Abuse Among the Orthodox: Bad News, Good News

By Yoel Finkelman
Monday, May 21, 2012

First, the bad news: Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse occurs in Orthodox Jewish communities.  

Next, the worse news: Though there is no evidence that such abuse occurs more frequently among the Orthodox than in other populations, two recent front-page New York Times stories are just the latest piece of evidence that Orthodox communities are often in denial and worse.  As publicized on the muckraking website FailedMessiah.com, rabbis and communal leaders, instead of supporting victims and punishing abusers, often seek to save the community from embarrassment and, in doing so, protect the perpetrators.  If children complain of being abused, their parents may silence them.  Some community leaders deny that the problem is significant.  Educators charged with children's safety discourage victims from speaking up or pressing charges.  If victims and families do complain, their neighbors, claiming a religious prohibition on giving Jews up to secular authorities, harass them to prevent their going to the police.  Indeed, the official policy of the Haredi organization Agudath Israel of America is that school teachers or administrators who suspect abuse must ask a rabbi before going to secular authorities, despite New York State laws that prohibit them from doing so.

In the Modern Orthodox community, things are presumably better.  But a Modern Orthodox rosh yeshiva is reported to subject his students to humiliating verbal abuse routinely and to insist that that psychologists share confidential information with him.  He continues to attract hundreds of students, without any apparent backlash.

But there is also good news: Even as denial and stonewalling continue, the Orthodox conversation about abuse is, albeit slowly and gradually, changing; people's behavior is changing as well.  Mental health professionals informed me that Orthodox parents, who in the past would have tried to deny abuse or keep it hush-hush, are now defending their victimized children more actively.  True, some school principals and community leaders continue to put pressure on parents to keep silent; but many Orthodox communities have sprouted activists, like Yakov Horowitz of Monsey, New York and Phil Jacobs of Baltimore, who serve as resources and "go-to" people in cases of abuse.  Organizations like JSafe provide additional resources for communities and individuals concerned about abuse.  The Bais Yaakov girls' high school in Baltimore has even published a child safety protocol for both school staff and parents.

But positive change cannot occur without education; and three recent books that attempt to tackle the horrors of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse among Orthodox Jews suggest that that education is becoming more available, if not exactly commonplace.  One of these books addresses laypeople; one speaks to mental health professionals and community leaders; and one, most intriguingly, talks directly to kids.

In the first book, Abuse in the Jewish Community, Michael J. Salamon, a psychologist with vast experience in treating Orthodox Jewish abuse victims, has written a readable guide for laypeople.  Salamon offers definitions of abuse and describes signs that should indicate to parents, teachers, and school officials that abuse might be occurring.  He provides basic information about available methods of treatment and discusses the unique cultural conditions in the Orthodox community that make prevention and treatment so difficult.  Critically, Abuse in the Jewish Community explains without apology that the ideology of da'at Torah, which accords great rabbis sole authority over communal decisions, can make the problem of abuse worse: Laypeople can consult rabbis for advice if they suspect abuse, but the rabbis are unqualified to offer such advice.

Psychologist and activist David Mandel has co-edited, together with Yeshiva University professor David Pelcovitz, Breaking the Silence: Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community.  Aimed less at laypeople than at educational and mental health professionals, this book manages to be accessible without losing its clinical and academic value.  Its twelve chapters analyze interviews with abuse victims; suggest ways in which families, schools, and communities can help prevent abuse before it occurs; debunk the suggestion that there is a halakhic problem with reporting abuse; and offer analysis of clinical treatments for perpetrators.  The book makes one especially startling but perhaps compelling argument: It contends that in circumstances in which a suspected abuser cannot be convicted and imprisoned, the Orthodox community should not expel the suspect. If it does, he will only continue his predatory behavior elsewhere.  Instead, the community should keep him within its confines and maintain close watch on him, ensuring that he never has any contact with children or other potential victims.

But the most surprising of these recent books, and perhaps the most important in the long term, is addressed neither to parents nor to educators and community leaders but to kids themselves. The Haredi publishing house ArtScroll-Mesorah has teamed up with Agudath Israel to produce a new children's book called Let's Stay Safe.  Each page presents an attractive, colorful illustration and short rhyming poem—instructing Orthodox children to wear a bicycle helmet or not to run into the street after a stray ball or talk to strangers.  It's the usual ABC's of child safety.  

Then, however, come two surprising pages.  "Even someone we know/ And like very much," they say, "Shouldn't touch us in ways/ We don't want them to touch./  And if I'm not sure/ If the touch was right or wrong/ I'd ask my Daddy or Mommy/ And not wait too long!"  The illustration shows a child sharing with his parents his concern about an unpleasant interaction behind a bunk at summer camp; the concerned parents are shown listening to and supporting the child.

The magic of this book is the way it broaches the topic of sexual abuse without making a big deal about it, integrating it seamlessly into discussions of more prosaic questions like crossing the street safely. Without making a splash, debating who is to blame, attacking this school or defending that activist, ArtScroll quietly acknowledges that friends, teachers, relatives, or camp counselors may be predators and suggests that the solution to the problem is straightforward, honest information.

The change is coming slowly, but there is no doubt that it is in progress.

Dr. Yoel Finkelman lives with his wife and five children in Beit Shemesh, Israel. He is the author of Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy

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