By Ben Hirsch (UK Jewish News)
March 14, 2013
Since its formation in 2008, Survivors for Justice (SFJ) has learned of literally thousands of incidents of child sexual abuse in haredi communities. While we lack formal studies--and despair of ever having them, given haredi reluctance to allow such research--the anecdotal evidence is nonetheless persuasive that this represents only a small percentage of the total number of such cases. Indeed, in light of our knowledge and experience, we believe it incumbent upon those who would challenge this belief--and in some cases label us anti-haredi for expressing it--to prove us wrong.
Few would argue that we could successfully find solutions to the problem of haredi child sexual abuse without some understanding of its causes. Covering for and protecting child molesters-normative behavior in the haredi world today-plays a significant role; clearly, protecting molesters for decades has turned haredi communities into safe havens for child molesters and dangerous places for children.
While we believe that allegations of child sexual abuse must be reported directly to the police, we would be fooling ourselves to conclude that this alone would solve the problem. It might be controversial to say so, but we believe that unless the haredi world adopts a different relationship to the outside world and a more enlightened approach to relations between the sexes and sexuality, sexually abusive behavior toward children will continue at high rates, even if it becomes the norm to report child molesters to the police.
Nothing I learned during many years in yeshiva supports the ideal of almost total sex segregation espoused by many of today's haredi rabbis. Whereas not long ago young ultra-Orthodox men and women mingled comfortably, developed relationships and married, today haredim are taught that it is sinful to interact with someone of the opposite sex in any manner whatsoever. Dating for marriage, if it happens at all--most hasidic marriages are arranged by matchmakers--is strictly controlled, and "bride" or "groom" classes, taken immediately prior to marriage, represents the sum total of sex education young haredim receive. Even marital difficulties are routinely dealt with by untrained rabbis--at times with disastrous results.
Is it any wonder that haredim today grow into adulthood with distorted views of relationships and sexuality? Does it really seem far-fetched to speculate that those lacking the opportunity for healthy sexual expression and growth may become distorted, expressing their sexuality through coercive or predatory behavior?
Of course, sexually abusive behavior is not caused by social conditions alone--there are people who sexually abuse children in every community. But there is a body of research that suggests that the more hierarchical, repressive and sex segregated a society is, the more likely its children are to experience abuse.
Haredi religious leaders have created pockets of medieval, autocratic subcultures that exist alongside the most open and educated societies in history. Socially engineered ignorance hold haredim captive. Individual internet access, television and even secular newspapers and magazines are verboten. Secular education is severely limited.
And the human cost is staggering. Several hundred thousand Jewish men and woman in the UK, America and Israel have been deprived-by design-of so much knowledge and education, and all but doomed to a life of poverty because their leaders fear that marketable skills would allow them the freedom to leave the community.
A cynically fabricated doctrine of persecution--preached relentlessly by haredi rabbis to their captive audiences--serves to sow such distrust of government that parents readily accept rabbinic directives that allow heinous crimes against their children to go unreported and perpetrators to remain free to harm kids.
I daresay that no strictly Orthodox sage of the 19th century would recognize this strange evolution of Orthodox Judaism and, were they alive today, would likely be shunned if they spoke their minds.
Indeed, to defy today's haredi rabbis is to risk losing synagogue membership, having one's children denied enrollment in community schools and experiencing great difficulty finding shidduchim--marriage partners--for one's children. This serves to ensure almost absolute compliance with rabbinic dictates.
I am not arguing for these communities to adopt the norms of mainstream society--this is not realistic--but rather a greater openness to "outside" knowledge about child development and human sexuality and a genuine respect for the law of the land. This would require education and a shift away from the almost absolute control rabbis have over all matters within these communities.
A good start would be for haredi rabbis--most of whom lack any secular education--to cede authority over mental health issues to professionals, and law enforcement issues to the police and courts.
Sadly, we do not see this happening anytime soon. Thus it is up to haredim to stop trembling in fear of their rabbis and instead take responsibility for themselves and their children, and accordingly lead by example. One can only hope their rabbis will follow.
Ben Hirsch is a co-founder of Survivors for Justice (www.sfjny.org) an organization that advocates and educates on issues related to child sex abuse within the strictly Orthodox Jewish community.