Photo Credit:
Rabbi Bryks with his wife and children,

{Guest contributor Sarah Haber is a lawyer living in Jerusalem}

I never had any intention or desire to start a blog, and that remains the case. However, we are taught in Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:17 that when we see an injustice taking place, we have an obligation to speak out. Therefore, after having witnessed such a devastating injustice and the damage it caused to Rabbi Tully Bryks and the Jewish nation as a whole, I decided that I have no right to remain silent.

Advertisement



BACKGROUND AND LEGAL ANALYSIS

As a lawyer, I have worked on cases involving sexual abuse of women and minors. During my studies at Bar Ilan University’s school of law, I worked as an intern at the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women in Society, and before taking the Bar exam, I did my residency (“staj”) in the International Criminal Department of the Attorney General’s Office of the State of Israel.

Through my work with these agencies, I have seen many cases of sexual harassment, abuse and assault. Having witnessed first-hand the destructive effects this type of attack can have on young men and women, I have spent many hours working through evidence and cases trying to bring criminals to justice, and lecturing people (whether or not they were interested) about the dangers of any kind of harassment or abuse.

That is why when the allegations against Rabbi Bryks broke out, I was so shocked. The facts presented in the newspapers just didn’t add up (many of those statements were then retracted). Some bloggers took a guilty (even after proven innocent) approach! It seemed that what started out as an innocent attempt to protect his students by authorizing the installation of hidden security cameras in public hallways, under the guidance and directives of legal and security experts, turned into false rumors and innuendo, suggesting a range of illicit intentions and even fabrications of the facts.

As someone with personal experience as a madricha (student guide) on the Bar Ilan one-year program, just one year prior to the camera incident, could I have missed something? I actually lived on girls’ campus in the dorms and worked directly with Rabbi Bryks. And while I have worked at different points with educators who I felt did not maintain appropriate boundaries with students and other employees (and spoke out against what I felt was inappropriate behavior), it seemed clear to me that Rabbi Bryks adhered to higher moral standards. I personally witnessed how he made an effort to maintain commendable and appropriate boundaries. For example, I remember how Rabbi Bryks would always make sure to leave the door open when talking to female students and staff members, which helped ensure maximum modesty and comfort for everyone.

Of course, though the charges sounded absurd to me, I realized that there was a possibility that I had simply been misled and was blind to what was going on. I had seen too many cases of abusers who were also skilled manipulators, managing to deceive many people. Therefore, I decided to do my own investigation, treating this case like any other complaint I would have received on the job.

For the purpose of my thorough investigation, I obtained access to the following documents, and I am confident of their authenticity:

  • Full police report of the camera incident
  • Letter from the Attorney General of the State of Israel
  • Testimony from former and current students
  • Testimony from former and current employers, employees and colleagues
  • Testimony from the security company that recommended the installation of the hidden cameras as well as the optimal locations for their installation
  • Results of a polygraph test that Rabbi Bryks took voluntarily
  • Investigative analysis conducted by an independent female psychologist

After carefully examining all of the evidence, my conclusion was definitive. Not only was there virtually NO case at all against Rabbi Bryks — there was absolutely no evidence of any wrongdoing — the evidence showed the exact opposite. Namely, that Rabbi Bryks acted in complete accordance with recommendations he received from security companies and legal advisors, and he was clearly motivated by a desire to protect the students. He even went above and beyond the letter of the law to ensure that the security concerns were addressed with maximum sensitivity to privacy.

There is an enormous amount of responsibility on the shoulders of the administrators of gap year programs in Israel. Parents entrust these administrators with the safety and well-being of their children in a foreign country for an entire academic year. Recognizing the gravity of this responsibility, Rabbi Bryks treated the students as if they were his own children, and followed the necessary protocols proscribed by security experts to ensure their safety.

The following is a summary of the facts of the case:

  • Prior to the installation of the cameras, both students and parents had reported severe accusations against maintenance workers to Rabbi Bryks. These included complaints that the workers were ignoring problems in the building (such as a serious mold problem), in addition to much more severe accusations claiming that workers had entered the girls’ dormitory after hours, asked female students for their phone numbers, walked into their apartments without knocking and used their bathrooms without permission.
  • Rabbi Bryks was faced with a severe dilemma. On the one hand, these accusations had to be taken with the utmost seriousness. At the same time, though, he could not demand that employees be fired if there was no evidence against them. Therefore, he hired a professional security company to inspect the facilities and advise him how to provide the students with the highest level of security.
  • The officials at the security firm were the ones who recommended installing hidden cameras. They chose the locations of the cameras, stating that in their professional opinion, these locations offered the best balance between the security needs and the imperative to protect the students’ privacy. The cameras were installed only in the public hallway at the entrance to the dormitory buildings, and the camera lenses were aimed at the main external entry door, so that they would only show people walking in and out of the building. Although there were several different dorm buildings, the complaints of impropriety against the maintenance staff were related to only two buildings. The cameras were installed only in those two buildings. The security company confirmed after the camera incident that Rabbi Bryks had the two cameras installed in the exact spots that they had recommended. The only difference was that, for added sensitivity to privacy, Rabbi Bryks insisted that the camera lenses be angled to only show the main entrance of the building and nothing else.
  • Before the cameras were installed, contrary to false reports, Rabbi Bryks had, in fact, informed at least four other people about his intention to install hidden security cameras, including a program board member, one of his dormitory employees, and two security experts who conducted the on-site inspection. The cameras were only up for a few hours before they were taken down, so the rest of the staff had not yet been informed about this development.
  • The cameras were not equipped with remote-access capability; footage could only be viewed by physically retrieving it from the camera. The plan was that in the event of future complaints against maintenance workers, a female staff member would inspect the relevant footage, as an additional measure to protect the privacy and dignity of any students who may have been photographed. Since the cameras were only up for a few hours, no footage was ever viewed by anyone, except for the police, who later confirmed there were no privacy concerns with it.
  • After completing their investigation, the police concluded that everything Rabbi Bryks had done was both legal and appropriate, and closed the file with the designation “no guilt”. It is important to note that police investigations in Israel can be closed for numerous reasons, including “insufficient evidence” or “lack of public interest.” A case is closed with a proclamation of “no guilt” and all records of the complaint are erased (including the internal police file) only if the police determine conclusively that the accused is completely innocent. Israel’s Supreme Court explained the difference between “no guilt” and “insufficient evidence” – where there is any reasonable doubt as to the innocence of the accused party, the case is closed based on “insufficient evidence”; Where there is no doubt as to the innocence of the accused party, the case is closed with a proclamation of “no guilt” (case number: 4372/11).
  • Although Rabbi Bryks was completely cleared of any wrongdoing, and even commended for having the camera lenses angled as an added precaution, Rabbi Bryks wanted to ensure that his pure motives could be corroborated as well. Therefore, even after he was emphatically and unconditionally cleared by the police, he voluntarily underwent a polygraph lie-detector test. The polygraph completely confirmed his entire narrative of the story, including that he had installed the cameras with the sole intention of protecting the students, had them installed exactly where the security company recommended and that he even had them angled to only display the main entrance door as an added measure of modesty.
Rabbi Tully Bryks, the founding director of the Israel Experience at Bar Ilan, leads Havdallah during his final year as director

STUDENT AND EMPLOYER REACTION AND PERSPECTIVES

Unfortunately, the moment accusations of this type become public, they attract much public interest and discussion, but few people actually take the time to investigate the facts. As the rumors, accusations and blogs spread, incoming students and parents from the upcoming school year started contacting the leaders of the program and expressed concerns about what they had heard. Rabbi Bryks faced a dilemma: Staying on as Director of the program would send a confident message of his noble intentions and could have helped protect his livelihood and good name. On the other hand, if potential students were to withdraw, the program he had created and worked so hard to build, and had left his comfortable life and job in America to run, could be severely damaged and cause some of his staff members to lose their jobs.  According to someone with an intimate knowledge of the case, Rabbi Bryks said:

“When I realized that by walking away, I could protect all of the current and incoming students as well as all of the other staff members, I knew that resigning was the right thing to do.”

Some students, like Julia Owen, an alumna from the Northwest Yeshiva High school in Seattle Washington and a student at Bar Ilan during the incident, knew right away that the cameras must have been installed purely for security purposes:

“During my studies at the Israel Experience at Bar Ilan University, it was always clear that Rabbi Bryks truly cared for every single student and would go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that we were safe. When the security cameras were installed right next to my dorm building, I, like anyone else who truly knows Rabbi Bryks, knew from the beginning that he had only authorized their installation in order to address serious complaints about the maintenance staff and to keep us safe. Rabbi Bryks is a role model who maintains high moral standards and has a deep love for the Torah and the Jewish people!

A few weeks after his departure, as students began to learn more of the facts, the majority of the students petitioned Rabbi Bryks to come back. They wrote:

“We firmly trust that you acted for our benefit and with good intentions… You created and built this incredible program and it is simply not the same without you. You constantly went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that each one of us is having the best possible experience. Please allow the future generations of Bar Ilan students to benefit from your warmth, sincerity and devotion to each and every student.”

When asked about the student petition for his return, Rabbi Bryks responded:

“While I really appreciated the student support, I believed that my departure was all part of a Divine plan. I found it hard to believe that I was supposed to be publicly humiliated just to leave the program for 3 weeks and then come right back. There had to be something more. Ultimately, I concluded that Hashem wanted me to use my skills to contribute to the Jewish people in other ways.

And even though Rabbi Bryks didn’t agree to return, Bar Ilan students continued to regularly go to his house after the incident.

Based on my studies and experience in the legal world, when it comes to abusers, especially those who have been found after many years of working as educators, there tends to be a long history of abuse as these character flaws don’t usually appear overnight. As such, when an allegation emerges, it is often followed by multiple victims stepping forward from the past, demonstrating a pattern. Prior to his 4 years running the Bar Ilan program, Rabbi Bryks worked with hundreds of teenagers during his 20 years of involvement with NCSY as well as 7 years as the founding youth Director at the Young Israel of Kendall. Therefore, I decided to check with his former employers at both NCSY and Young Israel to see if there had ever been any signs or complaints of inappropriate behavior. Both replied that there had never been such complaints or concerns.

Rabbi Becker, Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kendall for the past few decades, elaborated on this point:

“I saw Rabbi Bryks running programs, handling challenges and crises facing our youth, those in our synagogue and throughout the community. His objective and motive was always very clear and upfront. ‘I want to see how these children can become greater – spiritually and as upstanding members of society.’ If anyone would have noticed any impropriety in his conduct, it would have been me. If anyone would have received any complaints whatsoever about his behavior, it would have been me. What I received was the opposite. Throughout the years and to this day, I have heard many people cite Rabbi Bryks’ involvement in the lives of their children and families, as a turning point leading to greatness; improving the lives of their children, instilling them with solid values, and inspiring the entire family”

So it was clear that in his many years working with children and teenagers prior to Bar Ilan, Rabbi Bryks had a perfectly clean record. What about after he left Bar Ilan? With more heightened sensitivity, perhaps his new employers or students would notice something? After leaving Bar Ilan, Rabbi Bryks worked at a few different programs, including a 2-year stint as a teacher and recruiter at Tomer Devorah Seminary and one year as a recruiter for Meorot Institute. While he was only at Meorot for the 2014-2015 school year, the feedback was great. Mrs. Esti Kimche, the founding director of Meorot, has only positive things to say about him:

“Rabbi Bryks managed to find just the right balance in recruiting students – His presentations were compelling and inspiring, but also sensitive to the obstacles and challenges that individual students or families may be facing.”

Students at Tomer Devorah, where Rabbi Bryks taught for the two years immediately following the Bar Ilan incident, also had extremely positive things to say about him. Sarah Casteel, a Tomer Devorah student from St. Louis, Missouri, wrote: 

“I’m so embarrassed and so sorry to say that when I heard about the camera incident a long while ago, I was too quick to listen to the gossip and believed those rumors. I think I’m maybe more sensitive on that issue because of previous experiences and it was totally wrong of me. I definitely realized that I need to go out of my way to learn the facts before I believe something, and to be more sensitive about how a real persons’ life is being hugely affected when gossip is spread… As soon as I met Rabbi Bryks, I knew there was no way that he could have acted with bad intentions. Rabbi Bryks is an honest and caring teacher who manages to find just the right balance in setting the proper boundaries with the students.”

Natasha Zucker, a Tomer Devorah student from Minnesota, offered Rabbi Bryks the following validation of his career change:

He is so genuine that he has a unique ability to motivate students to come learn Torah for the year. I was in seminary because of Rabbi Bryks. And even now that I’m home, Rabbi Bryks is still the first person I go to with my questions. He cares about each and every student’s future.

Another student, Hadas Miller from Baltimore, Maryland, recounted one of her first meetings with him:

I met Rabbi Bryks the first time he taught me in class. He was dynamic, funny, entertaining and inspiring – everything a teacher needs to be to captivate students for a whole fifty minutes. Little did I know, that’s who he was in real life. My first time in Ramat Beit Shemesh was Rosh Hashanah. Everything was new and overwhelming as I walked out of shul the first night. Then I spotted him, a familiar face, and my world brightened. I’m not someone who generally introduces myself to people I barely know, but I was compelled to go over and say hi. Rabbi Bryks greeted me with a warm and sincere hello, as if he had known me my whole life, and I suddenly felt at home. He and his wife virtually adopted me that night. Now every time I am in Ramat Beit Shemesh, I make a point of stopping by to visit because at his house, with his family, I know I have a home. Rabbi Bryks is someone who is always looking out for the other person, eager to help him/her in whatever way possible. For me, he and his wife gave me a family and a home away from home.”

MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WORKING WITH RABBI BRYKS

As someone who served as a madricha on the program, I can personally attest to those statements. Rabbi Bryks constantly went above and beyond his obligations, and truly cared about each and every student. He is a talented and caring educator, with a unique ability to teach Torah and Halacha (Jewish law) to students who haven’t really had much of a connection with Judaism. Students feel secure in the knowledge that he is not judging them and that he understands where they are coming from.

Rabbi Bryks’ devotion went beyond the students. As a staff member I also always knew I could call him with any problem or Halachic question I had.

I remember once, after a long 3-day trip to Eilat with the students, Rabbi Bryks offered a ride to the staff members who lived in the Gush Etzion and Beit Shemesh area on his way back to Ramat Beit Shemesh (instead of having to take the bus back to Bar Ilan with the students, which was very far out of the way for some of us, and then another bus home). After 3 days of hard work, and considering exams were coming up, the offer was greatly appreciated. I assumed that Rabbi Bryks would take a few minutes to make polite conversation, and then spend the rest of the ride relaxing from the stressful trip or making phone calls for work. Instead, though, he spent the entire ride discussing issues we were having with specific students and answering philosophical and religious questions.

As a madricha, I also had the privilege to witness many staff meetings, inspiring speeches, and programs run by Rabbi Bryks. One of the things that always stood out to me was Rabbi Bryks’ undefeatable optimism. No matter how bad a situation was, Rabbi Bryks was always able to see the good in it, and encourage us all to find the hand of Hashem in the situation. At times, as someone who is not always the biggest optimist, this was frustrating for me; but it was also something that I was extremely impressed by. That is why I was not even a little surprised that, despite the turmoil the camera incident put him through, he was able to stay positive throughout it all.

Everyone on the program knew that Rabbi Bryks’ favorite song is “Tov Lehodot L’Hashem.” It became a kind of a joke: we sang that song at every Shabbaton (weekend retreat), and every time the students would try to end it, he would loudly begin it again. The words of this song are extremely powerful – “It is good to give thanks to G-d, and to sing to Your lofty name. To declare Your kindness in the morning, and Your faith at night” (Tehillim/Psalms 29:2-3). Rashi (one of the Biblical commentators) explains that these verses describe the different ways we relate to Hashem’s actions. In the “morning”, at a time when things are good and it is easy to see that Hashem is protecting us, we declare His kindness. However, at “night”, when things are dark and it may even seem that Hashem has neglected us, we declare our trust in Him and our confidence that any challenges we face are for our ultimate benefit.

In many of the emails sent by students (both current and past), parents, and colleagues, they mentioned this song. They expressed their hope that even when faced with such a difficult challenge, Rabbi Bryks would be able to see Hashem’s hand and have faith that everything is for the best. After speaking to Rabbi Bryks 3 years after these events, I am amazed at how he was able to do exactly that. Rabbi Bryks excitedly told me of all the new projects he is working on to help the Jewish people. In his words:

“I would probably have never left the Israel Experience at Bar Ilan program, a program that I had created, had something like this not happened, even though I always thought that maybe there were other things I needed to do to help make the world a better place. Clearly Hashem knew that I needed this push to make that change. While it was an extremely difficult time for my family, I believe that I am now serving an even greater purpose.”

What amazes me even more is how, even after so many people had been so quick to judge Rabbi Bryks and assume the worst about him, he is still able to see the best in people and judge them favorably. At one point during our conversation I mentioned how hard this whole experience must have been for his family, and how angry he must be with all those people who spread such harsh accusations about him, and who judged him so quickly. Did he ever feel any ill will against those who complained about him? He replied without hesitation,

“Never! “First of all, even today, most of the students still don’t know all of the details of the incident, so it wasn’t really their fault if anyone thought badly of me. In addition, I have always cared about my students and will continue to do so no matter what. To that end, I actively encouraged and supported the police investigation. Finally, I firmly believe that everything that happens is for the best.”

I mentioned that if I was in his place, I don’t think I would be able to forgive them, and Rabbi Bryks looked horrified.

“How can you say such a thing? Who are we to not forgive people? Don’t we say Kriayas Shema Al HaMita every night, whereby we forgive anyone for anything they ever did to us? As humans, it may sometimes be hard for us, but we have no right to judge people!”

Rabbi Bryks holding Baby Aliza

MY CONCLUSIONS

One of the things I learned from my extensive investigation of this case is how important it is to never jump to conclusions when hearing accusations. I always was, and still am, the first to applaud the fact that our community has become much more aware of issues of abuse and sexual harassment. And we should continue to expand our efforts to expose abusers, especially those in positions of power. However, we need to ensure that what we report is accurate.  This is important for the sake of people who are falsely accused, and it is even more important for the sake of real victims of abuse. When cases such as this one grab public attention and then turn out to be baseless accusations, we risk our community taking future complaints about real abuse less seriously. From all my work on sexual harassment cases, I know that one of the main concerns of a victim who is debating whether or not to come forward with complaints, is the fear that they won’t be believed. That is precisely the danger of false accusations being spread. We must never stop standing up for victims, and at the same time, we must assist the future victims by making sure to exonerate those who have been cleared of any wrongdoing.

To learn more about Rabbi Bryks and see quotes from his former colleagues and students, I highly recommend a visit to his website, Rabbi With Answers. You can also see Rabbi Bryks on YouTube. Better yet, come meet him for yourself and be amazed that someone can still possess so much love for others, regardless of what they think of him. For those who have ever experienced obstacles in their lives, come meet a man who embodies the teaching that “everything that happens is for the best.”

Personally, I have learned two key lesson from this episode:

  1. I should always try and see what Hashem wants me to do in every situation, and not let myself take the easy way out; I should try to change every challenge I face into an opportunity to help the Jewish people and the world in other ways.
  2. Even more significantly, I have been motivated to try, like Rabbi Bryks always does, not to judge others and to always give them the benefit of the doubt.

It is my hope that this article will enable people to do the same for Rabbi Bryks, so that future students can have the opportunity to be inspired by him, just as I have.

{Guest Author Sara Haber is a lawyer at the International Legal Forum. She studied at Bar Ilan University, and did her fieldwork in the International Department of the State Prosecutor’s Office. During law school, she worked as an intern at the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women. Originally from Alon Shevut, Sara currently resides in Jerusalem}

Advertisement

SHARE
Previous articleJustice Scalia As Talmudic Scholar
Next articleTruce Signed In Syria by Assad Regime, Rebel Forces
Loading Facebook Comments ...