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Tag : Shlomo Carlebach

November 5, 2019 by

#MeToo in the Media

The hashtag #MeToo has spurred people of goodwill to circulate a powerful injunction: “Believe Women.” It’s a course correction for ages-old legal and journalistic systems in which claims of sexual harassment and assault routinely fell apart facing an impossible burden of proof. 

But in the era of “Believe Women,” how do we differentiate who or what to believe? And when we read accounts in the press, how do we know which are valid? The idea of “Trust, but verify” seems pretty old-school. But still, as a feminist and editor who sometimes handles these kinds of difficult stories, I find that’s what it boils down to. #MeToo taught journalists—and the world—to move toward the trust. But without the verify? Well, then you have a disaster like Rolling Stone’s. (Remember? A concocted tale of gang rape on campus where the primary source turned out to have duped the reporter, leading to a string of lawsuits against the reporter and the magazine.)

For journalists, putting together a legitimate (and lawsuit-proof ) #MeToo claim is a complex process. You start with a woman who has been hurt, and then disbelieved or dismissed in an unequal power dynamic. But that’s just the beginning. Doing our job well means finding enough credible witnesses, documentary corroboration, and patterns of behavior that that we get to a more stable understanding of what happened than he-said/ she-said.

And for readers of #MeToo journalism who are trying to assess what they read, it probably helps to understand the guidelines behind the headlines:

Why focus on alleged perpetrators who are public figures? The distinction of public vs. private is a critical one for how journalists cover #MeToo allegations. A president (to be purely hypothetical) is obviously fair game. Same goes for the head of a media company, a TV personality, etc. But what about a reporter who is known to the public mostly just as a byline, if known at all? Is he or she a “public figure,” or a private one for whom journalists are required to erect a higher standard of privacy? Focusing on a public figure is more likely to ensure that the public interest is being served.

What about first-person accounts? Every first-person account should be substantiated with additional reporting. Of course #MeToo was launched not only with Weinstein-type coverage, but with unmediated Twitter, and I’m the last to argue for an elite gatekeeper to allow people to tell their own stories. The point is that journalism, when done right, can help—by marshaling tools and leverage that an individual may not have. Every little bit is useful: police complaints, court documents, diaries—anything that captures the events in some detail.

Is it fair to cover a single woman, a single incident? Many horrible assaults have happened to just one woman, just one time. But the power of #MeToo journalism came in a formula exemplified by New York magazine’s 2015 cover story about Bill Cosby; the cover that week showed 35 women who alleged that Cosby had sexually abused, assaulted or harassed them. That story was a journalistic work of art. It established the pattern that could not be denied, despite weak forensic evidence, long-expired statutes of limitations, and a massive power structure intent on suppressing that information. Of course it shouldn’t take 35 women to prove wrongdoing against a single powerful and admired man. But this approach has proven potent in accusations of rabbinic sexual abuse, where journalists’ ability to convene multiple voices has been a critical factor in the face of a community intent on silencing them. 

Is “anonymous” okay? Who could fault someone for not wanting her private business in the press? And yet…for readers, a named, on-the-record accusation carries weight. She’s putting her name on the line; if she’s lying, her name will be mud. When granting anonymity, journalists need to establish (and tell readers) that there’s a good reason for doing so, for example, “for fear of retaliation” or “because she is still traumatized by the event.”

What about non-workplace allegations? I’m going to go out on a limb to say that the focus of #MeToo journalism for the most part belongs on the workplace and public figures. That’s because accountability in these stories rests not only with the wrongdoer but also with the structures that allowed him or her to continue with impunity. Think about Bill Cosby, Jeffrey Epstein, former CBS CEO Les Moonves, and on and on. Their stories were not only about assault or trafficking or workplace violations, horrible as those all are. They were also about office assistants and high-ranking executives and prosecutors and HR departments standing shoulder to shoulder to shield the accused, often for years. Readers of a journalistic #MeToo story should look not only at what it says about the powerful man, but also at how the reporting digs into the power structures around him.

Is “no comment” okay? This is maybe the most subtle but important reality check I engage in with every story. I advise the reporters I work with never to wait to the very end to seek comment from the person about whom they have an accusation. The so-called target (the alleged perpetrator) is also a potential source: he knows what happened too, and he needs to be given very fair opportunities to respond to the claims, as does every person and institution accused of protecting him. On this front, a reader should look for evidence that the reporter submitted detailed and open-minded questions that might shed the events in a different light, questions, such as “What is your understanding of what happened that night?” or “Can you walk me through your policies for handling a complaint?” Readers should be on the lookout to see if reporters made that effort—even if they got no answer. “A spokesperson refused to comment” tells a reader a lot less than “A spokesperson refused to answer questions about whether Institution X had a system in place for dealing with claims of sexual harassment.”

Thinking about all this invariably leads me back to a story Lilith published 20 years ago. A powerful rabbi. A community standing shoulder to shoulder to protect him. And women’s voices that kept emerging with long-ago claims. It was really hard, tracking down enough voices to feel sure; dealing with requests for anonymity; looking for contemporaneous evidence that anyone else knew what was going on; trying (and failing) to reach the deceased rabbi’s family for comment. There wasn’t a #MeToo movement yet. But it was a #MeToo story, reporting that established the pattern of abuse that for years before the story broke no one woman had been able to prove.

Sarah Blustain is deputy editor at the non-profit Type Investigations; she is a former senior editor at Lilith and author, in 1998, of Lilith’s article “Shlomo Carlebach’s Shadow Side.”

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April 12, 2018 by

You’ve Come a Long Way, Sister: 20 Years After Carlebach Allegations, His Daughter Hears #MeToo

Lilith’s editor in chief Susan Weidman Schneider sent out an email, subject line “and now, Neshama Carlebach weighs in.” She was writing to Managing Editor Naomi Danis and to Sarah Blustain, who reported for Lilith in 1998 about allegations of sexual harassment against famed rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and the response from his daughter—20 years later. “Want to respond?” Susan wrote.

The daughter’s belated response brought up a slew of memories about what it was like to report on sexual harassment before #MeToo, in a community that only now is beginning to reckon with the dark side of its spiritual leader.

FROM SARAH:

I cannot tell you how this brings me  back, Susan.

In 1997 a few women—I mean a very few; were there three or four of us?—who mostly worked around a dark wooden table in a small office in New York, started to hear from women talking about Shlomo Carlebach’s unwanted sexual advances. We sat with this information for days, weeks, and with the fact of his beloved-ness in the Jewish community. I remember it as a physical weight, knowing and resisting knowing, and being afraid. At some point, I remember someone saying, maybe it was me, “but how can we not tell this story?” So we did.

The reporting was slow, the writing painful, every word weighing his spiritual legacy against a less rosy one. There was a sentence we reported that seemed an admission. Carlebach to a woman who confronted him: “Oy, this needs such a fixing.” This was told to us by a woman, not by Carlebach himself, who by then was long gone. I remember my own nausea as we considered that sentence, sourced it, knowing what it would mean to have this (almost) in his own voice. The family opposed us. They would not comment.

On the eve of publication, word went out in the Carlebach community: This must be stopped. I cannot describe fully what it was like in that office, four rooms, a pro-bono lawyer blessedly taking our calls, as the phone started to ring, all day and night. Beseeching us against lashon hara, speaking ill of the dead. Telling us this couldn’t be, or shouldn’t be. We stopped answering the phone and listened to the messages pile up on the answering machine. Hours and hours of calls, and we few in the office, listening and working both. I remember the sun went down. Eventually we shut off the phone and finished.

And now I read it again, this time written by his own daughter, who 20 years later describes the scene we worked so hard to pin down. “Oy this needs such a fixing.” This time not denied. Did she hear it herself? It’s not clear. It is vindicating but also crushing to see how easily this becomes truth, when I remember how hard it was, and how many said it was false, both before and after publication.

We were doing then what so many have done now—finding truth in multiple voices when a single voice would not be enough. But that was before #MeToo made the job of speaking up — and of reporting on such accusations—a bit easier. And it was before Noreen Malone and New York Magazine breathtakingly put 35 women on the cover talking about a different powerful man and calling out “The Culture That Wouldn’t Listen.” Neshama Carlebach writes ”My sisters, I hear you.” Keep listening.

FROM SARAH, LATER:

What I want to add is implied: that the way #MeToo has made it easier does not take away from how hard it was, and is, to go up against power and culture. Although I am relieved that the way is smoother now, that does not erase the silencing, of us as feminists and journalists least of all, and of the victims the most.

FROM SUSAN:

Thank you so much for this, Sarah. I don’t think we’ve ever gone public with all those details, have we?

It’s surprising to me how easily we can re-enter the mood of those weeks before Lilith published your brave account.

The threats and the phone calls from those who would stop the publication were frightening. We monitored all incoming calls. But we did still answer knocks at the door to our small office, and Naomi remembers opening the door to a man in a wheelchair, a Carlebach partisan, who had come to the office to beg us not to publish. I stood by, horrified to realize that people were still held in thrall to his memory.

Lori Alhadeff, mother of slain Parkland student Alyssa Alhadef

Lori Alhadeff, mother of slain Parkland student Alyssa Alhadeff, 14, pleaded with President Trump to take action against gun violence while interviewed on CNN before her daughter’s funeral. “The gunman, a crazy person, just walks into the school, breaks down the window of my child’s door and starts shooting, shooting her, and killing her… President Trump, you say what can you do? You can stop the guns from getting into these children’s hands.”

And then there was the phone call I did pick up—from a Carlebach family member—urging us not to publish and telling me not to believe the accusations; that the women speaking out were unreliable; that the rabbi attracted “garbage people” who were unstable; that their stories should not be heeded. And from another source, threats of a lawsuit against Lilith for impeding the ability of people to earn money from his music.

One man reached me on my home line in Washington late in the evening to threaten that Shlomo Carlebach would punish me from “up there” in the heavens if the magazine went ahead with the story. I began to feel queasy. My husband, seeing me blanch, had to remind me that “Lilith’s mission is not just to publish Rosh Hodesh rituals.”

Sarah, when I came into the office the next day and shared this, you were the one who said “How can we not tell this story?” And then you added, I remember vividly, “We told the women who came forward that we would publish their experiences. We have an obligation to them” not to turn away.

The aftermath of publication was hard as we struggled against more attacks, but it also bought more stories forward, and with each one we felt justified in our decision to publish, also grimly aware of the even greater scope of the misconduct. There were myriad phone calls and (sometimes) anonymous letters. One stands out in my mind, from a woman who had been a 12-year old girl at a Jewish summer camp where Carlebach was invited for Shabbat. Her group was told that a famous and wonderful rabbi would be visiting — and that the girls must be careful not to find themselves alone with him. The woman contacting Lilith was outraged on behalf of her younger self. Can you imagine asking us to make sure we avoided being alone with him? Why did the camp directors invite him if they knew this?

The most recent direct communication we had about Carlebach came this fall. A man who said he’s now in his 80s phoned Lilith’s office to say he has been feeling guilty all these years, that he’d known about Carlebach’s behavior toward women and had been a bystander, enabling the misconduct because he’d never, til now, spoken out against it.

FROM SARAH:

Yes, Susan, I still get Facebook messages from people sometimes. Someone wrote me in 2013, 15 years after the piece, saying that she wanted to add her name to the list of people he had called and touched. Like others, she said she hadn’t felt she could call him out on his behavior — a dynamic that persisted well past his death.

AND FROM NAOMI:

I remember approaching people I respected, my rabbi, my sisters, to ask what they thought of the ethical dilemma in reporting allegations of misdeeds by a dead person who couldn’t respond or defend himself.

To me, a compelling reason for Lilith to cover the story was that the women who were coming to us were ready to go to the secular press with the story if it was not going to be covered in the Jewish media. I felt sure Lilith could handle the story with more nuance, complexity and, perhaps most importantly, more compassion than anyone else. Sure enough, Sarah’s expose in Lilith made news. I remember the disapproval of some in the Jewish world that we had written ill of a dead person. And I remember a letter to the editor of New York’s Jewish Week excoriating, in the writer’s words, the “lesbian, man-hating” editors of the Lilith magazine—which kind of made us giggle. We were sorely in need of a smile in those heavy-hearted days. In the quarterly issue that followed Sarah’s article, we ran five pages of letters; this was most unusual for us, but much in keeping with Lilith’s mission of publishing voices that too often are not allowed to be heard.

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