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 We Let Abuse Happen

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

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

My response:

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

1) Willful ignorance

2) Denial

3) Conspiracy

Willful ignorance:

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

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

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

Denial:

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

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

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

Conspiracy:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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When Iron Dome Can’t Protect Us From Our Enemies

Author’s note-7/30/2014: I am no longer proud of the fact that I wrote this. I apologize for it, and recommit to never writing like this again. I have written an apology for it on this blog. Please see it here.

It’s been interesting following the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalate over the past few weeks. It feels different this time. I think the world is taking notice of that. The completely unprovoked kidnappings and murders of those three boys, the non-stop rocket barrages, the media circus constructing its three rings, and the arguments for both sides: Israel’s right to defend itself vs. the disproportionate amount of casualties experienced by the Palestinians. Of course, if Hamas had its way, there would either be no disproportion, or the disproportion would be in their favor. Thank God for Iron Dome, a short range missile defense system designed to intercept and destroy rockets before they reach their destinations. It’s an impressive bit of technology, with close to 90% accuracy. Since the beginning of the most recent conflict, only one person has died as a direct result of rocket attacks in Israel. Iron Dome, with God’s help, is keeping our brothers and sisters safe.

As the conflict drags on and the argument continues to rage, I’ve noticed certain similarities in the arguments between the pro-Israelis and the pro-Palestinians and the arguments I have with people who are part of the cover-up culture concerning sexual abuse (whether out of malice or out of ignorance).

What I find most interesting, is that many of the people, specifically the more right wing communities, which are typically the most pro-Israel and its right to defend itself,  no matter the cost in collateral damage, are the same people who condemn victims and their relatives for coming forward to the authorities as mosrim (informants) because of the slightest chance that the accusations may be false, and because of the devastating effect the indictment, trial, and incarceration of an abuser with a wife and children may cause to his family. Never mind the fact that the likelihood of an allegation being false is miniscule, and the number of reported rapes is only 40%. Never mind the fact that of the 40% reported, only 10% are arrested, and only 3% will actually sit in a prison. So careful are these people with the lives and reputations of alleged abusers and the potential damage to their families, that they would force the victim into silence, further revictimizing him and endangering the community. And yet they have no problem with the amount of collateral damage Israel inflicts while fighting Hamas in Gaza. I’m not taking a position on Israel’s acceptable threshold for collateral damage, but the hypocrisy is clear.

I can hear you rolling your eyes, accusing me of building straw-men in favor of an argument for a cause many feel is overblown and exaggerated, but just spend an hour or two listening to Curtis and Kuby, or Geraldo Rivera in the morning, and you’ll hear tens of people, from every Jewish community in New York and New Jersey, calling in and unanimously supporting the bombing of and military incursions into Gaza—many of those communities have covered up and continue to cover up abuse.

Fewer than 50 Israelis have been killed in the recent conflict. According to Al-Jazeera, approximately 800 Palestinians have been killed. Not many frum (right-wing- religious) Jews would disagree with Israel’s tactics in Gaza. Hamodia, a frum newspaper which refuses to publish any stories about sexual abuse in the community because its editor is protecting her readers’ “right not to know,” has published several editorials justifying Israel’s tactics and collateral damage. The same with Yated, another frum paper that will never print a single word about sexual abuse. Fewer than 50 Israelis have been killed. Close to 800 Palestinians. Apparently that price is acceptable. 800 Palestinians for 50 Israelis.

1 in 3 women, and 1 in 6 men will be sexually abused in their lifetimes. According to RAINN (Rape Abuse Incest National Network), sexual abuse victims are 4 times more likely to kill themselves, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, and 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol. Of course the frum world likes to tell itself that the numbers are way lower in its communities, a theory which can never be refuted because people are too scared of the consequences to ever answer a survey on the subject. They’re scared of losing shidduchim (prospective marriage partners) for themselves or their families, of being thrown out of or denied admission to schools, and being shunned in their synagogues. The consequences have been made very clear, and the stakes have been set very high; reporting, except under very specific, limited, and completely arbitrary circumstances, is unacceptable, and will result in your life being made a living hell within the community.

I’ve worked with sexual abuse victims, victims whose abusers were never reported because of pressure, either implied or direct, from their community to stay silent. I’ve seen the effect silence has on victims. I’ve seen kids turn to drugs and the streets, seen them kill themselves, seen them throw their lives away because they’ve been so devastated by monsters who are elevated and respected while they’ve been discarded by their community. Thousands of our children die every year, and even more leave their religion behind, and hundreds of abusers are allowed to walk free, because of the remote possibility of 2% collateral damage. And yet, somehow, an 800 to 50 ratio of dead Israelis to dead Palestinians is ok.

My aim is not to take a side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I’m not qualified to make the decision on how much collateral damage is acceptable to protect a country’s citizens. I’m not a learned man, nor am I the leader of a nation. I prefer to leave that determination to my betters, to people more experienced. My aim is to provide perspective, and ask for consistency in our fights against our enemies. I am not minimizing the loss of Israeli lives and the tragedy each loss is, not only to the families of the victims, but to the nation as a whole. That is not my goal. I am simply imploring the people in a position to affect change, the people who are faced, every day, with life and death decisions, the people who are aware of abuse and have thus far chosen not to report it, to please value the lives of your children, the lives of your loved ones, the lives of your brothers and sisters who are suffering and dying because of sexual abuse, as much as you value the lives of your brothers and sisters who are suffering and dying because of Hamas.

Israel, thank God, has Iron Dome, which protects it from 90% of Hamas’ rocket attacks. Please help be the Iron Dome for our children. God willing, Israel will see peace soon and never know war again, and never again will a child know the pain of sexual abuse.

 

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The Bogeyman in the (Router) Closet

Author’s note: This was originally posted as a comment to a post by Kol B’Isha Erva responding to a girl who was asking for advice about an inappropriate internet relationship she found herself in. She wasn’t sure how to handle the situation, and reached out for help. This is my response.

Hi, my name is Asher, I’m 22, and I’m an internet person. Kind of like you seem to be. I got into it at the same age, too. It wasn’t really a conscious choice; I kind of found myself online more and more trying to escape what was going on in my house. I was abused as a kid, and things kind of came to a head when I was 16. The internet was a way to escape that, into a wonderful world where there were people for everyone, people who didn’t judge, who seemed interested, who were as crazy and messed up as I was.

And that’s the way it was, for the most part. Everyone uses the internet to some extent, but have their lives outside of it. I wasn’t like that, though, and neither were the people I was friends with. They were all escaping something and running to the internet where they felt they could be loved and accepted for who they were. It became a question we started asking new members of our little community, “Why are you an internet person?”

Some people were just lonely, shy, lacking the social skills or self-esteem to just walk up to people and strike up conversations, start relationships. It was so much easier online. Some people were living in abusive situations, like myself. Some people suffered from illnesses which precluded them from having normal life and participating in certain activities with their friends. Some people we just weren’t sure about.

It was nice for quite a while. We would come home to each other, take recess in school together, tell each other about our days. Some of us even fell in love. One couple I know of that met through our group is married today. Some of the couples weren’t quite as lucky, and broke up. I was one of the people who found someone to love. She was an Irish Protestant girl living in Hawaii. Her reason for being online was that she was the black sheep of her family, so to speak.

Her entire family are blonde beauties, drop-dead gorgeous, and sweet as sugar. Not the smartest people, but kind enough. Her parents were pastors at the local church. All the children were homeschooled by their parents and a local homeschooling group. The families were too poor to send their kids to school so they banded together an formed an ersatz school of their own. The girl I met, Melanie, didn’t really fit her family’s mould. She had black hair, was pretty but not gorgeous, and she was very smart. Her family just couldn’t keep up with her, and they weren’t quite sure how to handle her.

We became very good friends and remained good friends for close to two years. During that time, I fell in love with her. I never told her that, because I knew that nothing could ever come of it, but I enjoyed my time with her, and she had a very positive impact on my life. She’s the one who drew me out of the depression I had been suffering, and she’s the one who gave me the strength to transcend what I had been subjected to. I owe her, in a very literal sense, my life. Eventually, she met someone in school, fell in love with him, and stopped talking to me. I was saddened by it, but life goes on.

Left without her to occupy my every waking moment, I went back to that little online community. I’d sort of drifted away from it after getting involved with Melanie. I wasn’t please by what I found. I had left the chatroom I’d made for the group close to a year before, and I asked to be invited back. Remember those people I mentioned who we weren’t sure why they’d joined? They were twenty-somethings and we were, for the most part, considerably younger. When I rejoined the chatroom, for the first time in close to a year, I found them encouraging a 17 year old girl to take off her clothes for their amusement and pleasure. I left, and never went back. That girl, I’m sure, kept taking her clothes off for them.

So there are good stories and bad stories, but in my experience, the bad outweigh the good. About a year or so ago, a friend of mine called me early in the morning, sounding like he was ready to murder someone. He had been scanning his fifteen year old sister’s computer for viruses and came across some pictures she had sent of herself, not wearing much, to a bunch of older guys in a Skype group. The guys were in their late twenties and early thirties.

Another girl I know, missing something in her life and seeking some kind of companionship to fill that void, posted on CraigsList seeking a man. She was nineteen at the time. They are now in a relationship with each other, and he is abusive to her. He is controlling, demanding, manipulative. He picks her clothing for her, dictates how she dresses and wears cosmetics, what she eats, where she goes, what she watches. Oh, and he has girlfriends on the side. They’ve moved in together, and she now has no way out, because if she leaves him, she’ll be out on the street.

The internet is a very powerful tool, and like every tool, it must be used with caution, much in the same way one would use caution when sculpting a hedge with a buzzsaw. There is plenty of good on the internet, but also plenty of bad. It’s prudent to take certain precautions when using the internet.

Never volunteer information. Ever. Especially to someone you don’t know. It doesn’t matter how much he claims to like you, how many compliments he pays you, how many nice things come out of his mouth. Treat people on the internet the same way you would treat people in real life. If a stranger walked up to you in the street and started flattering you, you would probably call the police, not give him your phone number. Be very wary of people on the internet. Generally speaking, I only treat people online as “safe” either if I know them in real life, or I know people who can strongly vouch for them. Real people, not internet people.

Never send pictures to someone you don’t know, especially pictures that could be used to blackmail you in the future. In general it is never a good idea to take compromising pictures of yourself , even to please a significant other, because once taken, those pictures will never go away, and will always hang over your head. They can cost you your job, reputation, and sanity.

Never make yourself identifiable online unless you have a very good reason to do so. Things as seemingly insignificant as your name and city can be used by anyone to figure out your identity, and by extension your phone number and address. Never post your email address online or give it to anyone who asks for it online, unless you know for a fact that you can trust them. The same goes for usernames to other social media or sharing platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, or Skype. Typically, people use the same username for several services. A quick Google search can identify those services, which can then be used to track you and find out your identity.

Be very wary about posting pictures online in general. Make sure your camera is set to disable geotagging, or your coordinates at the time you took the picture can be extracted from the image, giving a potential predator your home address or current location. Don’t use Foursquare. Telling people where you are gives them your current location making you vulnerable to predators, and lets burglars know you aren’t home.

Just a quick illustration of my point. I did this when I was young and stupid and could have been prosecuted for it. I learned my lesson very quickly, but there are people out there who haven’t. For reasons I’ll leave for a later post, I decided, when I was 19 years old, that I absolutely had to get in touch with a certain YouTube personality. I shot him a few emails, but he didn’t respond. Undeterred, I broke into his Gmail account through his security question, the answer to which he had mentioned in one of his YouTube videos. I had gotten his email address by breaking into the account of one of his friends using a similar method. The information was all public, and I took full advantage of that.

Once inside his account, I had his life. His bank accounts, YouTube and AdSense passwords, his personal correspondences, contact lists, private pictures, and online passwords. I had everything. Being that I was only after a way to contact him, that’s all I actually took. I didn’t realize that what I was doing was a series of felonies punishable by quite a few years in federal prison. When I eventually contacted him, he did not take it well. Shortly after, he suffered a breakdown, broke up with his girlfriend, closed down his website, and moved back in with his parents. By some miracle he did not press charges. I learned my lesson and never did that again.

My intentions at the time in contacting him were pure enough, and I still managed to cause irreparable damage. Consider how much damage people setting out with malicious intent can cause. These people are everywhere online. That’s not to say that there are no good people online, or that everyone is dangerous, but caution is imperative. There are terrible people intent on causing vulnerable and otherwise naive people serious harm. It can be a very dangerous place.

Generally speaking, most people don’t have to worry about these dangers very much; they use the internet for a few hours a day and don’t invest much of their personal lives in the internet. They aren’t looking to replace a part of their lives with the internet. For internet people, however, like myself, like I presume you to be based on the email you sent Sharon, the danger is much more present and much more real. Please protect yourself from it. Please exercise caution. The internet can be an incredible tool for you, and can help you in ways that perhaps the real world can’t, but like any tool, you have to be careful.

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Why I’m Not Shomer Negiah Anymore

They taught us in writing class that there’s no such thing as writer’s block. They taught us that it’s a complete fabrication made up by people who were too lazy to write. There are, however, times when the creative juices just seem not to flow. “Just write about anything,” my teacher said. “Write about getting out of bed in the morning, or the birds that chirped outside your window as you got dressed, or the fly that jumped into your oatmeal while you were looking away at the morning Times. Write about your writer’s block. Write about anything as long as you write, and that block will disappear.” That’s kind of what I did with this opening paragraph. It’s not that I’m too lazy to write; honestly, the fact that I’m writing this scares me a little.

I put myself out there with my writing in a way that most people wouldn’t be comfortable doing themselves. Being a religious Jew living in my community, I should be terrified of what this blog does to my shidduch (suitability for marriage) prospects. When I started writing, I gave up any hope of shidduchim. Instead of depending on shadchanim (matchmakers), I chose to meet girls on my own. So I don’t have that hanging over me. Still, though, I try to keep the objectionable stuff to a minimum here, especially when it comes to things that can come back and bite me, but I think this is something that enough abuse survivors struggle with, that the discomfort I may experience from writing this and dealing with the resulting judgment of people who don’t understand is outweighed by the potential benefit.

Growing up, touch was always a touchy subject for me. My family isn’t one of those touchy feely ones where hugs and kisses are a normal thing people do. Everyone, I assume, knew that everyone else loved them; they didn’t need physical signs of affection to understand that. The only one who ever hugged or kissed me was my mother, which to most people will seem normal, but it never felt normal to me. The way she touched me was stifling, constantly kissing me, hugging me, almost possessively, as though she were marking me as hers. I could tell her to stop, I could tell her I was uncomfortable, but she wouldn’t stop.

I hear those eyes rolling, those mothers in my audience groaning because it reminds them of when they try to kiss their own children despite cries of “Oh my God, mom, you’re so embarrassing!!!” My mother abused me for years in ways so subtle I didn’t even realize it. Every time she touched me it was possessive and dominating, not loving. She was the only one who ever touched me as a kid. That coupled with what she did resulted in me having an extreme aversion to touch. I can’t even handle too many people standing around me, even if they’re not touching me. Just yesterday, I was in a restaurant at a table behind a large family on their way out. One of them passed a coat over me to another, and the coat brushed me. I had to clench my jaw and ball my fists to prevent myself from screaming or hitting one of them.

For most of my life I couldn’t handle anyone touching me. They did anyway, and I didn’t say anything, but I hated it. Both men and women. I reacted viscerally any time someone touched me. Then I met Melanie. Melanie came to me at a time in my life when everything was coming to a head. I had pretty much dropped out of high school because of what was happening to me at home. I had lost the ability to feel any emotion at all. The abuse at home required a certain cruelty of me, a callousness that left no room for any other emotion. It had gotten so bad that I slept with a belt near my bed in case my mother came in and tried beating me. I had to be willing to fight back against my mother, and hurt her if necessary, if she tried hurting me. It’s no easy thing for a son to injure his mother, to hear her cry and know he caused it. This was happening almost daily when I met Melanie.

She was a member of a forum I was very active on. I say met, but we only ever interacted online. I never actually met her in real life. It’s amazing, really; someone who had such an integral role in making me who I am now never actually met me. She was an Irish Protestant aspiring divinity student from Hawaii with a strong interest in religion, theology, philosophy, and politics. We instantly became best friends; we were as inseparable as two people living six thousand miles from each other could be. We spent every waking moment Skyping, IMing, texting, or calling each other. She somehow saw past my surly, caustic, sarcastic, heartless exterior. Somehow she saw that cowering version of me, hiding in some dark recess of my soul, terrified to come out for fear of being hurt even more. She saw the secrets I kept and how much they were hurting me, and she offered to help me carry them. She’s the first person I’ve ever told everything to. I think she’s the first person I ever loved.

It was she who showed me that I could feel again, that the cruelty I’d been forced to feel toward my mother didn’t have to become who I was. She helped me trust again.

Writing is what ultimately helped me start healing. An article I wrote for Ami magazine about what I’d gone through sort of opened the floodgates, and I’ve been writing ever since. It’s an amazing catharsis, and it has really helped me sort through things. Sometimes you just need to get all that conflict and inner turmoil out on paper before you can stare it down and tell it to jump in a lake. I started writing a memoir. It’s no easy task, writing a memoir, and it helps to have people around you, other writers who understand how difficult writing can be, cheering you on.

Every November is National Novel Writing Month, worldwide. Thousands of aspiring authors shake off the cobwebs, dust off their typewriters, and write a novel in a month. Living in New York City is great during NaNoWriMo. There are writing meetings all over the city where you can sit with other authors and bounce ideas off each other, discuss which way would be best to kill off your characters, which characters should fall in love with each other, how to accurately describe a freshly severed head, get drunk, and write until your fingers fall off. Most of them aren’t Jewish, and the ones who are generally aren’t religious, which means that sooner or later you’re going to get touched, whether it’s a hug, handshake, pat on the back, or arm around the shoulder. It happens so fast and so naturally that you don’t even have time to object if you’re shomer negiah (careful not to touch the opposite sex unless you’re either married or immediately related to them).

At the time I was still shomer negiah, and I would protest if I could, but more often than not it was over before I could begin to protest. I found myself liking it. They were a great bunch of people who knew the parts of my story I’d given as a synopsis for my plot and were very supportive of me, and I trusted them. It felt great to be touched by people and not feel like I had to run; to be hugged by someone I thought of as a friend and not have a panic attack. I never initiated any kind of physical contact; I just sat there waiting for one of the girls to come and hug me, or just pat me on the shoulder, hoping that they did it fast enough for me to get away with not protesting.

Funny enough, I still hated being touched by the guys. I’d cringe every time one of them so much as came to close to me. I’ve discussed it with my therapist because it seems counter-intuitive. I was abused by a woman and not a man, and yet, for some reason, if I trust them I’ll let a woman touch me, but no matter who the man is and how much I trust him, I can’t stand being touched by him. She says it’s because of Melanie, that since she was the first person I opened up to, I’m open to trusting women more than I’ll ever trust men.

I knew I liked being touched by women, but I still believed that it was wrong. I was still shomer negiah, which made life very difficult for me. Before this, I had resigned myself to the fact that I’d never like being touched by anyone, but now I knew that it didn’t have to be like that for me. The fact that I had options made the idea of going the rest of my single life without any physical contact very scary. People take physical contact very much for granted because they, thank God, have it in their lives, even people who are shomer negiah. That “bro hug” or clap on the shoulder is huge. It’s almost like breathing. You take it for granted until you can’t have it. Being touched by men gave me panic attacks and being touched by women was forbidden. That scared me. A lot.

It took me a year to finally decide to stop being shomer negiah, and it was not an easy decision. A year of hoping someone would touch me before I had to object. A year of feeling both guilty and pleased for wanting that basic human need fulfilled. Finally I couldn’t do it anymore. One day I just messaged a friend of mine that I had been spending a lot of time with and told her that I wasn’t shomer negiah anymore. She wasn’t shomer negiah either, and while she found my sudden decision strange, she was pleased that she didn’t have to be careful around me anymore. She could hug me if she wanted to. She could tap me on the shoulder to get my attention. She could hold my arm when we walked. I was pleased that she was pleased, because I wanted all those things too.

I felt so guilty for the first two months, like I was headed down some slippery slope to premarital sex and unintended paternity. It took some time to rid myself of that guilt and come to terms with the fact that touching the opposite sex does not have to be sexual. I literally sat in coffeshops watching the way secular people interacted with each other as friends to get some sort of feel for what was normal and acceptable physical contact between friends and what wasn’t. A hand on the back is ok, but only if it isn’t too low on the back. Too low means you want something else. A kiss on the cheek is ok as a greeting, but only if it doesn’t linger. A hug is ok but only for a second or two. Past that gets uncomfortable.

 It may seem odd, but there was a very steep learning curve for me, a rather religious boy from a rather religious family in a rather religious community. What I was doing was unheard of. Scandalous. God forbid anyone saw me. I’d become an instant kiruv (religious outreach) case. Boys who touched girls were almost certainly having sex with them, and sex before marriage is strictly forbidden. I had to be careful lest anyone think I was having sex.

It’s been a little over a year since I stopped being shomer negiah, and I can’t say I regret my decision. I honestly don’t think I would have lasted being shomer negiah, knowing that I would have to go until I got married without so much as a high five from someone that didn’t give me a panic attack.

That being said, the fact that I’m not shomer negiah does not mean I believe I’m doing the right thing. More to the point, I still believe in the rationale behind being shomer negiah. I still believe that premarital sex is wrong, and that being shomer negiah is the best way of heading it off. To that end, I set limits for myself. I may not be shomer negiah, but I still keep as much of the spirit of that law as I can. I don’t do anything sexual. I’ve never kissed a girl, nor do I intend to before I’m married. I don’t touch parts of the body that are sexual. I don’t touch a girl’s chest or genitals, or get close to either. I’m not looking to get away with more than I think I need.

It’s not easy. Honestly, if I could be shomer negiah I like to think I would be just because of how complicated it is to toe that thin line between what I need to satisfy my need for basic physical contact and going any further. It’s very hard to just stop myself, especially when the other person really wouldn’t mind me going further, but I have a very clear idea of why I don’t want to go further, a clear understanding of the law, and a desire to keep halacha (Jewish law) stronger than my desire for sexual satisfaction. (That being said, have I mentioned how difficult it is? Because let me tell you…)

I’m not recommending what I do to anyone, nor am I looking for anyone to tell me that what I’m doing is ok. I know it’s not ok. I know it’s not halachically permissible. I choose to do it anyway. This post is meant to help anyone who experienced what I did, to validate the feelings they may be having, to let them know that they are not bad people for wanting something forbidden. I know there are people going through the same struggle and I want you to know that whatever you choose to do, whether you stay shomer negiah, choose not to be but with the same boundaries as me, or choose to do away with it entirely without any boundaries, no one can judge you, no one can criticize you, and no one can make you feel bad about your decision. Anyone who does has never walked a minute in your shoes, and anyone who has would never judge you.

I hope this post can help people, and to anyone reading this who is going through the same struggle, I wish you luck in your healing, a long and happy life devoid of pain, and the courage to transcend whatever was done to you.

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There and Back Again

It’s not easy having a relationship with God, especially if you never had a good relationship with your parents. That’s the comparison generally used when explaining the mystery of God’s plan, to a parent making decisions for their child that the child is too young to understand. Of course, children tend to rebel against their parents; it’s all a part of growing up. But they usually come back when they realize that their parents loved them all along and had only their best interests at heart. It’s a lot harder, though, when it’s God you’re dealing with, because parents respond more overtly and clearly than God does. With God, all you have is faith, and your belief that everything He does is ultimately for the best. It’s so easy to lose sight of that.

Life had fallen apart. After months of trying to play peacekeeper between my abusive mother and me, my grandmother broke down and was hospitalized. When she left the hospital, she was severely depressed, nearly catatonic. The only way for me to get money for daily necessities was to sit with her and try to coax some emotion out of her. If I could get her to talk–to feel–then I could connect with her enough to make her understand why I needed money. I was 17 years old, hardly a trained psychologist. It was torture to have to do that every day. She would sit there telling me why she had given up on life, how everything that had happened was her fault, and how she had felt in the moment she had given up.

I would run out afterward, after I had gotten the money I needed, and scream. Just scream. And punch the walls, and curse God and demand to know why–why I was being subjected to my life. All those years in a dysfunctional family, and then the abuse, and then having to get my heart ripped apart every day just to survive. God was torturing me and I hated Him for it. According to the Torah, the penalty for cursing God is death. Personally, I didn’t care; I wanted to die anyway.

I went to shul every day, three times a day, but the words I was saying felt wrong on my lips. I was praying to a God who would never answer, asking for mercy I’d never receive. I choked out shacharis, mincha, and maariv through tears and sobs, and every day it got harder and harder. Eventually I stopped crying. Like a child who is told that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, I got over the fact that God wasn’t there and tried to move on with my life. Sure, I went through all the motions, but it was only because that was the life I knew. Until I found something else I could believe, I wasn’t quite ready to abandon my lifestyle.

God was gone, and in His absence was a void. I started looking for something to fill it. First I looked for a way to maintain my beliefs in the absence of God. I had always been taught that what separated the Jewish people from the atheists and idolaters of this world was their morality. No longer believing in God made me feel amoral. I started studying moral philosophy, trying to find a way to maintain a belief in absolute morality while still eschewing the idea of absolute morality requiring a deity, or higher entity. Kant’s moral philosophy, based on the categorical imperative, appealed to me at the time, especially since it acknowledged the practical need for the idea of some higher power to exist in order to maintain any absolute truth, but allowed for no higher being to actually exist. To quote Voltaire, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” In short, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

So I had morality, which made me feel somewhat better, but I felt something still lacking in that void left by God’s departure. My life became a war between the two sides of me, the part that wanted Judaism and the part that wanted to reject God entirely. Though I had given up on God and religion, I felt sad doing so, as if an important part of me had just been lost. I started debating anyone who would accommodate me. Usually, I would take the side of Judaism against any opposition, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was trying to convince myself as much as my opponents. Instead of feeling vindicated after winning a debate, all I felt was shameful, and frustrated. I read every hashkafa book I could get my hands on, watched every video about atheism I could find, argued about both with whomever would give me their time, and none of it helped fill that void.

The more I searched, the more I kept seeing that there really is only one truth when it comes to belief in God: There is no proof; there is only faith. That’s what emuna p’shuta means to me now. Not blind, unquestioning faith, but the understanding that after you’ve questioned, after you’ve searched high and low for proof, all there really is, is faith. Confronted with this truth I had to decide: Do I, or do I not, believe in God?

It’s not a question you can answer in one day, so I took my time. I sat back and examined my life as it unfolded, trying to honestly determine if I could believe in God or not. It’s always the little things. The money I would make here and there when I needed it most, the opportunities that seemed to arise from nowhere, the people who came into my life when I had no one. Little things, but to me they were signs of some divine intervention. Grudgingly I accepted the existence of God, but that didn’t put Him back in my good graces. I hated Him just as much, but I couldn’t deny His existence. I just couldn’t see any good or purpose in my suffering.

That autumn, I wrote a draft of my memoir. Two weeks, fifty-thousand words. I barely ate or slept. After it was finished, I labored over it for a few days, correcting spelling and grammatical errors, until it was, for a rough draft, perfect. That night, I went to a FedEx store and had it printed and bound. While I knew I was supposed to be feeling elation at having accomplished something so incredible in such a short time, what I actually felt was sadness and emptiness. I nearly jumped in front of a train that night. That book had been my purpose, and there it was, in my hands, printed and bound–finished. My purpose, finished.

On a suggestion from a friend, I started volunteering at a drop-in center for kids at risk. I felt that perhaps others could benefit from my experience. In doing so, I discovered a purpose, a silver lining, almost, to everything that had happened. I still didn’t like the process, or the fact that I had to experience any of it, but God’s purpose started making sense–the good I had been looking for was beginning to make sense. It may seem odd for me to call the fact that I have the benefit of such unfortunate experience a good thing, but, to me, there is nothing more beautiful than that first smile breaking across a face stained by too many years of crying. If my experience means that I can be the cause of that smile, then that’s the purpose–that’s the good.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand why I was chosen for the life I was given, but I don’t think I need to know that anymore. Not yet, anyway. I will one day, after I’ve lived my life, and I move on to the next world. For now, though, I have my God, I have my purpose, and that’s all I need. Don’t get me wrong, my relationship with God is anything but easy, but it’s the fact that there’s a relationship that I enjoy so much. I feel that, after everything I’ve been through, and after losing and then finding God again, I am much closer to Him than most other people. I feel that closeness every day, and I have no doubt that God loves me. I see His kindness in my life every day. I am a proudly Orthodox Jew, and I love my God.

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This Is My God

For the longest time I haven’t been able to bring myself to say the name “Hashem”. It feels wrong to me, like I’m forcing myself to utter the name of a being I know to be something entirely false and contrived by people with whom I would never want to associate. Don’t worry, this article isn’t a renunciation of my religion. No, I believe with all my heart in “Hashem;” I just can’t bring myself to utter that word, or even think it without cringing. When I need to refer to my Creator in conversation, I call Him God. That’s who I feel my bond with: God. Hashem makes me want to run and hide; God makes me feel safe and loved and protected. I feel God, not Hashem, watching over me. God is who I pray to, not Hashem.

Until this morning I couldn’t understand why Hashem is so objectionable to me. I thought about it because it’s bothered me for the longest time; I couldn’t say the name of my God without feeling dirty; I’ve really felt guilty about it. I thought about situations in which I would be inclined to discuss Hashem and, for the most part, they’re all with people who use Hashem to their own advantage. People discussing the “kids at risk” crisis, or the latest “falsely accused rebbi” or hateful discussions about how gay people are the scum of the earth and intend to destroy us one male sexual encounter at a time.

I realized that any time I have ever been spoken to about Hashem, barring a few exceptions, it’s been a discussion I wanted to run away from, with a person I wanted to berate for their ignorance. They were twisting my God into something so horrible that I couldn’t even say His name as it is accepted in my religious circles. Hashem is a disgusting idea to me because the people who claim to worship Him and embrace His law made their idea of Him so reprehensible.  

God, though…God is entirely my own construct. No one refers to God by that name in my community. In fact, most find it a bit uncomfortable when I do, like I’m an outsider trying to sound intelligent about a subject with which I couldn’t possibly be familiar. But God is my understanding of my chosen deity and religion. God is someone who loves me, protects me, and gives me a better way to live my life. God is something I want to be closer to. God is something I can work toward. God is the deity of my bible, the savior of my nation; Hashem just makes me cringe.

Someone once asked me an interesting question: Does someone who has an easy life have an easier time with faith than someone who has a difficult life? As I was trying to come up with an answer, someone listening in on the conversation interjected and said “It’s two sides of the same challenge.” On the one hand, the person who has a hard life is confronted with so much evil and pain that he may lose sight more easily of God, because the God he knew and loved seems so heartbreakingly absent. On the other hand, The person who has an easy life never has to confront the question of God’s existence because, in a sense, he never really needs God for anything. God is incidental in his life, and therefore, he may forget that God even exists and is the Master of Creation.

I had a hard life. Have a hard life. I’m only 21. I’m having a hard life. My mother abused me, physically and emotionally, for years. My grandmother tried to hold things together and keep the peace, but eventually she fell into her own depression. Life went to hell. We had money but no way to access it because my grandmother needed to sign the checks, and she was, effectively, catatonic. I was a high school kid, suffering through my abuse, not sure how I would pay for food or clothes, never feeling safe because my grandmother could no longer protect me from my mother.

At first I cursed Hashem. I cursed Him for the life I had been promised by all my rabbis and teachers, and the life He had given me; I cursed Him for letting my abuser go on unchecked, as she pleased, while my grandmother and I suffered; I cursed Him for the things I had to do in order to live day to day; I cursed Him for not just taking my life and letting it all end. Then I prayed. Every day, with tears in my eyes, I prayed, begged Hashem to help me. I stopped going out very much because I didn’t want people to see me crying.

I begged my family to help. Some of them knew what was going on, but for one reason or another, always had more pity for my mother than for me. My grades plummeted. I started skipping school and staying home, online, where my real friends were. My family told me that I had to go to yeshiva and rebuked me constantly for my “sins”. They seemed to think that if only I would be the perfect yeshiva boy they had envisioned, my life would somehow perfect itself.

All I saw were people who knew, but did nothing—who would only judge me, and focus on my spiritual shortcomings, rather than help end my abuse and help me heal. Hashem wasn’t there for me, and those who worship in His name only used Him to make me feel worthless and guilty. Regardless of what I needed to do to survive, it always seemed contrary to what they believed Hashem wanted. If I skipped school in order to earn money so I could pay for things like food and clothing, things that most teenagers have provided for them, I was sinning. I was expected to conform to everyone else’s norms even though my life was falling to pieces. All this in the name of Hashem. This wasn’t the life I had been promised; this wasn’t the Hashem I had been told about. I stopped believing in that deity.

For a while I had no god. I tried finding proof for the existence of the one I’d abandoned, proof that He had never existed, or proof of some other truth entirely. The more I searched the more I realized I would never find proof: It always came down to faith.

I examined my life and the course it had taken, and I couldn’t deny the hand of some intervening being. Hashem and His worshippers had never helped me, but there were those who did, and situations which somehow managed to work in my favour that I couldn’t explain logically. I had to finally admit that something was intervening, some sort of deity, but which one?

I started learning more about this deity I had once known as Hashem, but now He seemed different, more like a God I could connect to rather than the Hashem from which I felt so removed. I began to understand His law, His will, the way in which he governs our world, His mercy, His judgement, His anger and kindness. I still wasn’t seeing His plan as ultimately good, but at least I could begin to understand the rules—the method to His madness.

This deity I was getting to know needed a name. He was the god of the Judaism that I had accepted, but the feel of Him, and of my understanding of Him, was so radically different from the way I felt and understood Hashem that I couldn’t refer to Him by that name any longer. Hashem to me was synonymous with unfettered, blind, zeal, to the point where it superseded His actual will. I named Him God. I still can’t say Hashem without cringing, but I am an Orthodox Jew and I love God, because he is the God I chose, instead of a god I was forced to accept. His law is the law I embraced, not the laws that had previously been imposed on me. He is, in every sense, my God.

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