Hundreds of Orthodox Jews from around the world gathered at a Jerusalem hotel this week to publicly deal with a subject whose discussion had been taboo until only recently in their religiously observant communities: domestic violence and sexual abuse
Men, in their black hats and suits, and women in their wigs and hats, filled the venue’s meeting rooms and hallways, eager to speak with one another. These were rabbis, teachers, social workers, psychotherapists and concerned lay people who have come together.
The conference, spearheaded by Tahel – Crisis Center for Religious Women and Children, an Israeli non-profit organization, is tackling a wide range of related issues. There were sessions on human trafficking, the rabbinic role in preventing and stopping abuse, the interface between the Orthodox community and the criminal justice system, and the neuroscience of pedophilia, among many other topics.
News headlines about notorious Orthodox Jewish sex offenders like Nechemia Weberman (sentenced in Brooklyn in 2013 to 103 years in prison for his ongoing molestation of a girl beginning when she was 12) and Baruch Lanner (former New Jersey director of National Council of Synagogue Youth, who was convicted in 2002 of sexually abusing two girls at the high school where he was principal), prove that the dark secret of child sexual abuse in the Orthodox community is coming out in to the light.
But for every high profile case that actually makes its way out of the insular Orthodox community and into the courts, there are thousands that go unreported not only to law enforcement, but also to help centers, and consequently, their victims and families go untreated.
Claims by Tahel director Debbie Gross that the conference is a landmark event have been echoed by many of the presenters and participants.
“This is the first conference of its kind. It’s the largest and has the broadest participation,” said Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual guidance counselor at the Rabbi Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, which has recently had to face its own sexual abuse scandal.
“The public setting and the fact that so many mainstream Orthodox organizations and institutions are participating, and that politicians and Israel’s chief rabbi [David Lau] are speaking, is a statement that the Orthodox community accepts the fact that we have sexual abusers and spousal abusers,” he said.
Blau believes that the most valuable aspect of the conference is the opportunity it presents for people in different Orthodox communities to learn from one another and make professional connections that could prevent abusers from abusing their next victim.
“Cooperation and coordination among communities in different countries is critical. These issues cross national boundaries. Notorious abusers in the US have just gone off to Israel and the Israeli community has accepted them without asking any questions,” Blau said.
Orthodox communities have been slow to acknowledge the existence of the problem of sexual abuse because of a widely held belief and assumption that outwardly religiously observant people are good in all ways.
Abigail Engelman, director of Israel’s welfare ministry’s office in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit, had to battle this assumption as she implemented a successful abuse prevention and child protection program in the community’s schools.
Beitar Illit’s children (67% of the settlement’s population) are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse because of several factors. They walk around and take buses independently from a young age, grow up in a setting where discussion of the body and sexual matters does not habitually take place, and they are taught to respect all adults.
Engelman and her team were able to garner the support and participation of many of the local educators, parents and community members. But it was the endorsement of the local rabbinic authorities that Engleman said was instrumental in getting the program off the ground.
“Rabbi [Tzvi] Braverman came to some of the workshops. His gushpanka was critical,” she said, using a Talmudic term for seal of approval, and referring to a revered local rabbi who is a member of a major rabbinical court.
Rina Klein, a Jerusalem psychologist who works with child sexual abuse cases, said that educational programs and curriculums teaching children how to protect themselves and seek help, though perhaps not as formal and systemic as the one in Beitar Illit, have become more common in Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox kindergartens and elementary schools in her city within the past five years.
“Teaching young children about inappropriate touching is coming in slowly,” Klein said.
“There are also personal safety picture books for ultra-Orthodox kids out there.”
Despite increased awareness and more of a willingness to seek proper help for victims of abuse, members of ultra-Orthodox communities still tend to avoid mesirah, or reporting abuse to outside authorities.
In 2012, the help centers for victims of sexual abuse in Israel received 40,000 calls, 64% of them having to do with abuse of minors. The vast majority (88%) of the victims of the abuse were female, and of the incidents involving children, 68% were cases of incest.
That same year, Israel Police filed only 5,085 sex offense cases, 2,187 of which involved victims who were minors.
The statistics do not parse out what portion of these calls for help or police cases involved Orthodox Jews, but the assumption is that it is very small.
While religiously observant Jews may consider going to the police in cases of child sexual abuse, they are far less willing to do so in cases of spousal abuse.
“Going to local authorities is considered going against other Jews,” said Shoshannah Frydman, director of family violence services at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in New York.
“Some rabbis are trying to get people to understand that reporting is not mesirah, but that it is rather pikuah nefesh, or saving a life.” Still, parents generally sweep things under the rug out of concern for their family’s reputation and the future marriage prospects of their other children.
In Frydman’s experience, it is only extreme cases of domestic abuse in Orthodox families that get reported to the criminal justice system.
“The district attorney rarely deals with Jewish cases,” she said.
Khaya Eisenberg, a psychologist from Passaic, New Jersey, thinks the tide is turning, if it hasn’t turned already.
“I think the turning point for the Orthodox community in the US was when The Jewish Week published all those stories on Rabbi Lanner,” Eisenberg said.
“We realized that we couldn’t trust the people inside the community, the rabbis, who were supposed to take care of these things to take care of them. We realized we needed to look to outside professionals for help,” she said.