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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Dancing in My Chair – The Rest of My Story

It was the same every Simchas Torah, which is why I kept going back to Young Israel Beth-El of Borough Park. I tried other places, but I could never get comfortable. The men and children would gather excitedly around the bimah, anticipation in their eyes, the long-awaited release of the singing and dancing as they circumambulated the bimah, Torah scrolls held reverently to their chests, or high in the air by some of the stronger folks, celebrating the yearly completion of the Torah. Ana Ad-nai hoshia na! And they’d be off.

Slowly at first. My favorite part was always the beginning, slowly chanting the first verse of the portion designated to each of the seven hakafos. All the places I went to skipped the rest. The verses are all from the latter part of Psalms 19 and recited in order at the beginning of each hakafah respectively, yet somehow nobody in the places I’d go seemed able to keep a handle on which verse was said when, and what the words actually were. I always prided myself on knowing the correct verse, and often my voice would be the only one chanting the words while the rest of the congregation took a momentary break to consult a prayer book. We’d start low, slowly chanting, building the melody, our voices rising, higher, until the climax where we’d profess loudly, and joyously, children and Torah scrolls held aloft, our belief in the absolute truth of the Torah, and in Moshe, the greatest prophet who ever lived. And then the dancing would start.

Well, I say dancing. It’s more like running in circles. It’s kind of nice, though. Everyone joins hands, or holds the shoulder of the person in front of him, forming what amounts to a large, circular conga line, typically focused, and dancing, around something important in the middle. At weddings, it’s the bride, or groom. On Simchas Torah, it’s the bimah, where the Torah is read. It gets much livelier than it sounds a few rounds in. Some people grab the person next to them and go off to the side to form their own, faster paced circles. Some people grab the person in front or to the side of them, and encourage them to sing a little louder, smile a little broader, and dance just a little harder.

That’s why I loved going to Young Israel. None of that ever happened there. No one ever grabbed me, or bumped into me. No children ever wrapped their arms around my leg, bumming a ride around the bimah. There were a grand total of three young children in a congregation of older and middle-aged men. I could dance around without holding anyone’s hand, or having anyone touch my shoulder. I don’t like when people do that, but it’s hard to tell people you don’t like being touched. They start looking at you funny, like you’re some kind of damaged leper. Sometimes they ask what happened to you, and actually expect an explanation. Most of the time I put up with it without complaining too much, because that’s what’s expected of me, and honestly I just don’t have the patience to explain to everyone in shul that I really want to be a part of the group, but only if no one touches me.

Sometimes I can handle it. Sometimes I can’t. I wasn’t in Young Israel this year, and I really couldn’t handle it. The night of Simchas Torah I managed to last for two hakafos, and then had to leave shul or risk punching the next person whose hand reached for mine. The next day, I deliberately came late. I told the friends I was staying by that I was hung over from the previous night and overslept, but the truth is, I just didn’t want to deal with hakafos. I wandered into shul around 11 o’clock and sat in a pew watching the merriment. Some people tried to get me to dance, taking pity on that guy in the corner sitting alone, but honestly I’ve become very happy watching from afar. I’m not sad, and I don’t feel alone. I’m with them in spirit. Dancing in my chair.

I’ve disliked being touched for as long as I can remember. Until just a few years ago, I couldn’t remember ever liking hugs, or feeling loved by kisses. I never felt camaraderie from an arm around my shoulder, or a pat on the back. Touch always made me feel intensely uncomfortable, as though anywhere in the world would be better than where I was in that moment. I never really knew why, or gave it much thought, I just knew I didn’t like it. And then one night a few years ago, while working on the manuscript for a memoir I’ve since scrapped, I made a terrifying connection. I was writing a paragraph about how I’ve always hated being touched, and how I’ve never had a hug I liked, and this connection I had never made before hit me like a ton of bricks. I ran over to my blackboard and wrote it all down before the realization went away. As I wrote, it jarred me, left me shaking, but I set it aside and went on with my life.

Two weeks later, I was in a chatroom for an online support group in which I was a member, and we were talking about my aversion to touch. One of my friends in the room asked me if I remember ever liking being touched by anyone, and that same connection hit me again, and this time it was there to stay. I told them everything.

I told them how I could remember hating being touched by my mother. How she used to hover over me all the time, and touch me more than I was comfortable with; how I did ask her to stop every now and again, but she never listened. I was her son and she was entitled to certain things. She hugged me whenever she wanted to, kissed me whenever she wanted to, but sometimes those kisses made me feel funny. I had no idea why, but I knew it was not ok. I told her to stop, but she always told me that a mother is entitled to kiss her child. She would kiss me in places that made me feel aroused. Never on my mouth, or anywhere that would be considered overtly inappropriate. On my ears, my earlobes, my neck, my shoulders, and different parts of my face. I knew how it made me feel, and while I didn’t understand what that feeling was at the age of 5, I knew it was wrong.

She would do this until I couldn’t handle it anymore, and that feeling I was feeling became all-consuming, and 5 year old me knew it had to be relieved. So 5 year old me would masturbate. Sometimes I would do it in private, sometimes I couldn’t go somewhere private, so I would stick my hand in my pants off to the side and do what I had to. Sometimes she would be in the same room and I would try to hide it under the covers. Apparently she saw me doing it, because she would tease me about it when I finished. One name she’d call me when she saw me was “masturbating genius.”

The incident I recall most vividly is when I was 12 and she was kissing me like that at the Shabbos table. She would not stop, no matter how much I protested, squirmed, or tried to inch away from her. My whole family was sitting at that table and she was kissing me that way, and I felt myself getting aroused, and I didn’t know what to do. She would not stop. After about a half hour, I couldn’t contain it any longer, but I also couldn’t leave in middle of the Shabbos meal, so I went to the couch behind my grandfather, masturbated in my pants, and came back to the Shabbos table. She knew. I could see she knew. She started kissing me again. She teased me about it later. This happened for ten years of my life.

When I finished telling my friends in the chat, I was shaking, crying, having a panic attack, and all I wanted to do was die. The shame was unbearable. I felt so dirty, so disgusting. What kind of sick freak masturbates when his mother kisses him. And which mother doesn’t kiss her children? Those other kids never masturbated when their mothers kissed them, what excuse did I have? Was what she did really different? Was it really wrong? I didn’t know. My friends were telling me it wasn’t my fault, but I couldn’t understand how it wasn’t. I had put my own hand, down my own pants, stimulated my own penis, until I reached orgasm. She hadn’t done that, I had done that. And no matter how many times my friends told me that it was her fault because I was a child and she knew what she was doing, it would not sink in.

My friend, who ran the online group, drove in from where she lived, picked me up, brought me to her house for the weekend, and arranged for me to see a therapist the next week. I told my therapist this story, and she also told me it wasn’t my fault, and again, I refused to believe her. “If you had a video,” she asked me, “of what she did to you, what would you think was happening? Would it look like a mother kissing a son?” I thought about it for a second or two, and told her “No. It looks like foreplay.” I had to know, though. “Did she know what she was doing? Did she know that what she was doing was making me aroused?” My therapist asked me if she had ever had sex before. I’m living proof she has. “If she’s ever had sex, which she obviously has, she knows what arousal looks like in someone else. She knew what she did, and what she did was wrong, and it was not your fault. You have nothing to be ashamed of.” No one had ever told me that before.

Even after discussing, and dissecting it with my therapist, I never spoke about it with anyone. It sort of became this festering secret that I stored in my mind’s attic, encrusted in mothballs and collecting dust, until the day I’d be forced to drag it back out and stare it in the face. I don’t know why I’m doing this now. I guess because I’m sick of being that lonely-looking guy in the corner of the shul. I’m sick of having to either go along or leave instead of asking people to respect my boundaries. I’m sick of being the freak.

This doesn’t mean I’m magically going to start liking touch. I’ve known this stuff for years, already, and it hasn’t made me any more comfortable being touched than I was when I didn’t know why. It’s a work in progress. It’s weird, though, I love being touched by the right people. I love a good hug from a close friend. I crave it, and need it, and hate going without it. But there are only a few people whom I trust enough to let touch me. I wish I could carry cards around and hand them out to people explaining my situation and asking them to respect it. Perhaps that’s too much to ask.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be ‘cured’ of my aversion to touch, and I don’t know that life would magically go back to normal if I were. But until that happens, please try to bear with me. If you see me sitting off to the side, smiling slightly, tapping my feet in time with the singing, please don’t come over and ask me to dance. I’m not lonely, and I’m not sad. I’m with you. In spirit. I’m dancing in my chair.

 

 

 

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Standing on Principle Even When it Hurts – How to Deal with Avi Yemini

During the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Avi Yemini, a son of Zephaniah Waks and one of the brothers of Manny Waks, released a video levelling accusations against his father. He alleged that his father beat his children with belts and was generally emotionally abusive toward them. He then went on to challenge the legitimacy of the Royal Commission, and the testimony given by his brother, Manny Waks, and his father, Zephaniah Waks. According to Avi, Zephaniah’s claims about being ostracized by Chabad were fabricated. Avi has since gone on to defend Rabbi Glick, and Chabad in general, who have been accused of being complicit in the covering up sexual abuse, minimizing the experience of survivors, and ostracizing Zephaniah Waks after he and Manny went public regarding the sexual abuse suffered by Manny.

These allegations put the survivor community in a very difficult position, especially those of us who are active in the fight against sexual abuse and coverups in the religious Jewish community. On the one hand, we have Zephaniah Waks, who was undoubtedly ostracized by the Chabad community. This has been proven by the Royal Commission. Zephaniah has spent the past two years fighting along with his son, Manny—both of whom who have suffered for this cause—to put an end to the culture of silence and stigma around sexual abuse, not only in Australia but around the world. On the other hand, we have Avi Yemini, Zephaniah’s son, who is claiming that one of the men we’ve been holding up as a martyr for our cause, abused him physically and emotionally as a child.

There are a few points that need to be addressed there.

 

  • What Avi Yemini wanted to say to the royal commission regarding Zephaniah was in no way relevant to what they were investigating. They were not investigating the personal lives of Manny and Zephaniah Waks—they were investigating institutional responses to child sexual abuse. Whether or not Zephaniah abused Avi is irrelevant to that investigation. More to the point, whether or not Zephaniah deserved shunning for allegedly physically abusing Avi, that is not why Chabad shunned him. They shunned him for aiding Manny in his fight against Chabad for covering up sexual abuse.

 

  • Avi Yemini can defend Chabad and call the claims a farce until he is blue in the face, but The Royal Commission has already proven that there was a coverup; they’ve already proven that the community shunned Zephaniah because he dared challenge them on that coverup; they’ve already proven that Chabad of Australia cultivated a culture of silence, coverup, stigma, and denial surrounding sexual abuse, and that Chabad cared more about its reputation than the children in their care.

 

  • Manny Waks has nothing to do with the allegations Avi Yemini is levelling against Zephaniah Waks, and is in no way tarnished by the claims against Zephaniah. I have the greatest respect for Manny and his accomplishments.

 

  • At the core of the statements Avi Yemini has made, underneath the defenses of Chabad, the claims that his father and brother exaggerated or fabricated their experiences, is his claim that he was abused by his father.

 

To me this presents the biggest challenge we face as a community of activists. Bigger than Agudah, Satmar, Chabad, Skverr, Torah Temima, Lakewood, or any others. With all of those institutions we stand firm on the moral high ground taking aim at people we know are wrong, people whose coverups accomplish nothing but hurting children, and perpetuating an environment in which children are placed in constant jeopardy. There is no righteousness in their denials and refusals to change. There is only opportunism, cruelty, vanity, and perhaps, if we’re charitable, willful ignorance.

I’ve been discussing this with some people, and their general sentiment has been that the potential damage that will be done by acknowledging the allegations Avi is making against Zephaniah may outweigh our moral obligation to give every abuse claim equal time and consideration. Hence, the silence thus far from the activist community regarding the claims against Zephaniah Waks was, perhaps, in the interest of protecting children, an ostensibly righteous excuse, but an excuse with which I disagree. Some people have said that this is an unfair conflation of two issues which have nothing to do with each other, or whose severities are not equal—physical abuse vs sexual abuse. Others have said that their reluctance in addressing these issues publicly is that it will give ammunition to Chabad who will use it to dismiss the findings of the Royal Commission, and by extension the claims of our entire cause. Being that Avi so densely interspersed his allegations against Zephaniah with claims that the Royal Commission was a farce, they argue that it may be impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff.

This subject has been weighing heavily on my mind since I was made aware of it, and I’ve decided, regardless of any objections by my friends or colleagues, to make a public statement about this in the form of this blog post. My reasoning is as follows.

We hold the people and institutions we’re trying to change to a very high standard. We demand absolute transparency, we demand that they be free of any taint of abuse, and we challenge them every time they give us an excuse for not acknowledging the claims of a survivor. Moreover, we object every time they disregard the claims of a survivor who may no longer be religious, or is addicted to drugs, on psychiatric medicine, or in psychological treatment, since the survivor is clearly mentally disturbed, or clearly has an axe to grind being that he or she is no longer religious; we point out that the very reasons they are claiming they’re entitled to deny the allegations are in fact effects of the abuse and coverups, not the cause of the complaint. That’s the way I see Avi’s claims. A kernel of truth surrounded by untruths, brought on by the pain of his claims being ignored.

How can we not hold ourselves to the same standard just because we find it inconvenient and potentially harmful to our cause. How can we demand, for example, that Agudah support the Markey bill, which would open yeshivos to potentially crippling litigation, and criticize them when they actively fight against such legislation, when we ourselves aren’t willing to bleed a little for our cause.

Yes, Chabad may use this article may be used as ammunition, even though it clearly states that they are guilty of everything they have been accused of. Yes, this may be touted by our opponents, or by people on the fence who are desperately seeking any means by which they can maintain their cognitive dissonance, as an excuse to dismiss our cause. But if we wish to see our cause succeed, if we wish to see the change we’re asking of these institutions implemented, then we need to be pristine in our record of handling similar situations. We can have no blemishes against us which they could later use to call us hypocritical. We need to be a light unto the communities, and stand as a perfect, shining example of what we would like to see—a world in which abuse is universally acknowledged, and dealt with in a lawful manner that encourages prosecution of abusers and support of survivors.

If we claim to care about children, then we have no business equivocating with different kinds of abuse. Abuse is abuse and no form of it is tolerable. No coverup of abuse is tolerable. No tacit denial of abuse allegations is tolerable, regardless of against whom they are levelled and what the consequences may be. In being the perfect example of the change we wish to see in this world, we will get closer to fulfilling our dreams.

The claims that Avi Yemini has made against the Royal Commission, and the claims he makes against Manny and Zephaniah regarding their ostracism and the coverup of their allegations—which have already been proven by the royal commission—are not to be taken seriously. He’s already been proven wrong. The issue we must discuss is the allegation of physical and emotional abuse he has levelled against Zephania Waks. Avi’s claims deserve the same attention we would give to any other survivor who came forward with an allegation, even if his allegation puts us in an uncomfortable position.

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Carlebach, Cosby, and Separating Art from Its Artist

UPDATE 12/8/2014 6:30 PM: Since posting this article last night, I’ve been contacted by quite a few people with firsthand accounts of Carlebach’s abuse, specifically, inappropriate phone calls, inappropriate flirtations, and most seriously, molestation of minors. 

A few weeks ago, my shul (synagogue) held its annual Carlebach Shabbos. Benzion Miller, the Aron Miller Memorial Choir, and roughly 1,500 people showed up to sing, and dance, and celebrate the life, music, and legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. There’s no question that Shlomo Carlebach touched the lives of tens of thousands with his music, his passion, and his apparent utter devotion to God and the Jewish people, and returned souls to Judaism at a time when religion seemed on the decline. But there was a darker side to the legend, a side that forces the uncomfortable question: Can we separate the man from the legacy—the art from the artist?

So there I was, sitting in my pew, 1,500 people around me, all singing Carlebach. I couldn’t help myself. It’s impossible not to sing along. The melodies are beautiful in their simplicity, saturated with soul, and electrifying in crowds. It’s impossible not to be swept up in the frenzy. My fingers drumming along to the melody, my feet tapping, a smile tugging at the corners of my mouth despite my best efforts to the contrary, I sang along with everyone else. How could I deny it? In a room filled with people from the far-right to the far-left to the non-observant, all singing the same music, all united in a way they have never been before, and will likely never be again, how could I not be swept up by the crowd? Men in shtreimels (circular fur hats worn by Hasidic men) with long, untrimmed beards, dancing with their fellow Jews, some wearing knit kippot (skull caps), some with ponytails, some in suits, some in jeans and a t-shirt; has anything, in the history of the Jewish people, ever united people so different, than the music of Shlomo Carlebach?

Following the service was a Carlebach dinner held at a local catering hall, with our scholar-in-residence, Rabbi Sammy Intrator, Carlebach’s long time right hand man. He started the night off with a song, and once the crowd was warmed up, he began to talk about Reb Shlomo. He told us story after story about Reb Shlomo’s compassion, his love for his fellow Jew, how deeply his desire to foster peace and love in this world ran, and how in-tune his soul was with God and the world. In true Carlebach style, he told us some of the stories that Carlebach used to tell, singing them exactly as Carlebach used to, bringing them to life with as much of the emotion and heart as he could. Carlebach’s stories always make me cry. As hard as I try not to, they always manage to get me.

Carlebach had an amazing gift for touching the souls of people with his stories of Chassidus (a more spiritual and mystical approach to Orthodox Judaism), and how the simplest Jew could have the greatest impact; his stories keep alive the memories of fallen communities and dynasties that perished with time and in the Holocaust, and the memories of the great men and women that would otherwise be forgotten. You would have to be lacking a soul not to tear up at the story of Chatzkele Lekavod Shabbos. And as I sat there listening to Sammy Intrator reincarnate Carlebach so beautifully for his very captive audience, I felt a little dirty. My holy brothers and sisters, I remember—I REMEMBEEEEEEEEEER—the Shlomo Carlebach that I grew up hearing so much about, the great man who reunited Judaism in the Diaspora, but I also remember the Shlomo Carlebach who fondled women who came to him for guidance, who masturbated on women who worshipped him, and who covered it all up by telling them that they were holy, and special. I remember the stories I’ve heard firsthand from people who experienced the darker side of Carlebach. And as I sat there laughing and crying as Sammy Intrator spoke, I felt myself tearing apart.

A battle was raging in my head: How can you sit there and listen to this when you know what he really was, and what he did to those women? But, but, look at the holiness he brought to this world, the people he united, the masses he returned to Judaism, the power of his music, and the strength of his enduring legacy! Yeah, but his legacy was built on the backs of an endless string of victims! But, but look! Look at all these people, singing, and crying, and laughing, and loving, and opening their hearts to one another! Surely that must count for something! Maybe, but who will remember the victims, and how is it right to sit there and tacitly support a man who caused so much damage?

I don’t know.

Honestly, Carlebach is a difficult subject for me. My inner conflict was punctuated by the recent resurgence of rape allegations against Bill Cosby. I loved Cosby. I loved his show, I loved his comedy, I loved his smile, I loved what he represented. Just like I loved Carlebach. It’s always this way. It’s always the people you love the most who hurt you the worst. Of all the people who had to be sexual abusers, of course, it had to be Shlomo Carlebach, and Bill Cosby. Right in the childhood. Right in the heart. Cosby is easier for me to throw under the bus, because while I’ve enjoyed his work, it’s never touched my soul. Carlebach is special to me. Carlebach represents a Judaism I’d love to see in this world. I mean, I suppose he would, if not for the small matter that he was a sexual abuser. Why does it have to be so difficult.

Both Cosby and Carlebach got away with what they did for so long because of how loved and cherished both they and their work were. But can their work stand alone? Is it possible to separate the art from the artist? It’s an ongoing question for me. On the one hand, I see the beauty that Carlebach brought into the world, and I don’t want the world to suffer the loss of what Carlebach gave it because of his sins. Perhaps the beauty, and holiness he facilitated was there already, waiting only to be discovered and brought to light, and he was only a conduit. Perhaps we would have had it through someone else, someone less flawed. Perhaps we should therefore allow what he revealed to stand while we leave him to rot.

On the other hand, as blogger Elan Morgan pointed out on a friend’s Facebook page:

IMPORTANT: We cannot separate the men from their art when they used their status from that art both to commit and conceal their violent behaviour. To continue to share their art is to continue to share one of the weapons they used to commit their crimes.

Perhaps we do more harm than good by perpetuating the tools of these people’s abuse. Perhaps we are contributing to the pain felt by Carlebach and Cosby’s victims, who for so long were denied justice, by touting the instruments of their abuse as something worthy of praise and enjoyment. Perhaps we make those men that much more acceptable by refusing to give up what they created simply because our lives are enriched by the fruits of those poisonous trees.

Or maybe there’s a baby to be saved somewhere in the putrid bathwater. Maybe there’s a message, some truth, a little good that can be salvaged from these men’s abominable lives. Might the message not be valid regardless of its source? Can we not keep the moral values Cosby preached while damning the damaged he caused to 17 (and counting) women, or the love and acceptance exhorted by Carlebach while distancing ourselves from the man himself and his actions.

There are a million answers to these questions, and frankly I haven’t found mine yet. It’s something I struggle with every time I hear one of Carlebach’s songs, or see the popularity people like Eitan Katz, or Yehuda Green have because of their similarities in musical style to Carlebach. I still feel dirty and conflicted when I sit in shul and hear one of Carlebach’s tunes used for lecha dodi (Song to greet the Sabbath sung by Friday night prayers), finding myself at once moved and repulsed. To be honest, I still use those tunes myself when I lead the prayers, because I know the congregation likes them and will sing along. I don’t know what the balance should be, or if there even is one to be had. Maybe you people can help me out; what do you all think?

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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 Monster on My Bed

Theres a certain degree of scrutiny to which you open yourself as a writer, a certain understood and assumed lack of privacy which you invite into your life when you make so much of yourself public. There’s always a reason and everyone’s is different. For some it’s fame. For some, money. For others it’s a cause, a catharsis, or a little bit of both. Every writer has their reasons for what they publish and even better reasons for what they don’t. Certain things are private; certain secrets, struggles or hardships or beliefs which, for one reason or another, they feel will do more harm than good to either them or people that matter to them. We keep these secrets because the potential benefits don’t outweigh the potential fallout. Sometimes, however, there’s a sort of grey area where the cost-benefit analysis isn’t quite as clear cut as we’d like, but we write it anyway, over the cries of protest from our better judgment.

I don’t always make the best company. I make people uncomfortable sometimes. My friends reading this are probably smiling and rolling their eyes because they know I’m a fan of understatement. I’m either cracking an inappropriate joke, seeing how much I can get away with saying, or broaching a subject that people would rather avoid. I discuss abuse a lot. Mostly the abuse of others, open and public cases, how the public responds, proper awareness, debunking abuse myths—things that rank up there with politics and religion on the list of topics one should avoid as dinner conversation. Sometimes I talk about what happened to me in public, but I try not to because it makes me more vulnerable than I’d like to be. You can’t control the opinions that fly at you in public the way you can on a blog.

Even when I do discuss what happened to me, and even when it’s on my blog, I try not to talk about the effects abuse had on me; I prefer to let my readers draw their own conclusions. I have to live in the real world, a real world where people know me, associate me with what I write on my blog, a real world where what I say on this blog can affect my chances of landing a client, or, more importantly, someone with whom I can hope to share my life.

Sex worries me. I know that as a man I’m supposed to—expected to—want sex, crave sex, desire sex more than anything else—that it is supposed to be the center of my existence and the focal point of all my goals, but it’s not. I talk about it plenty; I joke about it plenty; I think about it plenty, but sex, actual sex with another person, as in not hypothetically, but actually contemplating having sex with someone worries me. Worries is perhaps the wrong word to use. Worried is the word people use when their erections don’t stand up quite as proud and tall as they’d like them to, or when they’re worried they’re lacking in the experience department. Lack of experience is the least of my worries. Scared, perhaps. No, scared sounds a little wimpy, like I’m worried I won’t be able to please my girlfriend. What’s the word…terrified. That’s the word—terrified.

Sex seems nice on paper, sometimes on the screen (God, I hope my rav isn’t reading this), depending on what I’m watching. My friends all do it, enjoy it, rave about it, tell me it’s nice, feels good, bonds them and their significant other in ways I’ll never understand unless I have sex, and while I can understand the appeal, feel the physical drive, want, on a base level, to have sex with someone, either significant or just for the sake of it, I can’t bring myself to actually, consciously, want to have sex.

I suppose it’s lucky that I subscribe to a religion that demands celibacy of me until marriage. It means that whichever girls I spend my time with will not only never pressure me to have sex, they’d be horrified if I asked for it. There was a time in my life when religion meant nothing to me, when I’d just as soon have broken my obligation to maintain chastity until marriage, but I never did. I never even tried. The thought never crossed my mind. Religion came in handy, in that sense, even when I didn’t believe in it; it was an excuse I could fall back on for being a 19 year old virgin. I’m 22 now and still a virgin, and while I take my liberties here and there, the one thing I’m happy to keep, the one thing I’m glad to be obligated to keep, is my obligation to stay a virgin until I’m married.

Everything I know I learned by negative example. I know how to treat people by having been abused. I know I would never want anyone else to experience what I did, certainly not by my hand. I learned how to have a relationship by seeing so many bad ones. I learned how to educate myself by seeing the cost of ignorance. The problem with learning by negative example is that there’s a steep learning curve when you try to infer positive from negative and apply it practically. Everything I know about sex I learned by negative example.

Age four, I watched my mother have sex with a man I barely knew from the foot of the bed they were having it on. Age 10 I had to beg my mother to come home and take care of me when she ran off and shacked up with some man she hardly knew for a few days, and told me it was because she wanted to have sex with him. Age 16, I heard my mother tell me that she wished I was dead because my not existing would benefit her sex life. There’s plenty in between that I’m not ready to talk about.

And that’s what I know about sex firsthand: I know that sex hurts, that it tears families apart, that it causes irrevocable damage—that I still suffer because of it. I know that every time I so much as think of actually having sex with someone I experience physical anxiety. I can’t count the number of times I’ve considered finding someone with zero interest in sex and just settling down with that person, resigning myself to a life which, while devoid of what I’m told is something wonderful and pleasurable, would also, thankfully, be less one more thing that could hurt me or anyone I love. I’d be secure in the knowledge that I could never be hurt, nor could I ever hurt someone in the ways I and so many of my friends have been hurt.

That doesn’t make me happy, though. I know that my experiences aren’t the only truth out there. I know that abuse, and pain, and suffering are not all the world, that relationships, that sex has to offer. I know that there are people, many if not most people, who live happily, have happy relationships, happy sexual relationships, happy sexual relationships which in no way involve anyone getting hurt. I just don’t even know what that looks like, and I am absolutely terrified of letting myself find out whether or not I can have that. Maybe I can; but what if I can’t? What if I hurt someone the way I’ve been hurt? I know I don’t want to, but does everyone who hurts someone else want to? What gives me the right to take that risk?

I faced something similar when I stopped being shomer negiah. I was scared of touching someone else, especially girls I dated. I was scared I’d do something wrong. I learned a lot from not being shomer negiah (shomer negiah is the Jewish law prohibiting men and women who are not either married or immediately related to each other from touching). I learned boundaries, what I like and what I don’t— I know I like cuddling, I know I like holding hands, walking down the street hands around each other’s shoulders or waists, and I imagine I’ll enjoy kissing and touching. I learned when to initiate and when to back off. But I don’t feel that’s enough for me to let myself consider sex with someone else. It seems like there’s so much more at stake—so much more potential for pain. I know one day I’ll have no choice, but…

Help?

 

 

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