Sex & The Shul

Liz Porter writes for The Age of Melbourne, Australia:

He seduced vulnerable women who came to him for spiritual enlightenment. Now Rabbi Hershy Worch is the one being exposed and shamed.

RABBI Hershy Worch did not look like a serial seducer. Talented and charismatic, despite his homely looks, the "singing rabbi" attracted crowds of students of both sexes.

Women predominated because Worch specialised in teaching female students the Talmud – Jewish commentaries traditionally taught to men.

The English-born rabbi came to Melbourne from the United States in 1995 as a 41-year-old chaplain and mentor for Jewish students at Victorian university campuses. Now a new book by one of his former students, Melbourne writer Yvonne Fein, paints him as a manipulative seducer, a man who made sexual advances to his most vulnerable students and was psychologically abusive to many others.

The main character is "Rabbi Reuven Klein", not Hershy Worch. Meanwhile, Fein herself, the editor of the 1990s Jewish magazine Generations, appears in the novel as Freddie Rose, editor of the magazine Diaspora Dreaming. Its headquarters are downstairs from Rabbi Klein’s office – just as Generations was downstairs from Rabbi Worch’s office – and its location is "Ben Gurion House" in Kooyong Road, Caulfield, easily identifiable as the Beth Weizmann centre, a few blocks away on Hawthorn Road – the setting for many of Worch’s classes.

HaMakom, the "alternative" orthodox synagogue Worch established, appears in the novel as "HaDrasha". The fictional Rabbi Klein has sexual relations with three of his students and tries to seduce others.

Fein openly admits that much of the novel’s content is based on Worch. She made her fictional Rabbi Klein a "composite character", based on Worch and several other rabbis, because she feared she was unable to make a "short, fat and ugly" rabbi into a credible fictional seducer.

Fein says her fictional rabbi and the real Rabbi Worch both played on the emotions of a group of young adults who were all children or grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.

"(Jewish) Melbourne is still, in many ways, a Holocaust town. Women came to study early and late, and were often alone with the rabbi. Worch left Melbourne in 1997 because the Hillel Foundation – the Jewish student support organisation employing him – had run out of money to pay his salary. But in 2004 a few of Worch’s former Melbourne students were contacted by a representative of the Baltimore-based Awareness Centre – a Jewish organisation specialising in helping sex abuse victims.

These women wrote a long, anonymous statement accusing the rabbi of "predatory" and "manipulative" behaviour and it was added to the Baltimore website’s "Case of Rabbi Hershy Worch" listing.

It also alludes to complaints about him to the Rabbinical Council of America and the Chicago Rabbinical Council.

According to the Melbourne women’s statement, Worch "proactively sought ‘romantic’ and sexual relationships with many, many women, specifically targeting those who were emotionally vulnerable and fostering acute dependency. The statement also says that his inappropriate behaviour towards female students included "physical sexual interactions", "predatory behaviour in the pursuit of women – late-night phone calls and invitations to teach women privately" and "using the teaching of Torah (bible) as a tool of seduction".

Worch, now 54, has married a third time since leaving Melbourne and lives in California where he runs online Kabbalah and Jewish scripture classes. Fein is adamant that Worch’s actions, though not illegal, were exploitative and abusive, in that he took advantage of the power imbalance between rabbi and congregant. They were also a serious breach of Halacha (Jewish law), which forbids a rabbi from having illicit sexual liaisons.

Sam Lipski, editor of the Jewish News when Worch was in Melbourne, says that at the time of his sudden departure in 1997 no allegations of impropriety had come to the newspaper’s attention.

At the time, influential businessman, rabbi and former Melbourne Football Club president Joseph Gutnick had offered to re-fund Hillel, the organisation that had been paying Worch, if it got rid of the radical rabbi. Joseph Gutnick heard them, and also read testimonies from American and Australian women who reported inappropriate sexual overtures from Worch. The reports confirmed his opinion of the rabbi, Gutnick says now.

What upsets me is that he uses religion to abuse women. According to Fein, conversation about alleged impropriety began after the rabbi’s sudden departure, when his shocked students gathered to "debrief".

At the time, says Fein, any Australian woman considering making allegations of abuse to rabbinical authorities would have first thought of the now notorious case of New York‘s Rabbi Baruch Lanner. In 1989, some of his congregants complained to a "beth din," or tribunal of rabbis, that Lanner had sexually abused teenagers. It is a poorly kept secret in the Jewish community that Lanner came to Melbourne in 1990 to be interviewed for a position as headmaster of a Jewish school. Jewish communities in Australia, says Fein, have been slow even to admit the possibility of clerical abuse.

She points to the secrecy surrounding sexual abuse claims against the principal of the Adass Israel Girls School in Elsternwick. The school board paid for the principal, Malka Leifer, to return to Israel, sacking her after investigating alleged sexual offences.

Like any other community, the Jewish community does not like bad news published about itself .

 

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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