By Vicki Polin
Examiner - August 13, 2013
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Nearly a decade ago Rabbi Saul Berman rounded up a group of highly respected Jewish religious leaders and began what amounted too a hazing campaign against The Awareness Center, myself, and anyone else who might have been involved in investigating claims that Rabbi Mordechai Winiarz (AKA: Marc Gafni) had sexually abused a few teenage girls back in the 1980s. To this day no one can explain why this orthodox rabbi had so much anger and hate, or why he was so protective of Gafni.
The truth is that Saul Berman’s behavior could be considered status quo for the time, especially when anyone would go up against just about any religious institution from within any faith based group. In this case though this form of cyber bullying appears to have strong ties to Yeshiva University in New York.
Berman was also an early leader in the Soviet Jewry movement, along with being an active participant in the Civil Rights movement, in which he was present at demonstrations in Selma, Alabama in 1965.
For at least forty years Rabbi Berman was also known for his activism in the women’s rights movement. In 1971, Rabbi Berman was appointed Chairman of the Department of Judaic Studies of Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University and in 1990 became the Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Stern College, and as an adjunct Professor at Columbia University School of Law, where he currently teaches a seminar in Jewish Law.
In 1997, Rabbi Berman became Director of Edah, an organization he created which is devoted to the invigoration of modern Orthodox ideology and religious life. He has also been an ongoing contributor to the Encyclopedia Judaica and is the author of numerous articles which have been published in journals such as Tradition, Judaism, Journal of Jewish Studies, Dinei Yisrael, and many others. His writings on the subject of women in Halacha (Jewish law) and on issues of halachah and contemporary society have often been reprinted.
For many years I was considered a Baalat Teshuva, (someone who becomes religious and embraces the orthodox Jewish lifestyle). One of the first people I met in the early days of The Awareness Center wasRabbi Yosef Blau, who is still the head spiritual advisor at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Our friendship blossomed as he became an active executive board member of The Awareness Center and also mentored me on the “Who’s who” of the religious world.
Early in 2004, I had been an invited speaker at aJOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance). After my workshop, Rabbi Bob Carroll introduced himself to me and briefly sharing how much he enjoyed my presentation. Rabbi Carroll went on to explain the work he was doing at Edah with Saul Berman. I remember distinctly Rabbi Caroll sharing within the first few sentences that he was divorced. I thought it was odd, and upon returning to the Blau’s home, I asked Rabbi Blau about his comment. Rabbi Blau brushed the comments off by saying Rabbi Carroll wanted to make sure he was single, just in case anything he said might have appeared to be off.
With hindsight I believe the meeting with Rabbi Bob Carroll was a set up of sorts. A few weeks after “the chance meeting”, I received a disturbing e-mail from Rabbi Berman regarding demands he had in how The Awareness Center was run. At the time I had no real idea who Berman was or that he had any connection to the case that was mounting against Rabbi Mordechai Winarz (AKA: Marc Gafni). I was very naive regarding the politics in the modern orthodox world, the discussions Rabbi Berman was having with Rabbi Blau, let alone with the good folks at Yeshiva University.
Rabbi Berman’s chief complaint was that we were looking into past allegations that were over twenty years old. He was also outraged at our policies of listing alleged and convicted sex offenders and his interpretation of Halacha (Jewish law).
My first inclination was to ignore Rabbi Saul Berman’s first letter, yet as time progressed Rabbi Blau thought it was important for our executive board of directors to respond. Our return letter back to Berman addressed each and every issue, which included both statistics and research in the field of treatment along with information regarding legal issues pertaining to both offenders and survivors.
Rabbi Berman was not satisfied with the response of The Awareness Center, so on August 26, 2004 Rabbi Saul Berman wrote a public letter, sending it out to all of his colleagues, reiterating his demands in how our small, grassroots, non-profit organization operated.
When Saul Berman’s attempt at controlling The Awareness Center failed, on September 13, 2004 –– he wrote a disturbing e-mail to Rabbi Yosef Blau in conjunction with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. In the latter he basically described The Awareness Center’s sex offender registry as nothing more then “journalistic pornography”.
Five months after writing the initial letter to Rabbi Blau , Rabbi Berman realized that The Awareness Center's board of directors and halachic advisory board (including Rabbi Yosef Blau) disagreed with him, he then wrote a threatening letter to each individual member of The Awareness Center's board and international advisory board. His claims were that I had been abusive, unethical, unhalachic and libelous ways in the ways I had conducted the organizations efforts. He went on to say:
“we assume that it is in everyone's best interest for the Awareness Center to operate at the highest level of integrity so that its actions are respected and trusted in the community. Since that is currently not the case, we hope that you will do everything in your power to immediately make the changes which Vicki Polin herself has been unwilling to do, or to shut down the site. The way the site now operates makes the members of the board subject to serious personal liability.”
He went on to say that he “would be contacting several of you by phone in the next day to discuss this further. Unless certain changes are made soon in the way that Vicki Polin operates, we stand ready to take further action.”
Each and every person alive today has something about themselves or someone they love that they would not want to be made public. Rabbi Saul Berman used his sources and found something he could use against every individual connected to The Awareness Center in hopes of getting them to force me to resign from the organization I founded –– or to remove our sex offender registry from the internet.
It was at that point that Rabbi Saul Berman and his friends resorted to a cyber-bullying campaignagainst the founder and director of The Awareness Center. When that didn't work he also started to go after each and every member of The Awareness Center's board and advisory board.
Nearly ten years later, Rabbi Saul Berman has never apologized directly to any member of The Awareness Center or to the survivors of Marc Gafni for the damage he caused, let alone admitted he was wrong.
The tactics employed by Saul Berman were meant to distract from the real issue, that he amongst several others were attempting to defend a confessed sexual predator. Throughout history, it has always been so much easier to blame individuals victimized by sex crimes and those who advocate for truth –– then for it to be known that in any faith based community they experience the same sort of problems as the rest of society.