Our Institutions Owe Us Their Teshuva For Child Sexual Abuse

As we arrive in shul tonight and rise for the Kol Nidre prayer that marks the beginning of our Day of Atonement, the 56th day since the opening of the New York State Child Victims Act Lookback Window will be drawing to a close. Already hundreds of lawsuits have been filed across the religious and secular communities in New York State demanding justice for child sexual abuse that was enabled and covered up by their institutions. In less than two months the lawsuits filed by just a relative handful of survivors represent the prospect of justice for tens of thousands of people who were sexually abused as children and for decades denied their day in court.

Our communities are not exempt from this reckoning. Already several lawsuits have been filed against major Orthodox Jewish institutions, with many more on the way. Because of this outstanding liability many Orthodox Jewish organizations, most notably Agudath Israel of America, lobbied hard against the Child Victims Act. They joined with the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America in opposing justice for survivors of child sexual abuse, and in so doing ignored not only the cries of the children abused by their negligence, but their responsibility to do meaningful teshuva for the lives they’ve destroyed.

In the immediate aftermath of the opening of the Lookback Window these institutions, rather than reaching out to survivors and advocates to find out how they could help the survivors in their communities, instead began compiling and distributing lists of defense attorneys willing to take their cases. Their justification for their opposition and response to the Child Victims Act was that these crimes were far in the past, that they’d cleaned up their acts. Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, never once did they consider their collective obligation to repent for their crimes.

As we head into Yom Kippur and we turn our souls toward repenting for the sins of the previous year, we must insist that the institutions that serve our communities and children do the same. Maimonides, in outlining the laws of repentance, doesn’t merely characterize it as a commitment for the future, but also as an acknowledgement of the sins committed, and an open confession of those sins. Whereas in the case of sins between people and God abandonment of sin, regret, confession, and commitment for the future are sufficient for repentance, that’s not true of sins between fellow people.

For sins that injure another person repentance requires making restitution for the injury, obtaining verbal forgiveness from the injured party, and appeasement of the injured party. While lawyering up and fighting against claims made by survivors of abusive institutions might suffice for the civil process, it does not suffice for the halachic or moral process of how someone responsible for the sexual violation of a child is required to repent for that damage.

In the Haftarah reading for Yom Kippur we read from Isaiah where God rebukes our piety that comes at the expense of others. On the holiest day of the year, on a day when we are commanded to afflict our bodies with fasting to atone for our sins, we read the words of God telling us that the ‘fast’ God actually desires of us is “To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. To share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.” This on a day when we—under penalty of kares—are commanded to fast. God instead entreats us to be just and kind, to support society’s victims, and refuse to abide injustice.

It’s no coincidence that on this holiest day of the year we are reminded that our external pieties are secondary to and can never come at the expense of justice for those who are least able to get it themselves. Our prayers, our fasting, our speeches, our crying, and our repentance mean nothing if we continue to deny survivors of child sexual abuse the justice they for decades have been denied, and if we continue rationalizing why the institutions responsible for violating them deserve not to be held accountable.

Our concern as a community must always be centered around the people these institutions were meant to serve and protect, and when those institutions fail, when they are responsible for the sexual abuse of children, we must demand that they make restitution for those crimes. We must support the survivors of those crimes, and we must stand with them in demanding justice.

The second an institution becomes more important than the people it serves it no longer deserves to exist.

If we are to grow as a community and move forward together into a safer era for our children we must first atone for the sins of our past. We must stand with the people violated by those sins. We must learn from our sins, we must listen to and learn from the survivors’ stories and experiences, and we must use them to grow in the future.

Otherwise our pieties, our fasts, our prayers, and our institutions are nothing more than empty mockeries of what God actually wants from us on Yom Kippur.


Unesaneh Tokef Through The Eyes of a Survivor

I find it hard to pray for myself. I always feel unworthy. I feel like a hypocrite standing before God, imperfect as I am, a sinner set in his ways, asking God to do me yet another favour I know I’ll never return. I’ve heard the speeches. I’ve heard my rav (rabbi) tell me over and over again, that regardless of what I believe will happen after Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), one moment of pure teshuva (repentance), one moment of repentance, a single instant in which I tell God that were every moment that moment, I would never sin again, is enough to constitute repentance and earn me forgiveness in the eyes of God. No matter how many times I hear it, I can never accept it. Afar ani b’chayai (I am like dirt in my lifetime—taken from the Yom Kippur liturgy)—what right do I have.

So I spend my Yom Kippur doing other things. I focus on the Avodah (litany of the service in the Temple), I cry during eileh ezkerah (litany mourning the death of the Ten Sages by the Romans), I sit quietly in my seat and stare at the choirmaster as he conducts his choir. I pray for other people because I can’t pray for myself. I pray for my friends, for (some of) my family, for the countless victims of abuse and suffering, for the dead who can no longer pray for themselves, both those whose lives were taken by others, and those who took their own lives. I pray for other people, and in doing so, I pray that God sees fit to help me a little bit, too.

For the past five years, Unesaneh Tokef (litany composed by Rav Amnon of Mayence—recounted in part below) has been the hardest prayer for me to utter throughout the entire liturgy of the High Holy Days. I always end up crying bitterly. Thus far, thank God, no one has come over to me and asked me why someone so young cries so hard during a prayer that confronts mankind with a mortality that youth should find, at most, abstract. I have my answer all prepared in case someone asks me: For some of us it’s just more real. I’d like to share my thoughts on a few parts of the Yom Kippur prayers, and what they mean to me. Not all of the things apply to me, but they are all things I have come across since I started hearing people’s stories.

The story goes that Rav Amnon of Mayence, Germany was friends with the Archbishop of the town. The two would converse often, sometimes, and increasingly, about religion. The Archbishop very much wanted Rav Amnon to consider converting to Christianity. After wearing him down enough, Rav Amnon, to buy himself a little time, and to get the Archbishop to leave him alone, requested three days during which to consider the Archbishop’s request. Upon returning home, Rav Amnon was devastated by the fact that he had seemingly given the impression of even considering apostasy. He locked himself in his house for three days, repenting, begging forgiveness from God for even the slightest hint of heresy.

At the end of the three days, the Archbishop sent for Rav Amnon, to hear his decision. Rav Amnon refused to come. Eventually, the Archbishop ordered Rav Amnon forcibly brought to his residence. When confronted about his apparent disobedience, Rav Amnon told the bishop to cut off his tongue for saying he would return after three days, despite his having no intention of doing so. The Archbishop responded that he should instead cut off Rav Amnon’s legs, for it was his legs which were responsible for not bringing him after three days.

The Archbishop ordered Rav Amnon’s limbs amputated, joint by joint. Following each little amputation, he asked Rav Amnon if he would agree to convert. Rav Amnon refused. When both his arms and legs had been cut off, the Archbishop sent Rav Amnon back home on a stretcher, his severed limbs beside him. A few days later, on Rosh HaShana (Jewish New Year), Rav Amnon requested that he be brought, weak, bloody, and dying, to the synagogue. Right before the chazzan (cantor) recited kedusha (holy prayer recited by the cantor), Rav Amnon requested that he be brought before the ark. With his last breath, he recited Unesaneh Tokef, and passed from this world. I read the story every year before saying Unesaneh tokef; it never ceases to amaze me how a man so broken, so forsaken by his God, could hold onto faith so strongly. And with that in mind, I begin: Unesaneh tokef kedushas hayom.

 It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals, Who counts and Who calculates. You will remember all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Chronicles — it will read itself.

You alone, God, know; You alone bear witness when the door is closed; You alone bear witness when a child is too afraid to speak; You alone can attest to the atrocity that tens of thousands of Your children experience every day, every week, and every year. You alone record it, and reckon it, remember it, and judge it. You alone can see the truth even if everyone else calls it a lie. That book of yours records and reports all those times a child cried alone, begging someone, anyone, to help.

 All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.

Please, God, let this be the year we get justice.

 On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed…who will live and who will die.

Who will survive, and who will try their hardest, but eventually let go.

Who will die at his predestined time and who before his time.

How many more will be added to The Wall.

Who by sword?

Who will cut just a little too deep.

Who by beast?

Who will run afoul of their dealer.

Who by famine, and who by thirst?

Who will die as a result of an eating disorder.

Who by upheaval?

Who will be forced out onto the street to escape an abusive home.

Who by plague?

Who will contract HIV from a rapist who didn’t wear a condom.

Who by strangling?

Who will hang themselves.

Who by stoning?

Who will jump.

Who will rest?

Maybe this year he’ll stop.

 Who will wander?

Maybe these foster parents won’t be as bad.

Who will live in harmony?

Maybe my husband won’t force me tonight.

Who will be tormented?

My friend gave me a number to a shelter.

Who will enjoy tranquility?

Will he finally give the Get.

Who will suffer?

Will we ever see our children again.

Who will be impoverished?

Will anyone ever hire us again if we go to the police.

Who will be enriched?

How many more hundreds of thousands of dollars will be raised to help some child rapist while we have to literally beg for money.

Who will be degraded?

Maybe we really were asking for it.

Who will be exalted?

When will they finally celebrate a criminal going to prison instead of celebrating his release.

Fast forward to the close of Neilah (lit. closing [of the gates]), the very last time we’re given on Yom Kippur to beseech God for the coming year:

May it be your will, God, who hears the sound of our cries, that you place our tears in your flask to remain; and rescue us from all cruel and harsh decrees, for to you alone do our eyes look.


Enough. Please. Enough. One day, I hope, my, and everyone else’s prayers will be answered.