David Cheifetz, describing himself as the name and face of countless nameless and faceless victims of sexual abuse as a child, told a hushed audience of about 200 people on Sunday night that “we [the Orthodox community] need to change our culture” from denial and avoidance to recognition of the dangers of molestation and “show support for victims and their families.”
Cheifetz was instrumental in organizing the evening’s program at his Orthodox synagogue (and this reporter’s), Rinat Yisrael, in Teaneck, N.J. Sponsored by Rinat and three other local Orthodox synagogues, the event sought to raise communal and parental awareness of the scope and nature of child sexual abuse and offer practical advice on how to deal with it.
Experts in the field say such efforts by Orthodox congregations to publicly acknowledge and address the problem are all too rare.
Rabbi Yosef Adler, spiritual leader of Rinat Yisrael, noted that sexual abuse is prohibited in the Torah, and he praised his congregants for initiating the program.
Cheifetz first went public a year and a half ago with an Opinion essay in The Jewish Week, headlined “Sharing The Secret That’s Haunted My Soul.” He told the story of being sexually abused more than 30 years ago as a 13-year-old camper at the hands of a rabbi at Camp Dora Golding, an Orthodox sleep-away camp for boys. When camp officials learned of what transpired they sent Cheifetz home, with no explanation to him or his parents, and took no direct action against the young rabbi, who went on to teach in boys’ yeshivas for decades.
Speaking in a firm, clear voice, Cheifetz told the audience Sunday night that his long-submerged feelings of anger and anxiety came to the fore about two years ago, sending him into a deep depression diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He underwent therapy and emerged with a commitment to address “the plague” of child sexual abuse.
He called on the Orthodox community to stop denying the depth and scope of the problem, create a mechanism to support “the walking wounded of all ages,” and let victims know they are being heard, and are not alone.
“We have seen the face of the devil,” he said of himself and fellow members of “an exclusive fraternity that no one wants to belong to,” and, he said, “it was not my fault and I am no longer afraid.”
As he took his seat, the audience, which included several victims, according to Cheifetz, burst into applause.
Earlier, Rabbi Yosef Blau, the longtime spiritual advisor at Yeshiva University and champion of abuse victims, explained that according to several studies, statistics for child sexual abuse among Orthodox Jews mirror that of the general population — as many as one out of every six men and about one of every three women victimized as children.
But when these figures were presented to the annual meeting of the Orthodox Forum think-tank comprised of leading Modern Orthodox rabbis and scholars, “everyone doubted the findings, rejecting them totally,” said Rabbi Blau. He added that the findings were not included in the report of the meeting.
The rabbi speculated that the reason the Orthodox community has such difficulty accepting the reality of the situation is because “We believe that those who follow the Torah are better people, so it can’t be true.” In the charedi community, he said, there is a sense that abuse among the Orthodox is “never, or rare”; among the Modern Orthodox, there is a recognition that it occurs, “but theoretically,” and in whatever specific case is being discussed, “it can’t be true.”
Rabbi Blau urged those who learn of a case of abuse to report it to the police, not to rabbis who have a long track record of ineptitude, at best, in dealing with such cases. He dismissed the rationale of “mesirah,” one who is considered a traitor to the Jewish people for seeking justice through secular rather than rabbinic authorities. He said mesirah applied in past centuries when governments in Europe were biased against Jews, but is no longer halachically valid.
Referring to his own experience as a member of a beit din about 25 years ago dealing with charges of sexual abuse against a prominent rabbinic youth leader — he was speaking of Rabbi Baruch Lanner, though he did not name him in his talk — Rabbi Blau said he and the other two rabbinic judges were “unsuccessful in dealing with the situation” because they lacked the psychological knowledge of abuse. They did not understand that adolescent victims may not be “strong enough to come forward” for years, he said, or that “a charismatic leader can get people to support him and lie for him.”
(It was after the beit din episode that Rabbi Blau became an activist on the issue. Years later, after a series of Jewish Week reports, Rabbi Lanner was convicted and jailed for sexually abusing young women.)
“Rabbis can be helpful,” Rabbi Blau said, not in judging abuse cases but in supporting victims and making congregants aware of the problem. He also called on parents to question schools and camps about their policies, procedures and staff training regarding abuse. “Not many ask,” he said, and as a result, “the community is sending a powerful message of indifference.” He said he was especially appalled at the lack of policy demands on yeshiva and seminary programs in Israel for gap-year, post-high school students being sent thousands of miles from home.
Expanding on Rabbi Blau’s observations, Shira Melody Berkovits, a psychologist who specializes in treating child sex abuse victims, said the level of child sexual abuse is “staggering,” and that victims are prone to a wide range of physical and mental problems, including cancer, smoking, drinking, early pregnancy and depression. Molesters are not ogres but look and often act like anyone else, she said, and the notion of “stranger danger” is inaccurate. “Ninety-three percent of abusers are someone the child knows or trusts,” she said.
Berkovits said most synagogues have no policy or training for staff on dealing with abuse. A survey she conducted found that only about one-third of congregations had policies in place, and the figures in the Orthodox community were far less.
She urged parents to put pressure on schools and camps for action, and offered practical advice on how to protect their children, including how to speak to them about the delicate subject.
“Use anatomically correct terms for bodies and sexuality,” she said, noting that it is better for children to learn from “calm parents” then others. She also called on parents and community members to report to police suspicions of abuse. “You have a moral obligation,” she said, and often a legal one as well, asserting that if an abuser goes unreported, he or she will “keep on abusing” until caught.
Berkovits is currently developing a guide for preventing child sexual abuse in synagogues. She suggested a webiste, dl2.org (Darkness To Light), for further information on countering sexual abuse.