Protest Agudah’s Abuse Enabling and Opposition to SOL Reform

Author’s Note: Here is a link to the protest event, which will be taking place at 3 PM on June 25th, at 1146 east 9th street in Midwood, Brooklyn: https://www.facebook.com/events/1861272087529969

Agudath Israel, headed by Chaim David Zweibel, as been opposing and lobbyig against the Child Victims Act, which would protect children from sexual abusers by eliminating the Statute of Limitations for Child Sexual Abuse. Currently, according to the New York Statute of Limitations laws, child sexual abuse survivors can’t prosecute or sue their abusers in court once they’re older than age 23.

According to many studies, it takes, on average, between 10 and 30 years for victims to even come forward about being abused sexually. Agudath Israel, the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, and Chaim David Zweibel know this, and yet they continue to oppose legislation which would eliminate the Statute of Limitations for child sexual abuse, and open a 1 year retroactive window for old cases, thus allowing survivors of child sexual abuse to get justice from their abusers and the institutions that protect them.

Furthermore, it is the official policy of Agudath Israel of America, The Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, and Chaim David Zweibel, to forbid victims of child sexual abuse and the parents of victims of child sexual abuse to go immediately to authorities to report child sexual abuse. They require that victims and their families first consult a rabbi who can choose whether or not he wants to give them dispensation to go to the authorities.

This law is not just grossly illegal, but it also ensures that coverups continue unchecked in the Charedi community that constitutes Agudah’s base. Thousands of children are put at risk, and scores of abusers are protected, by this policy. Abuse is routinely covered up, and abusers are routinely protected by this policy as a matter of course.

That’s why ZAAKAH will be protesting outside of the house of Chaim David Zweibel, 1146 east 9th street Brooklyn, NY 11230, at 3 PM on June 25th, to send a message to him, and the other members of Agudath Israel of America, that they don’t get to escape the damage they’re causing by supporting these harmful and illegal policies. Their policies continue to make homes and communities unsafe for victims of child sexual abuse, so we’re bringing the issue to their homes and communities, and confronting them there where they can’t avoid it.

The only way we will ever truly end child sexual abuse in the charedi community is by making Agudath Israel of America, headed by the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, and Chaim David Zweibel, change this harmful, illegal policy, and support legislation that will end the Statute of Limitations for child sexual abuse, and give existing victims the window they need to get restitution for their suffering from the people and institutions that abused them.

For more information, please contact Asher Lovy at Asher@Hareiani.com.

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Manis Friedman Headlines Event With Child-Rapist Protector

Manis Friedman, inspirational religious leader, and well known speaker, renowned in the Chabad community, and well known for his infamous comparison of sexual abuse to a case of diarrhea, is headlining a shavuos retreat being organized by JEM Retreats, and the Illulian family. The same Illulian family that steadfastly protected registered sex offender, Mendel Tevel, and allowed him to be around children.

People might not understand the extent of the damage caused by this pairing. Let’s start with Manis. Many people feel that because Manis is such an influential figure, and because he’s “helped” and “inspired” so many people, he should get a pass for saying something that’s at worst insensitive. Like, what’s the big deal, right? So he compared sexual abuse and its devastating effects to diarrhea, he apologized, didn’t he?

His apology was half-baked, insincere, a non-apology apology that he forced out to get the “angry bloggers” off his back. But his attitude, and the attitude of the community that worships the ground that Manis walks on hasn’t changed at all. It’s the attitude that tells victims that the community’s comfort is more important than their safety, than their justice. It’s the attitude that would rather pretend that the problem either doesn’t exist, or that it’s not nearly as prevalent as activists would have you believe.

But let’s examine who’s hurt more by which. Sexual abuse is an uncomfortable topic. It’s horrific. It’s painful to think about. It turns the stomach. It offends the conscience to even think about the kind of evil required to commit such a heinous act. It’s almost inconceivable to believe that someone who has ostensibly accepted what they believe to be a moral way of life would be able to do such a thing and live with themselves. But while it may offend your sensibilities to accept that sexual abuse happens, that’s the most you’ll suffer in accepting it as reality.

The victims of this reality, however, suffer so much more. They suffer PTSD, flashbacks, anxiety, depression, addiction, self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, relationship, and sexual problems, the list goes on and on. It’s so much worse than diarrhea. You can’t fix sexual abuse with imodium. Minimizing the problem may make your life more comfortable, but in doing so, in ignoring the very real problem of child sexual abuse in our community, you ignore the suffering of its victims. You stand idly by while they suffer and die.

And that’s the problem with Manis, really. The problem is that he is so influential and inspiring. The problem with Manis is that people listen to him and believe what he says, believe that sexual abuse is no big deal, believe that it’s not worthy of discussion, that it’s blown out of proportion. He doesn’t deserve a pass because he’s respected, he deserves greater accountability because he’s respected. There’s responsibility attached to that much power, and he’s shirked his. If he can’t responsibly handle his influence, then he should lose it. And that’s everyone’s job: To make sure that people like Manis can no longer cause damage through the sway they hold over the people who follow them.

And then there’s Illulian. The fact that the Illulians are paired with Manis just proves my point. Minimize sexual abuse enough, sweep it under the rug enough, and people like Illulian, people who cover up for child sexual abusers like Mendel Tevel, freshly registered as a level 2 sex offender, keep their chezkas kashrus, even though, even more than Manis, they’re responsible for the sexual abuse of children. There can be no crueller irony than the pairing of Manis and Illulian on an ad prominently featuring a kids’ program.

 

This story was first broken by Meyer Seewald of Jewish Community Watch.

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Yom Tefilla Announced To Fight Technology; Silence Still Deafening On Sexual Abuse 

Apparently, the Moetzes Gedolei Yisrael of Israel have called for a “Day of Tefilos” to raise awareness about the spiritual problems technology posed by technology. As a community, we’ve become accustomed to these mass displays of piety, and international calls for prayer in hopes of inspiring a generation, and perhaps some divine assistance, to rid itself from the potential stumbling blocks in the way of spiritual purity, and connection to God. From asifos against the Internet in Citi Field, to international days of prayer, the Charedi world is awash in the mass organization of truly astounding feats of community organizing. One imagines that this kind of response could only be triggered by something perceived as an existential thread to the international charedi community. That is, after all, how they perceive modern technologies like smartphones and the ubiquity of the Internet: as an evil ploy of the Evil Inclination, whose only interest is in making sinning easier than its ever been before. 

But what of the other existential threats that plague our communities? What of the rampant sexual abuse that is enabled by polices like those of Agudath Israel of America, which enable abuse and protect abusers, by mandating that victims of abuse and their families go to rabbis rather than law enforcement when they are abused? Surely this is as much an existential crisis as any other. Surely, with the number of people who eventually leave Orthodoxy, going “off the derech,” as a result of abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of a seemingly indifferent community, something must be done! 

Apparently not. 

You know, it’s interesting. Back when ZAAKAH first proposed protesting the Internet Asifa at city field, I was opposed to the idea. I didn’t see the issues as mutually exclusive. I felt, at the time, that there was enough space on the moral landscape of our collective conscience for two issues to exist simultaneously. One can easily perceive the Internet as being a spiritual threat in need of eradicating, while also acknowledging that child sexual abuse is a horrific violation of our most vulnerable people, and committing to stand against abusers and their enablers. I didn’t attend the protest outside the asifa. I argued with one of the organizers, and tried to convince him to cancel it. I had such faith in my community’s ability to treat both issues with the attention each deserved. 

But it’s 5 years later, and we’ve had no asifa for victims of child sexual abuse. We’ve had no serious commitments by Agudah, and other major Charedi organizations and leaders to stand behind victims instead of abuses. We’ve seen no change in the policy that dictates that victims go to law enforcement rather than rabbis. Agudah continues to pour money into prevention, but still does nothing to ensure that abusers are prosecuted, and victims see justice. They spend all their time trying to make sure abuse doesn’t happen in yeshivos, while doing nothing to protect the majority of victims who are abused in their homes or by people they know. 

They continue to attack those of us who speak up against them, while partnering with organizations like the Catholic Church to oppose legislation that would eliminate the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. Their excuse? That it would be cripplingly expensive to allow themselves to be open to that kind of liability, and that it’s more important for yeshivos to stay open than for victims of those yeshivos to get any justice. 
And now we’re having an international day of tefillah to fight smartphones and Internet. It’s nice to see that the Moetzes Gedolei Yisrael of Israel have their priorities in order. 

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Calling Bullshit On Supposed Charedi Sexual Abuse Progress

In an article published in The Forward on May 2nd, Barbara Finkelstein painted a very optimistic picture of the shifting landscape in the Charedi world concerning child sexual abuse policies. In that article, she claimed that “Virtually no mainstream religious Jewish organization or sect publicly insists anymore that victims speak to their rabbi before going to the police.” As proof she cited the grassroots efforts of rabbis from Chabad, Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, Yeshiva University, and the Rabbinical Council of America.

While it is true that progress has been made over the past 5 years in regards to sexual abuse awareness and prevention, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Of course, Finklestein might argue that it depends on how you define ‘mainstream religious Jewish organizations.

Arguably, Agudath Israel of America is a mainstream religious Jewish organization. It’s constituent organizations and demographic include large swaths of the Charedi, Litvish, and Yeshivish populations in North America. The official policy of Agudah, as of writing this, is still that a rabbi must be consulted before any abuse allegation can be brought to the authorities.

Presumably, the hundreds of different sects of Chassidim living in New York qualify as mainstream Jewish organizations, and yet there has been no public change in policy from any of them toward advocating reporting abuse directly to the authorities.

While it is admirable that some Charedi sects, particularly those under Agudah’s umbrella are pouring resources into prevention and training, the fact remains that they do not advocate going immediately to the authorities in cases of sexual abuse. In fact, it could be argued that their overemphasis on prevention, while certainly beneficial, is designed to shield them from public scrutiny and criticism, especially since a majority of their preventative curricula and protocols are focused on preventing abuse in institutions, while a majority of abuse happens outside of institutions, and is perpetrated, in a majority of cases, by someone the victim knows.

While Agudah’s preventative measures may reduce, and hopefully eliminate abuse in institutions, their policies still do nothing to prevent abuse by family members, family acquaintances, tutors, or other people known to the victim outside of institutional settings, and, in fact, enable these other forms of abuse, because while the preventative curricula do, in fact, cover potential intrafamilial abuse, the psychological dynamics inherent in intrafamilial abuse are such that even the most well educated child is susceptible.

Home settings cannot be controlled the same way institutional settings are. You can’t have cameras in every room. You can’t have glass in every door. You can’t always have a buddy system. You certainly can’t implement policies which mandate that a student and teacher are never alone and unobservable. Abuse will happen in the home, and other non-institutional settings. Siblings will abuse their siblings. Parents will abuse their children. Trusted family acquaintances will abuse children they know. Rabbinical authorities will abuse the children of adults who trust them. Abuse happens everywhere, and the only tool we have to fight it, other than preventative education, is the ability to report it once it happens.

By implying that the problem is next to solved, Finklestein does a dangerous disservice to victims by providing a shield behind which institutions can hide when faced with claims of apathy and obstruction concerning child sexual abuse. If there’s one way to ensure that the fantasy espoused in her article never comes true, it is by issuing unearned participation trophies to organizations that hide behind the illusion of change to perpetuate harmful policies.

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How The AHCA’s Abortion Requirements Hurt Rape Victims

Reading through the AHCA. Say goodbye to Planned Parenhood.

For those of you who think that it’s reasonable to ask an abortion provider to only provide abortions in the case of rape, incest, or medical danger, let me throw some facts at you.

63% of rapes are never reported.

Only 12% of child sexual abuse is ever reported.

That means that an overwhelming majority of sexual assault and abuse cases are never reported.

According to the NIH, approximately 5% of rapes of women of childbearing age result in pregnancies. Approximately 50% of them abort the pregnancies.

Here’s the problem. That 5% isn’t neatly distributed over the 37% of rapes that are reported. If you’re going to pass a law that makes it illegal for medical facilities to receive federal funding in the form of Medicaid reimbursements – which is what people talk about when they discuss federal funding of Planned Parenthood – if they provide abortions, except in cases of rape or medical danger, assuming Planned Parenthood would even be prepared to comply with that, then you have to have some mechanism in place to prove that rape took place. Medical danger is easy enough to prove, but a majority of rapes go unreported.

If you think that the solution is just for victims to report if they feel so strongly about getting the resulting pregnancy aborted, consider this. According to RAINN, out of 1000 rapes, only 310 are reported, on average. Of those reported, only 57 lead to arrest. Of those, only 11 ever reach a prosecutor’s desk. Of those, only 7 will lead to conviction. Of those, only 6 rapists will be incarcerated.

Let’s consider, therefore, what, other than those appalling failings of the justice system, might incline a victim not to report. Fear of retaliation. Fear of the backlash. Belief that it was their own fault. Fear of having to relive the whole thing in court. Fear of having to face their abuser. Fear of backlash from their school, or family. Fear of losing employment, or even custody of their children. Remember, most rapes are committed, not in a dark alley, but by someone the victim knows.

In most cases, a victim chooses not to report not because they don’t think what happened to them was a crime, but because they’re scared of what happened to them. Forcing them to report, particularly in light of the reasons they choose not to, can be a form of re-victimization. Any policy requiring abortion clinics to only provide abortions in cases of rape will necessarily lead to forcing victims to report, because even if at first the law allows for self-disclosure to the clinic, eventually the same people who support this will claim that women are crying rape to the doctor to get an abortion, and will require a police report.

None of this even addresses the fact that Planned Parenthood provides so many other forms of care to sexual assault victims following the assault, including STD testing, HIV screening, emergency contraception, and pelvic exams.

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A Follow Up on Carlebach and The Abuse He Committed

Two years ago, following a “Carlebach Shabbos” at my former shul, I wrote an article in which I described the conflict I felt hearing Carlebach being praised for his selflessness and kindness, while simultaneously aware of allegations that he had molested women. I left the article open ended, simply giving my two sides, and left it open for my readers to responded. And boy, did they. The responses flooded in; comments, emails, Facebook messages, even some in-person responses. They came in heavy, heated, and varied. It’s been two years, and I’ve had time to reflect more on the subject, discuss it with more people, and gain some perspective on the issue. Furthermore, since then I’ve spoken to quite a number of his victims, three of whom left comments on my original post. I’d like to address a few things.

Right off the bat, people challenged me on the ethics of sharing an article alleging that someone who is dead and cannot defend himself committed abuse that has never been proven in court. Many people have claimed it’s simply lashon hara, and therefore refuse to even listen. Setting aside whether or not those same people are as careful about the laws of lashon hara when the person under discussion is not one of the spiritual idols, I’ll take it at face value.

It is lashon hara. But one of the exceptions to the prohibitions against speaking lashon hara is when there’s a to’eles, a purpose. Most notably, if there’s a general purpose in the community knowing, if it will prevent some harm, then it is permitted to speak lashon hara. The benefits of discussing Carlebach’s crimes are twofold. First, it sends a message to the community that abusers will have to pay, in one way or another for their crimes, that death is not an escape by which sexual abusers can dodge the repercussions of their crimes; that even if they can’t personally answer for their crimes in life, their legacies will in death. It’s a powerful message to send because there are so many victims out there whose stories are kept hidden by coercion and fear, because the people who keep those secrets are terrified of what their families, their communities might say or do to them if they dare come forward. The more stories are made public, the more people come forward, the more victims will feel safe and secure in coming forward and telling their stories, exposing their abusers, and pursuing justice against them.

Second, for decades Carlebach’s crimes were covered up. For decades, all his victims heard about him was constant praise bordering on deification, any criticism quashed, any attempt at bringing his crimes to light hushed and suppressed. It wasn’t just his followers either who were complicit. Perhaps they can be forgiven because they were blinded by his charisma and façade, but his right-hand men, his gabba’im were aware of the allegations, and actively suppressed the accusers. And for years all his victims heard were stories of Carlebach’s greatness, the constant praise of a man who could do no wrong, simultaneously invalidating their experiences and exalting the man who hurt them. They deserve to have their stories told, to have their experiences validated, and there are enough of them to constitute a to’eles harabim.

The next thing that bothered people about my article was the comparison to Bill Cosby, a man accused of drugging and raping over 50 women over the course of his life. How could I compare “Reb Shloime,” they asked, to a menuval like Bill Cosby? Carlebach doesn’t stand accused of drugging and raping anyone, just molesting them. And besides, he was a complicated man, everybody knew, nebach, he was probably lonely. It’s nothing like Cosby.

A few things. First, the article was written when the Cosby story was breaking. But more to the point, the comparison is not necessarily to the crimes committed (I’ll get to that in a bit, bear with me), but to the cultural significance of both accusations. Cosby wasn’t just some funny-man any more than Carlebach was just a singer. Both were leaders in their communities. Both had moral messages for their communities, and represented something so much bigger than just the art they each produced. Both were symbols of something greater. And both were accused of just about the most immoral thing a person can do: Violating, in such a heinous and personal fashion, the trust that people had in them and what they represented.

But more importantly, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding people about sexual assault. People assume that if the assault isn’t penetrative, that the trauma isn’t really anywhere near as severe as it would be if the assault were penetrative. Or that if the assault was penetrative, there’s a difference between penetration by a penis, a finger, or a foreign object. That somehow the violation, the trauma, is somehow lesser or more acceptable, or easier to forgive, or easier to do teshuva for simply because the law assigns penalties differently in each case. A sexual assault is a sexual assault, and it is the height of callousness to claim that just because the law needs to make gradated distinctions in penal code in order to actually have a functioning legal system, the trauma is any less severe. Whether penile or digital or with a foreign object, penetrative or non-penetrative, conscious or drugged, sexual assault is a massive violation of a person’s sovereignty over the only thing they really control: their body and their sexuality. Seeing it minimize it in the interest of making one group of people feel better that the guy they revere is not as bad as the guy another group reveres, is disgusting.

This past weekend, after sharing my article again this year in “honor” of Carlebach’s yahrtzeit, two women posted their stories as comments on the article. I’d like to share them below, because it leads me to my final point. The first is by a poster who used the name Shula.

“I was a 15 year old Bais Yaakov girl, enthralled with his music. I was in seventh heaven when he offered me a ride home from a concert. The driver and another person sat in the front, and he sat with me in the back. When he put his arm around my shoulder I was stunned but delighted; and then his hand started massaging my breast. I was 15 and completely naive, had no idea what was happening, but somehow felt embarrassed and ashamed. I just continued to sit silently without moving. This continued until I was dropped off at my house. He told me to come to his hotel room the next morning, and I did! He hugged me very tightly, and I stood frozen, not really understanding what was happening. Then the car came to pick him up, and again I went with him in the car and he dropped me off at school. And I never said a word to anyone, never! I’m a grandmother today, and can still recall that feeling in the pit of my stomach, the confusion and feeling ashamed. I never spoke about this, ever. But all of these comments of denial make me feel I have to confirm that these things happened. He was 40 years old, I was 15. He was an experienced 40 year old man and I was a very naive 15 year old Bais Yaakov girl. In those days we never talked about sex. I had never even spoken to a boy! I didn’t associate him with ‘a boy’ – he was like a parent figure, he was old. But I felt it was something to be ashamed of.

Your article is extremely important – these are conflicts that we have to deal with in life, but if no one ever brings them up, then each person, in each generation, has to over and over again re-invent the wheel of faith. The struggle for faith is hard enough; when these issues are so wrapped in secrecy (and I’m one of those that kept the secret for 53 years!).”

The second was written by a woman who went by the name Jerusalemmom:

“Dear Shula-I had an almost identical story to yours…I was a religious high school girl. 16 years old. I went to his house for a class-his wife opened the door and told me to go downstairs to wait for him. I was the first person there. As I was looking at his incredible library of Judaica he came down-hair and beard wet from the shower. Before I could blink he was on me. One hand down my blouse, another up my dress. I froze in fear. I was so lucky that other people came minutes later for the class and I was “saved.” It has taken me close to 40 years to talk about it. Why bother? People who were his followers give answers like “I can’t believe that” -or “we don’t want to know.” Or “he’s dead and can’t defend himself.”

May g-d grant you peace of mind and may you heal completely. Enjoy your grandchildren and teach them to NEVER EVER let anyone touch them without their permission.”

What’s interesting about Jerusalemmom is that this is the second time she’s shared her story on my blog. The first time she was attacked by Natan Ophir, author of the Carlebach biography, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy who claimed she was lying. According to him, over the course of his research for his “500 page academic biography” about Carlebach, published in 2014, he had interviewed the women in the Lillith article I quoted in my article, and none of them had stood up to rigorous examination that met his academic standards. I soon found out why.

He started out by asking me to put him in touch with Jerusalemmom. I emailed her and explained to her that Carlebach’s biographer was interested in interviewing her about the claim she’d just made in my comments section for his upcoming biography. I also explained that I got the feeling he’d be adversarial. She asked me for time to think about it, and I went to sleep, expecting to have a response in the morning. The next morning I found a bunch of comments awaiting moderation attacking the veracity of what some unidentified user on my blog had to say in an unverifiable “calumny.” Post after post awaited me in the moderation queue, all of the same kind, along with a slew of emails to my personal account to boot. When Jerusalemmom found out what he was doing, she asked me to remove her comments from my blog, and not contact her again regarding this. I apologized, and removed her comments from the article.

A few days later, the article was posted in a popular feminist Facebook group. Instantly, women started messaging me about their abuse at the hands of Carlebach, and posting comments on the page. Within the hour, Natan Ophir, who just happened to be lurking in that group despite never having participated before, popped up and started attacking anyone in the thread with anything negative to say about Carlebach. He was quickly booted out of the group, not for the comments, but for private messaging several of the women who had left comments on that thread.

In the interest of “fairness,” he sent me the chapter of the book he was writing in Hebrew about Carlebach for review. He said he had included some stories about Carlebach’s “darker side,” which, after reading that chapter, to him meant the claims that he was having contact with women other than his wife. Nothing about the allegations of abuse. When I asked him about it, he claimed he couldn’t find anyone with a sufficiently credible story, despite having spoken to dozens of women about it, one of whom actually confronted him in that Facebook thread about distortions he had made in quoting her in his book.

This all took place in December-January 2014, 20 years after his death. Which leads me to my final point. The third thing people say when these allegations come up is, “Why didn’t these women come forward when it happened? Why are they waiting until he’s dead for twenty years to come forward?” Or, “Oh, it was probably a bunch of women who slept with a celebrity, woke up the next day with buyer’s remorse, and cried sexual assault. You know how it is.” And I’d like to address those claims, because they are worryingly relevant.

The women I spoke to were terrified to come forward publicly. Despite the fact that there’s very little in their lives that they have to lose by doing so at this point. They have families, they’re grandmothers now, for the most part, and they don’t have jobs that hang in the balance if they come out and tell their stories about Carlebach. But they do have to worry about people like Natan Ophir following them around harassing them. They do have to worry about the hatred that Carlebach’s followers seem to have in endless supply for people who have a different, more troubling story about their beloved leader. At this point, many of them feel that it’s just not worth fighting that battle.

But as to why they didn’t come forward sooner? They did. Or rather, they tried. Many of them tried to confront Carlebach about what he did, but when his gabba’im found out about why they wanted to talk to him, they made sure to keep them away. When his followers found out that someone was harboring such an accusation, they made sure to shut them out, and make it plain that they were no longer welcome. The legend they’d built in their minds and their hearts was too big and too fragile to fail. And the truth is it’s not unexpected. Carlebach, to so many, represents the very essence of their Judaism. For many he’s the very reason they have any connection at all, whether spiritual, cultural, or religious, to Judaism. For many, his message of love and acceptance, of connection to God rather than strict observance of a set of laws, of following the spirit to transcend the letter. Without him that message is lost, and without that message they lose their connection.

I feel for such people. I do. And that’s how we return to the original question: Is it possible to separate the art from the artist; the message from the man. Two years ago, when I wrote the article, I didn’t know the answer. But now, to me, the answer is clear. I’ve decided to let it all go. I no longer listen to or sing his music. I don’t feel personally that it’s appropriate to listen to the music and stories of a man whose art gave him the power and status he needed to get away with abusing so many women. I can’t honestly stand at the Amud and sing L’cha Dodi to any of Carlebach’s tunes and feel anything but dirty. I can’t tell myself that God wants my prayers when they come packaged in such poisoned melodies.

I don’t know if that’s the appropriate decision for everyone to make, but that’s the decision I’ve made. But whether people decide to keep listening to and singing his music, or they decide to let it go and find other sources of inspiration, the man and the artist have to die. The legend has to die. Perhaps the message and the music can live on, but not through him. Not through someone who hurt so many people. He doesn’t deserve our praise.

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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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