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Heroes, Villains, or Let's-Not-Spoil-the-Party?
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

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Much digital ink has been spilled regarding the matter of the four Israeli seminaries previously owned/operated by Rabbi Elimelech Meisels, who resigned in disgrace after admitting to “unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature,” with his students, to a distinguished Chicago Beis Din.

One matter of utmost importance, however, has not been addressed -- namely, how are the supremely brave talmidos of Rabbi Meisels, who came forward to the Beis Din, being portrayed to the incoming classes of young ladies in those seminaries:

1) As nashim tzidkaniyos (righteous women) who, at great personal risk, did the right thing to protect others from what had happened to them?

2) As troublemakers and m’saprei lashon ha’ra (gossip-mongers), who ruined the career of Rabbi Meisels and jeopardized the very existence of the seminaries?

3) Or they are not mentioned at all – basically, “Let's-Not-Spoil-the-Party-by-discussing-sordid-things-like-this.” (In the month of Elul, no less)

My dear friends, we at Project YES feel very strongly that the only responsible position for the leadership and faculty of these seminaries (and all seminaries) is to take option #1.

We propose that option #2 and even #3 are unacceptable as they send a very dangerous message -- should current or future students have their boundaries violated, the wisest and safest route for them, would be to remain silent.

This is the quintessential "teachable moment" to educate our innocent and sheltered young ladies about hilchos yichud and their right to personal space. They also need to be taught that it is not a violation of hilchos lashon ha’ra to speak up, if these boundaries are violated in any way. Quite to the contrary, they should be informed that they are obligated to do so – and assured that they will be supported unconditionally when they do so.

Giving the young ladies messages contrary to these -- either by commission or omission -- after such a public scandal occurred, will create a toxic and unsafe environment for them both physically and spiritually.

We write these lines to encourage the current leadership of these seminaries, and to the educators in all high schools and seminaries, to convey these critical messages to their students, and to empower the parents of the students to insist that they do.

We also feel compelled to share with all parents and educators that you ought to be stressing to your children, especially your teenage daughters, that the halachos of yichud in particular, and the norms of personal boundaries overall apply to everyone equally. Why is this important? Because we see time and again that respected authority figures who violated their public trust, were given far too much leeway when hilchos yichud was violated.

This is due the extraordinary power The Halo Effect has on our thinking – permitting behaviors that are terribly wrong to go unchecked.

The lines below are from The Halo Effect and Good Fences which we encourage all parents/educators to carefully read:

…Because for many years, blaring warning signs of flagrant and very serious violations of Hilchos Yichud (laws forbidding opposite gender people who are not family members secluding themselves with each other) went unheard due to the soothing white noise generated by The Halo Effect – with disastrous results.

The Williamsburg community would never have tolerated a male “outsider” conducting four-hour counseling sessions with a young lady behind a triple-locked door. But a trusted member of the kehila was given a full pass on this critical component of Hilchos Arayos (laws governing immoral activities).

Many centuries before the development of the current norms of behavioral transparency (which, for example, has made it common practice for a female nurse to accompany a male doctor who is examining a woman), our Chazal (sages), in their infinite wisdom, created Hilchos Yichud, fulfilling their dictum in the opening words of Pirkei Avos (1:1), “Asu s’yog la’Torah (build a [protective] fence around the Torah).”

These laws were not developed for teens-at-risk. They were meant to protect everyone from the ferocious power that the Yetzer Ho’ra unleashes in these arenas. In fact, a governing principle of these halachos is “Ain apitropis l’arayos,” loosely translated to mean that there no exceptions whatsoever in their application regardless of the individual’s standing or piety.

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