How The Gedolim Lost My Faith

Author’s Note: Here’s the link to the Facebook event for this Sunday’s protest of the Novominsker Rebbe’s, and by extension Agudah’s, rape-enabling policies:


I started off in activism, much in the same way every other activist starts, with a young, optimistic, incredibly naïve idea of what I could accomplish if I tried hard enough. The problem: children were being abused, suffering horribly at the hands of people who violated them in ways that would viscerally incense anyone possessed of a conscience. Surely the problem was one of ignorance. It seemed to me, as it seems to many young, upstart activists, that when apprised of the horrifying reality and pervasiveness of child sexual abuse, people of conscience, people who are otherwise God-fearing fellow Orthodox Jews, couldn’t possibly stand idly by and allow such injustices to continue. No, it must be ignorance, I figured, and ignorance can be educated.


At the time I was confused about my place in the Jewish faith. I’d been raised solidly Charedi in Boro Park, taught from a young age to keep shabbos and kashrus, to daven three times a day, to value torah, and to respect gedolim. Gedolim were the closest thing we had to prophets. They didn’t talk to God, but after a lifetime of devotion to God, the study of Torah, and living piously, living as an example for the rest of us to follow, surely they were the most qualified to tell us what God wanted of us.


But that sort of devotion surely must come at a price, a certain detachment from the mundane, from the day-to-day of our lay lives. It’s no wonder they didn’t do anything about the rampant sexual abuse in their communities, no wonder that when they were handed a case to adjudicate they made the incorrect choice. It wasn’t their fault, they simply didn’t understand the exactly nature of the problem they were adjudicating. They simply didn’t understand what it means for a victim to feel so abandoned, betrayed, and violated by their friends, family, and community that the only apparent way out is suicide. Surely they’d never experienced being in such a mental space.


Surely they’d never been in so much pain that the only way to numb it, to make it somewhat bearable, survivable, was to stay drunk or stay high for long enough to function. Surely they’d never felt so out of control that were compelled to stuff themselves to make themselves feel full of something other than pain only to empty themselves out again with a well placed finger down their throats; surely they’d never felt the need to exert a similar control over something – anything – in their lives by not eating.


No, they couldn’t possibly have experienced these things. And why would they? They were holy, as close to perfect as a human being could be, and God rewards those who follow God’s law so devotedly. It wasn’t their fault that they’d never experienced such pain. They’d worked hard for their rewards. Their lack of perspective wasn’t a flaw, but a testament to their righteousness. Their detachment was both a byproduct and a reward of the lives they’d led.


But surely these paragons, once informed of the pain we were experiencing, once confronted, not adversarially but respectfully, unlike those other activists who were just out to shame them, mock their torah, their communities, and their devotion to both, activists who were simply self-interested, ridiculing people who by contrast made them look like the pleasure-seeking self-justifying sinners they surely were – if they were approached by someone who walked in both sets of shoes, a survivor and a devoted member of their community – surely they’d have to take notice and act to help us.


I started to talk to people about getting me some meetings with the men I’d grown up revering. At the time I’d started writing, but still didn’t have my own blog, so I’d hand my articles to other blogs for publication. In Novemeber of 2012, Avi Shafran wrote an article for Cross Currents titled The Evil Eleventh, in which he responded to a 2006 New York Magazine article by Robert Kolker, which speculated that abuse in the Orthodox Jewish world might be more prevalent than it is elsewhere. Shafran, in his response, contended that since there are no statistics, Kolker’s speculative assertions were an “unmitigated insult to the Judaism,” and likened it, due to his reliance on information obtained by a handful of advocates and survivors, to “visiting Sloan Kettering and concluding that there is a national cancer epidemic raging.”


The rest of his response was a classic example of deflecting by focusing attention on the Jimmy Savile case in England, and engaging in No True Scotsmanism, declaring anyone who would do such a thing ipso facto not a religious Jew, thereby – somehow – making it not our problem.


Respectful as I was of gedolim at the time – many of whom Shafran represented as spokesman for Agudath Israel, and by extension the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, and distrustful to the point of disdain, at times, of the advocates and activists involved in the issue of child sexual abuse, I nevertheless wrote a response which I intended to publish on a friend’s blog. I figured, however, that it was only fair to send an advance copy to Shafran for comment before publishing.


After emailing back and forth about the article, it seemed that he agreed with my main points, and that my article, as I had intended to publish it, was unfair. He seemed like someone I could talk to, a reasonable person who genuinely cared about the issue, and, given half a chance, would do what he could to help. I told him I would not publish my response, and we set up a time to talk on the phone.


We ended up talking for four nights over the next two weeks, each conversation lasting a couple of hours. I had prepared notes. I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere on many of the topics I raised, but I figured I’d raise them anyway.


Issues like sex education in yeshivos, acknowledging the harm done – whether anything could be done about it or not – in segregating the sexes until marriage, acknowledging – whether anything could be done about it or not – the problems caused by our general reticence to use proper terminology when discussing physical anatomy or sexuality, refusing to discuss sexuality as a topic, and how much harder it makes discussing non-consensual sexual encounters when even consensual encounters are considered taboo. Then there was the fact that teachers, and yeshiva administrations in general are unwilling to allow students to discuss issues they’re having in their personal lives with faith, with the opposite sex, drugs, depression, etc, without fear of expulsion, and that by the time they reach a yeshiva that does allow such discussion between students and faculty, it’s too late.


Then we moved on to the problems caused by sexual abuse, and the terrible suffering it causes to its victims. I ran him through all the problems, both mental and physical, caused by sexual abuse, some which I’d developed having been abused myself for years.


Throughout all of it, he listened sympathetically, sometimes even empathetically. He acknowledged all of my concerns. He admitted that there were issues with the way our communities raise children, and he acknowledged the damage caused by all of these concerns. I thought I was getting somewhere. I thought, finally someone who’s on my side, who has access to gedolim, who can actually help me change things for the better.


And then we got to the psak.


Shortly following the 2011 Agudah Convention, Shafran posted the following psak on Cross Currents, which operates as Agudah’s de facto blog. The psak was posted by Shafran as an official Agudah statement:

  1. Where there is “raglayim la’davar” (roughly, reason to believe) that a child has been abused or molested, the matter should be reported to the authorities. In such situations, considerations of “tikun ha’olam” (the halachic authority to take steps necessary to “repair the world”), as well as other halachic concepts, override all other considerations.
  2. This halachic obligation to report where there is raglayim la’davar is not dependent upon any secular legal mandate to report. Thus, it is not limited to a designated class of “mandated reporters,” as is the law in many states (including New York); it is binding upon anyone and everyone. In this respect, the halachic mandate to report is more stringent than secular law.
  3. However, where the circumstances of the case do not rise to the threshold level of raglayim la’davar, the matter should not be reported to the authorities. In the words of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, perhaps the most widely respected senior halachic authority in the world today, “I see no basis to permit” reporting “where there is no raglayim la’davar, but rather only ‘eizeh dimyon’ (roughly, some mere conjecture); if we were to permit it, not only would that not result in ‘tikun ha’olam’, it could lead to ‘heres haolam’ (destruction of the world).” [Yeshurun, Volume 7, page 641.]
  4. Thus, the question of whether the threshold standard of raglayim la’davar has been met so as to justify (indeed, to require) reporting is critical for halachic purposes. (The secular law also typically establishes a threshold for mandated reporters; in New York, it is “reasonable cause to suspect.”) The issue is obviously fact sensitive and must be determined on a case-by-case basis.
  5. There may be times when an individual may feel that a report or evidence he has seen rises to the level of raglayim la’davar; and times when he may feel otherwise. Because the question of reporting has serious implications for all parties, and raises sensitive halachic issues, the individual should not rely exclusively on his own judgment to determine the presence or absence of raglayim la’davar. Rather, he should present the facts of the case to a rabbi who is expert in halacha and who also has experience in the area of abuse and molestation – someone who is fully sensitive both to the gravity of the halachic considerations and the urgent need to protect children. (In addition, as Rabbi Yehuda Silman states in one of his responsa [Yeshurun, Volume 15, page 589], “of course it is assumed that the rabbi will seek the advice of professionals in the field as may be necessary.”) It is not necessary to convene a formal bais din (rabbinic tribunal) for this purpose, and the matter should be resolved as expeditiously as possible to minimize any chance of the suspect continuing his abusive conduct while the matter is being considered.


While the first four clauses of the psak may not seem all that objectionable, despite the comparison of “reasonable causes to suspect” determined by mental health and law enforcement professionals to raglayim ledavar determined by average, untrained community rabbis, the fifth clause is what’s truly problematic.


The fifth clause seems to indicate that since the average person is not an expert in what constitutes raglayim ledavar, a rabbi should be consulted in every case, either to establish the presence of raglayim ledavar, or to affirm it. What that essentially means, to most people, is that regardless of whether or not your own common sense tells you that there’s clearly raglayim ledavar, you should consult your rabbi anyway just to make sure.


By then I’d been active long enough in survivor communities to have heard countless stories of survivors who had been browbeaten into silence by rabbis who were either ignorant of the damage caused by sexual abused and therefore felt more sympathy either for the abuser who could potentially face serious prison time, or the abuser’s family who would suffer if their loved one was arrested and publicly charged, or who simply persuaded and pressured survivors into silence because they had a vested interest in protecting the abuser. I’d seen the damage caused by this psak, and I wanted Shafran to address my concerns. Surely we could work something out.


I told him my concerns, and he told me that I had gotten the psak all wrong. That it didn’t actually mandate consulting rabbis in every case. That surprised me, so I asked him for specific examples of cases that would or wouldn’t require consulting a rabbi prior to reporting.


According to Shafran, if someone is the victim of abuse, they obviously have raglayim ledavar, and can report without consulting a rabbi. If someone is the parent or guardian of a child who clearly seems like they were abused, or clearly says that they were abused, then you have raglayim ledavar, and can report without consulting a rabbi. The only situation under the psak, according to Shafran, in which you’d actually have to consult a rabbi, is if a child tells you that something happened, but can’t or won’t elaborate, and you’re not sure what they mean.


While the proper protocol for such a situation is to take the child to a mental health professional for evaluation, this interpretation of the psak as laid out by Shafran seemed damned near reasonable. I was stunned. It actually seemed like a decent compromise, a promising starting point. The psak actually was progress. The advocates were wrong. But why did they have this misconception, and why didn’t Agudah do anything to remedy it?


I asked Shafran, still stunned by what he’d told me, why this psak wasn’t more widely publicized, more publicly explained? Why was this psak, as he’d explained it, not published in mainstream Charedi newspapers, like Yated and Hamodia? Why was Agudah not taking out two-page spreads to both defend themselves against the baseless accusations of angry bloggers, and to make sure that children in the community were protected under this new, progressive psak?


Because we don’t want the laypeople interpreting the psak on their own and misapplying it.


That was the response I got.


But why do community rabbis not know about this psak? How are they expected to make the proper decisions if they don’t even know the framework in which they’re expected to operate? I didn’t get a good answer for this.


Alright, but what about having a dedicated panel that’s publicly known to adjudicate sexual abuse cases, and evaluate whether or not they meet the criteria of raglayim ledavar, a panel that would be accountable for the rulings they’d render?


Well, Shafran explained, firstly such a thing wouldn’t be legal. Secondly, no rabbi would want to be the one to step forward and take the lead on such a thing. It would earn them criticism, and cause conflicts with the institutions they lead or represent, jeopardize their positions, or the financial futures of their yeshivos, and no one would want to accept that kind of responsibility.


What if the gedolim came out publicly and did more to raise awareness? Surely, if they took leadership on this, if they all made the issue front and center as a problem that the frum community needs to tackle head-on, rabbis who wanted to become more proactive in fighting against child sexual abuse would feel more comfortable making themselves available.


It was then that Shafran managed my expectations of gedolim.


They have the same problem. They don’t feel they can take that risk, because they still have to worry about their communities, institutions, and positions.


And right there, at that moment, is when the gedolim lost my faith.


“I don’t understand,” I exclaimed bitterly, “Is the dog wagging its tail, or is the tail wagging the dog?”


After I’d calmed down a little bit, apologized for my outburst, and assimilated this world-shattering piece of information, I got back down to business.


Ok, well, if the gedolim aren’t going to help, what can I do to raise awareness in the community? Could Shafran help me get a foot in the door with some of the frum newspapers and magazines so I could publish articles about abuse, and raise community awareness?


Yated, Hamodia, Mishpacha, Ami, and Zman would never take them, he said.


Not even if they were told to?




So what do I do?


Start at the bottom. Go to the Flatbush Jewish Journal. They’ll be more likely to publish something about sexual abuse, provided its written respectfully, in a way that doesn’t accuse the whole community of complicity. Start there. Work your way up.


Can you call the editor in chief and tell him that you’re sending me along?




Can I tell him you sent me?




(In an email a week later he did offer to let me drop his name in an email to the editor of Flatbush Jewish Journal.)


So after four days of talking, after all the things we’ve agreed upon, after all the concern you showed, you can’t help me with anything? Even this? What have I gotten from this?


“.תפסת מרובה לא תפסת”


I’ve since been disabused of all the misconceptions I’ve had regarding gedolim. I should have known, but all the gedolim I’d tried to get meetings with had already met with survivors, had already heard everything I’d wanted to say to them, and their pain had similarly fallen on deaf ears.


I’ve since lost the illusion I had of gedolim as saintly beings with a holy disconnection from mundane reality. They know. But they’re people. They have self-interest. They have ambition. They like power, and money. They’re the same as everyone else. Nothing greater or lesser. Just regular people in charge of regular institutions. They don’t know God any better than the rest of us do. They don’t have any special insight that we don’t. Their ability to use their sechel isn’t any different from ours. There’s nothing innately special about any of them.


They’re gedolim because they have power. They run powerful institutions. They control powerful amounts of money. They have powerful amounts of influence. That’s it. Nothing special.


I lost a fair chunk of my innocence when I realized this. I no longer had heroes to look up to. I no longer had any paragons of virtue after which to model my life. But I’ve met some. There are people I consider tzaddikim. People who have literally stood between a gun and its intended target. People whose careers and public profiles have suffered tremendously because they refused to budge on their principles. People who have publicly acknowledged their complicity in protecting abusers in the past, but have since publicly taken accountability, apologized unreservedly, educated themselves about the issue, and have become some of the leaders in our cause.


Those are people worthy of respect.


And the key difference between them? They are respected but don’t demand respect. They are beloved but don’t demand love. They don’t command awe. They don’t command worship. They’re not the kind of people who would make you walk backwards out of a room they’re occupying so you don’t turn your back on them. They’re always willing to offer advice if asked, but would never demand that you seek their counsel.


They’re the real gedolim, but they would bristle at the title.


I only came to this realization about gedolim because I came close enough to see their weaknesses. Most people in their communities are too blinded by the mirages they see to recognize these weaknesses. That’s why we’re bringing the issue to the frum community. That’s why ZA’AKAH is protesting outside of the Novominsker Rebbe’s shul. To show the community that we’re not ignoring the issue just because the gedolim tell us to, that the gedolim are not operating in the best interests of our children, but the best interests of the institutions they lead, that there are people out there who see their pain, and care enough to do something about it, and that if they should choose to speak up, we’ll proudly give them a voice.


Join us this Sunday at 3 PM, in front of the Novominsker Shul at 1644 48th street, to protest agudah’s rape enabling policies. Because that’s all their psak does. That’s all Yaakov Perlow accomplished in issuing that psak. By requiring victims to consult a rabbi before reporting child sexual abuse to the authorities, all that’s accomplished is the enabling of coverups by community rabbis either too ignorant, or too biased to make the right decisions.


The only proper response to abuse is reporting to the authorities. And let no gadol tell you otherwise.
Correction: I deleted a sentence saying that Shafran refused to let me drop his name in conversation with Flatbush Jewish Journal. According to my recollection he did refuse during our conversation, but in an email a week later he did recommend that I drop his name in conversation with the Flatbush Jewish Journal. This post has been updated to reflect that change.


How NaNoWriMo Saved My Life

My family has always been a little skeptical of writers. My grandmother, especially. “Oh, they’re being paid,” she’d say, as if the act of accepting money nullifies whatever idealism and feeling the author poured into the piece. It really annoyed me. I mean, I’m a writer, aren’t I? I’ve even been paid for some of what I’ve written. As any self-respective content-creator, I was duly offended. I’ve since learned that she’s only half wrong: There is writing that is purely opportunistic, words penned to promote a specific agenda or idea with no feeling behind it; voiceless words, pushing platitudes that a thousand thousand other people have pushed, each varying only slightly from the empty words of their predecessors—those variations being only a way of shoehorning the same tired, irrelevant, manipulative idea into something designed to hook the brainless masses. Those writers should be dismissed for being paid.

And then there’s writing you feel in your core. There is writing that makes you want to laugh, cry, jump for joy, punch walls, pull off your clothes and jump into a pool wearing nothing but your skivvies, and sit curled up in a corner alternatively talking to your security blanket and shoveling half-melted ice cream into your already caramel stained mouth, all at once. There’s writing that changes you. There’s writing that calls to your soul with a voice that demands to be heard. There’s writing that is born of passion, experience, and a burning desire to share with the world a masterpiece, painted by pen, one word at a time. There’s writing that alters the life of the reader—that can save or destroy the life of the reader. Such is the power of the written word. Like any other implement, it can build or destroy, beautify or befoul, inspire or devastate. Trust me, reader, when I tell you that it has the same effect on the author as it does on you.

Writing has been my outlet, the method why which I heal, and my contribution to a damaged world I hope to do my part to heal. Through writing, I can express what I can’t bring myself to utter. I’ve felt everything I’ve made my readers feel, and more. The more I’ve written, however, the more I’ve come to realize that as cathartic as the experience of writing can be, nothing compares to the power of a reader’s feedback. The timing makes this all the more significant for me: It’s November, and NaNoWriMo saved my life.

Those of you who follow my blog are familiar with my story. For those of you who aren’t, here’s what you need to know. My life completely fell apart six years ago. It took me a while, but after around a year, and with some help from a certain special someone, I was finally ready to write about it. I wrote a very long article for Ami Magazine, which was published. It’s hard to describe how liberating it felt to tell the world about my life after suffering silently for so long. I knew I needed to do more. For months my friends had been buzzing about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which is a sort of contest put on every year by the Office of Letters and Light, to see who can write a novel within 30 days. There aren’t really any prizes, but you do get serious bragging rights. There are write-ins, and all sorts of motivational tools on their website. If you’re going to write a book, November is the time to do it. And I wanted to write a book.

And so, I did. Fifty-some-odd-thousand words in two weeks. I barely ate or slept. This book was going to be the meaning for everything that had happened to me; it would give reason to all the suffering—it would be my reason for living. It took everything out of me, but there it was: My story. It was a memoir, not a novel, but still. It was pretty cool. I spent the next week and a half editing the thing, rewriting parts that needed fixing, correcting the odd typo here and there. Finally, about a week ahead of the deadline, I had something I thought was publishable. (It wasn’t, but I was a kid, so what did I know.) Proudly, I walked to the Fedex office three blocks away, and had my manuscript printed and bound. And there I stood, holding what had kept me going, my raison d’être, in my hands, and I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about that.

I remember feeling at once profoundly euphoric and profoundly meaningless. Those pages in my hand had been my life, from the time Ami had published my article to the time my manuscript came out of the printer at FedEx, and now I had it, and I wasn’t sure what was next. What if it was rejected. What if it was never published. What if my purpose never came to fruition. I walked out of that FedEx Office smiling and crying, and into a nearby subway station to catch a train home. And as I stood there on the platform, watching the train coming, a voice niggled at the back of my consciousness, asking “What if?” For the second time in my life, I considered it. Indeed, what if. I’d never see my purpose fulfilled, but then again, I probably wouldn’t anyway. What if. What if I didn’t have to wonder. What if it ended right there, with my life literally in my hands. What if.

I got on that train instead of jumping in front of it, but that feeling of meaninglessness didn’t go away. The euphoria did, though, and the next day I showed up at the last write-in of NaNoWriMo profoundly depressed. As I sat there flipping through my manuscript, my laptop dinged, notifying me of incoming email. It wasn’t from anyone I knew, but the subject said it had to do with my book, so I opened it. It was from a friend of a friend who had seen the summary of my book on my NaNoWriMo page and had a similar history. We chatted a little bit, and got to know each other, and then she sent me her story. It was remarkably similar to mine, right down to the family history of mental illness, abuse, anxiety, and PTSD. She told me how much it meant to her to see someone writing their story—her story—knowing that there were other people out there who knew what she was going through, and who cared about her.

And right then, I knew what my purpose was. That feeling of meaninglessness went away. I knew that my purpose was not just to get my book published, but to use my abilities as a writer to help others who don’t have a voice, who are either not ready or able to express themselves, tell their stories, or begin the process of healing. My purpose was to be there for those people and tell them that they are not alone. As I wrote in another piece on this blog:

…I discovered a purpose, a silver lining, almost, to everything that had happened. I still didn’t like the process, or the fact that I had to experience any of it, but God’s purpose started making sense–the good I had been looking for was beginning to make sense. It may seem odd for me to call the fact that I have the benefit of such unfortunate experience a good thing, but, to me, there is nothing more beautiful than that first smile breaking across a face stained by too many years of crying. If my experience means that I can be the cause of that smile, then that’s the purpose–that’s the good.

So, yeah, that’s how NaNoWriMo saved my life. What’s your NaNoWriMo story?


How “Journalism” Becomes an Excuse

Five months ago, I came this close to understanding what it means to die of shock. Mishpacha Magazine, a Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) magazine about as right-wing as they come, not only published an article about sexual abuse, but actually did the issue justice. The article, titled King of Hearts, interviewed Rabbi Moshe Bak, founder of Project Innocent Heart, an organization devoted to raising awareness about the prevalence and dangers of sexual abuse, and to educate teachers, students, and parents on how to recognize, prevent, and treat child sexual abuse. One sentence in the article left my jaw particularly bruised after making it hit the floor: “[A]lthough only a small percentage of abuse occurs on school grounds, the safest place for a predator to operate is in a Jewish day school.” I was shocked. Discussion of the topic is considered taboo; a statement like that, to the average Mishpacha reader, is akin to blasphemy.

That was the first time I had ever seen the issue tackled openly in the right-wing Orthodox press. Barring one or two Orthodox news sites, most publications prefer to, in the words of Hamodia editor Ruth Lichtenstein, protect their readers’ “right not to know.” Yeshiva World News refuses to cover any sexual abuse stories, and its moderators routinely shut down conversations on sexual abuse in the Orthodox community right when they’re about to get meaningful. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to see an article in last week’s Ami Magazine that openly discussed sexual abuse. Finally, I figured, we’re getting somewhere. I figured too soon.

The article, written by managing editor Yossi Krausz, covered a panel discussion held at John Jay College on the topic of child sex abuse and reporting in the Orthodox community. Krausz comes out swinging:

To put it mildly, the frum [religious] community has had some problems with much of the reporting—especially crime reporting—that’s been done on it. Perhaps “vilification” might be a better word than “reporting,” actually

I’ve long had a problem with this view of reporting done on the Orthodox community, particularly reporting which casts it in a bad light. Rather than take responsibility for the crimes it commits, the community prefers to play victim, claim anti-semitism, and use the media as an example of the ever-present bogeyman, the ghosts of anti-semites past supposedly hovering hungrily over that precarious little world, desiring nothing more than to devour it whole. To be fair, Krausz never actually uses the phrase “anti-semitism” in his article, but the sentiment is clearly implied. I have yet to see a single article, other than Mishpacha’s—and even that took a swing at the anti-abuse activist community, calling them “enraged bashing blog[ger]s”—take responsibility for abuse and the stigma surrounding it in the Orthodox community. The community prefers to obfuscate, dodge the issue, blame its reluctance to address the issue on the tone of the people who fight to end it.

I used to be an angry blogger. I’ve since learned that there are more productive ways to fight for my cause—now I’m a less angry blogger—but I remember the rage I used to feel every time I sat down in front of a keyboard. It would come pouring out of me, words, tears, hate, anger, frustration, defeat, a feeling of futility against a seemingly Goliathan community which had turned its back on me, encouraged me to suffer rather than report, called me a liar, called me an anti-semite, stuck its fingers in its ears to drown out the sound of my cries. I remember how I wanted it to burn. I remember how I cursed God. I remember how small I felt, how mad that made me, and how incredibly cathartic it felt to write. I remember why I felt that rage—it was the result of years of silence, abuse, pain forced inward, finally reaching critical mass.

What’s interesting is how much time is devoted to fighting “angry bloggers” and “media witch hunts” compared to the time devoted by the community to eradicating sexual abuse. I have two issues with the way the right-wing Orthodox press spins media coverage of its crimes. It typically points at the sensationalism of the stories and the disproportionate coverage when compared to similar crimes committed by other communities, nationalities, and ethnicities. Rapes are reported every day in the New York Post and New York Daily News, but only the Orthodox cases seem to make the front page. The New York Times doesn’t waste ink on just any rape case, but throw the words Ultra and Orthodox into the mix, and suddenly it’s above the fold. They have a point, but draw the wrong conclusion.

As Orthodox Jews, we project a certain image of moral superiority rooted in our presumed adherence to biblical law and morality. By our dress, our appearance, and our overt devotion to God and religion, we broadcast to the world that we hold ourselves to a higher standard; we tell the world that it can count on us to uphold morality and lawfulness. Which makes it all the more newsworthy when one of us does something that the world expects from people other than us. The media doesn’t sensationalize stories about Orthodox sexual abusers because it is anti-semitic; it sensationalizes stories of Orthodox sexual abusers because by the image we project, and the image it has accepted, such a thing should not exist. The fact that it does exist is therefore newsworthy. I almost take it as a compliment.

My second issue is that the community is so concerned about PR problems that it runs around like a headless chicken trying to treat the symptoms of the problem, rather than treating the cause of the problem. What endangers the Orthodox community more than PR problems, is abuse, particularly sexual abuse. I used to volunteer at Our Place, a drop-in center for kids at risk. The term “kids at risk” has become, in the Orthodox community, a tongue in cheek way of describing kids who are at risk of abandoning their religion. When I say at risk, I mean at risk of death by overdose, death by drive-by, death by exposure. I mean kids living on the streets, selling and taking drugs to survive, because the prospect of going back home, or going back to school, or going back to their communities is so terrifying, that risking death seems like a better choice to them. According to the founder, director, and many of the staff at Our Place, close to 80% of the children who come through their doors have suffered some kind of abuse, mostly sexual, but also physical, at the hands of someone in their community.

I’ve spoken to many of them, heard them laugh in that way you do when the choice is either laugh or cry, about things done to them by their teachers, rabbis, family members, mentors, in school, at home, in synagogues, in mikvahs (ritual baths). I personally dealt with a kid who was so terrified of going home that he would sleep instead on benches in parks, or check himself into homeless shelters. Unfortunately, he was under 16, and was often brought home by police officers who found him out in violation of curfew. I asked him if it was worth that kind of life just to be out of his home. He looked me dead in the eye and said yes. Perhaps if the community would spend half the effort fighting abuse as it puts into fighting the people who are trying to end it, that boy wouldn’t have to treat every night as though it could be his last. Perhaps if the community focused on ending abuse as much as it focuses on the negative PR generated by the people it has failed coming out and telling their stories, there wouldn’t be any stories to tell.

The only nod Ami’s article made toward survivors of abuse was when it mentioned two survivors, one of whom was me, who got up and shared their stories:

Two of the audience members subtly undermined the general tenor of the discussion. One young woman discussed her sister’s abuse by a neighbor; a young man discussed his own abuse. Both of them said that worries about shidduchim [prospects for marriage], either for their own family members or for the family members of the abuser, were why their parents didn’t go to the police. Those turned out to be bad decisions with tragic consequences, because they left the abusers free to prey on other children.

Of course the next sentence cost Ami any points it had scored with me:

But these stories had a different narrative from the one that the panel had been promoting. Instead of evil rabbis engaging in backroom machinations—the image that one would have gotten from much of the panel’s discussion—these speakers were pointing out, perhaps unintentionally, more subtle factors that exist in many cases. Yet in the context of the entire discussion, that point was probably lost on most listeners.

Which I read as:

Yes!!! An opportunity to not only misuse survivors and their stories to defend a community they so clearly indicted, but to also point out some flaws in a discussion which, given its limited time, couldn’t possibly do justice to the nuance of the issue, thus surely invalidating the entire issue! Did Chanukah come early this year?!

Snark aside, that was the only bit in the whole Ami article actually devoted substantively to the issue of sexual abuse. The rest was just a bunch of potshots at the panelists, complaints about an event billed as a panel discussion on reporting of crime turning into a discussion of the crime itself, and nitpicking at Julia Dahl, New York post reporter and author of Invisble City, who, admittedly, did get some facts wrong in her novel, which told the story of a city reporter sent to cover a murder in the Ultra-Orthodox community of Boro Park. While Dahl should have used better sources and done a little more homework, using her book as an excuse to overlook an issue which literally threatens the lives of thousands of children a year, is indicative of either institutional callousness, or a legitimate inability to look past the trees and see a forest.

I’m going to give Ami the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter. It is hard seeing a community you love being taken to task for something you’d sooner not believe exists in your world. That being said, it should be far more offended by the abuse of its community’s children than by the tone of people who may get a little carried away in their zeal to protect those children.