Turning ‘Happy Valley’ into ‘Teshuvah Valley’

In the days since Louis Freeh – the former federal judge and FBI Director – released his report about the sex abuse scandal and Penn State University, there has been a wide range of responses.  First of all, it is important to take note of the report’s conclusion that high ranking university officials – including the president Graham Spanier and the head football coach Joe Paterno – had reason to know that Jerry Sandusky was sexually abusing young boys in the athletic department’s facilities.  However, instead of reporting Sandusky to the authorities, they chose to have a talk with him to keep it quiet.  According to one email among them, they agreed that it was more “humane” to handle it this way.

The question is:  what does Penn State do now?

Penn State is a great university.  It is far more than simply Joe Paterno’s football program.  Yet, unfortunately, whenever the words “Penn State” are uttered today, it is impossible to think of anything other than this horrible tragedy.  Although outside organizations have imposed penalties, ultimately, the trustees and administrators must do something to clean up this mess or the reputation of a fine institution will forever be stained.

As summer turns to fall, the Jewish response to such a situation ought to come into focus.  In short, Penn State needs to do teshuvah – repentance.

Maimonides – the great medieval rabbi and philosopher – offered us four steps to guide us when we need to do teshuvah: (1) recognize one’s misdeed; (2) feel regret for one’s misdeed; (3) commit to change one’s behavior; and (4) resist the temptation to repeat the misdeed when one is in a similar situation.  It sounds so simple.  Yet, anyone who has really tried to undo a mistake knows that it is much more complicated than it first seems.

Consider the Penn State situation.  Although everyone agrees that Jerry Sandusky’s behavior was beyond egregious, the individuals who enabled and ignored his actions have yet to accept any responsibility.  The Paterno family has acted and spoken vigorously to defend the memory of Joe Paterno rather than try to accept that he may have been less than perfect.  Perhaps that’s what happens when a man walks by a larger-than-life bronze statue of himself on the way to work for a dozen years or so.

Now, granted, there are legal reasons for not making such an acknowledgment.  In today’s litigious world, an admission of responsibility opens one up to a lawsuit.  That being said, Penn State and the administrators who turned a blind eye to Jerry Sandusky’s abuse of young boys are going to face legal repercussions regardless.  So, they can take the lead and make it easier on everyone or they can be dragged through the process kicking and screaming.

Personally, would love to see the past university president, the past athletic director and the Paterno family acknowledge the missteps that allowed this horrible situation to persist for years and express regret for their inaction which caused even more suffering.  Iwould like to see them part of the process for bringing change to the culture of Penn State.

Then, together with new leadership and the assistance of outside organizations, Penn State can truly commit to ensuring that this never happens again.  What a wonderful lesson to their students that would be!

This is my SJCC bulletin article for August.



About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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