Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community

    April Passover 2005 Edition            
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Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community


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Trust and Repentance

By Carrie Devorah © 2005

Jewish Women International Magazine published an excerpt from David Berger’s last letter written, 1941, before he was murdered by the Nazis. It stands to consider that David, like many other victims of Nazi degradation, was stripped of his sexual identity, head shaved, dressed in shapeless clothing, then dehumanized with verbal, physical and sexual abuse. When dead, Nazis left their victims, forgotten. David was committed to living eternally. He wrote, “I should like someone to remember that there once lived a person named David Berger.”

Victims of other abuses wish to be seen and heard, while still living. Some speak up. Social pressure and religious beliefs step in the way of their allegations being paid credence, so the abuse continues, a tradition, so to speak, passed down within families, even Jewish families, along with recipes for Passover’s French toast, gefilte fish or chicken soup. Victims are reproached with, “he’s a Rabbi,” “you must be lying,” “God forbid people should find out,” “what would they think,” and “it is your fault, he/she wouldn’t have done it without you starting it.” Plausible, except sometimes victims are toddlers, or younger.

Abuse is no longer a Jewish myth. Trusted people- grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, rabbis, baby sitters, friends, and youth coordinators- are being reported as encouraging sexually inappropriate behaviours. The abused struggle to shed their shame. The abuser moves forward public in their life, their secret kept too often, allowing them to abuse again. Sometimes, the victim becomes an abuser themselves, even toddlers. On a recent airing of the TV show, “yes, dear,” a pre-schooler mooned his kindergarten classmates. He told the teacher, he watched his Dad mooned a picnic. So, he thought it was ok to moon his classmates. Mooning may be a mild example. What does one say when a toddler performs fellatio on classmates, that children live what they learn?

Cycling non-sectarian behaviours of violence, neglect, emotional and sexual abuse within the community, is a recipe for Jewish disaster. Crossing economic, ethnic and religious boundaries including Judaism-Orthodoxy, Reform, Conservative, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrachi, interfaith balabustahs and homemakers, “abuse” is now part of the contemporary Jewish vocabulary, with victimizations being reported from Jewish spouses, elderly parents and children.

There is a finger to be pointed but not at the victims often shunned after making public allegations.

Two such people holding molesters and communities that harbor them accountable are The Awareness Center’s Rabbi Yosef Blau and his colleague, Vicki Polin. Rabbi Blau is a member of the RCA, a graduate of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Polin, establishing a network of Jewish practitioners experienced with sexual victimization issues and Judaism, is familiar with special needs of Jewish sexual abuse survivors. She advocated empathetic support for victims prior to starting her own Center.

Rabbi Blau stood at the lectern, front of the Capitol Hilton meeting room, up the street from the White House in Washington, DC. Co-hosting a session with Polin, at the Jewish Women’s International Conference on Domestic Abuse, "Lost In The Shuffle: Jewish Survivors of Sexual Victimization,” Rabbi Blau focused his audience on the challenge the Center faces educating Jewish community leaders and others, lacking training, to recognize signs of abusive relationships and to understand victims’ needs of religious and physical healing.

Blau and Polin addressed victims’ spiritual struggle to maintain faith in traditional teachings, such as Sanhedrin’s “one who teaches another’s child torah, is regarded by the tradition as one who gave birth to the child,” in light of their abuser being an outwardly religious individual.

Rabbi Blau’s and Polin’s eclectic audience was filled with people wanting to make a difference. Men, women, old, young, North American, Middle Eastern, were “called to action” at Jewish Women International’s conference to pursue, within the framework of the Jewish Community, justice and righteousness from abuse. A representative from “Shalom Bayit,” a Northern California domestic abuse shelter for women and children was present.

“Shalom Bayit” advocates to victims they do not have to suffer alone, they are not to blame as often they are accused by congregants, family and community members. “Shalom Bayit,” “Peace In The House,” advocacy that no one deserves to be abused, recalls a hand drawn poster, probably long forgotten, victims need to reminded. A young boy is pictured. Under him the words, “God don’t make no junk...”

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Review Board requested New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice examine Catholic clergical abuse against under 18 year olds. The report investigated 10,667 abuse claims lodged against 4, 392 priests in 52 years. Some clergy reported they were abused as children. 50% plus of their victims were children aged 11 to 14 years old. 81% of their victims were male.

The surveyors were asked to profile alleged abusers characteristics. They studied diocese and church records of the accuser, the accused, and the lay leader. The surveyors concluded sexual abuse is under reported. And the surveyors requested corresponding data from Muslim, Buddhist, Protestant, Jewish and other denominations and movements.

Non-denominational statistics that bear heeding are; 95% of the abusers are men; one of every three to five women, one of every five to seven men have been sexually abused by their 18th birthday; 2.78 million men have been victim to attempted or completed rape; one out of every eight reported rape victims was male. By the time they are high schoolers, 28% of students, have experienced abuse. 48% of the abused are in grades 5 through 12.

Women teachers sexually molest children too; Seattle teacher Mary Kay Letourneau, married mother of four, Florida teacher Debra LaFave, 23; Oklahoma basketball coach Elisa Nielson, 29; Tennessee physical-education teacher Pamela Turner, 27; and California teacher trainee Margaret De Barraicua, 30. Each of the four was charged with sexual assault of a male student aged between 12 and 16. A Jewish statistic- 20 to 30% of Jewish families in Israel and the United States suffer domestic violence

Victimization practitioners are encouraging women to come forward and get help. Often, victims are unaware they are being abused. They think the behaviour is ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable,’ a sign the abuser ‘likes them,’ rather than danger signals. Industry practitioners release information outlining abusive behaviours.

Signs of abusive behaviour include “approval withheld as punishment, locked into or out of the house, held against ones will or pushed around, punched, shoved, slapped bit, kicked, burned, choked or hit, personal items destroyed, abandoned in strange places, ridiculed or insulted, abandoned in strange locations, harassed about fictitious affairs, publicly or privately humiliated, criticized, or shamed with names called, isolating victim from family and friends, makes them feel bad, demands to know whereabouts, does not want victim to share time with others, threatens to hurt or kill sell if victim leaves,”

Rabbi Blau said, the Jewish commandment against “lashon harah,” gossiping, in the matter of suspected abuse, is waived, overridden by the teaching of Lev. 19:16, “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Abusers must be reported. It is a “hilul hashem,” a moral desecration, of God’s name and of the Ten Commandments, for a Jewish individual not to report suspicions of abuse.

Abuse is a matter the “law of the land,” “dina demalkhuta dina,” can adjudicate in secular courts and must pursue. Enforcement has raised its own concerns for responding to claims of abuse within Jewish communities. Officers have reported being charged with anti-semitism in the course of their doing their job, responding to a citizen’s call for help.

As Rabbi Blau waited for his ride to the airport, I told him, a few blocks away in Lafayette Park, there stands a monument titled “Military Instruction.” A sculpted older man is seated, a naked young man at his side. Then I pointed kitty corner to the hotel, a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic. September 4, 2004, I told him, a pregnant twelve year old was escorted by her mother past right-to-life advocates. Blocks away from the hotel, on Constitution Avenue, I described a display at the National Gallery of Art.

Mythological statues. Mercury, in all his glory, stood above a crowd of NE DC junior high schoolers. Down the corridor, on a marble pedestal, stood Bauccus, with a pan, half-boy, half goat. The pan’s eye is level with Bauccus’ erection. I noticed that in the photo I took of the junior high schooler’s walking by, giggling. In a media week, when ober-icon Michael Jackson was accused of feeding Jesus-Juice in a can to a kid alleging sexual abuse, it was no wonder, some kids grabbed their crotches emulating the one-glove wonder’s Moon Walk as they passed by. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Rabbi Blau shook his head. In a world of mixed signals children are expected to sort better than adults can, distinctions between good touch bad touch, appropriate behaviour versus inappropriate, being told not to talk to strangers but answer the “nice man” talking to grandma since “convicted sex offender” isn’t stamped on his forehead, get lost.

The night before, details of the confirmed murder of 9 year old Jessica Lunsford, by a man who lived across their street, were being released. I told the Rabbi, one interview from the Couey killing stands out as textbook to facilitating citizen’s understanding why abusers remain at large until a murder trips them up. A restaurant owner in Jessica’s town told reporters he employed Couey, until he fired him.

The restaurant owner aware of Couey’s colorful background, felt badly for “the loser.” So, he hired him, firing the 30’ old only after Couey wrote a love letter to a 14 year old co-worker. No one complained to authorities about the incident. Until, Jessica was kidnapped, raped and sexually abused over days, before being murdered. Her community failed her. Not just the community in which she died but the global community in which other children still live.

Heading towards the Metro, I leafed through the Jewish newspaper in my hands, filled with holiday activities for children, puppet making, noisemaker activities followed by megillah readings for kids. Growing up I heard about a rabbi, sent packing, for abusing bochers at a Yeshiva, north of our house. Eventually, news filtered north the rabbi had been accused of molesting bochers at the American yeshiva that sent him north. His resume listed many attributes Sexual offender and deviant were not amongst them. Nor did it contain those warning when he was sent packing, again.

I looked inside the information packet for conference attendees. Amongst letters from various Democratic Congressmen was Gary Ackerman’s. He wrote “If we are serious about tikkun olam, repairing the world, we need to begin in the home, the place where our values are most strongly rooted,” “one home at a time.”

As I walked, I wondered if parents would ever take as much time to vett their children’s caretakers- teachers, babysitters, friends parents, the kids friends themselves, families they marry into- as they take in selecting holiday outfits they wear. An ad caught my attention. A Rabbi offering Jews “may the Lord bless and protect you,” if they prayed in the language of their forefathers.

I thought about the young girl attacked by three classmates in the basement bathroom of her yeshiva. An older boy came to her rescue. Her parents refused to take action, after all, it had to be her fault. I stepped off the curb, asking myself who protects victims from those who prey in the language of their forefathers. Trust must be earned; granting of tikkun, repentance, sought by some abusers, remains in control of the abused….

BIO: Carrie Devorah is a DC based investigative photojournalist. Trained as a PI, mediator, crime analyst and profiler, she writes on themes related to faith, homeland security and terrorism. I dedicate this piece to the memory of Yechezkel Chezi Scotty Goldberg, He will never be replaced.


from the April Passover 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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