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.