Tag Archives: Orthodox Community

New Sexual Abuse Prevention Guide from YU

The Yeshiva University-School Partnership has sent out an excellent guide to the prevention of sexual abuse.  It is a PowerPoint presentation that can be accessed by clicking here.  I will also list the presentation in the Resources section of the website.

May we remain vigilant and committed to the eradication of this devastating phenomenon.

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Q&A with Raffi Bilek from Project S.A.R.A.H.: Fighting the Good Fight Against Domestic Violence in the Jewish Community

Raffi Bilek is the Outreach Coordinator for Project S.A.R.A.H., an organization based in New Jersey, and dedicated to ending domestic abuse, specifically within the Jewish community, where, although we would all like to believe it doesn’t exists, it does.  Raffi has therefore taken on a critical role, one that requires broad shoulders.  A graduate of Brown and Yeshiva Universities, as well as Machon Shlomo and Yeshiva Atlanta, Raffi has been a practicing therapist in Israel and the United States, and currently resides in Passaic, New Jersey.  Raffi has been generous with his time in answering my questions about the “slings and arrows” as well as the successes he has experienced in his work:

Please describe Project S.A.R.A.H. in terms of its mission and purpose, constituent base and area of operation, variety of services offered.

Project S.A.R.A.H. (Stop Abusive Relationships At Home) was created 15 years ago specifically to serve the needs of victims of domestic violence in the Orthodox community. We are a statewide program and field calls from all parts of New Jersey, although most of our clients come from North Jersey, which is where we are located. While we serve the entire Jewish community, and, really, anyone who walks through our doors, our target population is the Orthodox community, which has a specific set of needs and cultural/religious barriers to accessing other general services. In the past few years we have expanded into the area of sexual abuse as well and have begun serving clients who have been victimized in this way, as well as offering educational prevention programs to parents and schools.

Among the services we offer are the following: direct counseling, including free individual counseling for victims, art therapy and play therapy for children, a women’s group and a men’s group; a hotline, in conjunction with New York’s Shalom Task Force; Kosher Kits for local shelters (which contain enough kosher food for a woman and three children for 24 hours); and education to a wide range of groups, including law enforcement, physicians, rabbis, mikveh attendants, school administration, parents, and students.

Our mission is that no Jewish victim of domestic violence or sexual abuse should remain a victim because s/he is unaware of the resources available to him/her.

What is your role at Project S.A.R.A.H.?

I am the outreach coordinator. I was brought on by a federal grant to expand the services of Project S.A.R.A.H. Thus, I coordinate and deliver many of the trainings and other initiatives that we do, maintain contacts with rabbis across the state, seek further relationship-building opportunities, and dabble in social media.

How well-integrated is the organization within the community?

Project S.A.R.A.H., as part of the local Jewish Family Service, is an accepted and supported cause in the Clifton-Passaic community and much of North Jersey. The Clifton-Passaic community runs a yearly community appeal that brings in a lot of support from local residents; we also have an annual breakfast in Bergen County that was particularly well-attended this year. The Frisch High School in Paramus adopts us from time to time as a designated charity for the students’ charity competition – the students have in the past raised upwards of $10,000 on our behalf!

Many people have heard of us and know what we’re about, though it’s not everyone – it still is a sensitive topic and not something people are accustomed to go talking about in casual conversation.

Has there been success raising awareness of–and combatting–domestic and sexual abuse within the community?

There certainly has been a lot of success. We’ve come to a point where it is no longer common to suggest that these problems don’t exist in the Jewish community. There is still a lot of education that needs to be done, but the cause has come a long way. There are still people who would rather not discuss these issues, apparently on an out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach. Similarly, parents often ask us why they should agree to send their children to our safety workshops and “ruin their innocence.” The truth, in fact, is that children do not lose their innocence as a result of these workshops (which are in fact quite fun and light-hearted), and research shows that education is the best way to keep kids safe. Much in the same way that we teach kids to call 911 in case of emergency, we need to teach them what to do in case they find themselves in a sexually dangerous situation.

Still, things are better than they were. Thank G-d, there are places for Jewish victims to turn for help. There is an awareness among rabbis out there that this is a problem and that resources exist to help them deal with it. And there is a slow move away from the stigmatized view of victims towards acceptance and help.

What have been significant challenges facing the organization? How has this been handled?

There is still some resistance out there that we struggle with from time to time, such as a rabbi who “doesn’t get it” and who inadvertently makes life harder for a victim. And there are communities out there that one might call more “right-wing” that still take a hush-hush approach to dealing with these issues, which harms victims and abets perpetrators. These kinds of situations pain us, but at the same time strengthen us to keep fighting the good fight.

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Rabbinic Scandals and You

The current scandal involving Rabbi Leib Tropper is the latest in a series of “spiritual abuse” cases that have occurred in the Orthodox community in recent years, to the horror of all of us.

This case, however, is particularly intriguing for several reasons: first, it is the first instance that I know about where a major personality in the religious world was brought down via a headlining expose that ultimately originated in an internet blog. Second, it is a very dilated and distorted window on the relationship between Jewish organizations, their directors and their donors. Third, it clearly exemplifies the words of our Sages. “Rabbi Yochanan ben Broka said, ‘Whoever desecrates the Name of Heaven in secret, they will exact punishment from him in public'” (Avos 4:5). And were it not for the instantaneous speed with which information can be posted and sent to a virtually unlimited number of people via the internet, this problem may have gone on undetected and unnoticed for years. It appears that uncovering deception happens very quickly these days.

I don’t personally know Harry Maryles, or the authors of “the unorthodox Jew” or failedmessiah.com, but I do have a message for them and everyone who reads their blogs: instead of simply using our soapboxes to judge and castigate others with the rationalization that we are simply trying to restore honesty and transparency to the religious world, we should realize that these events happen in front of our eyes because they have a message for us; we have to take mussar from these events. We have to realize that “there but for the grace of G-d go I”. Quite literally.

Anyone who reads the accounts of the snake, Esav or Lavan, would be letting themselves off easy if they simply snarled, called these personalities, “bad guys”, and flipped to the next page. Hashem gives us detailed accounts of these people because He wants us to take it to the second level, and ask ourselves, “how am I like the snake, Esav, or Lavan?” From there, we can work to eradicate these personality traits.

Parenthetically, I am very dismayed at the proliferation of frum internet tabloids, blogs that symbiotically live off of systemic problems in the religious world and supply their readers with a type of Orthodox (or, really anti-Orthodox) pornography that serves to confirm their suspicions that every religious Jew or rabbi is actually an evil pervert, while eroding the emunas chachamim of others. Solutions or invitations to substantive discussion are rarely offered on these sites. Lots of people have an axe to grind; I suggest that maybe it’s not such a responsible thing to do in front of six billion people?

I say this because I am a therapist, and because I am essentially “one degree of separation” from many of the people who make it onto these unsavory lists. I am a YU musmach, I have been an assistant rabbi in Monsey myself, and I work with this underbelly of the frum world professionally. I consulted to NCSY leaders immediately after the Baruch Lanner affair several years ago, and I listen to the thought distortions of offenders on a weekly basis; it’s harrowing. But a person should thank G-d that he or she has not been given the impairments of conscience coupled with the overactive yetzer hara that have led other people down the path of destruction.

One addictions treatment expert has put it this way, “every single person who has come into my office has said initially that they never imagined this could happen to them.”

If you think about it, these high profile cases of corruption may simply be a very monstrous, pathological version of the “disconnect” that affects everyone according to their level, the incongruity that comes from knowing what is right and not doing it–or doing the opposite. How can people smoke, when the label on the box clearly tells them that doing so will kill them? They light up anyway. How can people talk in shul, insult people, cheat on tests, run cash businesses, overestimate accident damages, double park, ignore newcomers, drive over 25 miles per hour in a school zone, not call their mother, get to work late, submit restaurant receipts as tax write-offs, etc., etc., etc.?

On a clinical note: in these very awful cases that have surfaced in recent years, I propose that, if you examine each one, they probably all adhere to a set of diagnostic criteria for pathology that predisposes them in this direction. It does not excuse the actions of these people, of course, but it would be very beneficial to the Jewish community if some type of screening test could be developed and administered to people who would become the heads of our institutions.

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Q&A with AJC Acting Co-Director Marc D. Stern: A Successful Model for Combatting Sexual Abuse in the Orthodox Community?

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.

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