Being a former resident of Passaic, New Jersey myself (and a former intern in the Jewish Family Services there), I was very impressed to read a recent article in New York’s Jewish Week that described our former hometown as a leader in the very difficult struggle against the phenomenon of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community. Not only was my former town of residence involved, but my esteemed Rav, Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman shlit”a of Congregation Ahavas Israel, was essentially the leading rabbinic voice in this movement!
I work for an important organization in Israel called Shalom Banayich, whose raison d’etre is to raise consciousness about this issue in the religious community, to garner rabbinic support for this effort, to counsel the victims of sexual abuse, and, working in partnership with law enforcement and the courts, to facilitate therapeutic groups for religious sexual predators under the rubric of clinical criminology. Naturally, the goings on in Jewish communities worldwide with regard to this topic are important to me, but seeing that Passaic was now “on the map” as it were in dealing with sexual abuse, gave me a sense of real pride.
I am very fortunate to know Marc Stern, who is currently the acting co-director of the American Jewish Congress, a lawyer with an impressive career, a musmach of Yeshiva University, and a longtime resident of Passaic. I contacted him as soon as I saw the Jewish Week article to get his perspective on the events in Passaic. Mr. Stern has very generously given his time and consideration to my queries, as follows:
1. If Passaic can be upheld as a successful model of a Jewish community that is confronting the issue of sexual abuse, what are the elements that contribute to this success? Do these elements exist in other communities and/or can they be replicated elsewhere?
There are a number of elements which explain the ‘happy’ situation of Passiac—some “luck,” some not.
(a) Although there has been a day school here for 60 years, most of the growth in the community took place within the last 20 years, at a time when taboos against discussing child abuse were on the wane, and people no longer dismissed such charges as children’s fantasies.
(b) Fortunately, the older day school appears not to have had any (known) instances of child abuse, and certainly not by a long-term teacher who had substantial supporters as well as detractors. We thus avoided the contentious issues of redressing the past (or, at least, what is claimed to have happened in the past) which have plagued other communities.
(c) We have been blessed with rabbonim who ware united in their determination to protect children, and not to let “slogan-type” p’sak (no autopsies, no mesirah) to interfere with rational actions necessary to protect children, all well within the bounds of halakha.
On this issue, at least, rabbonim from all ideological corners of the Passaic-Clifton Orthodox community have worked together, thus eliminating the common, if unacceptable, practice of one shul offering alleged offenders refuge. (The same can be said of husbands who abuse wives.)
(d) Our Jewish Family Services is run by a frum woman who works with local rabbonim, and offers a variety of “frum-friendly” services, including serious informational programs for rabbonim and the community which have alerted people how to identify and respond to abuse.
(e) As a whole, the community does not have an adversarial relationship with relevant government authorities. (This is mostly because the state child protection agency has improved in many ways over the last two decades.) As a result, there is greater confidence in these agencies, which are no longer broadly regarded as hostile to religious observance. People are less afraid to report crimes, real or suspected, to these agencies.
(f) Almost twenty years ago, when dealing with the sudden death of a child, I was told by a community “activist” child abuse does not happen in frum communities. No one here believes that anymore, although there are still segments of the Orthodox community elsewhere that appear to do so.
(g) The so-called activists play a role in keeping the issue alive, and ensuring sympathy for victims. At the same time, our rabbonim—who share the activist determination to protect children—have taken an active role in dealing with these issues as they arise, such that there is not a leadership vacuum leading to extreme and unsustainable over-reactions.
2. With regard to the prevention and eradication of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, where does systemic change have to occur–in the Jewish community or in the context of the broader legal framework in which the community finds itself?
I think much of the American Orthodox community has taken important steps to deal intelligently with child abuse. I doubt we can ever fully eliminate it, but we can—and have—in many places taken steps to ensure that systematic abuse does not go long undetected. There are still segments of the community in deep denial, in large part because they view the Orthodox community as immune from the evils and temptations of the secular world, and believe, usually counter factually, that the non-frum world is on a search and destroy mission aimed at Orthodoxy.
From what I can see, programs serving children are now careful to guard against abuse—whether by screening staff, instructing them about abuse, ensuring that children are not alone with staff, etc. Passaic offers a wide series of lectures for parents, and, I think, people know to whom they can turn for advice.
None of these measures is cost free. That a rebbe or morah cannot put an arm around a child, or pull a child into a private room for a quick chat, is a cost worth paying, but a cost nonetheless.
There are still open questions, about which I am not competent to express an opinion: should schools offer students formal programs about abuse? Is there a point at which an emphasis on protecting children causes children and parents to be paranoid about innocent actions? What level of suspicion is needed before a report is made to the authorities? Are there treatment programs that work, and which ones? Are programs offered under Jewish auspices as good as they possibly can be?
I think it fair to say that overall, in Passaic-Clifton we have struck a good balance between protecting children and avoiding hysteria and vigilantism.
Another open question is the extent to which recourse to a beit din is a prerequisite to a report to the authorities. We have not formally insisted on such recourse here (and my posek has not insisted on it). Other communities and poskim do insist on it, but in my view this is legally questionable, since the Beit Din has no legal standing. Other communities have programs involving psychologists and batei din. We have not found this necessary yet, but it clearly would be best to have available mental health professionals specially trained in detecting and treating victims of abuse.
A problem that needs community-wide discussion is how to ensure that children victimized by abuse—and who report it—are not victimized a second time when it comes to shidduchim. Part of the answer no doubt lies in providing adequate (as much as possible) treatment, so that victims do not carry their pain into their marriages and relations with their own children. We also have no answer—and perhaps there is none—how to deal with offenders who have satisfied any criminal sanction imposed on them. Should we allow them in synagogue?
3. Does the American legal system handle the issue effectively, from your perspective?
By-and-large, I think the legal system is handling these cases reasonably well. Child abuses cases are typically not easy to prove, as children are typically not molested in front of witnesses. There are palpable improvements in the system’s preparedness to handle these cases with dedicated prosecutorial and investigative units, and enhanced sentencing rules. New crimes have been created (possession of child pornography) and civil confinement laws (as well as laws publicly disclosing the names of serious offenders) which improve the state’s ability to combat child abuse.
This system isn’t perfect—resources are a continuing problem, the flood of all criminal cases presses for speedy resolution of cases, and distinguishing between offenders likely to re-offend and those who are not remains a problem—but overall, it does work pretty well.
There are also debates about how far back civil justice should reach, but these, too, are complicated. Should cases in which the statute of limitations long ago ran out be reopened?
4. How do you understand reluctance on the part of Jewish communal leaders, either lay or rabbinic, to involve themselves in a public manner in the struggle against sexual abuse?
First, I think the reluctance to speak out against sexual abuse is receding, and receding rapidly. This may just be a generational issue. Second, in a sex-drenched society, Orthodox leaders are—rightly or wrongly—reluctant to publicly discuss anything to do with sex. This is a mistake, one now being corrected in some places, but reinforced in others (see, e.g., the letters page in Yated).
Third, I think there was a feeling that rabbis and teachers were vulnerable to false accusations. This is less of a worry now, or one eclipsed by concern for children. And fourth, and most significantly, the ‘it can’t happen here’ attitude combined with the feeling that ‘they are out to get us’ are probably the most serious lingering problems of all, and lead to a circle the wagon mentality.