I Have a Dream

In my last post I referenced a Mishpacha article that characterized the bloggers who cover sexual abuse in our community as “angry.” In the response I wrote to Mishpacha I explained that the anger that the community sees in those bloggers is the result of years of indifference toward survivors, and the outrage at the lengths to which the community goes to quiet survivors and protect abusers. I would characterize myself as an angry blogger. I try being a little more moderate most of the time, but I can’t help it sometimes; sometimes I just can’t hold it all in; I can’t see the situation objectively and dispassionately, and the anger I try to keep in check explodes outward, channeled into the biting words of a caustic blog post.

I didn’t start out as an angry blogger. When I first got involved in the subject, I was warned by the people I worked with not to get involved with those bloggers. They explained to me the dangers of descending into that tar-pit. Once mired, I was warned, it would be very hard to extricate myself. I heeded their advice and tried reaching out through my writing to the very organizations that my now colleagues spat on in their posts.

The first big project I undertook was trying to get a meeting with the powers that be at Agudah—the bane of every blogger in the abuse-coverage world. Agudah. Mere mention of that organization can bring some people to apoplexy. The way I saw it, though, they were doing a disservice to the very people they were trying to help. While it’s true that the Yeshivish world seems very closed to dealing with abuse, and seemingly prefers believing that it can’t happen rather than acknowledging and dealing with the issue, their children are in no less danger than the children of people who do know how to properly handle abuse and abusers. While the stories I’d heard at the time did gall me, and I was inclined to be upset with the community for causing that pain, those children helped focus me on reaching across the aisle.

I was a young idealist at the time. As a young frum Jew who looked like a part of the community I was trying to change, I figured that Agudah would sooner deal with me than any of those ”angry bloggers.” I reached out to an Agudah spokesperson; we exchanged a few emails, and set a time for a phone conversation. We covered everything from the community’s aversion to mentioning anything related to sex, be it abuse or between consenting people, why I believed the community so adamantly refused to believe that abuse was an actual issue, to the psak that had been issued at the Agudah convention a few years ago which permitted reporting only after a rabbi had been consulted. The spokesperson was very sympathetic to both my experience and those of my friends, but said that there was little he could do to affect change. The conversation concluded with this admonition from him: “Tafasta meruba lo tafasta,” which translates roughly as “take what you can get.”

I was furious when I hung up the phone. I thought I had gotten close, and all I had gotten was “take what you can get.” I went on Facebook and immediately became what I had sworn I’d never be. “Agudah’s official policy on abuse: Tafasta meruba lo tafasta.” I had become an angry blogger. For the next few months the articles and Facebook posts I wrote could have been featured on FailedMessiah. It was open season on Chassidim and anyone from Lakewood. I was burning the skeletons of bridges I had been trying to build.

Honestly, it feels good to cut people and communities down to size. It feels powerful. I get to sit in judgment from behind my keyboard on other people; I get to take the high ground and condemn them. The moral high ground is a great place to be. People loved my writing; I garnered praise from those in the blogger/activist community. The validation and praise felt euphoric. I felt drunk on the hatred of those around me, and the anger and frustration I held within me. Those children I had set out to protect had taken a back seat to my need to vent and inflict pain on those who had hurt me.

In all my writing, however, in all the cleverly worded barbs and sharp admonitions, there is a certain emptiness, a feeling like I am wasting my time and accomplishing nothing. The people who harbor the same hatred and anger lap up my writing and beg for more, and the people who I set out to educate stay uneducated. I feel like a dog chasing its tail.

This post was supposed to be completed and published on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but I got sidetracked in a Greenwich Village bar, and then by the inevitable hangover that followed. That being said, it’s never too late to talk about MLK.

It’s the 1960s, close to 100 years following the emancipation proclamation, and blacks, while not quite still in the cotton fields, are still treated like animals. Signs forbidding their entrance to whites only shops are still common. A white man and a black man are still forbidden from sitting on the same bench, or sitting in the same section of the bus, or even drinking from the same water fountain. They are “separate but equal,” perhaps the most tongue in cheek bit of institutionalized racism in history. To quote MLK in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in response to why he felt he couldn’t have waited for a more opportune time to hold his protest in Birmingham:

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim;…when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”;…when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

I can empathize with how MLK must have felt, sitting in a jail in Birmingham for the crime of not waiting for a permit to protest the injustice he and his people had been suffering for centuries. While I’ve never suffered the way the blacks did for centuries in this country, I have seen friends of mine become suicidal, self injurious, develop eating disorders, and suffer with PTSD while waiting for their community to help them. My first emotional reaction to seeing that is sadness. Then intense anger. Then pure hatred.

The only time I’ve ever managed to overcome that hatred and write something I feel was actually constructive, was in my post titled Olam Hafuch Ra’isi. That post took weeks to write. I discarded paragraph after paragraph, countless hateful, scathing criticisms of my fellow Jews. I can’t count how many times I started writing that piece and then stopped because I couldn’t stop the hate I feel so often from coming through in my writing. After weeks, I finally managed to write that post, and it was the most popular piece I have ever written. Everyone liked it. My fellow anti-abuse activists, fellow survivors, and even people who usually dismiss “angry bloggers” with disgust, read my piece and walked away thinking. I am prouder of that piece than anything I have ever written, and I wish I could do that with every piece I write.

After finishing that piece, I understood, to a point, how MLK must have felt writing his letter from that Birmingham jail. If you have not yet read it, please do. To me, it, paired with his I Have a Dream speech, is the activist’s manifesto.

I can’t imagine that MLK never hated the white people for what they were doing to his people, but he realized that his cause could only be furthered and realized through peaceful protest, education, and most importantly, a willingness to accept white people as equals if they were willing to accept blacks as true equals. His movement was not about revenge, or making the whites suffer for what they had done once blacks gained equal rights. He envisioned a world where “little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.”

That was his dream. Not a world where anyone who had wronged him would be brought before his people and be made pay for what they had done. His message was one of forgiveness, acceptance, a willingness to embrace those who had wronged him should they be willing to embrace his people in the same way. His iconic speech on the steps of the Lincoln memorial end with these words, words that make me cry every time I hear them:

[W]hen we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

This is my dream. That one day I will be able to live in my community, secure in the knowledge that abusers will be brought to justice, survivors will receive the help and support they need and deserve, bust most importantly, that all that hatred I feel toward fellow Jews will be gone, and that I will feel as comfortable around them as I do around fellow activists. My dream allows for the existence of Agudah, Satmar, Lakewood, and Skver. In my dream they all acknowledge the faults within their communities, rectify those faults, and ensure the safety and support of all survivors. In my dream the “angry blogger” has no place, not because he serves no purpose, but because his necessity becomes obviated by mutual understanding, proper education, and a commitment to safety and justice.

In the meantime I will commit to do what I can, to overcome the hatred I feel, and help foster the love and acceptance I want to exist. It will not be easy, but I will make an effort.

This is my dream. I may go my whole life never seeing my dream realized. But a man can dream, can’t he?


Olam Hafuch Ra’isi

Ever since the Weberman trial, something has been bothering me. It’s something I’m having a very hard time reconciling. I find myself trying to shoehorn lyrics about this conundrum into the melody of How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria. How do you solve a problem like Williamsburg. Or New Square. Or Lakewood. How do you catch a cloud and pin it down. It’s a rude awakening the day you realize that the world you idealized, the people you looked up to, respected, aspired to, perhaps, were so much darker than the rosy images they projected. Kind of makes you just throw your hands up sometimes, and wonder how reality could slip past you and degenerate without you noticing.

I look around my community and see wonderful people. People who learn all day, or who work and learn to both provide for their families and still make time for spiritual improvement. I see people in hospitals giving of their time and resources to make sure that families visiting loved ones have where to sleep, what to eat, chargers for their phones, and someone to talk to. I see organizations devoted to making women with fertility problems able to have children. I see a free ambulance service that’s not only entirely volunteer, but faster, better, and more reliable than 911. I see free loan societies, and free wedding gown rentals, organizations that take care of burial and shiva from start to finish. I see so much good. And then I see the bad.

I see people who stand hand in hand with child abusers, abusers who have ruined the lives of tens if not hundreds of children respectively. I see rabbonim—people we refer to as gedolim—vilifying the father of a child abused by his rebbi, calling him a moser, besmirching his name publicly, despite the fact that the father had a ruling from an equally prominent rabbi allowing him to go to secular authorities. I see a woman driven to suicide by people who turned her children against her, and those same people taunting and harassing the people who came to mourn her. I see men who would torture another man for the right price. Olam hafuch ra’isi.

I can’t reconcile it, and it’s driving me nuts. I don’t understand how people, who claim, by their claim of being Jews, to be rachmanim b’nei rachmanim, could be capable of such cruelty. I don’t understand how they can harbor the empathy that would compel them to perform such kindness for people they don’t know while simultaneously thinking nothing of such barbarism. The worst part is that they don’t even think they’re doing something wrong. A child picking the legs off a spider knows that what he’s doing is wrong, but does it anyway because he finds it satisfying. This is different. This is such a subtly constructed, and heavily justified cruelty that its perpetrators don’t even understand that it’s wrong. To the contrary, they believe they are doing God’s will—fighting the good fight, so to speak.

Am I being too idealistic when I expect people who can be so kind to understand that despite differences in religion, race, upbringing, or circumstance, we are all created in the image of God? That they should see good, and be able to distinguish it from evil and cruelty?

When I was in high school, I made a flippant joke about a natural disaster that had claimed the lives of over one hundred people. I thought it was funny. My classmates thought it was funny. My rebbi didn’t. I asked him later what the problem was with what I had said; I mean who cares, right? They’re goyim anyway.

No, my rebbi said. They are fellow creations made in God’s image. They are human beings with emotions, and feelings, and thoughts just like me, people who feel joy and sadness, pain and pleasure, worry and satisfaction just like me. They are creations like me, and what kind of person could I possibly be if I could so easily dismiss the suffering of my fellow creation simply because of a difference in religion and circumstance. It jarred me. It changed my worldview. I had been brought up thinking of goyim as “shkutzim,” as something beneath me. Unworthy of me or my empathy. Of people who had gone off the derech as unfortunates, something between misguided and mentally ill. Of baalei teshuva as never quite good enough. I had been chosen, not them. God favoured me, not them. I was better because I proudly called myself frum, whereas they had chosen to rebel against their heritage. I had forgotten that God created them in His image, just as he had created me.

It made me approach the world and its diversity differently. I learned that just because someone might not be of my faith, or of my belief, that doesn’t make them any less of a human being worthy of my empathy. I can disagree with their beliefs or actions, but that shouldn’t make me disagree with their existence. Opinions, beliefs, and faiths can change, but underneath it all is a person just like me.

I think that’s what has to fundamentally change, the approach that these puzzlingly dichotomous people take to the world. They need to be shown the value of a human being beyond what they’ve been brought up believing. I don’t think they believe that they’re doing something wrong, because they believe they’re doing it to someone who never had the same right to existence as they do; They don’t believe that people who don’t fit into their worldview are quite as valued by God as they are. They believe the world was created for them, and that anyone else ranges from extra to someone who should, by all rights, serve them. They need to be taught that we all exist for a purpose, that we all have value, that we were all created in God’s image, from Jew to Non-Jew, religious to irreligious, Reform to Charedi, and everything in between. Then the reality perceived will actually be reality, without the dark layers hiding just below the surface.

To be honest, I have no idea how to get this message to the right people. Most of the people who read this will probably already agree with it; it will sound like nothing new. The target audience of this piece is unfortunately not the audience that needs to read it. But who knows, it might come to the attention of someone who does, and that person might consider these ideas, and might even improve. A man can hope. And if it changes even one person, then that’s a very good start.