Rabbi's Sex Abuse Talk to 9-Year-Old Girls Sends Savannah Into Turmoil

Georgia Community Roiled By Unconventional Lesson

‘Lapse in Judgment’: Rabbi Ruven Barkan expresses remorse for a lesson he taught fourth graders at his synagogue’s Hebrew school.
Paul Berger
‘Lapse in Judgment’: Rabbi Ruven Barkan expresses remorse for a lesson he taught fourth graders at his synagogue’s Hebrew school.

By Paul Berger

Published July 28, 2014, issue of August 01, 2014.

The 9-year-old girl was unusually quiet that Sunday evening at supper. Her parents thought that maybe she was tired. After all, she had worked all afternoon in the family’s booth at The Shalom Y’all Food Festival in Forsyth Park.

Finally, the girl told her parents that she wanted to talk about that morning’s class at the Shalom School. She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children.

At this point, the girl ran out of words. She wanted to write the rest down:

“Sex with children.”

“Steal me from my bed.”

“Sex trafficking.”

“Old men want to have sex with me.”

“Bad men will kill my parents if I don’t do what they say.”

“What is prostitution?”

The Forward obtained this account from a letter sent by one couple to the board of directors of Barkan’s synagogue. The family verified the document but did not wish to be identified. There were about 10 fourth graders in the classroom that morning, most of them girls. That evening, many parents heard similar stories.

Initially these parents were not sure how much to believe of what their children were telling them; Children sometimes conflate events; they forget important details. But as the parents called and texted each other that evening and through the next day, their concern grew. The stories matched.

Some of the children appeared unfazed, but most were scared and confused. They couldn’t sleep. They didn’t feel safe in their own beds.

The fallout from “the incident,” as they refer to it, has divided congregants and friends, and strained families in this small, vibrant community of about 3,000 Jews.

In a large Jewish community, the situation might have died down as families switched synagogues and moved their children to another preschool. But Savannah has only three congregations and just one supplementary Jewish school.

In short, it’s been a nightmare for Barkan, for parents, for congregants and for the school.

Barkan and his defenders acknowledge that he made a serious error of judgment. But they see it as an innocent mistake made by a man whose career and reputation are threatened by a group of hysterical parents.

Barkan’s detractors argue that he destroyed their trust and that there are no second chances as far as their children are concerned. They point to other examples — all of them ambiguous — that they believe illustrate a pattern of poor judgement by Barkan in discussing issues relating to sex.

Barkan, the spiritual leader of Savannah’s only Conservative congregation, has apologized and has pledged to improve as an educator. The board of directors of his synagogue, Agudath Achim, says it has fully investigated the matter and found that Barkan does not pose a threat to children.

The board considers the matter closed and wishes to move on. But its cautious handling of the incident has only exacerbated the sitution. Some parents are not willing to let it lie.

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