Thursday, September 1, 2011

Cultural Reflections on Child Sexual Abuse in the American Haredi Jewish Community

I am an American Jewish observant Jew who considers herself Shomer Mitzvot because she keeps Shabbos and Kashrut.  I was raised in a Reform Jewish home and have spent time in the Modern Orthodox community.  I have some Haredi Jewish friends who live in America and Mea Shearim.  I am also a survivor of severe emotional child abuse by both m parents and my grandmother.  I am offering this piece as an expression of my solidarity with the many Haredi children who have tragically suffered sexual abuse at the hands of their rabbis or teachers in yeshivot and been silenced for far too long.     I strongly condemn both the horrendous sexual abuse of Haredi Jewish children by their rabbis and the appalling decisions of many traditional Orthodox Jewish rabbis to shelter the perpetrators instead of protecting the victims.  My goal with this piece is to examine the cultural factors which are inhibiting my fellow Jews in the Haredi community from openly confronting the problem of child sexual abuse by their rabbinical authority figures.

The first and most commonly cited explanation for the community’s struggle to deal with this problem is the concept of mesirah, of not reporting a fellow Jew to the secular authorities.  This practice has its origin in the many centuries of often genocidal anti-Semitism and hatred to which Jews have been subjected throughout our history in the diaspora.  My grandmother often tells the story of her mother who had a scar on her hand from when she was beaten by Cossacks as a child in Russia.  Grandma doesn’t know the exact year of this attack, by but determining the age of my great-grandmother I am fairly certain that she was attacked in her hometown of Minsk in Belarus during the anti-Semitic pogroms in 1905.  We know for sure that my great-grandmother was attacked during the reign of the last czar in the Russian empire, Nicholas II, because my mother and grandmother used to tell me how my great-grandmother cringed every time she heard the name of Nicholas II.
If we delve a little more deeply into this story, we can begin to understand how the roots of Jewish paranoia can make it difficult for Haredi Jews to trust the American police system even in the 21st century.  My grandmother was born and raised in the United States, and she grew up in freedom, as did her own children and grandchildren. Yet over 100 years after this atrocity took place, my grandmother continues to tell this story to her own children and grandchildren.  For her this story is an eternal reminder of the way the Jewish people are always persecuted in the diaspora. 

Now we need to consider some additional related cultural barriers which inhibit the Haredi Jews from interacting openly with the American police and legal system.  Unlike myself, who grew up freely in America as the descendant of ancestors who were spared the horror of the Shoah, most Haredi Jewish children growing up today in America are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of survivors of the Shoah.   Tragically, most traditional Orthodox Jews did not leave Eastern Europe before the Shoah, and as members of the most identifiably Jewish communities, they were targeted for acts of special cruelty by the Nazis.  The Nazis murdered their spiritual leaders, or rebbes for Hasidim and rabbis for non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews. 

The Nazis also desecrated all the Jewish holidays which traditional Orthodox Jews considered to be particularly sacred with mass deportations of Jews to the death camps and mass exterminations by Jews by shooting throughout Eastern Europe.  Many Orthodox Jewish survivors of the Shoah recall the date of their deportation because it was usually a Jewish holiday such as Pesach or Shavuos.  And many Orthodox Jewish survivors also remember the horror of being forced to desecrate the Sabbath and being pressured or forced to eat on Yom Kippur.   For Haredi Jews growing up in America today, the Shoah is a living historical memory which was inflicted upon their grandparents, upon bubbe or zeidi, their grandpa or grandpa.  And so the experience of not only centuries of Jewish persecution but also their grandparents’ historical trauma with the Shoah helps to explain their fears about the non-Jewish world. 

In addition, unlike most Jews, the Haredi Jews try to separate themselves from the non-Jewish world in their entire lives.  This separation is expressed in numerous ways, from distinctive dress to their way of life.  The men wear special black coats, and the women wear long shirts and long skirts in accordance with the custom of tsniut, or modesty.  Similarly, traditional Orthodox Jews do not learn about sexual issues until right before their wedding, when brides and grooms have private sessions with special teachers of the same gender who explain basic sexuality to them.  Thus, the community’s understandable decision to maintain its sexual proprieties unintentionally deprives young Hasidic Jewish children of the language they need to describe sexual abuse by authority figures. 

Morever, traditional Orthodox Jews choose a rabbi or rebbe that they will follow.  They will consult this rabbi or rebbe on every major issue in their lives from marriage for their children to career decisions to marital problems to illness and usually obey his advice.  Also, traditionally disputes between Jews over many areas of life, including business, marriage, Jewish ritual law such as the observance of kashrut, Shabbos, and the Jewish holidays, and even criminal matters were handled by the Beit Din, a rabbinical court composed of three rabbis were learned in Jewish law, or Halakha.  Traditionally Jews did not bring any internal disputes between Jews before any non-Jewish court.

It is natural for traditional Orthodox Jews to also want to consult a rabbi before going to the police and secular court system with allegations of sexual abuse against another Jew.  Thus, for traditional Orthodox Jews, the decision to try a case involving sexual abuse of a child by an adult Jew, particularly a rabbinical authority, requires a major shift in cultural mind-set and attitudes.  The major Haredi organization, Agudath Israel of America, has been rightly criticized for sticking to its policy which requires Haredi Jews to consult a rabbi before disclosing allegations of child sexual abuse by other Jews to the police.   And tragically collusion between religious leaders is undoubtedly a major factor which has driven this policy and protected abusers at the expense of their victims.  But the desire to speak to a rabbi before going to the secular authorities with allegations of child sexual abuse by another Jew also has its roots in two cultural traditions: the practice of consulting a rabbi before making any major life decision and the historical tendency to resolve internal disputes between Jews in a Jewish legal setting rather than in a non-Jewish court. 

Perhaps one solution to this problem is to increase the number of Sabbath-observant police officers who are serving particularly in traditional Orthodox and Hasidic communities. The Shomrim Society, a fraternal organization of Jews in law enforcement, helped to open up the police force to observant Jews and to Jews in general.  The police department exam has historically been held only on Saturdays.  But not the test is also given on Fridays for observant Jewish candidates.  The department is also making attempts to accommodate the schedules of Sabbath-observant Jews.  As a result, some 20 to 40 Sabbath observant Jews and 2,000 Jews of all backgrounds were serving in the New York City police force by 2003.  The department can only be commended for its policies in three areas:
·         respecting the Sabbath observance of its Orthodox Jewish officers,
·         systematically and thoroughly educating non-Jewish police officers who serve in Borough Park about Jewish law,
·         for encouraging officers to attend Jewish religious festivals and meet with rabbis to build bridges with the community. 

But the department should continue to expand recruitment efforts to attract more Sabbath-observant Jews, particularly Orthodox Jewish women, to law enforcement careers.  The reason is that I think traditional Orthodox Jews would still harbor the historical Jewish cultural fears about talking to non-Jewish police officers.  Their fears would be heightened when discussing generally intra-Jewish crime and particularly the highly sensitive topic of sexual abuse of their children by Jewish authority figures.   Traditional Orthodox Jews are much more likely to be comfortable speaking to Sabbath-observant, modestly dressed Jewish police officers about the sexual abuse of their children than to non-Jewish police officers. In particular attracting more Orthodox Jewish women to the law enforcement field would be helpful because traditional Orthodox Jews can only interact comfortably with unrelated members of the same gender.  Therefore Orthodox Jewish girls and their mothers can speak to female Orthodox Jewish police officers, and Orthodox Jewish boys and their fathers can speak to male Orthodox Jewish police officers.

However, I am greatly disturbed by the attitude of Daniel Mandel, director of the Orthodox Ohel Children’s and Family Services, toward the sexual abuse of children.  First of all, his misleading and false assertion that ‘only a small percentage’ of sexually abused children would be permanently harmed by the abuse is painfully cruel and insensitive to the many Orthodox Jewish survivors of child sexual abuse who have struggled for decades to overcome the effects of their abuse.  In addition, his assertion that sexual perverts can be ‘treated’ is highly dangerous because it opens the door to perpetrators being moved from place to place where they can continue to harm more children. 
For this reason, I support the call by Asher Lipner, an Orthodox Jewish survivor of child sexual abuse who has become a rabbi, clinical psychologist, and advocate for Orthodox Jewish child sexual abuse victims, for Daniel Mandel to resign from Ohel. . Mr. Lipner also points out how Mandel and his colleague Dr. David Pelcovitz are trying to hide their own weak record in handling child sexual abuse cases by publishing a book on this topic with the ironic title of Breaking the Silence.  Lipner knows of what he speaks since he revealed in 2006 to the  anonymous blogger Unorthodox Jew (UOJ), that “he was molested as a teenager by a rabbi at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.”  I have heard nothing but the highest praise for Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore from my many Orthodox Jewish friends and acquaintances.  So for me the idea that a rabbi could be molesting teenage boys at this revered institution in the Torah community is shocking and appalling. 
Ohel previously employed the child molestor Avraham Mondrowitz as its ‘consultant’ in the 1980’s, thereby allowing him to harm more Jewish children and escape justice. Mondrowitz was a child psychologist and rabbi in Brooklyn in the 1970’s until he fled to Israel in 1984 to avoid criminal charges.  According to the blogger UOJ, “Ohel knew he was a sex offender.  They can’t claim they didn’t know.”  If this allegation is true, then it would show that Ohel failed to protect children from a sexual predator.  Ohel has not brought any of the many recently arrested pedophiles in Brooklyn to the attention of the secular authorities or offered support to the many courageous victims of sexual abuse who came forward to warn the community. 
Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that Breaking the Silence contains a section in which Rabbi Dovid Cohen hides behind three cherished Halakhic principles of “mesirah, lashon harah, and chillul Hashem” in an effort to convince victims to consult a ‘competent halachic authority’ before presenting allegations of child sexual abuse to the secular authorities.  I do not pretend to be an expert on halakha, but I would like to offer an educated Jewish lay person’s response to this misleading tactic.  The principle of “Lashon Hara”, literally evil speech, is designed to encourage Jews to refrain from falsely defaming other Jews and from emphasizing the negative qualities of other Jews.  The principle of “Lashon Hara” is not intended to inhibit child victims of sexual abuse from reporting their allegations to police.  Finally Rabbi Cohen cites the notion of “chillul Hashem”, or desecration of G-‘d’s name literally, as another reason not to speak to the secular authorities about child sexual abuse.  Indeed if a Jewish child brought a false accusation of sexual abuse against a rabbi, it would be considered a ‘chillul Hashem.”  However, the much greater Chillul Hashem in this situation is the decision of far too many Orthodox rabbis to protect sexual perverts at the expense of the safety of Orthodox Jewish children.  For this reason the concept of Chillul Hashem should not be used as a reason to refrain from reporting child sexual abuse allegations to the secular authorities. 

Ohel also continues to promote the idea of using the system of rabbinical Battei Din, or house of judgment, to resolve cases of child sexual abuse.  This idea is another cultural reflection of the traditional Jewish desire to resolve disputes among Jews in a Jewish legal setting, and perhaps it might have been feasible in European Jewish communities where rabbinical authority over Jews was absolute.   This idea has been tried in many areas such as Lakewood, Yeshiva University, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Chicago and has not worked.  For instance, in 2010, Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, a leader of the highly respected Beis Medrash Govoha, quietly closed a Beit Din which had been set up to deal with sexual abuse.
The main problem is that a Beit Din in America has no power to impose the only meaningful sanction against a convicted pedophile, which is prison time.  According to Rav Ron Yitzchok Eisenman of Congregation Ahavas Yisrael, the prohibition of mesirah against turning in a Jewish suspect to non-Jewish authorities “doesn’t apply if there is no comparable [law enforcement] system in the Beit Din system.”  Since a Beit Din can’t arrest or imprison a suspect or convict, “there is no prohibition against going to the police.”  I hope that Rav Eisenman’s response on this topic is distributed to all Haredi parents in America so they know they can go to the police to protect their children from being molested by pedophiles. 
And thus the idea of using a Beit Din to punish Orthodox Jewish perverts needs to be abandoned in favor of presenting this matter to the secular courts.  The natural Orthodox Jewish cultural aversion against sending criminal disputes among Jews to the secular authorities is understandable, but the need to protect Orthodox Jewish children from sexual perverts in positions of religious authority over them should come first.  And the fact that many child advocates say Ohel has failed to report many cases of child sexual abuse to the secular authorities is highly disturbing. 
The Lakewood community is gradually moving toward more constructive policies of cooperation with the secular authorities.  In November, 2009, Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, head of the Lakewood Community Services Corporation, and other Orthodox rabbis in Lakewood met on two occasions with the Ocean County prosecutor twice in two weeks to discuss collaboration.  The second meeting was designed to focus on appointing a liaison between the prosecutor’s office and the Orthodox Jewish community.  
The Mondrowitz case shows the flaws in the traditional Orthodox system for handling sexual predators.  Many Orthodox Jewish parents were afraid to challenge their rabbis even when their teenage sons were molested by Mondrowitz.  One victim, Mark Weiss, was molested twice by Mondrowitz, once when he was 13 and again when he was 18.  And his parents failed to protect him because they were afraid to report Mondrowitz to the police. But when Mondrowitz molested Italian-American boys in the same area, their parents immediately went to the police.  This case shows how the Orthodox Jewish cultural prohibition on speaking to non-Jewish law enforcement unintentionally endangered the safety of Orthodox Jewish children. 
The handling of the case of Rabbi Ephraim Bryks by both the Modern and traditional Orthodox Jewish communities is also highly problematic at best.  In 1993, after Rabbi Bryks moved to New York, a former student in Winnipeg claimed that Rabbi Bryks had fondled him when he was only 8 years old.  Unfortunately, secular prosecutors may have also dropped the ball by failing to press charges against him on grounds of insufficient evidence.  When the boy, Daniel Leven, at age 17, was asked to re-record a statement he had given earlier, he committed suicide.” It would very unlikely for such a child to have committed suicide if he had not been actually sexually abused in this manner.  I have three questions about the way Orthodox Jewish leaders handled his case:
·         Why did the Orthodox Union, which represents Modern Orthodox Judaism, wait ten years before asking Rabbi Bryks to resign without admitting wrongdoing in 2003?
·         Why did the Haredi Vaad Harabonim of Queens wait 17 years, until 2010, to ask him to resign?
·         Why was he allowed to hold leadership positions at two Queens yeshivot in light of the serious allegations against him in Winnipeg, Canada?   

The rabbinical establishment in Williamsburg has ostracized  rabbis who encourage their followers to report allegations of sexual abuse to the secular authorities.  In 2007, Rabbi Nuchum Rosenberg set up a hotline for abuse victims to receive counseling and support, and he encouraged sexual abuse victims to speak to the police.  The rabbinical establishment responded by issuing a decree urging their members not to associate with Rosenberg that same year.   He also received death threats and was injured by a bullet or rock to the forehead as well.  Rosenberg can afford to speak freely about this issue because he makes his living as an accountant in Manhattan and is not financially dependent on the rabbinical establishment for his income. 
In addition, some parents who tried to protect their children from sexual molesters in Lakewood, New Jersey are facing systematic attempts to intimidate them from their community.  One family which decided to report the abuse to the police and press charges in the secular courts has been forced to leave the community for their safety.  This case is a sad but common example of the community siding with the abuser against the victim.  When a mother of a boy who died from a drug overdose publicized that he had been molested, her house was burned down and police investigators cannot get cooperation from the rabbis. This intimidation is carried out with rabbinic complicity or at least passive acquiescence; not a single rabbi condemns it or shows support for the victims.” The only solution to this problem is for rabbis to speak out in defense of children victimized by sexual abuse in their communities, especially if the abuse occurred at the hands of another rabbinical authority figure.  This step takes a high degree of backbone, fortitude, and courage, but it is essential for rabbis to take this step in order to protect Orthodox Jewish children from the lifelong trauma of sexual abuse. 

The community also sided with Yona Weinberg, 31, a bar mitzvah tutor and social worker who received a 13 month jail sentence for molesting two boys in 2009.  In addition, the judge, Gustin Reichbach, expressed his disgust at having received 90 letters of support from members of the community.  Can you imagine how terrifying it must have been to be molested by your bar mitzvah tutor and then to see your whole community side with your abuser against you?  I strongly agree with the sentiments of Daniel Sosnowik, an Orthodox Jew in Flatbush and police captain,”The judge made a Kiddush Hashem [sanctification of G-d’s name], where a Hilul Hashem [desecration of G-d’s name] was being made again, by over 90 people in the community, as well as a packed coutroom [with rabbis] and other leaders.”

Also, financial motivations seem to be driving the opposition of the Agudath Israel of America and Torah Umesorah, the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, to a bill which would give victims more opportunity to testify against them and hold them accountable for failing to fire and punish sexually abusive staff.  Eliminating the statute of limitations for a year on these cases would naturally give many victims an opportunity who were previously silenced by fear an opportunity to testify against the institutions which often knowingly protected the perpetrators of sexual abuse against children. One pending lawsuit is against Yeshiva Torah Temimah in Brooklyn and a longtime rabbi there, Yehuda Kolko, who escaped justice for having apparently sexually abused boys there.

And unfortunately, the leaders of many yeshivot appear to have been  protecting the abusers instead of the victims, allowing the abusers to victimize children for decades.  Rabbi Aaron Tendler of Los Angeles has been removed from his rabbinical and academic roles in Los Angeles after being accused of molesting underage girls.  But his uncles, the well-known Rabbis Dovid and Reuven Feinstein, have protected him by not reporting him to the police, thus allowing him to continue molesting Orthodox Jewish girls in other settings. 
Also, Rabbi Lipner says that Rabbis Yaakov Perlow, Dovid Feinstein, and Ahron Schechter covered up for Rabbi Kolko for four decades as he molested boys at both Yeshivah Temimah of Brooklyn and Camp Agudah.  Rabbi Lipner says the rabbis did not tell the police everything they know about his crimes because they did not want him to face prison time.  And their partner in crime, Brooklyn Rabbi Yisroel Belsky,” was warned that he too would be arrested if he published his letter threatening the family of the raped boy.” (in apparent reference to a boy who was raped in Lakewood).  To me it is unthinkable and unconscionable for a rabbi to be threatening the family of an Orthodox Jewish boy who was apparently raped in Lakewood, New Jersey.  And many other sickening examples of rabbis protecting the abusers instead of the victims are documented here in Rabbi Lipner’s outstanding article.

Unfortunately, the Brooklyn DA’s office seems to have given in to pressure from the rabbinical leadership in offering a plea deal to Kolko in 2008.  Kolko was originally indicted on felony charges for sexual touching of two first graders and forcing an adult former student to touch him.  Can you imagine the terror of being six years old and in school for maybe the first or second year of your life and being abused by your teacher this way?  But the Brooklyn DA’s office allowed him to walk free with no consequences at all. He faces no prison time and he didn’t have to admit any sexual wrongdoing.  I guess inappropriately touching six year old boys in their private areas is not ‘sexual wrongdoing’.  He won’t even have to register as a sex offender , so he can keep on molesting more Orthodox Jewish boys in the future.  Fortunately, five former students have tried to protect future generations of Orthodox Jewish boys from Kolko by filing a civil suit accusing the school of protecting their abuser.
Meanwhile,  the rabbinical establishment in Brooklyn continues to employ Kolko as a bus tour broker for yeshivas and summer camps.  Kolko lives in Lakewood and he is now beginning to drive  a rebbe with 15 children out of the Orthodox Jewish bus tour broker business.   The rabbi and businessman lost his two major accounts this summer, Camp Agudah and Camp Bnos, along with several other summer camps after their leaders were apparently ordered by the leaders of the Agudath Israel of America to book with Kolko instead. 
I am baffled by the contrast between Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky’s compassionate and empathetic response to battered Orthodox Jewish wives and his failure to protect victims of child sexual abuse in his community from their perpetrators.  In 2003, he gave a moving address to a fundraiser for Miklat, an Orthodox Jewish battered women’s shelter in Israel.  At the same time he is urging the members of his community to consult with rabbis before reporting sexual abuse allegations to the police.
So is there any hope for correcting this dire situation?  I see two sources of hope amid the horrific reality of child sexual abuse in the traditional Orthodox Jewish community.  The first is a new initiative between the Brooklyn DA’s office and the traditional Orthodox Jewish community to combat child sexual abuse called Project Kol Tzedek, or Voice of Justice.  The project was developed by Henna White, an Orthodox Jewish woman who works as a liaison between the Brooklyn traditional Orthodox Jewish community and the DA’s office.  The project was launched in April, 2009, and as a result, for the first time, 66 new cases of child sexual abuse have been opened in the community in just over two years.  The project is based on respecting traditional Orthodox Jews’ preference to consult a rabbi before bringing allegations of sexual abuse to the secular courts.   However, the willingness of the Brooklyn DA to work with Ohel on these cases is troubling to me in light of Ohel’s poor record in handling sexual abuse cases in particular. 
I am much more encouraged by the forthright efforts of Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman of Passaic, New Jersey, to confront the sexual abuse of Orthodox Jewish children.  Unlike other rabbis who urge their congregants to consult a rabbi before going to the police with allegations of sexual abuse of children, Rav Eisenman urges his followers to immediately go to police with these allegations without consulting a rabbi first.  He wants to make it easier for his congregants to protect their children from the horror of sexual abuse.  On two occasions, he listed the names and addresses of perpetrators who moved into the community from his pulpit, leading them to flee the area.  Both suspects were eventually imprisoned for their crimes.  Stephan Colmer is now serving prison time on eight counts of second degree sexual criminal acts.  Mitchell Levinton faces five years in prison for child endangerment.    

In a third case, Rav Eisenman informed his colleagues that he was planning to denounce a perpetrator from his pulpit.  The suspect fled to Israel, but the rabbi didn’t give up.  He informed the Israeli authorities about the suspect, and Israel arrested the suspect and sent him back to America for trial.  The suspect was eventually convicted for his crimes in American secular court and sent to prison where he belongs.   Rabbi Eisenman helped to provide a rare case of justice for a pedophile who was harming Orthodox Jewish children.   

Israel should not have waited 23 years from Mondrowitz’s flight to Israel in 1984 until November, 2007, to arrest him and schedule him for extradition to the United States.  He was said to have molested dozens of young boys in Brooklyn. The Israeli response to the Mondrowitz case is an example of better late than never.  I hope that Rabbi Eisenman and other traditional Orthodox rabbis who care about the children in their congregation can help to close down Israel as an escape route for these pedophiles.   

On the night before Yom Kippur in 2009, Rav Eisenman scheduled a special forum where five victims of sexual abuse were invited to speak from his pulpit in an uncensored session.   He did the program alone after his colleagues dropped out because they did not want the survivors to reveal the names of accused pedophiles who had not yet been charged.  The program was the first time a Haredi synagogue in America held a public forum on sexual abuse of children, and it was mobbed by 300 to 400 men and women sitting separately in accordance with traditional Orthodox Jewish custom.  The rabbi later realized that one of the panelists had been dishonest about some aspects of his own life and thus came to understand the complexities involved in the issue of child sexual abuse. 

Sarah, 16, who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, spoke about being raped by a friend of the family repeatedly from the ages of 7 to 13.  Sarah said,”It was an amazing experience.  They acknowledged our pain. I’m used to being told, ‘It can’t happen in the [Orthodox] Jewish community.’”  As a Jewish survivor of severe emotional child abuse from both my parents and my grandmother, I know first hand how awful it feels to have your pain dismissed by the Jewish community.  A synagogue in South Florida responded to me telling them about my parents’ emotional abuse by inviting my parents into the synagogue, thus destroying my feeling of trust and safety in them.  Thankfully another synagogue has embraced me for who I am after I told them the truth about my past, thus restoring my ability to trust the Jewish community. 

Rav Eisenman’s efforts have had a number of positive effects on his community.  First of all,the pedophiles have been driven out, and children now feel much safer to speak up if they feel endangered by them.  Second of all, Rabbi Lipner says that now Orthodox Jewish survivors of child sexual abuse have a safe community where they can heal from their trauma and feel embraced and accepted for who they are.  Third, other traditional Orthodox rabbis in the area are less likely to sweep the problem under the rug because they know and fear Rav Eisenman’s activism on this issue. I also like his reasoning.  As a husband, father, and grandfather, he said,”It can only be good.  Anything that will protect the children can only be good.”   I admire and share his compassion for Orthodox Jewish children and all children.

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