I entered the caf he would begin speaking about and pointing at me, telling students and even other staff how we were being ridiculous and sensitive.” While the mashgichim in the Stern Caf are responsible for ensuring the kashrut of the food, as a staff member and religious figure, this Rabbi was clearly out of place in his treatment of the students both before and after the event.
Shortly after receiving this troubling email, Dean Nissel and the Human Resources Department launched an investigation into the Rabbi in question. Only a few weeks later, the students involved in the incident were notified that the Rabbi had been fired. At first, some of the women felt guilty because they had cost another person his job. However, they knew they had no other choice: “I also felt like I had done the right thing. It is so important to stand up in times like these, which is exactly what Dean Nissel said to us when we came forward. We are living in post-Weinstein times were more harassment and assaults are coming to light. We must use this as an example to show that women can stand up and fight for themselves, which was the whole point of the table to begin with. It doesn’t matter who it is who is harassing you, physically or verbally, or how much power they have–we must speak up. When something happens, we must stand up and fight . This isn’t an issue of Republican or Democrat: this is an issue that affects women and men of all walks of life, and we need to have a voice.”
Luckily, Dean Nissel and the Human Resources Department of the school gave that voice to these upset and distressed students. One of the students involved, when asked about the decision to terminate the Rabbi in question, said, “I am extremely proud of Dean Nissel and the HR Department for listening to the students’ concerns and working to make Stern a safe place for as many students as possible. They handled it very well and I am proud to have been a part in this action against someone who referred to women who aren’t shomer negiah as ‘loose women’ who ‘after being with many men have no right to say no.’”
While the situation was disturbing and concerning for these witnesses, there are some students who found the Rabbi to be an important and caring mentor. One student said that she began speaking to the Rabbi at the beginning of her time at Stern. He asked her “deep questions” that “left [her] reflecting on [her] worldview.” They continued talking, but at a certain point in her sophomore year, the Rabbi told her that he felt she “wasn’t herself.” According to this student, the Rabbi was “the only one to see that something was wrong.” The student was struggling with a sick parent who passed away shortly after, and continued to face incredibly painful struggles throughout the following year. She said that she knows some people might “label [the Rabbi] as nosy and intrusive,” but to her, he was a “positive guiding factor.” Unfortunately, while some students found this Rabbi to be a positive and safe force in their experiences at Stern, the negative experiences of other students with this Rabbi necessitated administrative response and discipline.
When asked to comment, Dean Nissel told The Observer that “YU is committed to maintaining a safe environment for all of our students and staff at all times and will not tolerate harassment of any kind.” The quick and serious response from the YU administration, including Dean Nissel and the Human Resources Department, is an important testimony to the school’s commitment to taking students’ complaints and concerns seriously, and to providing the safest space possible for all students.