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Sex Abuse


A recent book Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities and Child Sex Scandals (Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, & Life), contains essays from a wide range of professional and rabbinical contributors. They highlight the issues and the tendency of parts of the Jewish world, in common with so many other “enclavist” religious communities, to try to hide or ignore serious human failure and avoid facing reality. I am pleased I was asked to write a preface. The current situation is a betrayal of essential religious and ethical values. In practice self-interest and self-preservation seems to trump God every time.

Some communal figures have tried at various times, on both sides of the Atlantic and in Israel, to come to grips with these issues. But invariably they too are pressurized and undermined. New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind, was so disturbed by the evidence presented to him of abuse that he entered the fray to name and shame. He described the pressure exerted on him from Charedi sources as a “learning experience”. The Charedi world is very good at exercising pressure and getting round the law of the land. In a different recent scandal, a Charedi prisoner was given highly preferential treatment because of the powerful influence of a top Satmarer fixer whose reach extended to the prison governor.

In a recent case in the USA, a Charedi teacher was sued for sexual abuse of minors. The victim and his family, as usual, were pressured to drop charges instead of being supported. The teacher himself continues to function openly and all efforts are being directed to get the case dropped instead of prosecuted! Over the years ultra-Orthodoxy and obstructionism have been virtually synonymous. Why?

Orthodox defendants always claim they are being hounded because they are different. They argue that social services and legal authorities do not fully understand the inner workings and sensitivities of different communities. And often they are right. I have heard similar complaints from Muslims in North London, blacks in South London, Sikhs in West London, and Africans in the East End. But the culture of victimization, whether used by Jews or blacks or Muslims, invariably leads to cover-ups which perpetuate even greater suffering and evil.

And doctrinaire attitudes on the part of Democratic or Left Wing agencies do not help. Legislation is proposed in New York by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey to change the laws regarding child sexual abuse in private schools to allow for a longer time frame to prosecute. The religious lobbies, Catholic and Charedi contend that Markey’s bill would allow the filing of suits against religious schools based on alleged abuse that may have taken place decades before and might be too difficult to defend and similar legislation is not being proposed for state schools. Why? The answer of course is the power of the Teachers Unions who dogmatically oppose religious education. This clearly looks like victimization against religion, and as a result the bill is being blocked. Actually, the latest is that petty, corrupt wrangling between NY State politicians has frozen all legislation for another year at least! So let us not only blame religion!

In recent weeks two more awful cases of sexual abuse have emerged. Both of them concern ultra-Orthodox men, apparently respected in the community. One was sentenced to 30 years for sexually abusing his daughter. Particularly poignant was the fact that other daughters sided with the perpetrator–a typical indication of how people living in closed communities too often rally round to defend the wrong side of the case. In another scandal, a Jewish social services network specifically set up to deal with such problems simply did not do its job and allowed a pedophile to continue on his path of destruction until secular authorities finally stepped in. The culture of self-protection is perpetuated. And it is not just over this issue.

A recent piece in The Forward paper asked for responses from Jews of different denominations a year after the notorious Rubashkin scandal in Postville, where the Orthodox owners had been abusing not only kosher practice but also civil law. The Charedi respondent focussed on the unfair prosecution and the victimization of the Rubashkins. The others were more concerned with ethical issues, immigration abuse, improper employment and management, and other examples that have besmirched Orthodoxy, in other words chillul HaShem, desecrating the good name of Heaven and Israel. Once again the self-protective mechanisms lock into place and other issues are sidelined.

There are at last signs that the Charedi community is waking up to how much damage it is doing to itself by defending the indefensible and by not coming out with unambiguous condemnation. In Israel the courts have intervened both to prosecute and extradite sexual abusers. But sadly, none of this will amount to anything as long as a mindset continues to exist within much of the Charedi community that rubbishes anything that come from outside it, encourages evasion and deception in dealing with governmental agencies, and victimizes those who speak out (like beating them up on the streets of Stamford Hill). And indeed until pork barrel politics stops exchanging favors for votes. Until these issues are addressed, more and more human souls will be damaged and the perpetrators protected by those who ought to be dealing with them.

So much in life is about perception. Even if some Orthodox objection to aspects of bills might be understandable, the public perception once again is that the God Squad rallies round to protect itself, even at the expense of its own victims. This cannot do religion any good at all. It is just the same with issues such as the Aguna or Divorce Law. All Orthodoxy is seen as doing is obstructing. It needs rather to be shouting from the rooftops that the situation is intolerable and its religious leaders will not stand for it.

It is indeed a matter of PR. You see it in Israel’s public response, too. Instead of saying, “Yes we absolutely want and are committed to peace”, and then raise valid qualifications, they consistently say things like, “No peace until…” Just as rabbis like to say, “No you can’t, it’s forbidden”, and then find themselves having to qualify or clarify. Imagine if every lover started off a profession of love with, “These are things that are wrong with you, but and nevertheless, I love you!!!”

The hopeful side is that the more publicity, the more books and documentation that expose the problem, the more the chances of change, however slowly the wheels turn.

16 thoughts on “Sex Abuse

  1. Another intellectually refreshing and morally stimulating column, Jeremy. You are truly a radical moderate. Also like the new format and the hyperlinks. Shabbat shalom. Robert

  2. Your blog is even more attractive to read though this week's subject is disgusting: did you hear how Haredi supporters of "Rabbi" Elior Chen – who fled charges of child molestation of an unusually vile nature – organised a poster campaign vilifying his detractors? They explained this by stating that nothing emanating from the detested state of Israel could possibly be true.

  3. Never mind the Charedi community – the wider community often has it's head in the sands too.

    A few years ago our Jewish school was setting up a parents security rota. When I suggested they needed to have everyone police checked I was shouted down and told – there was no need, it was just parents, everyone knew everyone, these things don't happen in our community etc.

    Wrong. I work in social work, I know what goes on and that it goes on in our community and I knew there was a parent that I didn't want being held up as a responsible adult to my children. It took a lot of arguing and the dropping of some fairly unsubtle hints until they finally got it.

    At least now there is legislation governing those working & volunteering with children and vulnerable adults, which even if it isn't perfect, goes some way towards weeding out those who are a danger. Back to what Jeremy is saying, the problem in the Charedi community is if nothing is ever reported, there is nothing to be picked up in a police check. Also the Charedim seem to think these 'pesky' laws don't apply to them and don't see why they need to carry out the appropriate checks when running activities/schools/youth groups etc.

  4. Yes, of course it is a problem everywhere. It only 'hurts' more when you find communities, supposedly religious and therefore supposedly more concerned with ethics and God-like behavior, to find them not only ignoring but positively covering up, precisely because the investigation comes from the outside.

    But I applaud your efforts to prevent it being pushed under the carpet in your community. We need more like you…everywhere

  5. According to the blogosphere, the Charedi world doesn't include the word 'sexual' in its vocabulary (or apparently the word 'breast') which makes clear conversation more difficult. They are not the only ones with a vocabulary problem though. The JC is said to have taken 20 years longer than any other paper to print the word "lesbian", presumably because it wasn't thought to be relevant – same thinking as Queen Victoria but over 100 years on. Every 'white' wedding conducted by a rabbi endorses the idea that faking it for religion is OK.

    The current JFS case is based on the premise of what constitutes a halachically Jewish Jew. What does that mean? That at no time have there ever been any affairs or rape and that all children ever brought up as Jews have always been halachically certifiably Jewish so long as the rabbis say so? It's total rubbish but nobody says so. The myth and the silence are both an embarrassment. Before focussing on the ultra-orthodox, all Jews should take a look at how they talk about ordinary, common sexual behaviour because if there is no way to describe that, how is it ever to be possible to discuss what is aberrant?

    I'm not sure that introducing relativism helps. Something is not more wrong or more harmful for being done by people professing moral or spiritual superiority just as a single occassion is not less bad than twenty of the same. Wrong is wrong.


  6. If only the JFS brouhaha was about definitions of a Jew. It is not even about the definition of a halachic Jew. It is about petty intercommunal bickering and one-upmanship. More of this next week!

  7. But if you had to explain the JFS saga down the pub, you'd not get far if you began with the problem of the mother's conversion not being accepted or the added extra of her marrying a Cohen. The main issue is the 'who is a Jew question' otherwise the rest (the JFS 'we're not racist' and the Crt of Appeal 'yes you are under the Race Relations Act') wouldn't have arisen.


  8. How do we persuade the Charedim that they are not a world within a world where they can behave exactly as they please? They cannot be permitted to commit incest, to lie or to cheat and then be supported by their own kind in order to get away with what they do.

    The Israeli government must not take them into account when making peace agreements. They do not want to be part of Israel until the Messiah comes – why then do they have a vote? Personally, I wouldn't bend over either backwards or forwards for them.

  9. I am sorry to have to say that there is little chance of persuading Charedim, or any fundamentalist, of a different point of view simply by arguing. In the end self-interest is the only persuader and we have to find ways of getting through to them that they will either suffer by ignoring the problem and/or benefit by trying to solve it.

  10. Since they're signed up to religion more than most, I'd imagine that matching them in observing the more practical aspects might be a start before pointing out their failings. Neither the state nor the liberal, non-orthodox Jewish community is as proportionally good at community care as the ultra-orthodox. Some recognition of the good that they do wouldn't go amiss. If there's no recognition and scarce much help then pointing out their errors is bound to be more difficult, if not a complete waste of time.


  11. Yes, that's absolutely true; any rebuke comes better after a compliment and indeed the amount of charity and good works in the Charedi community is legendary. But interestingly, the most impressive thing is that it's almost entirely done by women (the men who can just dispense cash). I have heard the most amazing compliments from social workers in London about how Stamford Hill rallies round.

  12. Judith – Yes, I did hear that about the Chen case. It's awful; just shows how many dangerous lunatics there are in the Charedi world. Sadly, all religions and small groups circle the wagons and fight against letting the light in. The only response is to keep on shining!
    Shabbat Shalom,

  13. Let's not dismiss "cash" too quickly. It is vitally important to poor, needy, or ailing people! And men must work day in and day out to generate that money, as well as to support their wives and daughters who are then free to do so many good works.

    From my perspective, each role is important, and I don't like anyone getting short shrift!

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    Thank you for everything you do!

    Gretchen Paules
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