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Jewish Journal

An End to Denial

by Julie Wiener

September 6, 2001 | 8:00 pm

The Borough Park section of Brooklyn is one of America's most visibly Jewish neighborhoods.

On several residential blocks of one- and two-family brick homes, almost every front door has a mezuzah. Modestly dressed women push strollers, while girls in dresses and boys in tzitzit and kippot play on the sidewalks. Sixteenth Avenue, one of the main drags, is lined with religious study centers and yeshivot, small synagogues and Judaica stores.

And in the middle of it all is an agency that runs a treatment program for Orthodox Jewish pedophiles.

Orthodox pedophiles?

For years, most people in the Orthodox world assumed their religious way of life and tight-knit communities insulated them from problems rocking the larger world, like sexual abuse.

There is still a great deal of resistance to discussing the issue, and a lingering feeling among many victims and advocates that Orthodox institutions are more concerned with protecting the reputations of men accused of sexual abuse than with believing or helping victims.

But fueled by a combination of factors -- recent scandals, a growing cadre of Orthodox psychotherapists in whom Orthodox Jews feel comfortable confiding, and American society's growing openness about sensitive social problems -- that sense of insularity is eroding.

Among the indicators of change:

In the wake of public allegations last year that Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a high-ranking professional in the Orthodox Union's National Conference of Synagogue Youth, had sexually abused more than 20 teen-age girls, the O.U., which had been accused of protecting Lanner, underwent an investigation by an independent commission, made some key staff changes and vowed to implement policies to prevent future abuse.

Four years ago, at the request of the Brooklyn district attorney's, ofice, Borough Park's Ohel Children's Home and Family Services -- which already treated Jewish survivors of sexual abuse -- created the first-ever treatment program specifically for Orthodox sex offenders. More than 30 people, half referred through the criminal justice system and half through rabbis and Jewish communal leaders, have received evaluation or treatment through the program; more are on a waiting list.

At its convention this year, the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents 1,100 mainstream Orthodox rabbis, held an open and detailed discussion about sexual abuse, led by Dr. Susan Shulman, a pediatrician who served on the O.U.'s commission investigating the Lanner scandal and who lectures frequently about sexual abuse.

In the aftermath of two publicized cases of pedophilia -- one concerning a rabbi teaching at a day school and another concerning a kosher butcher -- the Chicago Rabbinical Council recently created a special beit din, or rabbinical court, to address sexual abuse. The court, which has four rabbis from different sectors of the local Orthodox community, consults with a team of psychologists, social workers and lawyers.

According to David Mandel, chief executive officer of Ohel, Orthodox schools and other institutions increasingly are hosting workshops educating parents and teachers on how to prevent abuse against children and how to identify the symptoms indicating that a child may have been abused. In the past year, Ohel participated in more than 12 seminars or conference sessions on the topic, about twice as many as in previous years.

Sexual abuse is hardly unique to the Orthodox community, and many who work in the field say there appear to be far fewer incidents in the Jewish community than in American society as a whole.

Problems like victims' reluctance to come forward, difficulty proving cases, and a tendency of people not to want to believe accusations are vexing issues in any community. Even when caught, sexual abusers are difficult to treat, and many experts say they must be watched vigilantly because they never fully recover.

But there are certain aspects of Orthodox life that make such problems especially challenging.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the wall of silence and denial.

"We're a community that would like to believe that our religious lives prevent these problems," said Rabbi Yosef Blau, a spiritual guidance counselor at Yeshiva University's rabbinic seminary and someone known as an advocate for victims of sexual abuse.

Samuel Heilman, a professor of Jewish studies and sociology at the City University of New York, said the presence of sexual abuse "calls into question some of the deeply held values of Orthodoxy -- mainly that if you maintain a strict attachment to Jewish tradition and values, somehow that would insulate you from all that is evil in society."

In addition, there is a historic Jewish tendency, particularly acute in the Orthodox world, to keep quiet about sensitive issues for fear of publicly scandalizing the community.

Many Orthodox Jews also fear that embarrassing information could jeopardize future wedding matches for individuals and their families.

Another obstacle is that the many demands of an Orthodox lifestyle -- and the fact that Orthodox Jews must live within walking distance of synagogue -- make Orthodox communities tight-knit. That can make it hard for a victim to come forward, particularly if the abuser is prominent or well liked.

When the perpetrator is a rabbi or other respected member of the community, victims have an even greater difficulty, given Orthodox Judaism's reverence for rabbinical authority figures.

"If a kid goes to a parent and says, 'My rebbe did something to me,' the parents tend to believe the rabbi, not the child," Blau said.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is that most Orthodox institutions lack a formal system for preventing or reporting abuse.

Rabbi Gedalia Schwartz, chief presiding rabbi of the Chicago Rabbinical Council and the Beit Din of America, a national rabbinical court under RCA auspices, urges victims to go to the police as well.

"Some might say, send [the abuser] to another community," Schwartz said. "That's no good because if he goes to another community he will do the same thing."

However, some communities do just that.

In her RCA speech, Shulman told of an anonymous rabbi who impregnated a student while he was principal of a school for Jewish girls with learning disabilities. When he was fired, he moved to another community where he is "still a prominent rabbi."

Despite the remaining challenges, some in the Orthodox world find solace in the fact that the topic is now on the table and that some treatment programs are out there.

"People are discussing a topic that truly wasn't discussed," Ohel's Mandel point out.

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