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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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.

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The World is Round?! Racism in the Frum World

“Are they all black here?”

I get this question a lot. I work for a driving school; we take a lot of our students to The Bronx for their road tests. I get this question when we pull up on the road test line. The question is usually accompanied by a smirk, a dismissive tone, as if the student has resigned himself to ten minutes of being judged by someone clearly his inferior in both intelligence and humanity. It’s a tone that shrugs and says “waddaya gonna do, huh?”

“They are mostly black here, yes.” And then I wait for their next question.

“Are they anti-Semites?”

I roll my eyes. “Do you like black people?” I ask. You’d think I’d just asked if their grandmother was a hooker. They never answer that one. I always give them a few seconds to answer, but they never seem able to come up with anything.

May as well drive my point home. “It happens to be that they’re not, but if you’re racist against them why shouldn’t they be racist against you?”

Picture the look that must have been on the face of the first guy who figured out that the world was round. Now imagine the look on the face of the first guy he told. I get that look a lot.

Now, that’s usually where the conversation ends, but some people just push their luck.

He points at a road test examiner leaning on a wall, playing with his phone. “But he’s a lowlife, all of them are.”

I raise an eyebrow. “All of…”

“All these shvartzes. They’re all lowlives. Look how they walk around with their pants around their butts, thugs, drug dealers.”

I point at the road test examiner he’s calling a lowlife. “Do you see his pants around his butt? Is he a thug? Is he a drug dealer? What did he ever do to you?”

“He’s from Cham (Ham). Cham was cursed.”

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to not punch this guy in the face because if I do I’ll not only be facing aggravated assault, but also unemployment. And I get paid off the books. I’d be screwed.

I get this so often, and I can’t for the life of me understand it. As a human being, but especially as a Jew, I empathize with what black people went through in this country. We Jews are no stranger to racism and persecution. Two thousand years we suffered at the hands of other nations simply because we were Jews. Godwin forgive me, but less than a century ago, six million of our brothers and sisters were butchered for no reason other than one man thought we were inferior and knew how to present a compelling argument.

“What does your father do?” I ask him.

He looks a little confused. “He runs a company, why?”

“How sweaty is he when he comes home?”

He raises an eyebrow. “Not very…”

I’ve got him. “Well, I don’t know if you got this far in the Torah, but Adam was also cursed after he ate from the Etz Hadaas (Tree of Knowledge)—B’zeas apecha tochal lechem (By the sweat of your brow shall you eat your bread). Why doesn’t he come home sweaty?”

He’s starting to look a little uncomfortable. “I don’t understand…”

“Well, you’re saying it’s ok for you to be nasty to this examiner because Cham was cursed, right? Well, your father was cursed to sweat for his bread, and yet he doesn’t. Do you believe he’s obligated to sweat for his bread because he was cursed?”

“No…”

“Then why is this examiner obligated to suffer your racism because Cham was cursed? Cham may have been cursed, and believe me black people have suffered more than you can imagine. But you don’t have to be a part of that curse.”

Silence.

So I go on. “He’s the same Tzelem Elokim (image of God) you are.”

The earth is round. “I’ve never thought about it that way…”

The conversation ended, and I doubt it changed his attitude much, but it made him think. It bothered me that he had never thought about it, though. Human beings, not just Jews, being created in God’s image. It’s right there in the Torah, before any mention of Jews and Judaism. Before Shabbos (Sabbath) and Milah (circumcision), Kashrus (Jewish dietary laws) and Arayos (laws governing sexual relations), before any mention of homosexuality. Somehow, though, so many people who spend their entire lives devoted to studying the Torah seem to have missed its twenty-sixth verse.

“Nigger” is almost as common in yeshivos (religious schools) as “lemaysa (lit. in fact).” I constantly hear people talking about the “spic” in the grocery. It’s so common that I’ve spoken to people who didn’t even know the words were offensive. They legitimately thought that black people are referred to as niggers and Mexicans as spics. Their worlds turned round when I told them what those words meant. It’s always newsworthy when someone spray paints a swastika on a wall in Boro Park, or someone yells “Jude” at a guy with a beard and peyos (sidelocks), but that same guy with beard and peyos wouldn’t say peep if he heard someone yell “nigger.” Apparently only anti-Semitism is unacceptable. I guess they don’t feel it affects them if it’s targeted at a race other than theirs.

Not too long ago was Yom HaShoah, a day on which we remember the Holocaust and the people we lost. We vow “Never again.” Some people take it seriously, some roll their eyes. The vow, they feel, is pointless. Surely, it could never happen again. But it has. It does. Not to us, perhaps, but millions have been slaughtered since the Holocaust for no reason other than their skin, their religion, their address, their ethnicity. Bangladesh, 1971, between five hundred thousand and three million Hindus were murdered simply because the prime minister of Pakistan was in the mood. Pol Pot slaughtered 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. In 1994, nearly one million Tutsis were butchered in Rwanda by the Hutus. The genocide continues in Sudan. The world watches, bored, from behind the TV sets in their living rooms, and does nothing.

Indifference starts at home. Callousness is an acquired trait. Children aren’t born racist. As we grow up, and we hear callous remarks against minorities from our parents and adults around us, those minorities become dehumanized to the point where we can read about a genocide in Africa and not get sick to our stomach simply because it involves a group other than ours. Can the Holocaust happen again? It already has. It continues to happen. Perhaps not to Jews, but the same baseless hatred, the same racism, the same callousness toward human life that killed six million Jews, continues to kill millions across the globe.

Change starts at home. In yeshivos. In driving school cars. If everyone truly saw in their fellow man the same image of God they see when they look at themselves in the mirror, then we could say with certainty, “Never again.” It’s 2014; everyone should know that the world is round.

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The Show Must Go On

Author’s note: This story was originally published in Ami Magazine. It has been edited from its original form. It was originally published under a pseudonym.

 

My story isn’t easy. It’s an uncomfortable subject for many people, for many reasons. I hope that in sharing it I can help not only myself, but others going through a similar situation.

Mental illness has always been a touchy subject. Society as a whole has done a decent job of addressing it, but as Orthodox Jews, we’re taking our time. We fear the stigma, the implications for shidduchim (Jewish matchmaking prospects) and reputation. While I’ll admit that mental illness is something to take into account when considering a prospective spouse, it must be understood that the culture built around the fear of mental illness and the stigma not only hurts countless people, but magnifies the problem. The damage stigma causes to people who suffer from mental illness, and the culture of denial and concealment, perpetuate the problem by ensuring that the people who need it will be too scared to seek treatment. My and my family’s suffering may have been avoided had this stigma not existed.

My birth was not a highlight in my family’s history. My mother was on the back end of an awful marriage, which ended shortly after I was born. That’s when her bipolar disorder decided to manifest. Various mental illnesses can lie dormant for years until some kind of inciting trigger sets it off. Bipolar is one of them. You’re born with a genetic predisposition toward the disorder, not unlike the genetic predispositions toward heart disease or cancer, but it generally takes some environmental force to trigger it. In my mother it was triggered by her divorce, and she suffered a breakdown. She was hospitalized for two months in the psych ward of a local hospital and placed on meds.

Psychiatric treatment is not a perfect science, and devising an effective regimen can be tricky. Often, drugs are not enough, and studies show that treatment is much more effective with accompanying psychological treatment as well as meds. Even when an effective regimen is devised, it can become less effective over time. People on meds need constant monitoring to ensure that their drug levels in their blood don’t get too high or too low, and the drugs’ effectiveness can eventually wear off. It’s difficult, which means that one of the most important factors in psychiatric treatment is how compliant and willing the patient is.

My mother wasn’t very compliant. She had grown up believing that mental illness was either a contrivance on the part of doctors (and what do they know anyway, right?) or that you were a gibbering loon who regularly converses loudly with people no one else can see as he stumbles down the street. The idea that most people have of functional people with a legitimate but manageable illness was foreign to her, her family, and her community. She would comply with the doctors and their regimen for as long as she needed to, but inevitably, she would declare herself “cured” and stop taking her meds.

This happened pretty regularly for 16 years in three year cycles. She would stop taking her meds, and for two months she would rapidly decompensate. She would become angry, snappish, moody, manic. She’d subject me to some kind of mistreatment, sometimes it was as small as just snapping at me if I spoke, sometimes it was a new starvation diet she decided was a good idea for herself which I for some reason had to adopt as well. My family would let her progress until she did something violent to someone and even then they were hesitant to have her committed. They didn’t like having to admit that there was enough of a problem. They downplayed it, pretended as if it could be managed at home, and no amount of experience ever wised them up. “What would the neighbors say.” “Shidduchim.”

So she would be committed, stay there an average of two months, during which she would go from angry, to “if I’m going to be here I’m going to run the place” to grudgingly compliant. I’d come visit her often. It wasn’t half bad, actually. The food was surprisingly good, and I was young enough to appreciate the activities they had for the patients. When she’d be released we would make her a welcome home party of sorts. I’d decorate banners to hang in the house, heralding her return. She’d mellow out, stabilize, and the good times would return. We’d go to restaurants during the week, touring different cities, and just sit around and talk on shabbos (sabbath) afternoons. Life was pretty good when she was stable. The two months of instability and subsequent two months of her being committed seemed a price worth paying for my mother.

Bipolar disorder, as the name suggests, is a cycling between highs and lows, or more accurately, mania and depression. In my mother, mania would make her a thousand times herself. She wouldn’t sleep. She would become very outgoing, energetic, very friendly with everyone but me, but with a very short temper. She became the life of everyone’s party. But she also became angrier, sarcastic, mean. After a few weeks of that she would crash. Her world would become grey, muted. She’d lie in bed all day, sleeping or watching TV, barely capable of walking to the fridge to get food.

They treated her with mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, anti-depressants, which worked great when she was depressed because they gave her some semblance of a life, but when she’d cycle back to manic (a muted sort of manic when she was on her meds, more like just high enough to function) the meds would make her feel limited, like her mind was hitting a glass ceiling teasing her with possibility but never allowing her to reach it. Kind of like that mashal (parable) people use to describe gehinnom (hell), where God is compared to the sun, and gehinnom is an eyepatch. She’d put up with it for about three years and then decide that she had enough. It would usually even out, though. She would crash hard and, albeit grudgingly, in some way acknowledge the fact that she needed treatment. She would never say those words, but she understood it.

For some reason, after years of being on Haldol, she suddenly developed a severe allergy to it. Her face swelled up and she had to go to the ER where they gave her IV antihistamines and immediately took her off the medication. Her doctor was supposed to replace it with another antipsychotic, but he never got around to it. To my mother it was like a convicted lifer getting a furlough. It wasn’t complete freedom, but enough to give her hope. Also enough to finally start functioning the way she felt she should. For two weeks she became more energetic, but not overly energetic. More alert, but not hyper-aware. Better but not crazy. Her doctor seemed impressed, and not only officially discontinued her antipsychotic, but lowered her other dosages. This kept happening, slowly over the course of about two months, until she was on such a low dose that she declared herself cured and stopped taking her medicine altogether.

That’s when she really started declining. She quickly started becoming manic. She became slightly less coherent, spouting ideas that only made sense to her. Her memories were distorted. Her difficult childhood rose to the surface, reawakening old vendettas ad grudges that she’d buried. She turned against everyone she believed wronged her. Her parents for not being there for her, her friends for not being supportive enough, her relatives for things they’d done to her as children, and I became the reminder of her failed marriage and ruined life.

One Friday night, when I was about sixteen years old, things came to a head. Because my mother was divorced and suffering with bipolar disorder, we lived by my grandparents. The household consisted of me, my mother, my grandparents, and my uncle, who was disabled and required constant care. He suffered from schizophrenia which went undiagnosed and subsequently untreated long enough for him to stab himself in the kitchen one night. Something went wrong during the surgery to repair his heart, and he spent the next fourteen months in a coma. He woke up, but since then he’s required constant care. We were an odd family, but my grandparents made it work.

Shabbos was always nice. My grandfather sitting at the head of the table, leading us through the meal, softly singing his zemiros (traditional songs sung on the Sabbath) in tunes from his childhood, telling us stories about “der alter heim (the old country).” He died when I was eleven, and my grandmother tried to take his place, but it wasn’t the same. Shabbos was never the same after he died. There was no substitute for him. Gradually shabbos became less about us eating together as a family, and more about getting the meal over with. We would all bring books to the table and do our thing as we made our way through the courses, hurrying to finish so we could each go nap, or in my case play. There wasn’t much ceremony to it, even less feeling. No more zemiros, no more stories. No more conversation.

Over the years, my mother’s approach to religion has moved toward the “I need something from God, let’s see what he’ll give me” approach. She wasn’t overtly religious, and didn’t really do anything particularly religious, unless she wanted something from God. Then she would go overboard, hoping for some immediate divine reward in return for her sudden piety. These “episodes” would usually coincide with her manic episodes. If she started to pray every day, or cover her hair, or do anything particularly religious, it was almost a harbinger of trouble to come.

That Friday night she had her hair covered and was singing shalom aleichem (traditional song welcoming the Sabbath). I came to the table with my book, feeling a little apprehensive. She saw the book and got angry. I was messing up her perfect shabbos. God wouldn’t give her what she wanted if I read at the table. She demanded that I take it away. I didn’t understand why I should. I mean, it wasn’t like this week was any different from any other; it wasn’t like we were suddenly going to be a regular family; what else was I supposed to do at the table if not read?

She lost it. She started insulting me, cursing me, telling me she wished I had been aborted, telling me that it was my fault her boyfriend wasn’t marrying her, and that if I weren’t around she would be able to be with him every night. I ran from the kitchen where we’d been sitting into the living room and barricaded the recliner against it. That didn’t stop her, though. She kept yelling and cursing at me to the air, to the walls, to my grandmother who was trying to calm her down. I couldn’t take it anymore. I kept the recliner barricaded against the door and slipped out of the house through the living room door.

I ran crying to my friend’s house, where I cried some more. They were incredible. His mother took me to a side room and asked me what happened, and then she and my friend sat with me for a few hours. She offered to have me over for the night, but I said no. I wanted to go home, see if things had calmed down. Maybe she would apologize. Maybe it would be ok when I got back.

I came back into my house through the living room door, hoping that they hadn’t figured out I had left and had left the room barricaded. I wanted to be alone. When I opened the door I saw my aunt and uncle sitting there with my mother and grandmother. They were all laughing at something my mother had just said. It was like nothing had happened that night, like she hadn’t told me that she’d have gladly traded my life for more sex, like she hadn’t told me that my existence was such a nuisance that she’d have been better off aborting me. She turned to me, the vestiges of laughter still on her lips, and said “hi.” No “I’m so sorry,” no “I will do anything you need me to do to get your forgiveness,” no “can we please talk about it?” Hi.

“YOU WANT TO FUCK HIM SO BADLY? WHY DON’T YOU GO FUCK HIM THEN?!”

Those were the last words I ever spoke to my mother. I ran to my room, crying, flopped into bed and vowed, as my tears soaked my pillows, that on my life I would never speak another word to her. It’s been five years and I’ve kept that vow.

She’s never once apologized, or even tried to. She still talks at me, but I don’t react. I still live in that house with her and my grandmother, but I haven’t so much as looked at my mother’s face, let alone spoken to her in five years.

That Friday night was the beginning of the end of my family and my connection with it. My mother continued to decompensate. She became increasingly angry, more violent. She shouted, cursed, and threatened, both me and my grandmother. I can’t count how many times I begged my grandmother to have her committed. I’d plead, beg, scream, hoping that she would come to her senses and have my mother committed, of not for my sake then for my mother’s. She needed treatment and we needed a break from her. My grandmother kept clinging to the hope that this was all part of a process which would eventually level itself out and result with my mother cured and able to function independent of medication. I’d point out all the times in the past when she and my family were wrong and ask why this time was any different. It always came down to the neighbors and shidduchim.  I tried to convince some of my family to circumvent my grandmother, have my mother committed against both of their wills. None of them wanted to cross my grandmother, and all of them shared her concern for our family’s appearance and reputation. Neighbors. Shidduchim. As if either of those have MDs.

Finally things got bad enough for shidduchim and neighbors to not matter as much. That’s when my mother played the guilt card. Over the years my mother has built up quite the arsenal of guilt trips, things she accuses my grandparents and her siblings of having done to her over the years which contributed to the shambles her life was. In between fits of violence she would play victim just long enough to make them appeal to their guilt and empathy. Whatever kept her out of the psych ward was fair game. As soon as they would acquiesce, she would go back to angry and violent. Much of that violence and anger was targeted at me.

I have a brother who was taken from her when he was an infant. My whole life I’ve been hearing about him. For years she had been going to family court, trying to win first visitation, and then full custody. Every time she seemed to get close, she’d stop taking her meds and wind up in the hospital. She never did manage to get him back. As long as she had me, though, it didn’t matter as much. At least she had one of her sons. But now I wasn’t talking to her, and she couldn’t bear to lose another son. I knew that was the worst possible thing I could do to her, which is why I stopped talking to her. She didn’t deserve children and I wanted her to be childless.

Rather than trying to repair her relationship with me, she tried controlling and beating me into submission. If she couldn’t have a son who loved her, then by God she would have one who feared her. Chosech shivto soneh b’no. Ish imo v’aviv tirau. (He who withholds the rod hates his child. A man should fear his mother and father.)Those were her mantras. I heard them often, usually right before I felt them.

Unfortunately, this left my grandmother in the middle trying to play peacekeeper. For my part I tried to make it as easy as I could for her, never instigating the fights my mother picked with me. My mother, though, occupied every waking moment of her day, and a few of her sleeping moments, too. My mother would keep her up until very late and then wake her up very early in the morning. Eventually my grandmother lost the ability to sleep altogether. She saw a psychiatrist, a friend of hers, who prescribed Zoloft, an anti-depressant, to help her mood and help her sleep. I remember the exact moment she called and told me she had decided to go on meds. I wanted my mother dead. I could handle what she was doing to me, but I hated that my grandmother was becoming collateral damage. Again I begged her to have my mother committed. Again she refused. The Zoloft would help her cope.

Two weeks later she collapsed on the kitchen floor, delirious and semi-conscious. My mother wanted to just put her in bed and let her rest. She tried stopping me from calling an ambulance. It’s a good thing I did; my grandmother, as a result of the Zoloft and poor diet, had developed a severe sodium deficiency. I rushed with her to the hospital, sitting in the passenger seat of the ambulance as she lay in the back, the EMTs trying to wake her up. We got to the hospital and my grandmother was taken to radiology to rule out stroke. I paced the ER, frantically calling my relatives, letting them know what was happening. They dropped everything and came running.

My mother came too, right as we were talking to my grandmother’s doctor. I was hoping she wouldn’t but there was nothing I could do about it. She wanted to be alone with my grandmother, and my uncle motioned me to come outside. I went with him, but stayed close; I wanted to keep an eye on my mother.

“RACHEL! NO!” My uncle dove at my mother as my mother tried to remove the central line from my grandmother’s neck. “But she wants to go home! She said so!” A passing nurse called security, and they escorted my mother out. She could have severely injured my grandmother, but my family still wouldn’t have her committed. The sodium deficiency was so bad that they admitted her to the ICU to keep her levels closely monitored. I stayed with her late into the night, and then came back the next day, but purim (holiday celebrating the Jews’ salvation from extermination at the hands of the ancient Persian king and his viceroy) was the next day and I had to prepare.

I spent that purim in the hospital with my grandmother. They had a very nice megillah (story of purim) reading for patients and family in the hospital atrium. I enjoyed the parts I didn’t sleep through. The food they had afterward was pretty good for hospital fare, but what I loved most was the effort the volunteers put into trying to make it as real and as festive a purim as was possible in a hospital, surrounded by the sick and dying. I think that night was one of the most beautiful purim experiences I’ve ever had. The singing was more real and heartfelt than anything I’d ever heard at home, and the feeling of togetherness of a roomful of people, each mired in their own personal tragedies, coming together to celebrate the salvation of our people, and the hope that must always exist even when death seems certain, brought me to tears. I went home late that night, and woke up early to get back to the hospital.

I spent as much time with my grandmother as I could, but even the most devoted seventeen year old can only stand so much hospital time. I made my excuses and left. I was supposed to be going to my yeshiva (religious school) seudah (festive meal), but I just went back to my room and sat on my computer. I just needed some alone time, some time away from the world and its problems. I had brought food with me from the hospital and ate my seudah alone while my cousins, uncles, and aunts celebrated together with my mother in the living room.

Some families get a little loose with alcohol and weird things happen by their purim seudos. Never ours, though. My family never drank. Our seudos were always tame. In sharp contrast to the sounds of a struggle and shouting I was hearing. I forced myself out of bed and out into the hallway and found my mother running through the house, in full view and earshot of all of my younger cousins, loudly accusing my disabled uncle’s home health aide of killing him. I found them grappling in my uncle’s room, my mother trying to push her to the floor. One of my uncles came running and pulled my mother away; the home health aide ran out of the house, yelling behind her that she quit. I ran after her and stopped her outside. My disabled uncle remained in the living room, watching the scene with a bemused smile on his face.

“Either she goes, or I quit. I can’t work like this anymore.” It was this, not everything my mother had done prior, not the beatings she had given me, not the way she used to physically push my grandmother around, not trying to rip out my grandmother’s central line, that final got my mother committed. Good home health aides are very hard to find, especially good ones who work a twelve hour shift. While my uncle kept my mother busy, I ran to the hospital. I still needed my grandmother’s permission before I could have my mother committed. I raced into her room and explained what was happening. It took ten minutes of convincing before I got the green light. I called my uncle at home and told him to have her committed. She was gone by the time I came home.

My grandmother came out of the hospital a shell, depressed to the point of catatonia. She’s gotten a bit better, but is still too depressed to function. My mother has turned her into a slave. I still don’t talk to my mother. My family still refuses to acknowledge their mistakes; they still refuse to do anything about my mother. I eventually learned to fight back when she beat me, and now she’s scared of me, but she keeps my grandmother under her thumb, uses her like a slave, and my family does nothing.

This article was originally meant to be published under my real name, but my grandmother adamantly forbade it. Ironically, that argument was the most lucid she had been since she came home from the hospital, and the most lucid she’s been since. Again the reasons for not printing my name with the article were neighbors and shidduchim. My cousins were becoming of marriageable age. Some people never learn.

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