Before 2005, I knew little about child sexual abuse. That year, I was approached by a friend, now 44, who was molested as a teenager by two prominent figures in the Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox Jewish community: a teacher in a respected yeshiva, and a renowned chasidic therapist.
When my friend reported the teacher’s abuse to the school’s dean, my friend and his family were intimidated into inaction. A communal taboo against reporting a Jew to the secular authorities meant calling the police was not an option.
My friend remained haunted by the fact that the teacher was still teaching and asked for help in getting him removed. (The therapist had fled to Israel in 1984, where he remains free.) As a businessman and sometime community activist, I had the financial independence and enough knowledge of the workings of my community to try to help. With a few other committed activists, I did just that. It was, to say the least, an informative process.
I approached rabbis and Jewish communal leaders nationwide for help. None was willing to get involved, even those who privately acknowledged they knew of these allegations for decades, and believed them to be true. My friends and I took matters into our own hands and in May 2006, after six months of intense efforts that included the filing of two federal lawsuits by victims (four more followed) and a major New York magazine feature on the case, the yeshiva was forced by its lawyers to place the teacher on “leave of absence.”
During this process, talking to others, I learned details of cover-ups that had protected these men who had, it turns out, molested dozens of others but were never reported to the authorities, let alone removed from their positions, despite repeated complaints against them. I also learned that these were only two among hundreds of molesters preying on children in ultra-Orthodox communities worldwide.
The stories I heard were devastating: boys raped in mikvehs; students coerced into empty yeshiva classrooms and fondled or forced to engage in sex acts by their teachers; campers enduring nighttime “visits” by staff; boys molested by bar mitzvah tutors and cantors; children violated by a parent, sibling, uncle or Shabbat guest who charmed the rest of the family while subjecting the child to a private hell. And in most cases where a victim spoke out — not even to police, but to a trusted rabbi or leader — he or she was met with the full force of a communal machinery bent on silencing the accuser and protecting the perpetrator and the community's reputation.
I concluded that the only way to deal with this was to take allegations directly to the authorities. In 2008, I co-founded an organization to empower Orthodox victims to report these crimes to the police. Slowly, we are making progress. Not surprisingly, we are also encountering strong resistance.
Agudath Israel of America, a national ultra-Orthodox lobbying organization, recently reasserted its policy — at a law conference it sponsored in New York for which attendees were granted Continuing Legal Education credits — that allegations of abuse must be reported first to rabbis, and only to the civil authorities if and after a dispensation is granted. That this in many cases violates New York State’s mandatory reporting statute has not been addressed by Agudath Israel, nor by the Brooklyn District Attorney, Charles Hynes, who has a history of going “easy” on Orthodox sex criminals. Given that the Brooklyn Orthodox community members tend to vote in blocs, it is clear why Hynes might prefer to remain silent. Indeed, Agudath Israel’s vice president, David Zwiebel, has openly cautioned the DA not to “be seen as making a power grab from rabbinic authority.”
Hynes has taken heed. He employs an Orthodox Jewish “liaison” whose role is justified by an ostensible need for “cultural sensitivity.” But in practice, the liaison is said to pressure victims into not pressing charges. And when victims have done so anyway, the DA has often offered pleas that do not require jail time or even sex-offender registration. Those who have intimidated witnesses have not been charged.
We continue to deal with the fallout created by institutions like Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, a large national ultra-Orthodox social services agency that has, with its longstanding practice of treating unreported pedophiles, served as a bulwark between the community and law enforcement. In addition, the Boro Park Shomrim in Brooklyn, a volunteer patrol, reportedly maintains a list of child molesters it does not share with police.
Orthodox victims agonize over the lack of attention given this problem by mainstream media and government, particularly compared to the Catholic abuse scandal and, now, the situation at Penn State. While Jewish newspapers such as The Jewish Week, and blogs, have done hundreds of stories on this issue, the same cannot be said for the mainstream media. In five years The New York Times has published two stories; Orthodox Jewish children are being raped in the paper’s backyard but it appears that this is news not fit to print.
What happened at Penn State has hit us hard; respected figures behaved egregiously. But once the story broke, people were held accountable. This could not have happened without extensive mainstream media coverage.
Left to its own devices, the ultra-Orthodox leadership will continue covering up child molestation and harshly enforcing its version of “omerta.” In the name of “cultural sensitivity,” the Brooklyn DA will allow predators to devastate more lives.
While we work to empower Orthodox children and families, we also need the national media to shine a brighter light on this problem, and we need state legislatures, attorneys general and the federal government to strengthen and enforce the laws designed to protect our most vulnerable. We need clear and unambiguous laws nationwide mandating every adult, without exception, to report all suspicions of child abuse directly to the authorities. As importantly, we need enforcement of these laws, absent which there will be no accountability.
As President Obama said in response to the Penn State scandal, “when kids are mistreated, all us have to step up; we don’t leave it to someone else to take responsibility.”
It is high time we all stepped up.
Ben Hirsch is a co-founder and president of Survivors for Justice, an organization that advocates and educates on issues related to sexual abuse and child safety (www.sfjny.org).