Has The Silence Been Broken?

New book has some answers, but doubts linger.

By Michael Orbach (The Jewish Star)
October 28, 2010

Has the Jewish community finally come to terms with sexual abuse? That is the question raised by the publication of a controversial new book, "Breaking the Silence: Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community."

It is the first extensive treatment of sexual abuse among Jews aimed at a religious audience, and it faces the explosive topic head on — from advice on contacting police to filing abuse reports to halachic arguments about why reporting molesters is in keeping with Jewish law.

The editors, Dr. David Pelcovitz, the Straus Professor of Psychology and Education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University, and David Mandel, the CEO of Ohel, the largest Jewish social service agency, have nodoubt about the book's importance.

"There's been some kind of tipping point that's been reached," said Dr. Pelcovitz. The book, he explained "reflects the openness, I'm seeing the default setting seems to be shifting to action rather than denial. People have come to an understanding that responding to the issue of abuse, both in supporting the victims of abuse and dealing with the perpetrators is much more important than the issue of shame and stigma."

Pelcovitz said the change was caused by a critical mass of professionals who were "sensitive to the uniquely cultural presentation of abuse in the Orthodox community."

"There's been a really kind of growing group of people who are going out and getting training in the area," Pelcovitz explained.

Mandel listed the outspoken position of advocates and rabbinical authorities like Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky, Rav Avraham Pam z"l, and Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novaminkser Rebbe. Mandel also cited prosecutors taking action against child molesters. Surprisingly, Pelcovitz also credited the Catholic Church and its new openness.

Gavriel Fagen, a Woodmere resident and social worker, wrot a chapter about victims.

"By incorporating direct quotes from victims, I feel that a voice was given to those who have suffered in silence," he explained.

Unequivocally, both Mandel and Pelcovitz advocate reporting offenders to civil authorities.

"There is a growing willingness in the yeshiva community to be able to do that," Dr. Pelcovitz said. "Recognition that it is the law... There's very little gray area. The [book] make it clear that there's no gray area in Halacha."

David Mandel, co-editor of "Breaking the Silence" is closely associated with Ohel, the largest Jewish social service agency, and some have accused him of using the book to whitewash Ohel's record on sexual abuse. The organization has been accused of inaction and covering-up for sexual molesters.

Michael Lesher, who edited "Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities and Child Sex Scandals," a collection of essays about sexual abuse inside the Jewish community that was published last year by Brandeis University Press, said that Ohel continued to refer patients to Avrohom Mondrowitz, a rabbi and pyschologist, even after suspicions were raised of his sexually abusing hundreds before he fled to Israel in 1984. He has avoided extradition and remains free in Jerusalem.

"Ohel had reports of Mondrowitz's abuse of children at least two years before anyone called the police," Lesher maintained.

Ohel has also been criticized in another high profile case. In 2007, Stefan Colmer pleaded guilty to 37 counts of sexual abuse. It was later revealed by The Jewish Week that Colmer had attended a program for sexual offenders run by Ohel. When Colmer dropped out, Ohel did not alert authorities and Colmer molested several other individuals.

"The agency made no effort to follow up with him or to warn the community where he was then living," Lesher said. "This meant that Colmer was easily able to approach potential victims at the Mirrer yeshiva at a time when Ohel had every reason to know he represented a risk.

"Perhaps Mandel should be asked about these things if he's now presenting himself as an authority on child sex abuse."

Ben Hirsch, the president of Survivors for Justice, an advocacy organization for Jewish sexual abuse survivers called the book a "must-read." "It contains information crucial to parents, educators, mental health professionals and anyone else who cares about this issue," Hirsch said. Though he was troubled by Mandel's involvement.

"The fact — as demonstrated by the Mondrowitz and Colmer cases — that Ohel has had direct knowledge of dangerous offenders living among us and does not share that information with the public and law enforcement needlessly places literally thousands of children at risk," Hirsch explained. "This practice violates both halacha and civil law. And the Colmer case, tragically, is not the only one of its kind. I ask myself: what other predators does Ohel know about and continue to leave us in the dark about?"

Asked about Ohel's past treatment of sex offenders and whether the controversial program would be restarted, Mandel declined to speak about it, but offered that "sex offenders can be treated by any number of professionals in private practices, whereas a number of years ago they had not been available."

In his chapter, Mandel notes that most sex offenders don't end up in prison, even if they are found guilty. Former Westchester district attorney Jeanine Pirro successfully prosecuted 111 men arrested for pedophilia. However, Mandel notes, only eight of the perpetrators received jail sentences.

"The fact that most perpetrators are not in jail is not a Jewish phenomenon," Mandel writes. He advises keeping the sexual predators inside the community.

"We're better off knowing who he is where he is and surrounding that information with as many safeguards as we can," Mandel said.

The publication of the book also coincided with the National Jewish Week to Prevent Child Abuse, a program launched by the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children. While largely ceremonial, the week showcased a wider awareness of sexual abuse.

"We wanted to bring together all of the leading organizations to create a unified voice that says we must protect our children," said Dr. Asher Lipner, vice president of The Jewish Board of Advocates.

The week had some notable signatories including the Orthodox Union, National Council of Young Israel, and the Rabbinical Council of America. Ohel did not sign on and neither did Kol Tzedek, the Ohel-affiliated hotline run by the Brooklyn District Attorney.

"I personally made it very clear to them that the week has nothing to do with controversial legislation, and nothing to do with exposing scandals from the past," said Lipner. "It is simply about bringing awareness of a public safety issue that has hurt far too many children in our community. We were also disappointed that the Kol Tzedek program would not agree to participate in any way, after they told me that the D.A would need permission from his partners in the Orthodox community (OHEL, et. al.), and apparently it was not granted. It appears, unfortunately, that there are elements of our community that will still play politics with children's neshamas."

Jerry Schmetterer, spokesman for the Brooklyn District Attorney, said that this wasn't the case.

"We wouldn't need permission to attend," he said. "It would be the district attorney's decision. We did not attend, we weren't able to and we're planning our own conference."

Mandel explained that simply because Ohel wasn't at the conference didn't mean "Ohel does not support the effort of this group."

"We support any effort to educate the community about prevention and response to sexual abuse," Mandel said.