by Shlomo Greenwald (The Jewish Press)
February 14, 2007
We are not immune. The Orthodox community has abusers - sexual predators, wife beaters, child batterers - in its midst. And while many may have once preferred to believe otherwise, growing numbers of Orthodox Jews now seem ready to acknowledge that a problem indeed exists.
If acknowledgment of a problem is half way to a solution, as a psychologist might say, where does the Orthodox community go from here?
"We lack a process," acknowledged Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani of Yeshiva University and a leading advocate for greater communitywide awareness of abuse and assistance for the abused.
"Our community doesn't have a process, that's the bottom line. If there's an allegation, how does the yeshiva deal with it? Does the yeshiva know? Does the rosh yeshiva know?"
Rabbi Blau saw little likelihood of a single process being universally accepted in a fragmented Orthodox community, though "in order to have credibility, it needs to be widely accepted," he said.
Dr. David Pelcovitz, a leading authority on abuse cases in the Orthodox community, sounded a somewhat more reassuring tone. "There's no set organization that people know to call," he said, "but like any medical referral, people will ask around and find out." He noted that a number of communal organizations provide guidance and assistance to victims of abuse.
"I don't know if it's different for the secular world," said Pelcovitz, a professor of psychology at Yeshiva University's Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and the former director of psychology at North Shore University Hospital. "If anything, it's a little better in our case, because people are connected in our community."
"If people are open to getting help," he added, "they will find their way to a specialist."
The question, of course, is whether many members of the community know of the availability of social service resources.
"I think for the most part the answer is still no," said Barry Horowitz, who formerly coordinated an Ohel Children's Home and Family Services program treating sexual abusers and is now a consultant for Ohel.
Several mental health professionals emphasized the importance of victims receiving treatment from therapists with experience in abuse cases.
"I make an analogy to cancer, rachmana litzlon," said David Mandel, chief executive officer at Ohel. "When someone is told he has cancer, he seeks out the best possible specialist. It's the same thing in an area like sexual abuse." He cautioned, though, that "very few people can treat it" because few therapists specialize in abuse.
In addition to finding the right therapy, Mandel said, it's important to seek out a therapist who can deal with the religious dynamics, since Orthodox victims of abuse often struggle with their faith, wondering how God could let such a thing happen to them.
Important as it is for victims of abuse to get help, the hurdles for Orthodox Jews remain high. In the general population about a third of all victims never go public with their ordeal; Orthodox Jews, concurred the therapists interviewed for this article, are faced with even more factors that discourage them from coming forward.
"The community tends to be insular, to be wary of mental health support," said Dr. Pelcovitz.
The shanda, or shame, factor and the fear of affecting future shidduchim are driving forces in discouraging disclosure. Another factor is the place that modesty holds in Orthodox sensibilities.
Statistics have shown that the more similar a sexual perpetrator is to his victim in background, the less likely it is that the victim will report him, according to Dr. Pelcovitz.
"Shanda, shidduchim, modesty - these are real issues," said Horowitz. "And they're also issues in that they that make it easier for perpetrators to do what they do and get away with it."
He noted that when he asked molesters why they chose to victimize someone in the community, the answer invariably would be "Because I knew I could do it."
"It needs to be discussed more," he said. "Very sensitive topic, but there has to be more dialogue with rabbonim in the community and with law enforcement."
"Yes, [Orthodox Jews] are more reluctant, no question about it," said Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, bestselling author and founder of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, which treats drug and alcohol addicts. "The idea that there is abuse is something the community did not want to accept."
"To this day, many rabbonim are unaware and refuse to believe. And many women felt they couldn't come forward because the husband is such a tzaddik in shul. It's getting a little better, but still there are those who don't believe."
Michelle Friedman, a psychologist with a private practice in Manhattan, has conducted research in an effort to determine whether the nature and frequency of abuse in the Orthodox community differ from what is found in the general population. Though she could not reveal the findings of her study, which are being peer-reviewed prior to publication, she agreed with the other specialists that Orthodox victims have more roadblocks to overcome.
"There's an enormous emphasis on shame and stigma in the Orthodox community," she said. "Not just shidduchim, but that is a big one."
A practical solution to the problem, said Friedman, would be to educate Orthodox children about their bodies and personal integrity, something she feels is "not being done sufficiently." She also proposed training chatan and kallah teachers to speak about abuse.
Though sensitive to the widespread reluctance in Orthodox communities to discuss topics of this nature, Friedman was blunt about the consequences of silence.
"If we use modesty as a screen," she said, "we deprive our children of important information regarding their safety."
Despite the obstacles to disclosure, Orthodox Jewish victims of abuse are becoming noticeably more comfortable in seeking therapy. "It's better than 25 years ago," Dr. Pelcovitz said. "Then, it was very hard to get people to face problem head on, hard to get schools and leadership to talk about it."
Horowitz noted that when he started working in treating sexual abusers, about a decade ago, there were far fewer cases being reported than is now the case.
One indication of the new realism is that the number of Orthodox social services dealing with domestic violence and physical and sexual abuse has grown over the past 10 or 15 years.
One of the oldest such resources is Shalom Task Force, which has an anonymous domestic abuse hotline. The phone counselors, or "hotline advocates," inform callers of their options and refer them to therapists who specialize in domestic abuse and are familiar with the Orthodox community - many of whom, like Barry Horowitz, are Orthodox themselves.
Hotline supervisor Sharron Russ said that while Shalom Task Force focuses more on domestic abuse, the number of cases involving sexual abuse has increased in recent years.
The Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services also deals with sexual abuse on a regular basis. Faye Wilbur, director of the organization's Boro Park office, is concerned about public trust in the board's promise of nondisclosure.
"I don't think the community understands completely that when we say fully confidential, it means we won't tell anyone," she said. Among the services offered by JBFCS are an outpatient mental health clinic, lectures to raise public awareness and workshops in schools.
"Most schools do not take me up on it," Wilbur said of her offers to conduct a free workshop on child abuse and neglect, which includes segments on sexual abuse. Administrators usually tell her they have too much to accomplish and not enough time, she said. She believes many of them are also in denial that the problem exists.
"I do it in such a tzniusdik way," she said. "People have been pleased. I give references - I've been in some very chassidish schools as well."
She said that while she sends out letters every August offering schools her workshop program, it's "depressing" how few have taken her up on it. She estimated that she offers the program to 75% of the yeshivas and day schools in the five boroughs, using lists of schools from Torah Umesorah and the Board of Jewish Education. She also estimated that since she began in 1995, only 10% of the schools she's contacted have heard her speak.
The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty placed more than 1,200 people in jobs in the past year, serves 13,000 families each month with the largest kosher food pantry in the world, and last September provided more than 30,000 kosher food packages to New York's needy before Rosh Hashanah. As a small but necessary part of its services, Met Council also operates a family violence unit.
Though the unit is a relatively recent addition, the services it provides have been available throughout the decade-and-a-half tenure of Met Council Executive Director/CEO William Rapfogel.
Those services include a hotline similar to that of Shalom Task Force, a support group for victims of family violence, and crisis intervention and long-term counseling. Met Council is unique in that it can offer financial assistance in addition to therapeutic help.
Rapfogel said that while "today there is less denial than there was 10 years ago," more work needs to be done to combat physical and sexual abuse. He knows that fewer Orthodox Jews are in denial because Met Council has been "called into far more cases in the past four or five years than before."
According to Shana Frydman, director of Met Council's family violence unit, most of the cases involve married couples. Like the other social workers interviewed by The Jewish Press, Frydman stressed that she and her coworkers strive to be culturally sensitive. For example, Frydman, who is Orthodox, usually counsels Orthodox victims.
"Everyone says Jewish women are more reluctant [to leave their husbands] because they have more kids and the shame in the community is compounded," she said. "Sometimes the right choice may be to stay, and we try to support that."
Women feel discouraged from leaving their marriages, she said, because they are worried about the effect it would have on their children's shidduch prospects. Rabbis in the communities, she added, range from being "absolutely wonderful" to "not knowing the dynamics at play."
Shanda and shidduch concerns may be on the minds of many in the community, but perhaps the greatest obstacles to more Orthodox Jewish abuse victims coming forward are their feelings - as well as their rabbis' positions - on four halachic issues: mesirah; bringing cases before secular courts; desecrating God's name; and issues related to lashon hara (evil talk).
All four are intertwined in many ways. Mesirah refers to the rabbinic prohibition against informing on a fellow Jew to secular authorities - an act that in criminal cases will invariably lead to the second issue: bringing cases before secular courts.
Rabbi Michael Broyde, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Toco Hills (Atlanta) and a dayan on the Beth Din of America, has written in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society that according to halachic authorities one may inform secular authorities about Jews who are "violent criminals or people whose conduct endangers other people or the community as a whole."
In a footnote, he quotes from Nishmat Avraham, the encyclopedic work on medical halacha by Dr. Abraham S. Abraham, that according to Rabbis Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Yosef Sholom Elyashiv and Eliezer Waldenberg, one must report cases of child abuse, including sexual abuse. Rabbi Broyde also points out that no alternative opinion is quoted.
Barry Horowitz, the Ohel consultant, said there should be guidelines in place for those in the community to decide "when to use therapy and when to call in law enforcement." In any case, he added, the Orthodox community should build up its relationship with secular law enforcement officials,.
"Our community is extremely uncomfortable with going to the police," agreed Rabbi Blau. "What is and isn't mesirah? Seforim will tell you that if a person's life is at risk, there's no [prohibition]. Mesirah is more than an issur. It's something Jews don't do. Police officials will tell you the community generally doesn't cooperate."
To encourage more Orthodox Jews to engage secular authorities, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes set up Project Eden, which runs programs in concert with many Orthodox social services and attempts to engender cultural sensitivity in the DA's office and the NYPD.
"We're not trying to push the criminal justice system on anyone," said Chana Widawski, a social worker who runs Project Eden, "but our concern is safety.The idea is to educate people to all the resources."
Project Eden has a hotline for victims of domestic abuse. Widawski said that Project Eden staffers work with the caller to figure out the best solution. "It might not always be calling the police."
"If they do call," she continued, "then the system goes into action."
Widawski agreed with the perception that the Orthodox community is more reluctant to report sexual abuse cases to secular authorities than the general population.
Henna White, Hynes's Jewish community liaison, while agreeing with others interviewed for this article that "there is some hesitance" in the Orthodox community to speak out about abuse - mainly due to concerns about modesty and children "not getting a good shidduch" - said she did not necessarily believe that
Orthodox Jews come forward less frequently than abuse victims in the general population.
"Abuse is very hard for people to talk about," she said. "It's embarrassing. Nobody wants to come forward."
The efforts of Project Eden notwithstanding, there are those who wonder why the Orthodox community needs to handle abuse cases in a manner that differs from the more traditional route: adjudicate the cases in batei din; minimize the chillul Hashem; and if a person is found guilty, publicize his name far and wide while seeing that he receives treatment.
The counterargument is that such a system is not nearly as effective as the threat of jail in stopping an offender from striking again. The best a bet din could do, say advocates of utilizing secular courts, is award compensation to the family and issue a proclamation prohibiting the perpetrator from working in a yeshiva. They also point to the high rate of recidivism among abusers - which, they say, might be ameliorated by incarcerating offenders.
Asked about the halachic permissibility of going to secular courts, Rabbi Broyde noted that "batei din do not get involved in cases involving what American law considers a crime" - they never, for example, adjudicate murder and violent theft cases. He added that while abuse, sexual and otherwise, encompasses a large spectrum of offenses, he believes that no halachic authority "thinks a violent rapist should be summoned to a bet din."
"We don't have jurisdiction over criminal cases," said Rabbi Yona Reiss, director of the Beth Din of America.
Elliot Pasik, a lawyer who has been at the forefront of system-wide change in the ways yeshivas and day schools handle sexual abuse allegations, said the situation is different from what it once was. Then, the community "didn't need a national system. Clearly, now we do."
Rabbi Blau put it this way: "The old Israeli, Meah Shearim solution of posters telling people to stay away from so and so" will not work today.
"I'm not convinced we have batei din at the present time that are able to deal with it," he said. "Who will investigate? Who is able to? Who is trained and sensitive to all the ramifications?" Batei din, he explained, would have several difficulties to overcome, a major one being a lack of expertise in the field of abuse. Would all dayanim, for instance, possess sufficient understanding of the deleterious long-range effects of abuse on victims?
While the above is easily solvable - batei din could work in tandem with experts - a more difficult problem, said Rabbi Blau, is the lack of a set of accepted criteria. "What kind of testimony will be used? How much trust will be afforded the testimony of victims? You can't use regular halachic criteria. Halachic expertise alone is insufficient."
A third difficulty, he said, is that batei din will have to define key terms ranging from age of consent ("according to halacha, a girl is an adult at 12," he pointed out) to what kind of touching constitutes abuse.
Any attempt to fix the latter two difficulties would prove to be daunting, he said. "Who would be in charge? Who would set up the system?"
Rabbi Blau also raised the issue that outside of Israel, batei din have no investigative powers.
"We know there are cases of charismatic people who are able to bring lying [witnesses to appear before a bet din]," Rabbi Blau said. "No consequences if someone lies in front of a bet din."
Some of these problems could be solved if there were a national bet din in this country, he added, but of course there is none. Over the centuries, he pointed out, rabbinic authorities came up with ways of dealing with difficult accusations - i.e., a lack of two witnesses - but that such solutions require "a society we don't have, where a bet din can bring things to bear."
"In Israel," he continued, "if X doesn't give his wife a get and we feel he's [obligated], he can be thrown in jail. These methods are not available to batei din in America."
Others, meanwhile, maintain the problem is not so much going to a bet din as it is in deciding which bet din to go to. "There is no one arbiter," said Ohel's David Mandel. "I think it's naïve to ask why we can't have one bet din. People ask me. I tell them it's not going to happen. I don't think it's realistic."
One bet din that has been actively trying to adjudicate sexual abuse cases was set up in Chicago some 10 years ago. Rabbi Zev Cohen, of Congregation Adas Yeshurun, set up the bet din after a couple of local molesters came to the surface. Sitting on the Chicago bet din, in addition to Rabbi Cohen, are Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Levine, rosh yeshiva of Telshe; Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, head of both the Chicago Rabbinical Council's bet din and the Beth Din of America; and Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst, rav of the Agudah of Peterson Park and a dayan of Agudath Yisroel of Illinois.
Rabbi Cohen expressed ambivalence about the bet din's existence. "Is it something we're proud of?" he asked. "Yes. Is it something we wish would not have to exist? Certainly."
He said the bet din's main purpose is "to defend and protect children in the community." He also said Orthodox communities across the country need to wake up to the reality of abuse in their midst and support rabbis who are trying to fight it - a process that is, in his view, already well under way: "Klal Yisrael is maturing and backing up rabbonim who take on these molesters."
Dr. Pelcovitz believes it's important to stress to the community that when dealing with sexual abuse cases, "we are dealing with life and death situations."
"There's a failure sometimes on our community to realize the negative effects," he said, noting that children who have been molested have higher rates of depression and suicide.
In more than one way, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is uniquely qualified to speak about how the Orthodox community has evolved in its approach to reports of sexual abuse. Rabbi Weinreb, who worked as a psychologist in both the public and private sphere for several decades, is the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union - a job he took after the group purged several of its leading professionals following the Rabbi Baruch Lanner abuse scandal.
"I'm sitting where I'm sitting now because of how the whole Lanner scandal broke," Rabbi Weinreb said.
The OU, he told The Jewish Press, has undergone considerable change in an effort to prevent future abuse cases from occurring within the group's organizational jurisdiction. Among those changes: personnel are trained in the basics of sexual abuse and harassment, and both children and parents can now contact an ombudsman with any complaints about staff behavior.
David Frankel, associate national director of the OU's National Conference of Synagogue Youth, said that in the nearly two years he's been manning the ombudsman telephone hotline, no calls have come in regarding physical, emotional or psychological abuse or harassment.
Rabbi Weinreb feels that all Jewish organizations serving "children and other vulnerable populations" need similar procedures. Yeshivas, he added, need to cooperate more with procedures that may help curtail incidents - careful background checks, for example. And children and teenagers in the community need to learn what is and is not appropriate behavior.
But at the same time, he said, that the community should be careful not to move too far to the other extreme. "Not everyone who strokes a kid's back is a pervert," he said, noting that an unfortunate byproduct of the community's increased vigilance is that many teachers, camp counselors and others who work with children are afraid to show even appropriate affection. What was once a friendly pat on the back might today be interpreted, mistakenly or with malice, as abuse.
When dealing with abusers, Rabbi Weinreb cautioned, it's important to distinguish among different levels of abuse: "It would be unfair to lump them all together. There are pedophiles, those who are power hungry, those whose actions are inappropriate but not necessarily criminal. If people speak about it intelligently, that's half the battle."
Across the country a handful of people have begun fighting the other half of the battle. One is the aforementioned attorney Elliot Pasik, who feels the Jewish community is in dire need of a standardized process, particularly in yeshivas and day schools, and has been working for years trying to fix the problem.
When it comes to handling charges of abuse and trying to head off problems before they occur, each school operates on "an ad hoc basis," he said. "Each has its own rules, policies, procedures, and not linked to each other. If a rebbe or teacher is credibly accused of a sexual or violent incident, we don't have a tracking system."
The lack of such a system, Pasik said, "allows the rebbe or teacher - who usually is only dismissed and does not face secular authorities - to seek a teaching position in another yeshiva, a phenomenon that's been dubbed "passing the trash."
Pasik pointed out that the yeshiva process - or lack of one - stands in sharp contrast to the process followed by the nation's public schools, which share a database that lists every teacher credibly accused of sexual abuse and enables administrators to run background checks before hiring a new teachers. (Credibly accused refers not only to teachers who have been found guilty in court, but even those who have been found administratively guilty in a school's internal disciplinary hearing.) Pasik said that Catholic schools employ a similar system.
Pasik, who's trying to convince the approximately 700 yeshivas and day schools in the U.S. and Canada to commit to background checks on teachers, was instrumental in getting the New York State Legislature to pass a bill last year allowing private schools to run background checks on their perspective employees. Prior to that, state labor law prevented such procedures.
Currently, 10 states - Alabama, California, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Washington - have laws requiring non-public schools to run background check before hiring new teachers. Several of those states have appreciable numbers of children enrolled in Jewish day schools. But according to Pasik, some yeshivas and day schools are not complying with the law. How does he know? "Because I've spot-checked."
The New York law allows yeshivas and day schools to run background checks but doesn't require them. Pasik said the most effective way to convince yeshivas to start running background checks on teachers would be through parental pressure. A yeshiva parent association that would raise awareness about sexual abuse in schools would be ideal, he said, as would be some sort of system whereby a teacher accused of abuse would face a hearing, under the auspices of rabbis and other professionals from the community, and if found guilty would be registered in a database accessible to day schools and Jewish groups serving young people.
"It's unacceptable that a child in public school is more protected than a child in yeshiva," Pasik said.
JSafe, a new organization started by Rabbi Mark Dratch, is working to systemize the process by certifying participating yeshivas and organizations. Before granting certification, JSafe educates staff members about sexual abuse - specifically how to identify it and assist victims. In addition, participating schools and organizations must run background checks before hiring new staff members, oversee the conduct of all employees, and help support victims of abuse, among other requirements.
"Mark Dratch is working on a process. I don't know how successful he will be in selling that process in haredi circles," said Rabbi Blau, who believes it's critical that J-Safe gain acceptance in all Orthodox communities.
"He's the only one doing it. It would be helpful if someone from the haredi community openly supported his efforts."
One of the most unique approaches to dealing with allegations of abuse in yeshivas is found in Los Angeles.
Four years ago, two troubling incidents of sexual abuse in the course of a few months led Debbie Fox, director of the Aleinu Family Resource Center, effectively the Orthodox division of the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, to call together a group of eight rabbis. She told them, as she recalled, "You can't sit back. You have to act. You have to prevent this." They agreed that a course of action was needed, and together with local parents and mental health professionals wrote up a policy of conduct and behavioral standards for yeshivas and day schools.
"It had very clear standards," Fox said. For example, teachers and other school staff were not allowed to touch children below the shoulders. The rules were compiled from the standpoint of "being respectful to teachers, but putting children first."
The guidelines also included some less specific rules, such as prohibiting physical, verbal and emotional abuse. Fox conceded that the term emotional abuse is vague, but added, "Our rabbonim felt it was important that the teachers should know we don't allow any denigrating or abusive behavior to children."
Fox sent the guidelines to all 30 Orthodox yeshivas in Los Angeles; those opting to participate have every employee who comes into contact with children sign on.
Echoing Pasik, Fox said she "feels parents will influence schools" by asking them to accept the guidelines. "We can't force any school, but we can create pressure." She added that the eight rabbis on the halachic advisory board come from just about every segment of the Los Angeles Orthodox community. That, she said, has helped prod some schools to act. More than two-thirds of the yeshivas have signed on.
What also helped is that Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, one of the most prominent haredi leaders in America, gave his stamp of approval to the guidelines. A letter to that effect accompanied the guidelines when Fox sent them to the schools.
Fox realized, however, that guidelines alone were not sufficient to protect Los Angeles's yeshiva students. She wanted to take a proactive approach, mostly by educating schoolchildren about personal privacy and how to behave in a number of safety-related circumstances.
Fox found an educational program created by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, but she ran into problems using the material because some of the program's video presentations were inappropriate for Orthodox students.
Then about three years ago Fox received $50,000 from the Julis family, prominent local philanthropists. With the money, and with training from the NCMEC, Aleinu Family Resource Center and its halachic advisory board created a complete program with an Uncle Moishy CD, an educational video presentation for parents, and an interactive video presentation for children starring a hero named Safety Kid, played by a local Orthodox youth.
The Safety Kid video features three basic scenarios, the third of which is about a child who's reluctant to tell his mother why he doesn't want to join the coach for extra practice. With Safety Kid's encouragement, he finally informs his mother that the coach has been touching him and making him feel uncomfortable.
The latter storyline required several viewings on the part of the rabbis before they approved its inclusion on the video, said Fox. For that, she's particularly grateful because the lesson is one of the three pillars of the program's message to children: "Say no, run, and tell a responsible adult."
Rabbi Kamenetsky pre-approved the script, and Fox is working on showing him the final product, which Fox has just begun presenting in schools.
Aleinu plans to take the program national. Fox has already received inquiries about it from schools in New York, Chicago and Montreal.
Asked whether the guidelines may make it difficult, if not impossible, for rebbeim, teachers and counselors to touch or hug children in purely appropriate ways to help forge close relationships with students, Fox nodded. "That is true. It's sad. Times have changed, and it's sad."
She paused for a moment before adding, "It's for the protection of counselors and teachers as much as it's for the protection of the kids."