Orthodox Abuse And Cultural Forces

By Robert Kolker (The Jewish Week)
June 30, 2006

For those closely following the issue of rabbinical sexual abuse accusations in the fervently Orthodox Jewish community, last week's Jewish Week represented something of a historic moment: An authority from the esteemed haredi organization Agudath Israel, Rabbi Avi Shafran, openly acknowledged that sexual abuse is indeed a problem that requires more attention and measures than the community currently brings to bear.

In the past, The Jewish Week's own reporting has mentioned how rabbinical sexual abuse has been roundly ignored at Agudath Israel conventions. Rabbi Shafran himself has eschewed any calls for a centralized body to deal with the problem, instead encouraging anyone claiming to have been abused to "go to the rebbe or community rabbi." So it is refreshing to read Rabbi Shafran grappling with these issues in an open forum and writing, "Must more be done? Yes. And it will be."

But pausing only briefly to extend sympathy to victims of abuse, Rabbi Shafran saves his real outrage — and most of the space in his piece — for my recent feature story in New York magazine, "On the Rabbi's Knee," the first report to publicly detail plaintiff David Framowitz's astonishing allegations in a recent sexual-abuse lawsuit. (The defendants are Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, Yeshiva & Mesivta Torah Temimah of Flatbush, and Camp Agudah, which Rabbi Shafran acknowledged is affiliated with Agudath Israel.) While the detailed and brave testimony of Framowitz received little attention from Rabbi Shafran, the uncomfortable question asked in my piece — if molestation is more common in the fervently Orthodox community than it is elsewhere — must have hit a nerve. Because last week, Rabbi Shafran accused the New York magazine article of "slip[ping] toward slander, not only of Orthodox Jews but of Judaism itself."

As a journalist and a Jew, I take this accusation very seriously, and I'm grateful for the chance to respond. First, Rabbi Shafran suggests that when I wrote that "there's reason to believe the answer to that question [of more sexual abuse among the fervently Orthodox] might be yes," I was engaging in something "sinister" — and that the only substantiation I provided was an insight from the author Hella Winston about the countless incidents she heard about in her laudable research on chasidic exiles.

While everyone including myself and Rabbi Shafran can stipulate that no hard statistics are available, my explanation of this belief extends for several more paragraphs. The next paragraph suggests that some experts believe "repression ... creates a fertile environment for deviance." Rabbi Shafran takes this as an assault on what he calls "a Torah-observant life." I intended it only as my sources did: as a belief that any society that shies away from open discussion of certain issues is a society that allows problems to fester longer — and abusers to stay in business longer.

But it's what I discuss next that Rabbi Shafran ignores completely: the cultural forces of shame and denial that have kept alleged victims like David Framowitz from going public for decades. Nowhere in Rabbi Shafran's piece is a mention of the so-called shonda factor, lashon hara, shalom bayit, mesira, and chillul Hashem, all of which are invoked to keep victims from bringing their community unwelcome attention by the authorities.

Rabbi Shafran spoke to mental-health experts who believe the problem is smaller among the fervently Orthodox. The experts I interviewed said otherwise — like the pediatrician who was in tears discussing how these pressures keep victims silent, and two psychologists who agreed that the fears of being ostracized from the community prevent victims from speaking out and being treated.

Common sense would indicate that even if there are fewer fervently Orthodox abusers, if they're allowed to remain in positions of power for decades they can abuse hundreds of more victims and perhaps even create victims who go on to become abusers themselves. As one abuse victim told me, "Whether it's Jewish or Amish or Mennonite or Catholic or Muslim, it doesn't make a difference. I feel like this is kind of like a fungus. It grows in the dark."

But above all, this sort of chauvinistic we-abuse-less argument is an insult to victims like David Framowitz who felt so alone and intimidated for so long. Can there be any doubt that until the cultural bias against the reporting of abuse is tackled head on, not defensively, community leaders are only paying lip service to the problem?

Rabbi Shafran would have you believe that something is being done, but is it really? While the Catholic Church now has a charter calling for removal of any clergyman who commits an act of abuse, the 3-year-old guidelines for preventing abuse in Jewish day schools that Rabbi Shafran mentions are non-compulsory. Torah U'Mesorah, the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools, has no real disciplinary system in place, but the New York City schools do. Are Jewish children somehow entitled to less protection than public school children? If Rabbi Shafran wants to suggest that fervently Orthodox religious observance in fact fosters superior moral behavior, then why not throw open the doors to the public? Why not urge complainants frustrated by the bet din process to take those grievances to an American court?

The absence of such conviction leads me to conclude that the real point of Rabbi Shafran's editorial appears to be to distract attention from the Framowitz lawsuit and make people believe that Agudath Israel's reputation deserves their support more than the victims do. He would have you believe that the mainstream media — the usual bugbears of the Internet and MTV — are the villains here. He is obviously more concerned with defending Judaism from paper tigers — illusory enemies — than he is with actually dealing with the problems of his community.

Still, a major step has been made. At long last, by admitting there is a problem, Rabbi Shafran has opened the door for more discussion. Is it possible that outside forces like the Framowitz lawsuit and the mainstream media have actually done some good here? As a Jew and a journalist, I hope so.

Robert Kolker is a contributing editor at New York magazine.