By Kevin Rector (Baltimore Sun)
April 20, 2013
When Nancy Aiken talks to students in Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish community about domestic violence and sexual assaults, she asks the boys a simple question: How many of you want to grow up to be a perpetrator of violence?
Aiken knows the students mean it when they say, “No, not me.” But she also knows, statistically, that some will, indeed, become wife beaters or sexual predators.
“There is only so much we can do to train our young women how not to be victims,” said Aiken, executive director of the Counseling, Helpline and Aid Network for Abused Women, or CHANA. “We have to train our young men not to be perpetrators.”
Aiken’s organization, in partnership with Jewish Women International, is getting a major boost with a $350,000 Justice Department grant to recruit men and boys in the Orthodox community as allies in the fight against abuse.
Community leaders say the effort is necessary.
“I don’t know any authority in the Orthodox world today - mainstream authority - who does not already agree that this has to be addressed, it has to be addressed swiftly, it has to be addressed concisely,” said Larry Ziffer, executive vice president of the Center for Jewish Education in Baltimore, who plans to work closely with CHANA in the community.
“To me it’s a huge problem if there is one woman who is abused or one child who is abused, and there were things the community could do and they didn’t do it in the past,” Ziffer said. “If there is anything we can do in terms of prevention, to keep people safe, we have a moral and a legal and theological obligation to do it.“
The three-year grant from the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women, announced last month, is aimed at men and boys of minority groups - such as the Orthodox and immigrant Jewish communities of the Park Heights neighborhood - that don’t regularly tap into secular counseling services or authorities.
The Orthodox community has its own courts for handling abuse allegations. Aiken said the large immigrant Jewish populations in Baltimore - Farsi-speaking Iranian exiles and refugees of the former Soviet Union - are often distrustful of police.
Such communities often “look for Jewish remedies to their concerns, and not elsewhere,” Aiken said. She said that approach leaves out valuable public health and legal perspectives, puts critical decisions in the hands of religious leaders who have, at times, swept problems under the rug and can lead to community silence and a tendency to blame the victim.
Lori Weinstein, executive director of Jewish Women International, which has worked with CHANA on other projects, said the current effort represents a new step in the campaign against male violence in North Baltimore’s closely knit Orthodox community.
“This whole movement has evolved to one where it is seen as just a crucial development in the field that we bring and engage men as allies in the work that we’re all doing to end violence,” she said.
The problems of domestic abuse and sexual assault in Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish community surfaced in a series of high-profile cases.
In 2006, the Orthodox community rallied around Cynthia Ohana after her husband, who was found by a civil court to have abused her, refused to grant her a religious divorce.
When Rabbi Jacob A. Max was convicted in 2009 of sexually molesting a woman in a Reisterstown funeral home, others came forward with accusations of abuse, after years of rebuffed requests for help or fear-induced silence.
Such cases have been chronicled by journalist Phil Jacobs – a member of the local community and a survivor of sexual abuse.
Jacobs, the executive editor of theBaltimore Jewish Times, began a series of stories in 2007 detailing cases of sexual abuse that implicated revered rabbis and leaders in the community.
The series shocked the community and drew criticism from some, who accused Jacobs of breaking with the custom of bringing claims of abuse or assaults directly to rabbis.
The problem was that in Jacobs’ reporting, the accused sometimes were rabbis.
When he was 14, Jacobs said, he was molested on several occasions by a man who would give young boys new sports equipment and invite them to his apartment to watch pornography.
When the man fondled him, he said, the experience was so foreign that he didn’t know how to register it.
“Back then this was not on my computer, my mental computer. I had no idea what he was doing, and I didn’t know what to do about it,” said Jacobs, now 59. “I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell my parents, because somehow it would have turned into my fault.”
Jacobs didn’t start addressing the problem until he was 40, when he told his wife. When he moved back to the Baltimore area, he got involved with a group of local survivors, which led to him meeting the subject of his first story about abuse in Baltimore’s Jewish community.
After that story appeared, Jacobs said, victims flooded him with requests for help or for more stories on the topic of abuse in the local Jewish community.
“My phone at home and my phone at the Jewish Times became like a hotline,” he said. “People were calling and calling.”
Jacobs has since worked closely with CHANA and its offshoot, the Shofar Coalition, which serves adult survivors of childhood abuse.
He called the new grant program wonderful – another step in a shift in the community toward acknowledgment of the problem and a desire to do something about it.
“What they have done is they’ve at least gotten the community to engage in a conversation about an issue that never was talked about before,” he said. “It was kind of buried over, but that’s not the case now.”