Our Institutions Owe Us Their Teshuva For Child Sexual Abuse

As we arrive in shul tonight and rise for the Kol Nidre prayer that marks the beginning of our Day of Atonement, the 56th day since the opening of the New York State Child Victims Act Lookback Window will be drawing to a close. Already hundreds of lawsuits have been filed across the religious and secular communities in New York State demanding justice for child sexual abuse that was enabled and covered up by their institutions. In less than two months the lawsuits filed by just a relative handful of survivors represent the prospect of justice for tens of thousands of people who were sexually abused as children and for decades denied their day in court.

Our communities are not exempt from this reckoning. Already several lawsuits have been filed against major Orthodox Jewish institutions, with many more on the way. Because of this outstanding liability many Orthodox Jewish organizations, most notably Agudath Israel of America, lobbied hard against the Child Victims Act. They joined with the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America in opposing justice for survivors of child sexual abuse, and in so doing ignored not only the cries of the children abused by their negligence, but their responsibility to do meaningful teshuva for the lives they’ve destroyed.

In the immediate aftermath of the opening of the Lookback Window these institutions, rather than reaching out to survivors and advocates to find out how they could help the survivors in their communities, instead began compiling and distributing lists of defense attorneys willing to take their cases. Their justification for their opposition and response to the Child Victims Act was that these crimes were far in the past, that they’d cleaned up their acts. Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, never once did they consider their collective obligation to repent for their crimes.

As we head into Yom Kippur and we turn our souls toward repenting for the sins of the previous year, we must insist that the institutions that serve our communities and children do the same. Maimonides, in outlining the laws of repentance, doesn’t merely characterize it as a commitment for the future, but also as an acknowledgement of the sins committed, and an open confession of those sins. Whereas in the case of sins between people and God abandonment of sin, regret, confession, and commitment for the future are sufficient for repentance, that’s not true of sins between fellow people.

For sins that injure another person repentance requires making restitution for the injury, obtaining verbal forgiveness from the injured party, and appeasement of the injured party. While lawyering up and fighting against claims made by survivors of abusive institutions might suffice for the civil process, it does not suffice for the halachic or moral process of how someone responsible for the sexual violation of a child is required to repent for that damage.

In the Haftarah reading for Yom Kippur we read from Isaiah where God rebukes our piety that comes at the expense of others. On the holiest day of the year, on a day when we are commanded to afflict our bodies with fasting to atone for our sins, we read the words of God telling us that the ‘fast’ God actually desires of us is “To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. To share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.” This on a day when we—under penalty of kares—are commanded to fast. God instead entreats us to be just and kind, to support society’s victims, and refuse to abide injustice.

It’s no coincidence that on this holiest day of the year we are reminded that our external pieties are secondary to and can never come at the expense of justice for those who are least able to get it themselves. Our prayers, our fasting, our speeches, our crying, and our repentance mean nothing if we continue to deny survivors of child sexual abuse the justice they for decades have been denied, and if we continue rationalizing why the institutions responsible for violating them deserve not to be held accountable.

Our concern as a community must always be centered around the people these institutions were meant to serve and protect, and when those institutions fail, when they are responsible for the sexual abuse of children, we must demand that they make restitution for those crimes. We must support the survivors of those crimes, and we must stand with them in demanding justice.

The second an institution becomes more important than the people it serves it no longer deserves to exist.

If we are to grow as a community and move forward together into a safer era for our children we must first atone for the sins of our past. We must stand with the people violated by those sins. We must learn from our sins, we must listen to and learn from the survivors’ stories and experiences, and we must use them to grow in the future.

Otherwise our pieties, our fasts, our prayers, and our institutions are nothing more than empty mockeries of what God actually wants from us on Yom Kippur.

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Amudim is Part of the Problem

Here’s the problem with the way we’ve been conditioned to respond to things like Zvi Gluck deliberately lying to survivors about their rights under the Child Victims Act. We’ve grown so accustomed to the status quo being so incredibly terrible that we’ve lost sight of what the right thing actually looks like, and we’re therefore so much more willing to sycophantically lick the boots of the people who throw us enough crumbs to stay quiet than we are to hold them and the systems that protect abusers accountable.

To give an example. I just got off the phone with someone who called me regarding a quote I shared from Zvi Gluck in which he defended his decision to not publicly make his followers aware of their rights under the CVA, and lie about it in an op-ed he wrote shortly after it passed.

According to Zvi Gluck, director and founder of Amudim, one of the largest victim-service organizations in the Orthodox world, with an annual operating budget of $7 million, efforts not to publicize the one-year look-back provision and extended statute of limitations for civil suits were intentional, based on the organizations prerogatives.

Gluck said the organization chose not to speak out publicly because he did not want to “risk causing secondary trauma for survivors.”

“If we publicized about these new legal options and survivors chose to bring their cases back to court only for those cases to be dismissed, we could cause even more trauma for survivors,” he said.

Zvi Gluck to Hannah Dreyfus of the Jewish Week


The person I spoke to said that whatever my opinions of Zvi Gluck, didn’t I think think that what he was doing was a net positive? After all, he’s saying things no one else is saying in the community. He’s helping people no one else wants to help.

Those things are great, but here’s the issue: Zvi Gluck is part of the problem he claims he’s helping to fix.

Awareness was definitely an issue in the frum community ten years ago. To even discuss sexual abuse, to even acknowledge its existence was taboo. The people talking about it, like Nuchem Rosenberg, Shmarya Rosenberg, and Paul Mendlowitz, were considered fringe nutjobs yelling about something that people didn’t believe was a problem.

Ultimately, however, thanks to their efforts, the efforts of those who came after them, and increased general coverage of child sexual abuse in the press, the public is now aware that it exists and that it’s a problem. That’s not to say that awareness campaigns are not important. There are anyways people who remain unaware, and survivors who feel alone in their experiences who need to be reached. But the issue of awareness existing in the community has in large part been addressed. We’re aware. Now what.

When Zvi Gluck and people like him get credit for raising awareness in the community, what’s not being addressed are the systems in place in the community that actively silence survivors. It’s not because the community is unaware of sexual abuse that Yated, Hamodia, Mishpacha, Ami, and Yeshiva World don’t allow any mention of child sexual abuse in their publications. It’s because the rabbonim and community leaders who dictate what does and doesn’t get printed in those publications decided to either explicitly or implicitly forbid it.

If you’re aware of child sexual abuse, especially if you’re a survivor, and you look around you in the general world and see everyone talking about it, and then you look around in your community and see a complete moratorium on any public discussion of it, you get the message very clearly that the community does not care about you and does not want to hear or help you. That’s by design. It’s not due to a lack of awareness.

When I began leading protests for ZA’AKAH in the community, I expected a fierce backlash. I was doing something that hadn’t been done very much before, and I was being loud, rude, and in-your-face about it. We stood on street corners outside of shuls, and yeshivas, and we yelled and chanted about sexual abuse.

And the response was overwhelmingly positive.

People came over to us and offered us water. They took our fliers. They talked to us, and asked us questions. Some even waited until the end of the protests and thanked us, or asked us for help with situations they were dealing with. While there was some negative response, and even one violent incident, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

The awareness is there. The people know that sexual abuse is a prevalent problem. What they don’t have is anyone to stand up for them when they want to report sexual abuse. They don’t have anyone who will protect their jobs, their homes, their children’s educations, when they dare to come forward against their abusers and the people who enabled them.

And that’s really what they need, and they need it to be public and full-throated. They need to hear that reporting sexual abuse is the right thing to do. They need to hear that any rav who tells them otherwise is wrong. They need to hear that they’ll be supported. They need to hear from the people with the resources and communal and political capital that they will be supported if they come forward.

And Zvi Gluck could have been all of those things, but instead he chooses to protect the systems and institutions that continue to silence survivors.

That’s the real problem with giving people credit for simply saying things that no one else is saying without backing it up in action. We know, for the love of God, we know that sexual abuse is a problem. We live it. We’ve survived it. Amudim has an annual budget of 7 million dollars. It is run by a very prominent and well-respected member of the community, whose father is even more prominent and well-respected. The only excuse for such an organization to lie to its constituents about their rights under the CVA is if they’re trying to maintain the status quo. If anyone can get away with pushing the envelope, so to speak, it’s Amudim and Zvi Gluck.


And to the argument that they’re trying to change things from the inside I ask, but how many people are you hurting along the way, and how long must they wait for you to do the right thing? The community will not change until pushed, and until community leaders and rabbonim can no longer point to Amudim and use them as pretext to claim they’re taking the issue seriously, nothing will actually change. And when it eventually does in spite of them, it will come after hundreds and thousands of broken survivors who needed help but couldn’t find it.

It’s telling that the response Zvi Gluck gave the Jewish Week about why Amudim wasn’t informing survivors of their rights under the CVA was couched in concern for victims.

‘“If we publicized about these new legal options and survivors chose to bring their cases back to court only for those cases to be dismissed, we could cause even more trauma for survivors,” he said.”

Zvi Gluck to Hannah Dreyfus of The Jewish Week


Every other victims services organization like Safe Horizon, and Zero Abuse Project has to deal with similar issues. They field calls from survivors looking for help finding legal representation, and some people have viable cases, and some people don’t. Some people will win their cases and some people don’t.

The correct answer to that problem is not to lie to your constituents and pretend that their rights don’t exist for their benefit, it’s to be honest with them, inform them of the risks, and then make sure that they understand that you will be there for them and support them through whatever happens.

Survivors have been lied to for long enough. They’ve had their trust violated for long enough. They’ve been held hostage by oppressive community systems and silenced in the interest of institutional concerns for far too long. We’re all aware of it. Now what are we going to do about it?

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Child Victims Act Passes NY Legislature, Agudah Still Opposed

This past Monday, the New York State Senate voted unanimously to pass the Child Victims Act, and the assembly voted 130-3. Governor Cuomo is expected to sign it into law within the coming days. The votes themselves were powerful and emotional to experience. Many senators rose to speak about why they support the legislation, and one senator and several assembly members talked about their own personal experiences as survivors of sexual abuse.

Senator Alessandra Biaggi spoke about being sexually abused when she was younger, and described how her “silence lasted for over 25 years.” Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou broke down in tears as she described in vivid detail being abused by a teacher at the age of 13. “I can still smell him,” she said. Assembly member Rodneyse Bichotte revealed that she was abused by a pastor when she was 10 years old, and Assembly member Catalina Cruz disclosed being abused by a family member.

When the results in each house were announced, everyone in the chambers erupted into applause. Many of the survivors who fought for the Child Victims Act were in attendance, and there were many teary eyes as they embraced each other, overcome by the emotions if finally seeing New York State almost unanimously acknowledge their suffering and finally bring them an opportunity for justice.

The Child Victims Act includes the following provisions:

1) Raises the criminal statute of limitations for sexual abuse to age 25 for misdemeanors, and age 28 for felonies.

2) Raises the civil statute of limitations for sexual abuse to age 55.

3) Eliminates the 90 day notice of claim requirement for civil actions related to child sexual abuse against public institutions.

4) Opens a one-year lookback window, effective 6 months after the bill is signed into law, during which any cases previously barred by the statute of limitations could be brought to civil court.

While the Catholic Church had retracted its opposition to the Child Victims Act by the time it went to the floor for a vote, Agudath Israel had not. In a statement released shortly following the passage of the bill in the senate and assembly, Agudath Israel released a statement condemning the lookback window for its potentially devastating effects on liable institutions. The statement also included a commitment by Agudath Israel to fighting the “terrible scourge” of abuse going forward. It’s worth noting that despite this statement, Agudath Israel’s official policy is still to require rabbinic permission before sexual abuse is reported to police.

While there undoubtedly may be parties who are inconvenienced by any school or institutional closures that result from lawsuits allowed under the Child Victims Act retroactive window, our primary concern must always be for the survivors of sexual abuse who were abused because of the negligence or intentional malice of these institutions. Those survivors haven’t forgotten what was done to them. The pain hasn’t faded. They not only live with the violation of their bodies and souls every day, they also live with the betrayal they experienced at the hands of people, institutions, and community leaders in whom they had placed their trust. 

That harm doesn’t go away, and neither does the liability to make reparations. In the same way institutions, despite changes in leadership or location, stand on their legacies and reputations of previous administrations for the purposes of fundraising or promotion, they must also accept responsibility for the actions of previous administrations when those actions so fundamentally damaged other people. In the same way institutional debts and bills aren’t wiped clean when administrations change, neither are institutional liabilities for enabling and covering up sexual abuse. 

These institutions owe a debt that must be paid to the parties who were made to suffer by that institution’s actions. Abuse is a particularly insidious crime in the way it not only affects individuals, but their families and communities. Not only do the victims suffer, but so do their families, as the pain of the abuse, the aftermath, the backlash, and the community ostracism radiates outward. Generations afterward feel it as parents who were abused and still suffering pass the trauma on to their children who have to witness the pain of their parents. Communities feel the pain when they are split apart in the wake of a report to authorities that pits rabbis and community leaders against survivors and their friends and families. And on the other side, the families of the abusers are also harmed by the actions of the abuser. 

And yet, the suffering of the victim demands justice, because a crime was committed, a child was violated, and for that there’s a price that neither time nor outside considerations can mitigate. So the families of the abuser suffer along with them as their loved one is charged, imprisoned, and registered as a sex offender. Constituents of institutions suffer when their institutions are forced to downsize or close. Ultimately, however, the responsibility for all of that harm, both the direct harm to the victims and the collateral damage caused to all of the otherwise innocent bystanders, lies squarely with the abusers and the people who enabled and covered up for them. 

Survivors are owed these reparations the same way the power company is owed its fees for electricity, and the water company is owed its fees for running water. Even more so because one has no moral obligation to have power or running water, but one does have a moral obligation to protect children from sexual abuse, and immediately report the abuser to authorities if, God forbid, someone does abuse a child. 

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Some Facts About the Child Victims Act

What is the Child Victims Act?

The Child Victims Act is a bill that’s been pending in the New York State legislature for 12 years, which would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, extend the civil statute of limitations, and open a one-year retroactive window during which civil cases whose statutes of limitation have already expired could be brought in court.

Why This Matters & Why We Need The Window

Currently, under New York State law, the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse is 5 years after the victim turns 18 – age 23. Many survivors of child sexual abuse never report their abuse. Of those who do, many don’t even report until decades after the abuse. Many factors contribute to this delay in reporting including shame the victim feels, threats made by abusers, fear of not being believed, pressure by community members to keep silent, and often a desire to try and forget the trauma happened.

Once a survivor turns 23, their abuser can walk into a police station, give a full confession, shake the desk sergeant’s hand, and leave scot free.

Because of New York State’s abysmal statute of limitations, thousands of sexual abusers walk free every year, unidentified, unprosecuted, free – given that statistically abusers are likely to have more than one victim – to keep abusing.

It’s About Protecting Children

Once the statute of limitations runs out, survivors have little recourse against their abusers. They can out them publicly, but because they have no way of proving their allegation in court, they run the risk of being sued by their abuser for libel. The Child Victims Act would change this by opening up a one-year lookback window, allowing survivors to identify, and sue their abusers in court. Once a survivor wins a suit against their abuser, that abuser can be publicized as a predator whom parents should keep their kids away from.

It’s About Justice for Survivors

Survivors of sexual abuse often suffer from a host of issues resulting from the trauma they’ve experienced: PTSD, suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addiction, and self-harm, among others.

On average, it costs survivors between $300,000 – $1,000,000 to treat these effects of child sexual abuse. Most survivors are either forced to pay for their treatment out of their own pockets, or do without it if it’s beyond their means. The Child Victims Act would allow survivors to hold their abusers financially response for the abuse they’ve committed, and they damage they’ve caused.

So Why Isn’t the Child Victims Act Law Yet?

For the past 12 years, New York State senate Republicans have, at the behest of several powerful special interests, been blocking every attempt to bring the Child Victims Act to the floor for a vote. Among these special interests are the New York Catholic ConferenceAgudath Israel of AmericaBoy Scouts of America, the United Federation of Teachers, and various insurance companies, including the American Insurance Association, Liberty Mutual, and Zurich Insurance. State senate majority leader John Flanagan in particular has for the last few years been actively preventing the Child Victims Act from leaving committee and coming to the floor for the vote.

What You Can Do to Help

Call your state senator. Seriously, it’s the most effective way to interact with your representatives. To find your New York State senator, Click Here to head over to the senate directory. You’ll be asked to enter your address, and after you hit Find My Senator, you’ll be brought to your senator’s contact page. Make sure to let your senator know that as a constituent you support the Child Victims Act with the lookback window and that if they’d like your continued support they’ll support it too.

Schedule a meeting with your senator. After all, they’re your representatives. Give their district office a call and say that as a constituent you’d like to schedule a meeting in person to discuss the Child Victims Act.

Follow ZA’AKAH’s efforts on Facebook. We post regular updates on the fight to pass the Child Victims Act, along with volunteer opportunities, and action alerts.

Come to our actions. ZA’AKAH regularly goes up to Albany to lobby legislators for the Child Victims Act, and demonstrate in the New York State Capitol. We also occasionally schedule demonstrations around New York City to protest institutional opposition to the Child Victims Act, and institutional coverup of sexual abuse.

Get involved on social media. Read about the Child Victims Act. Share articles. Start discussions. Be a part of the conversation. Find your elected officials online and Tweet at them, send their pages Facebook messages, and comment on their posts asking them about the Child Victims Act.

Got Any Questions?

We’d love to hear from you, and we’re happy to answer any questions you might have about the Child Victims Act. Send me an email and we’ll get right back to you with an answer.

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Senator Catharine Young Protecting Child Abusers

No, Sen. Young, New Yorkers Won’t Be Fooled By Your Coverup Bill

After 12 years of Republican stonewalling on the Child Victims Act, Senator Catherine Young seems to have introduced a bill that the Republicans can get behind. This is not the first time that Republicans or their allies have introduced an alternative to the Child Victims Act. Two notable alternatives have been introduced in the past, one by Republican Senator Andrew Lanza, and the other by IDC leader Senator Jeff Klein. The central point of contention between Republicans and Democrats on this issue seems to be the “lookback window,” a provision survivors and advocates have been pushing for which would open a one-year window during which civil child sexual abuse cases whose statutes of limitation have expired could nonetheless be brought in court against both abusive individuals, and any institutions that enabled or protected them.

For the past 12 years, powerful interests in New York State, such as the New York Catholic Conference, Agudath Israel of America, Boy Scouts of America, the American Insurance Association, Zurich Insurance, and Liberty Mutual, have been spending millions of lobbying dollars in opposition to any version of the Child Victims Act containing a lookback window provision. While the Child Victims Act has been passed several times in recent years by the state assembly, it has, year after year, been stalled in committee in the senate by majority leader John Flanagan and has yet to even reach the floor for a vote in the senate.

Which brings us to senator Young’s proposal. Her alternative would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse entirely, leave the civil statute of limitations as is, and establish a $300 million fund, to be replenished every year with another $50 million, to reimburse survivors for any claims against individuals or institutions that have passed the statute of limitations. What’s particularly striking about her proposal is the fact that it’s not just a one-time event, but will continue to exist after the first year, paying expired claims well into the future. This fund would be paid for by civil asset forfeiture money currently held by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

The bill came as a surprise to survivors and advocates for the Child Victims Act, especially since senator Young consulted only one survivor before introducing the bill despite being aware of two large coalitions of survivors and advocates who for years have been advocating for the Child Victims Act, and a vast majority of whom oppose her alternative.

On its face, her proposal seems like an attempt to establish a bail-out for institutions that for decades have hidden behind New York State’s abysmal laws to avoid responsibility for enabling child sexual abuse and protecting abusers. For no other civil or criminal matter does there exist a fund like this which, on behalf of the parties responsible, and with no intention of seeking reimbursement from the responsible parties. For no other civil matter does the state bar access to court for claimants. While some might claim that since the statute of limitations has expired on these cases the claimants, in fact, don’t have any right to claim that they’re being barred from court, the existence of one injustice—the abysmal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse currently on the books in New York—doesn’t excuse another injustice—the barring of survivors from accessing the courts once we’re finally righting that terrible wrong.

Furthermore, in failing to eliminate the civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, senator Young makes it clear that her proposal is not just a one-time reparative measure to atone for past wrongs while ensuring justice in the future; rather it is a perpetual bailout of abusers and institutions paid for by the citizens of New York. The message this proposal sends to institutions who, through their negligence, indifference, self-interest, and disregard for the safety of their charges, were responsible for the sexual violation of children is that not only will there be no consequences for their negligence in the past, there will never be any consequences in the future. Given no incentive to reform, institutions will continue doing what they’ve always done: protecting abusers, silencing victims, and endangering children.

Senator Young claims that her proposal serves a population that will be underserved by the Child Victims Act—survivors who were abused by individuals who do not have enough assets for a lawyer to be interest in taking a case against them on contingency basis. That, at least, is true. For such survivors, particularly if they don’t have the necessary money to pay a lawyer’s hourly rate, the likelihood of them getting justice in court is slim. While it may be true that fund like the one proposed by senator Young would take care of survivors in that situation, it seems disingenuous to require survivors as a whole to choose between holding institutions accountable and disincentivizing future institutional negligence, and giving victims of private abusers access to the funds they need to pay for treatment. If senator Young is serious about helping those survivors who will be underserved by the Child Victims Act, she should propose this fund as an amendment to the Child Victims Act, rather than trying to divide the survivor community with an impossible, and wildly unjust choice.

Even if this were added to the Child Victims Act, as it stands there are glaring process with this proposal. No actual process is detailed in the bill for filing a claim with the commission it would establish. No evidentiary standard is specified, and no criteria are defined for acceptance or rejection of a claim. All of that is left to the discretion of a chief administrator who

In its original version, this proposal made no mention of whether or not the results of these hearings could be publicized by survivors who might wish to publicly name their abuser. One of the primary motivations behind the lookback window is the ability, once a civil trial is won, to publicly identify abusers thus warning people who may be oblivious to the threat living in their neighborhood, teaching in their school, or babysitting their kids, that they should keep their children away from these heretofore hidden predators. The bill was amended to include a provision establishing a website with a list of people who have been found by these hearings to be abusers, but there’s no indication whether or not such a list would hold up to a court challenge by someone named on it, and it doesn’t require the listing of institutions found responsible for enabling or covering up abuse. This reinforces the clear fact that this bill is intended to do nothing but shield institutions from monetary and reputational responsibility.

New York has for too long denied justice to survivors of child sexual abuse, and in doing so has endangered the lives of every child in New York State. On average it takes survivors of sexual abuse between 20-40 years to disclose their abuse. A statute of limitations of only 5 years for child sexual abuse is nothing but a cruel affront to justice. Abusers in New York know that they are less likely to be prosecuted for their crimes in New York than in the vast majority of this country. Shielded by New York State law, they abuse with impunity. Institutions, similarly aware of the improbability of being brought to court for covering up sexual abuse, continue to silence victims and shield abusers in their employ thus endangering the lives of every child under their care.

The only way to get serious about ensuring justice for survivors and protecting New York’s children is by extending or eliminating the civil and criminal statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse, eliminating the 90 day notice of claim for claims against public institutions, and opening a retroactive window during which all survivors whose claims against individual abusers and institutions that protected abusers and silenced their victims can be brought in civil court, all of which is covered by the Child Victims Act that the Republicans have been refusing to even allow to the floor of the senate for a vote.

So why are senator Young and the other 18 sponsors of this bill pushing a bill that so plainly bails out institutions at the expense of survivors?

Recent polls have shown that 90% of New Yorkers support the Child Victims Act. The Republicans are well aware, given how many senators are up for reelection this year, that New Yorkers are fed up with their obstruction of the Child Victims Act, and are attempting to use this poison pill proposal as smokescreen for their inaction. They’re hoping that New York voters will see senator Young’s proposal as a step toward reasonable compromise, instead of the state sponsored bailout for abusive institutions it actually is.

Sorry, senator, New York won’t be that easily fooled.

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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: https://www.facebook.com/events/261681534310970/

 

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?

 

No.

 

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?

 

No.

 

Can I tell him you sent me?

 

No.

 

(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.

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Protesting Agudah's Child Sexual Abuse Enabling Policies

Why We Protested In Midwood Last Sunday – ZAAKAH

Photo credit: Anya Shpilkovskaya

This past Sunday, ZA’AKAH took the issue of child sexual abuse and Agudah’s horrendous record on it to the heart of the Jewish community in Midwood, Brooklyn. We started outside the home of Chaim David Zweibel, and after an hour moved to Landau’s Shul, a block down. A lot happened during that protest, and I want to try and break it down, answer some of the more common questions we got, and talk about my experiences as the organizer.

First I want to talk about why we did this in the first place.

For over 20 years of my life, I was abused. It varied between emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and it happened unchecked. My family did nothing to help me, in part because my abuser was my mother and they were more concerned with what would happen to her if they threw her out of the house, and in part because they were worried what would happen to our family reputation. I can’t even remember how many times I had ACS, CPS, or the NYPD in my house asking me if I wanted to make a statement, and every time my family pressured me to keep quiet. They said it would ruin my chances at a shidduch. They said I’d be taken away to a foster home to be raised by goyim and mistreated. They said I’d ruin my cousins’ chances at shidduchim. They told me that the neighbors would talk about me.

Never once did they consider me. Never once did they look beyond their reputations, their concerns over their shidduchim, their concerns over what the neighbors would say, and really see how much I was suffering. It was always about them and what they thought was best for them, best for my abusive mother. They didn’t understand what was happening to me. They didn’t understand that I was dropping out of school because I just couldn’t bring myself to care about math and science when I had to worry every night whether I could go to sleep safely, or whether my door would be broken down in the middle of the night. They didn’t understand that those bottles of booze they found in my drawer were my only way of hanging on to life in a world that with each passing day became crueler, less worth staying alive in. They didn’t understand why I stopped going to shul even though to me it seemed that God clearly didn’t seem to care.

Instead they blamed me. They accused me of making up the abuse to justify my aveiros. Relatives of mine who had seen the abuse firsthand, who had been in my house every day to see what was happening to me, suddenly seemed to have forgotten what they’d seen. I attempted suicide twice while living there, and neither time did they know. I didn’t bother telling them because I knew they wouldn’t care. I knew they wouldn’t understand. Suicide doesn’t happen to frum people. It’s assur. So I didn’t even bother telling them.

And that’s the thing. There’s such a pervasive ignorance in the frum world about abuse and its consequences, that the people who do know firsthand what abuse is and how devastating the damage it causes is don’t even bother speaking up. They know that their pleas will fall on deafened, ignorant ears. They suffer in silence. They lose their children in silence. They become addicted, cut themselves, develop eating disorders, attempt suicide, suffer PTSD, anxiety, flashbacks, trauma, relationship problems—they die in silence. Muffled by this stifling ignorance.

This ignorance is not accidental. It’s not incidental. It’s deliberate. It’s caused by rabbis and institutions who fully understand the nature of the problem, yet care more about their power, positions, money, and institutions to do anything about it. It’s caused by rabbis who tell their congregants that the people who talk about sexual abuse are anti-Semites, stirring up blood libels to make them look bad, mentally ill people with axes to grind. It’s caused by the terror people feel in the frum community at the very thought of shidduchim or yeshiva acceptance. It’s caused by a reluctance to accept that someone who ostensibly seems religious—yarmulka wearing, Torah learning, beard sporting B’nei Torah dressed in white and black—could ever do such a thing. It’s caused by an insistence on the infallibility of gedolim regardless of their obvious mistakes and misdeeds, under the guise of Emunas Chachamim.

It’s exacerbated by policies put forth by these gedolim—like Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, President of Agudath Israel of America, and head of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah—that require victims of child sexual abuse and their families to ask rabbis permission before going to the police. It’s entrenched by their lobbying efforts against legislation like the Child Victims Act, which would eliminate the civil and criminal statutes of limitations—which are currently 5 years—for child sexual abuse, and open a one-year window during which people whose cases have already passed the statute of limitations could still file suit against their abusers, and the institutions that covered up for them.

And while the community as a whole may be able to claim ignorance, Agudah cannot. Many survivors and activists have sat with them. Negotiated with them. Poured their hearts out to them. Appealed to the consciences they hoped Agudah had. Nothing worked. They’ve protested outside their offices, outside their annual dinners. It’s gotten us nowhere. Agudah remains stubborn in its policies.

In fact, they do what they can to pretend they actually care. They sent David Pelcovitz around to hold seminars for teachers and educators on preventing abuse. Not once did he mention reporting to the police. When asked why not, he responded that he was told not to address that. They implemented preventative measures in schools, like putting cameras in classrooms, windows in doors, and instituting policies forbidding teachers from being alone with students. They even had some abusive teachers fired.

But it was all a diversion from the real issue: the fact that underneath all of that fog, the truth is that most abuse happens outside of yeshivos. It happens in the home, in shul, in relatives’ homes, in friends’ homes. It happens mainly outside of the institutional setting, and while Agudah is making a big show of implementing preventative measures in yeshiva, they’re doing nothing to protect children where abuse really happens. They’re doing nothing to raise awareness in the community, and when they allow other organizations to try, they make it clear that reporting to police is not to be mentioned at all.

All this means is that they’re more concerned with avoiding civil liability than they are with actually preventing abuse, supporting victims, prosecuting abusers, and giving survivors the resources they need to recover from the abuse they’ve suffered. We’ve tried so long for so hard to make them change their policies, and we’ve finally had enough. We’ve gotten fed up with their indifference. We’re sick of buying their empty promises.

That’s why we protested this past Sunday outside the house of Chaim David Zweibel, and outside of Landau’s, the former because he’s the Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel, and the public face of these policies and lobbying efforts, and the latter because it is a place where we knew our message could reach the people who needed to hear it: The members of the community whose children are put at risk every day because of Agudah’s abuse-enabling policies.

Almost immediately when we lined up outside of Landau’s we were challenged by two men who wanted to know why we were there. When I told them about our cause, they asked me if it happened to have anything to do with Landau’s. I made it clear that the protest was not about Landau’s, and that we were just there because it’s a place we knew our message would be heard. In fact, I mentioned that to anyone who asked me, and several times loudly to the assembled protestors and spectators. Nevertheless, they attempted to shout us down.

When they realized that we weren’t going away, one of them went off to the side to call 911. When the police showed up a few minutes later, they took a look at us, saw that we were simply exercising our right to protest, reminded us to keep part of the sidewalk clear, and left.

Over the course of the protest, we were approached by some other belligerent people who wanted to disrupt us, one of whom yelled at the assembled protestors—which included a couple and their months-old baby—that we were all going to die within this year for what we were doing. He then proceeded to light one of our fliers on fire and throw it on the floor, all the while insulting me for my weight, and yelling about how we were all going to die.

But they’re not what’s important about the protest, and they’re not why we were there.

So many people gave us thumbs up as they drove by that corner, saw our signs, and heard our chants. People came over to us, offering us water. One man even gave us a donation right there on the spot, and thanked us for what we were doing. A former coworker of mine came over to me on his way into Mincha and told me “Tizku L’mitzvos.” Survivors came over to us, told us their stories, thanked us for being there, and said they wished people had been doing this when they were kids so maybe they could have been spared from being sexually abused. Parents of survivors thanked us for raising awareness about child sexual abuse.

The sense I got on Sunday was that there are, in fact, a lot of people who know firsthand how insidious, pervasive, and deadly child sexual abuse is, but have been suffering silently, waiting silently for someone to give them a voice, an opportunity to make their voices heard.

And that’s why we protested on Sunday. For them. For the victims of child sexual abuse, both the ones still alive, the ones hanging on by a thread, and the ones for whom all help is too late. That’s why we’re going to continue protesting, and making our voices heard, making it clear to Agudah that we’re not going away, that we will not tolerate their abuse-enabling policies, that the community will not stand idly by while they allow our children to suffer and die in silence.

That’s why we’ll be back next month, July 23rd, in front of the Novominsker Rebbe’s shul in Boro Park at 3 PM, protesting the policies he’s responsible for imposing, letting the community know that while he may not be there for them, we will always be, and giving them a voice so that they can finally be heard.

To join us at next month’s protest, please RSVP at the event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/261681534310970/

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