The longstanding effort to increase awareness of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community received a major boost this week. Hundreds of Israeli social workers, therapists, rabbis, community leaders and teachers met at a conference in Jerusalem to discuss how to prevent and deal with sexual abuse and domestic violence — topics that too often have been avoided rather than confronted. Participants described it as a landmark event.
Tahel – Crisis Center for Religious Women and Children led the effort, which featured an address by Chief Rabbi David Lau and included sessions and workshops on the rabbinic role in preventing abuse, human trafficking, teaching youngsters to be aware of predators, and the relationship between the Orthodox community and the police. Another key issue is jurisdiction and cooperation between countries in dealing with predators. Too often men accused of sexual crimes in the U.S. flee to Israel, where authorities may be unaware of their past history, or where communities accept them despite their reputations.
Among the issues that make sexual abuse more difficult to deal with in the Orthodox community than in other segments of society is an emphasis on modesty that sometimes precludes parents or teachers from informing young children about their bodies, a concern about embarrassing a family and jeopardizing its chances for a shidduch, and the communal prohibition of mesirah, reporting a fellow Jew to the authorities. Halachic experts, though, emphasize that reporting is permitted because it is considered saving a life.
There is a long way to go in terms of encouraging victims to report cases of abuse to the police rather than relying on rabbis, whose track record in dealing with the problem effectively is poor. The more that these difficult and delicate issues are brought out of the shadows and dealt with in a thoughtful and professional matter, the better — especially for our children.