As someone who has worked with numerous survivors of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community over the past 10 years, I have been privileged to bear witness to the stories of people who, after having their voices taken away from them, become able to speak for the first time, in the course of their healing, about the horrors they have endured.
Many describe the pain of being forced to suffer in silence as even more traumatic than the experience of being sexually violated. They are warned to keep quiet, lest they bring shame to the community and to themselves and “alienate people from their cause.” This puts survivors in an impossible Catch-22. After struggling, often for years, with their personal demons of pain, loneliness, anger, shame and sense of betrayal, when their healing requires them to give testimony to their victimization and to express their feelings about it, they are told in a million different ways, “Shah Shtill!”
But the problem is not going away, although tragically thousands of survivors are “going away” from us, by abandoning Judaism or even worse, being lost to drugs and alcohol, to mental illness and even suicide. Solving the problem necessitates exposing it to the light of day, and for that we need to reach out to survivors and to listen with empathy to their painful stories. If we do not learn from the mistakes of our past, we are doomed to repeat them.
It is with this in mind that I offer the following plea.
Ten years ago, Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt bravely blew the whistle on a decades-long cover-up of rabbinic sexual abuse in the case of Baruch Lanner, a top official of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). This, together with the roughly 40 articles about abuse and its cover-up published by The Jewish Week since that time, has undoubtedly paved the way for others to follow suit.
However, our community still shamefully lags behind even the Catholic Church in addressing our catastrophe, due to the unwillingness of our leaders to apologize and to reach out effectively to survivors of abuse. We are regularly bombarded in the media with rabbinic sex scandals, convictions of Orthodox child predators and lawsuits against yeshivas harboring molesters. A leading Orthodox mental health agency fails to warn the community about abusers it “treats.” Victims of abuse and their families who report to the authorities are ostracized and bullied, much the same way that the victims of Baruch Lanner were, and district attorneys, seeking support from Orthodox communities, seem to ignore this criminal intimidation of witnesses. Mainstream Orthodox media do not report on cases of abuse, educate people about prevention or inform victims where to go for help.
Even as I write, the Queens Vaad Harabbanim continues to cover up for one of its own, who was forced off the Rabbinical Council of America years ago for allegedly molesting children, the Baltimore Vaad Harrabanim covers up for a rabbi in their community’s prestigious yeshiva who is said to have sexually abused students for decades, and the Lakewood (New Jersey) yeshiva’s rabbinic leaders are pressuring the parents of a victim of abuse who reported it to the police to drop the charges.
In 2001, the then-new executive of the Orthodox Union, the parent organization of NCSY, said about sexual abuse in the Orthodox community: “I would like to see the OU take a leadership role in raising awareness about this problem.” But while the RCA, the OU’s rabbinic arm, has made several public pronouncements warning the community of the epidemic and offering practical ways to combat it, the OU has yet to make a public statement, nor has it supported any of the legislative initiatives of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children (www.jewishadvocates.org).
The OU does take the lead in many important areas, but it continues to refuse to publish the full report of the NCSY Special Commission. This, despite the fact that both the victims and the community have a right to know exactly what caused this tragedy, and that hundreds of thousands of community dollars were spent on the investigation.
So, the thankless fight to bring awareness to the community is left to the grassroots efforts of survivors of abuse like Joel Engelman, Mark Weiss, Joseph Diangelo and David Framowitz, and their supporters like Vicki Polin and The Awareness Center, Survivors for Justice, Mark Appel, Rabbi Nochem Rosenberg, Rabbi Yosef Blau and Rabbi Yitzchak Eisenman, Assemblyman Dov Hikind, The Jewish Survivors Network, JSafe, and JBAC, supported by the RCA. Also spreading awareness have been bloggers like Unorthodoxjew (UOJ), FrumFollies, FailedMessiah and LittleSheep, and courageous editors like Phil Jacobs (Baltimore Jewish Times) and Mayer Fertig (Jewish Star), in addition to Gary Rosenblatt.
Let us pray that all Jewish leaders will unite with us now to stop sexual abuse and act as a “light unto the nations,” so that nobody else will ever have to endure this terrible trauma.
Dr. Asher Lipner is a clinical psychologist, an ordained rabbi and a survivor of clergy sexual abuse.
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