Amudim is Part of the Problem

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

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

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

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

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

Zvi Gluck to Hannah Dreyfus of the Jewish Week


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the response was overwhelmingly positive.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Zvi Gluck to Hannah Dreyfus of The Jewish Week


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

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

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

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Epstein, Wexner, and Our Communal Reckoning with Dirty Money

In the wake of the recent resurfaced allegations against alleged child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, much attention has been given to the people around him who for many years enabled his well-known sexual abuse of children. Perhaps most notable among these enablers is Leslie Wexner, whose foundation has issued many scholarships to some of the Jewish community’s most influential up-and-coming leaders, and donated to many institutions across our community. When the allegations of Wexner’s complicity arose, we all knew that a reckoning was imminent, but it seems that Mechon Hadar has beaten everyone else to the punch, and not in a good way.

Above I’ve shared screenshots of an email conversation my friend Ike Brooks Fishman had with the Rosh Yeshiva of Mechon Hadar, Rabbi Ethan Tucker, regarding an email Ike sent to the Hadar community listserv. Ike had emailed the listserv to start a communal discussion about how the community would and could respond to its entanglement with Les Wexner in light of his close partnership with alleged international sex-trafficker and child rapist, Jeffrey Epstein.

It should also be noted for general context going forward that Wexner stands accused not only of being Epstein’s only public (and very wealthy) client despite almost undoubtedly knowing of Epstein’s horrific crimes, but also of allowing Epstein to sexually abuse women in his Ohio home. This was not raised in Ike’s emails, but it is relevant to the general conversation about how the Jewish community in general will have to contend in the coming months with Wexner and his various philanthropic endeavors.

Leslie Wexner is the founder and CEO of L Brands (formerly Limited Brands), which among many other things, owns Victoria’s Secret. This is notable because Epstein is accused of posing as a talent scout for Victorias Secret as early as the mid-90s, and using that as a pretext to lure models back to his hotel room for auditions, where he would sexually assault them. L Brands was allegedly made aware of this at the time and did not sever its relationship with Epstein, nor did it seem to take any steps to make Epstein stop representing himself as their employee.

He allegedly was also sent underage models to be sexually assaulted by a modelling agency used by Victoria’s Secret. Victoria’s Secret continued using that modelling agency despite allegedly being made aware of those allegations. As mentioned above, Wexner is also alleged to have done nothing after Epstein allegedly assaulted Maria Farmer at his Ohio home.

The closeness between Wexner and Epstein and his ever-growing list of accusers paints a clear picture of either active or tacit complicity on the part of Leslie Wexner in the crimes of Jeffrey Epstein.

The other thing Wexner is famous for, particularly in the Jewish community, is the philanthropic works of the Wexner Foundation, which invests in the future of Jewish leaders and institutions. One of the most sought after scholarships in the Jewish community is the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, which is awarded to 20 promising graduate students every year, and is a very prestigious line on any resume.

What makes the issue of Wexner particularly touchy for Mechon Hadar and Rabbi Ethan Tucker, is the fact that Rabbi Tucker, along with the other two founders, Rabbis Elie Kaunfer, and Shai Held are all Wexner Fellows. The Wexner Foundation website hosts a lot of content created by all three of them. The Wexner foundation has also funded several programs over the years in conjunction with Mechon Hadar. It’s unclear what the total amount of either actual or in-kind contributions Mechon Hadar has received from the Wexner Foundation, but it’s clear that there is a close friendship between the two institutions.

The Wexner Foundation for its part claims that Leslie Wexner severed his connections to Epstein 12 years ago, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Which brings us back to Rabbi Tucker’s reaction to Ike’s initial email to the listserv. When the new allegations against Epstein broke, and Wexner was almost immediately implicated, there was a collective browning of many a pair of pants among the Jewish community and its institutional leadership. Wexner has donated millions over the years, given scholarship to scores of the most recognizable names in our communities, and that realization no doubt caused a panic in many of those people and institutions. Ike no doubt touched an extremely raw nerve with his first email, which is likely what caused Rabbi Tucker’s vitriolic response.

I am ashamed that you were once my student.

You should be deeply ashamed of yourself for doing this and I will do what I can to make sure that you or anyone else who engages in this sort of behavior is considered a pariah in this community until such time as you have done genuine public teshuvah for this.

Rabbi Ethan Tucker to Ike Brooks Fishman

But here’s the thing. This is not Hadar’s problem exclusively. It’s not Rabbis Held, Kaunfeld, and Tucker’s problems exclusively. This is about how we as a community are going to deal with the fact that one of our most prominent philanthropists now stands accused of at the very least enabling the rape and sexual assault of countless children. In the coming months the Jewish community at large will be grappling with questions like whether or not to scrub Wexner Fellowships from resumes, whether or not to return unspent Wexner Foundation grants, how to address the connections between the Wexner Foundation and community institutions, and whether or not the Jewish Community as a whole should turn its back entirely on Wexner, his foundation, and his money.

These conversation must be had in public. They must be had broadly among members of the affected communities. Silence is what allowed Epstein to continue committing his crimes against children. Silence is what enabled the shameful plea deal reached between Epstein attorney Jay Lefkowitz and then US Attorney Alex Acosta. Silence is what enables the abuse of children every day in our communities. Silence encourages impunity.

The faculty, student body, alumni, and communities surrounding Mechon Hadar have a difficult conversation in their collective future, but so do many other institutions and communities. Perhaps we in the broader Jewish community should all have known better. Perhaps we all turned a blind eye the first time Epstein was accused. Perhaps in the past we’ve been enticed by Wexner’s money, and the good things we believed we could do with it. But that era is over. We know too much to remain silent any longer.

I’m not going to pile on Rabbi Tucker and hold him uniquely responsible for disavowing Wexner and distancing himself from anything connected to him. That responsibility falls on all of us. What I will say is that this is a teachable moment that we shouldn’t allow to slip by unnoticed. The way Rabbi Tucker responded to Ike’s email while understandable is entirely inexcusable. The response to calls for transparency and reflection around the issue of sexual abuse can never be silence.

I wish Mechon Hadar, its leadership, its community, and all the institutions and communities within the Wexner foundation orbit much luck in the coming months as they address how best to disentangle themselves from his money and influence.

One thing is for sure. I and many others will be watching very closely.

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The Yeshiva System’s ‘Perfect Image’ is Built on the Children It Discarded

Over and over throughout my time in yeshiva I heard this constant refrain, that we were better than the public schools because we had a higher graduation rate, and didn’t require drug screenings and metal detectors. And I believed it. I believed that the education I was getting was far better than whatever public school had to offer, and that I was intellectually and morally superior to my public school peers.

Then I grew up and realized that the world isn’t quite so simple.

I’m now seeing a resurgence of this ridiculous idea in the wake of the debate over private school curricular standards in New York State. Since that topic as a whole is very complicated and nuanced, and would require more than one post to fully flesh out my opinions, I just want to focus on this one specific aspect of it: The idea that yeshivas are academically and morally superior to public schools.

What really kicked my opinions of yeshivas in the teeth was when I started volunteering for Our Place, a drop-in center for Jewish kids at risk. Sure, I’d been abused for years in the frum world and had dropped out of yeshiva, but I still thought before that point that it was really just me and my life experiences, and that the image I had of the frum world in general, and the yeshiva world in particular, were sound and valid.

Just to give an example, the idea that yeshiva guys would do drugs or have sex before they were married was inconceivable to me. Mind you, I was 19 at the time, but I’d never really stepped out of my personal bubble. When I started volunteering at Our Place, reality came at me fast and hard. A lot of the kids there were regular drug users, some of whom were drug dealers, some of the kids were in gangs, some of them had knocked up their girlfriends, and so on. It was, to 19-year-old me, at once heartbreaking and eye-opening that this myth I had believed about the frum community and the people within it was nonsense.

More shocking even than that was the way a lot of the community seemed to interact with and feel about this group of boys. Many of them had been abused, the community had silenced it or covered it up, and when they inevitably started “acting out” as a result of their trauma, the community threw them out. One night I got curious and asked a bunch of the boys there whether they had been able to speak to their rebbeim about a range of topics. Unanimously they said no. They had been kicked out of yeshiva for asking. Then they’d been kicked out of the next yeshiva for asking, and so on. They were only taken seriously when they were finally sent to what they characterized as “babysitting/kiruv” yeshivas, where, since they were already at the rock bottom of the yeshiva world, the rebbeim had nothing to lose by engaging with them.

Why? Because at that point the yeshivas and rebbeim had nothing to lose. There was no longer any image of perfection to maintain because they were dealing with kids the community had rejected for threatening to shatter that illusion. Of course, by then these boys were soured on the community and yeshivas in general, and never lasted long in these places.

Every so often one of them would die. A suicide, or a drug overdose, or a gang-related killing. Not a word in the charedi press. Not a tear shed for them. Not a world written in remembrance. These boys die without so much as a peep from the community that excised them to retain this illusion of perfection, to prop up this ridiculous idea that we’re so much better than “them” both academically and morally.

Public schools don’t get to be selective with their student bodies, they have to work with whatever district they happen to be in. They have to find a way to make it work. If their district happens to be an a high-poverty, high-crime area, then they have to try to educate that population, even though the children in that district may have more immediate, existential priorities than learning their reading writing and ‘rithmetic.

Yeshivas, on the other hand, get to be selective. They get to choose what “types” of people they accept. They get to expel with impunity. They get to abuse, and cover up, and expunge the victim from their narrative, all in service of maintaining this lie that yeshivas are by definition better than public schools.

Setting aside the fact that many yeshivas actually do graduate and issue diplomas to students who aren’t, in fact, deserving of them by artificially inflating their grades, it’s very easy to claim academic superiority when you make your job easy by eliminating anyone who you think might disturb that illusion.

Comparing yeshivas to public schools in this regard is therefore disingenuous at best, and malicious at worst. The yeshiva world can’t have it both ways. It can’t refuse to serve, and in doing so deny the existence of, the kinds of children that public schools are compelled to and still maintain that they somehow by nature operate at a higher level. They don’t get to expel from school and ostracize from the community children who struggle with drugs, who have sex before marriage, who suffer from mental health issues, who come from broken, or abusive homes, who have questions of faith, and then claim that because they’ve washed their hands of such problems they are therefore better than the ones who haven’t.

The system is built on the blood of those discarded children, and that blood boils on the ground as these liars stand on their corpses to more loudly proclaim their lies.

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Activists & Survivors to Protest Agudath Israel President’s Abuse Enabling Policies 1644 48th st 7/23 3 PM

For Immediate Release
Contact Asher Lovy
347-369-4016
Asher@ZAAKAH.org

 

Advocates against child sexual abuse protest President of Agudath Israel of America for protecting secrets, not children

 

(New York, NY): ZAAKAH, an organization that advocates reforms that will end child sexual abuse in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, is protesting outside the President of  Agudath Israel on Sunday. The protest will be at the Novominsker Yeshiva – 1644 48th street in Boro Park – on  Sunday,July 23rd at 3 PM. The protest is against Agudath Israel’s opposition to the Child Victims Act and their policy that victims must ask a rabbi for permission before reporting sexual assault to the authorities.  

 

These two policies, coupled, are responsible for the coverups of thousands of cases of child sexual abuse. These policies, enacted and promoted by Yaakov Perlow, are in large part responsible for the continued sexual abuse of children in Charedi communities, and the continued apathy and indifference toward victims of child sexual abuse on the part of Charedi communities.Together, these two policies actually incentivise the coverup of abuse and coercion of victims by setting a goal for rabbis and community members who want to cover up abuse: Since the victim has to go to a rabbi, make sure the rabbi keeps the victim quiet until he turns 23, and it will no longer be an issue.” says Asher Lovy, organizer of the event.

 

“According to many studies, it takes, on average, between 10 and 30 years for victims to come forward about being abused sexually. Yaakov Perlow, President of Agudath Israel,  knows this. He knows the harmful effects of sexual abuse its victims – suicide, PTSD, eating disorders, addiction, problems with relationships, emotional trauma, physical trauma, to name a few – and despite being fully aware of the high costs of treating the effects of child sexual abuse, Yaakov Perlow, and the rest of the Moetzes, continue to set policies for Agudah that not only deny existing victims justice, but put our children’s futures and lives in danger by enabling the continuation of child sexual abuse. Yet they continue to oppose legislation to  eliminate the Statute of Limitations for child sexual abuse, and open a 1 year retroactive window for old cases, allowing survivors of child sexual abuse to get justice from their abusers and the institutions that protect them.” said Lovy.

 

The Child Victims Act (A5885A) will lengthen New York’s statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, which currently keeps most victims over the age of 23 from seeking any justice in criminal or civil courts. The bill will also allow victims over the age of 23 one year to sue their abuser retroactively.

 

“In New York, the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse prevents victims from pressing charges after their 23rd birthday. This means there are lots of dangerous sexual predators who are above the law and are working with children. This is a disgraceful thing for New York to do to its children and to abuse survivors”, said Andrew Willis, founder of the Stop Abuse Campaign.

 

ZAAKAH is dedicated to ending child sexual abuse within the Charedi communities. For more information email Asher@zaakah.org.

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How The Gedolim Lost My Faith

Author’s Note: Here’s the link to the Facebook event for this Sunday’s protest of the Novominsker Rebbe’s, and by extension Agudah’s, rape-enabling policies: https://www.facebook.com/events/261681534310970/

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And then we got to the psak.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

That was the response I got.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It was then that Shafran managed my expectations of gedolim.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Not even if they were told to?

 

No.

 

So what do I do?

 

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

 

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

 

No.

 

Can I tell him you sent me?

 

No.

 

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

 

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

 

“.תפסת מרובה לא תפסת”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Those are people worthy of respect.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Protesting Agudah's Child Sexual Abuse Enabling Policies

Why We Protested In Midwood Last Sunday – ZAAKAH

Photo credit: Anya Shpilkovskaya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Abuser Was Not One Dimensional

Author’s note: This piece is based on something I wrote to some friends while writing a chapter for my webseries. I’m leaving it in its unedited form because that’s how I want the message to be seen. 

Writing about the bad times isn’t hard. That comes easy to me. I’m safe now. The bad times are now a weapon I wield rather than something I’m running from. Know what’s really hard? Writing about the good stuff. I have to keep forcing myself back to Scrivener to keep writing because I don’t want to acknowledge that they happened.

Because why does it fucking matter if there were good times? She fucking abused me on and off for most of my life, and then for 5 years nonstop toward the end of my living there. Why does it fucking matter that sometimes we went to restaurants, and travelled that one time, and used to talk a lot, and went places and stuff? Why the fuck does it matter?

It’s not like any of it mattered when she was trying to kill me. It’s not like it mattered when she was sexually abusing me, beating me, berating me, making me think I was a worthless piece of garbage who would have been better off aborted. None of it mattered when she ran out of the house yelling about getting a gun, then came home 3 hours later and sat there at the table with an oddly shaped paper bag, letting us wonder which of us she’d shoot first. It’s not like it mattered when she made my grandmother her literal slave, made her try to breastfeed her, grabbing her breasts and basically sexually assaulting her, made my grandmother wipe her ass, wash her, clean up her piss.

NONE OF THE GOOD STUFF MATTERED WHEN SHE WAS MAKING OUR LIVES A GODDAMN LIVING FUCKING HELL ON EARTH WHY SHOULD IT FUCKING MATTER NOW WHY DOES SHE DESERVE TO EVEN HAVE IT ACKNOWLEDGED WHY THE FUCK DO I EVEN REMEMBER IT I’D BE SO MUCH HAPPIER REMEMBERING ALL THE TERRIBLE SHIT THAT HAPPENED TO ME AND NEVER REMEMBERING THE GOOD TIMES THEY WERE SO IRRELEVANT TO WHAT SHE DID TO US

It’s not. not for me. For you it is. Read this blog post, read my story, watch my webseries, and remember that there were good times for me with her. Remember that I used to enjoy spending time with her. That she used to be my best friend. Remember that people are never one dimensional. They rarely only perpetrate evil. Remember that they’re not cartoon monsters, that they do good along with the bad. Remember that they can be great hosts while also beating their children. They can be very charitable, while also enslaving their families. They can be the person you turn to for help while also being a sadistic, barbarous, vicious abuser.

Remember that they can be the reason you get up in the morning, while also being the reason their son tries to kill himself.

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