How We Let Abuse Happen

The following was a response to someone who commented on my recent Hevria post about a Newsweek article detailing abuse and cover-up at Oholei Torah in Crown Heights. I’ve copied the comment here:

Abuse and its cover-ups should never be tolerated. Still, I take issue with your claim that the outrage will always be that the articles by secular outlets are anti-Semitic simply because this is such a searingly uncomfortable subject. It is pretty clear in the Newsweek article that they are pushing an agenda and trying to spread the idea that abuse like this happens BECAUSE of the nature of the religious/Chassidic community (this despite their “disclaimer” that abuse doesn’t necessarily occur more in Chassidic communities than secular). They misreport facts about the insularity of the culture and use their own misunderstandings as support for theories like “abuse is perpetuated because religious people are ignorant and close-minded”, beliefs that reek of bigotry. I think if issues were addressed with more respect, compassion, and empowerment, and less shaming and polarizing sensationalism, they’d be better received by the community and the focus would be less on the anti-Semitism of the article and more on solutions.

My response:

Three things facilitate this kind of abuse and cover-up. I’ll unpack them below. You’re welcome to call me an anti-Semite too, but these are things I’ve learned during my years of being a victim, and my years of activism on behalf of victims.

1) Willful ignorance

2) Denial

3) Conspiracy

Willful ignorance:

There is very little talk about sex and sexuality in general. It’s not considered tznius or appropriate. I’m not going to get into the merits or disadvantages of that, it’s just a fact. We shy away from anything related to it. We don’t use proper words for genitalia, like penis and vagina, we don’t have discussions about safe sex and consent, and we don’t explain children’s bodies to them, generally speaking. Many kids have no frame of reference to interpret what happened to them when they’re abused, because they don’t even know how to relate to their own bodies.

Again, I’m not trying to start an argument about whether we should or shouldn’t change that, but it is the reality. Sex is considered a private subject inappropriate for public discussion regardless of the context. And that *is* due to our religious culture. for better or worse.

That being the case, abusers know that there’s more they can get away with. They know that kids don’t really know what’s happening to them, they know the kids aren’t generally prepared to protest or tell anyone immediately after because they wouldn’t even know how to describe it, and they know that no one would believe the kid anyway, because what kind of nice Jewish person would do that. Which leads to the next two steps, denial and conspiracy.

Denial:

Being that the very topic of sex even in the context of consensual sex is so taboo and private, kal v’chomer non-consensual sex, or sexual abuse. The notion of someone having sex with someone else consensually outside the confines of marriage, let alone someone of the same sex, is so outside the realm of possibility for most sincere frum Jews that the notion of someone having sex with someone else *non* consensually is just impossible to fathom. The idea that someone who claims to have accepted torah and mitzvos, someone who goes to shul 3 times a day, puts on tefillin, keeps kosher, and learns in his spare time – certainly a rebbi – could do such a horrible crime is beyond the comprehension of many.

And it’s completely understandable, but it’s false. And it, again, is because of our religious culture. Once again, I’m not looking to debate the merits or disadvantages, it’s just a fact. That’s how the rank and file who don’t know any better react to abuse allegations. Especially since many abuse victims, by the time they finally pluck up the courage to report, have developed some serious problems, and/or gone off the derech, so to speak. They come off as angry, with an ax to grind, which they must have, because they’re no longer religious.

They must want to get back at the religious people who forced them to keep shabbos all those years, or whatever. No one ever considers that it’s because they were abused that they have psychological issues requiring therapy or meds, in many cases. No one considers that their eating disorders, drug habits, depression, personality changes might have happened as a result of abuse at the hands of the person they’re accusing, because again, the notion is inconceivable, and we tend to believe the nice religious guy with standing in the community rather than the OTD guy with problems. Which again, is the result of our religious culture. For better or worse. Which leads me to the last step, conspiracy.

Conspiracy:

Until now I was discussing people who are not familiar with the details of these cases, and who don’t have any personal connection to any abuse cases. The rank and file, as it were. They’re not involved in the conspiracy, they’re used by the people who are. The people at the top, the roshei yeshiva, principles, administrators – the ones to whom the allegations are often first made – actively silence victims who come forward with allegations of abuse. They’re the ones who threaten students with expulsion, call them liars, tell them it was their own fault, and do their best to keep the victim silence. In Chaim Levin’s case, for example, Rabbi Lustig told Chaim’s parents, after he came to Rabbi Lustig with an allegation against his cousin who abused him for 4 years, that the name of the abuser was irrelevant, and that he should just move on. He also failed to inform the police of the allegation, as he was required to by law.

But it doesn’t stop there. Many times it stops with the leaders. If they tell someone not to come forward, either by convincing them not to “ruin a man’s family,” parnassah, or otherwise appealing to their conscience, or by threatening or blackmailing them into silence, the victim will just give up and not pursue the case further. Sometimes the victim doesn’t care, and wants to pursue the case regardless of what they were told, and what threats were made. That’s when the leaders take advantage of the community’s naïveté.

When the allegations are made public, the community leaders, who themselves have dealt with many cases of abuse, generally behind closed doors, and often by intimidating victims, will issue a public statement standing behind the alleged abuser, and trashing the victim. The community, already ignorant of the fact that abuse takes place, and in denial that it could actually happen, of course sides with whomever their leaders tell them to, because why shouldn’t they? They have a tremendous amount of reverence for their leaders, and have no reason to assume that their leaders are misleading them or lying to them.

And all this is due to the fact that our religious culture, for better or worse, fosters this ignorance, and this denial, which enables the conspiracy.

Now, I just wrote that out in a very long explanation. The condensed version is what you’ll find in those sentences in the Newsweek article you objected to. Tell yourself it has nothing to do with the culture we’ve built around our religion, but it’s just not true. There are many beautiful things about our culture, and many ugly things we’d prefer not to acknowledge. This is an example of the latter.

 

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