Early on in the deeply affecting new novel “Hush,” (Walker Books) the book’s narrator, a chasidic young woman named Gittel, finds herself sitting across from a social worker in the 66th Precinct in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Urged on by her only non-Jewish friend, a neighbor named Kathy, Gittel is there to give information about an act of sexual abuse she witnessed as a child — the rape of her best friend by the friend’s brother.
While Kathy has assured Gittel that God wants her to speak up and tell the truth after all these years, Gittel is plagued by doubt and guilt. “But Hashem did not want me to go. He had stated clearly in the Torah that it was a violation of the divine, a transgression of the commandments, to speak evil of other Jews. I was only here because of that, despite him.”
Gittel was unable to tell even her own parents of her plans to go to the police; they, too, had long known about the abuse, but they had chosen to keep silent. “I did not want to hurt them, to break them down, because it wasn’t their fault, only Hashem’s, how He allowed children to suffer.”
Indeed, Gittel’s parents — and most of the other adults in the book — are portrayed as warm and loving, people who genuinely try to do what they feel is right for their children. But they are so steeped in denial and the fear of giving the community a bad name or not securing a good shidduch [match] that they ultimately fail their children in the most fundamental and devastating ways.
The book’s author — a chasidic woman writing under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil (“Woman of Valor”) — told The Jewish Week that “after many suicides and hundreds in the streets, on drugs, in therapy, there is definitely more awareness [of the sexual abuse issue].” But she also cautions that “there is still so much ignorance” in the Orthodox community. “And as I know firsthand,” she said, “practical advice for parents is sorely lacking.”
It is, in part, this ignorance and lack of practical advice for parents that is being addressed by three new nonfiction books on the topic: “Breaking the Silence: Sexual Abuse and the Jewish Community”(Ktav) edited by David Mandel, the CEO of Ohel Family and Children’s Services, and David Pelcovitz, who teaches psychology and education at Yeshiva University; “Child Abuse and Domestic Abuse, Volume I and II,” edited and self-published by Daniel Eidensohn, a haredi rabbi and author who writes a blog on issues of Jewish identity; and “Abuse: The Communal and Religious Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims” (Urim Publishing, Jerusalem) by Michael J. Salamon, a prominent psychologist in the Orthodox world.
Almost as if timed to illustrate the familiar dictum that truth is stranger — and in this case, even more horrifying — than fiction, Rabbi Gershon Kranczer, who recently stepped down as the principal of Yeshiva Tehila L’Dovid, a Flatbush school for disabled children, and three of his sons were accused two weeks ago of sexually abusing four of Kranczer’s other children. While two of the four sons turned themselves in to police in Brooklyn, Rabbi Kranczer and his oldest son are believed to have fled to Israel.
The case is one of the most troubling of its kind, since it involves multiple generations and the alleged abuse spans more than 15 years. The latest in a long string of cases that have come to light in recent years, this one further demonstrates the depth of the problem, which the new rash of books is facing head-on.
“Breaking the Silence,” which came out in October, contains chapters by contributors — many of them affiliated with Ohel — on a range of issues. They include: the psychological impact of abuse, strategies for abuse prevention, and halachic and legal perspectives on the handling of abuse. In an interview with the Jewish Week, Mandel explained that the outline for the book was written eight years ago, but “the intensive work” on it started about two and a half years ago, right around the time this issue really began to gather steam in the Orthodox world. As recently as five years ago the subject was still largely taboo.
Pelcovitz believes, however, that things are changing.
“Even in the most insular communities, there’s some signs of the loosening of the knee-jerk kind of denial or failure to act that may be coming from fear rather than really getting it. I’m finding when the dialogue really gets going, there seems to be a genuine willingness to try to act, to try to get therapy for the victims, to try to do more than they have in the past in terms of the perpetrators, so we’re hoping.”
The issue of what to do with perpetrators has in fact been the focus of much of the recent public discussion about sexual abuse in the strictly Orthodox world. It is a world where, until recently, reporting abuse to law enforcement was almost unheard of and abuse cases, if disclosed at all, were handled “internally,” often with disastrous consequences.
While a chapter in Mandel’s book by Rabbi Mark Dratch, who founded and runs JSafe: The Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse-Free Environment, advocates reporting abuse to the police, Mandel said that there are situations when someone is known to be an offender but cannot be dealt with by law enforcement.
That could be because of an expired statute of limitations or other circumstances on which he did not elaborate, and in such cases, Mandel advocates the implementation of a community “safety plan,” whereby the offender is “monitored” within the community and prevented from being in places or engaging in activities where children are present.
This is an approach that some critics find naïve at best, and particularly troubling coming from the CEO of Ohel. The organization has a history of treating known molesters who have not been through the criminal justice system but are instead pressured into treatment by rabbis under the threat of being reported. In a number of cases — one of which involved a man named Stefan Colmer, about which The Jewish Week wrote extensively — such people either dropped out or were discharged from treatment and then went on to molest again.
Referring to a widely circulated YouTube video of a 2008 talk given by Mandel in Baltimore, blogger Shmarya Rosenberg, who covers this issue for his blog, FailedMessiah.com, notes that “in the past, Mandel publicly told haredi community members to use their rabbis as sounding boards before reporting abuse to police or child protective services and, to my knowledge, he has never retracted that statement or apologized for it. That means the very people who have for years covered up for abusers get to decide whether a particular case can be reported to police or not.”
In the Jewish Week interview, both Mandel and Pelcovitz advocated compliance with mandatory reporting laws.
The issue of reporting is also a central focus of Eidensohn’s work, which covers similar ground as Mandel and Pelcovitz’s collection but from a decidedly more haredi perspective. Eidensohn claims his book “was written to understand the [halachic] parameters of when and if the police or psychologists should be involved and when and if rabbis should be involved.
“Instead of finding that there were narrow specific circumstances that permitted [reporting to police], it became clear that the wrong framework was being utilized,” Eidensohn told The Jewish Week. “Instead of focusing on the judicial model of the rules of evidence and the threshold of seriousness to overcome the prohibition of informing, the important issue in halacha is whether there is danger to the child. This is the concept of rodef. Rodef is an extrajudicial concept.
“Similarly, the Torah obligation of ‘Not standing idly by the blood of your fellow man’ requires action which is not necessarily requiring consulting with rabbinic authority,” Eidensohn continued.
The book at times uses explicit language, which, Eidensohn claims, cost him an early supporter [Eidensohn wouldn’t name him] and forced him to distribute his book online, as various distributors informed him “that this topic, and especially the language, was not appropriate to a Jewish bookstore.”
The language was important, however, according to Eidenshon, because “it is impossible to adequately explain how to protect children without explaining what the danger is. Euphemisms are appropriate when the reality is known but someone wants to allude to it rather then use lurid details.”
Salamon’s book, which he said is due out in March, draws on his own experience as a clinician and examples from the broader Orthodox world. He explores how long-held Orthodox cultural practices and communal taboos — at one time vital to safeguarding the community against real, external threats — are now, in a different social and historical context, serving to undermine the safety of its children.
Salamon outlines the ways in which Jewish law can and has been distorted to serve the interests of the powerful and intimidate those who have been victimized into silence. In addition, he explores various practical issues related to the identification and treatment of sexual abuse within a religious context; these include conflicts that can arise for Orthodox mental health practitioners and/or patients, the proper role of rabbis in this issue and the general difficulty in obtaining reliable data about sexual abuse in insular communities.
“After years of sweeping this terrible scourge of abuse under the rug, finally, and perhaps as a result of the admission by the Catholic Church that it too has a problem, the Jewish community is beginning to admit the problem exists here as well,” Salamon told The Jewish Week.
“These new texts,” Salamon continued, “are but a tentative first step in this process of exploring the issue of abuse and understanding its deep impact, not just on the individual who is abused but the community as a whole. We need to take a long hard look at what can realistically be done to protect our children and ourselves and implement the correct programs.”
Other observers agree.
“The publication of the various books about sexual abuse in the Orthodox community marks an end to the era of taboo and denial,” said Asher Lipner, a psychologist in the Orthodox community. “The community has now been warned that there is a life-threatening epidemic that is destroying our children. The question remains as to what we are going to do about it.”
Sadly, this may be easier said than done, at least in Eishes Chayil’s corner of the Orthodox world.
“I am apprehensive of books that attempt to capitalize on the supposed dirty secrets of the frum community,” a chasidic woman, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being identified as having spoken to a “secular” newspaper, told The Jewish Week.
“Child abuse is not a phenomenon that is unique to our community, yet every time you open a newspaper or radio, there it is — another rabbi, another teacher, being accused of child molestation. It’s not that I believe that it doesn’t happen here, because surely it does, but we don’t need any more exposure than we are already getting. This book was not written by someone who cares about our values and either maliciously or not, wanted to bring harm to our community.”
Others may agree. A call to Eichler’s, a leading Jewish bookstore in Borough Park, revealed that it is not, at this point, carrying “Hush.”
Eishes Chayil, whose novel is apparently the first that deals with the problem of abuse from the point of view of fiction, isn’t convinced much will change in her community.
“An honest discussion,” she told The Jewish Week, “would entail an honest accounting, which put the blame squarely on the rabbonim [rabbis] of the community who for years have ignored, denied and obstructed this issue. This will never happen. It would tear the fabrics of what has made this a community. When the first article mentioning molestation was published [in a frum magazine], it almost immediately praised the rabbonim for their handling of the issue before discussing anything else. The irony was too much to bear.
“Yet, I think that, though it seems impossible, it is really simpler than many think to show parents how to teach their children [about how to be safe].”
And speaking as an insider who knows firsthand the gap between the ideal vision of the haredi world and its reality, at least when it comes to the issue of sexual abuse, she says pointedly, “The community could use the words necessary for a crucial discussion and still remain innocent enough to maintain the ancient tradition of complete ignorance and perceived superiority.”