Teaneck–September 15–About 200 people from Bergen County and the surrounding metro area attended last night’s panel discussion “Protecting Our Children from Sexual Abuse,” hosted by Congregation Rinat Yisrael’s Adult Education Program. The event was co-sponsored by Teaneck’s Congregation Keter Torah, Congregation Netivot Shalom, and Lubavitch of Bergen County. The interactive presentation, which was open to the entire community, focused on increasing awareness of the scope and ramifications of sexual abuse (SA) within the Orthodox community as well as preventing and dealing with the SA of minors.
Present were such notable supporters as Benny Forer, Assistant District Attorney of LA County; Chris Anderson, executive director of MaleSurvivor (www.malesurvivor.org), an association that helps address the therapeutic needs of adult male survivors of SA, and Mayer Seewald, a Crown Heights resident who founded a recognized organization dedicated to eradicating child SA within the community called Jewish Community Watch (www.Jewish CommunityWatch.org).
This initiative comes in light of recently exposed cases, including the latest charges against the head of four Orthodox seminaries in Israel. Rinat’s leadership determined it was time to highlight the issue to empower parents to better protect their children while encouraging communal organizations to adopt more effective preventive policies. Thursday’s event was spearheaded by Rinat member David Cheifetz, an outspoken adult survivor of childhood SA in an Orthodox summer camp.
Cheifetz publicly revealed last year that he was a survivor and has since founded Mi Li, an organization dedicated to preventing child SA and helping survivors deal with ongoing trauma as well as advocating for the community to take stronger measures to protect children. “This is a much bigger problem in the Orthodox community than people realize,” said Cheifetz. “We hope our event will serve as a model for other communities to expose this important issue to the light of day.”
The panel commenced with comments from the moderator, Seymour Adler, Ph.D and was followed by an introduction from Rabbi Yosef Adler, Rinat’s rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC). Rabbi Adler stressed the crucial nature of the topic, and referenced the posuk in Devarim: “Arur makeh rayeihu b’seter–Cursed be he that smites his neighbor secretly,” explaining: “Sexual abusers strike in secret, behind closed doors. The abuser is often known to the victim and is abusing someone vulnerable, with terrible ramifications.”
Rabbi Yosef Blau, an internationally recognized advocate for victims of SA, provided an “Overview of the Scope and Scale of Abuse in the Jewish Community.” Rabbi Blau explained that referencing a survivor’s status often frightens people off from associating with them, thinking of them as “damaged goods,” and affecting their shidduch prospects. “That’s a problem,” said Rabbi Blau. “With proper help and crucial support from the family and community, many survivors go on to have good lives.” But getting it can present a challenge even though reliable studies in the US reveal that SA statistics among all streams of the orthodox community, including modern Orthodox, are the same those in the general population.
According to the U.S. State Department’s National Sex Offender Website (www.nsopw.gov), one in three girls and one in seven boys in the U.S. are sexually abused during their childhood, and in more than 90% of cases the victim knows their abuser. These statistics highlight a major issue equally affecting the Jewish community.
“The Orthodox community likes to believe we are different,” said Blau.”We are not. I was given the job of responding to a report on a study conducted in Israel in the Charedi community. When the results were collected, I was told that there was good news and bad news. The bad news? The numbers are the same as everyone else’s. The good news? They’re not worse.”
Rabbi Blau was asked why the Orthodox community has such a difficult time in responding to this issue. He replied: “We find it difficult to believe because we believe that followers of the dictates of the Torah are much better because of it.”
Rabbi Blau was followed by David Cheifetz speaking about “Perspectives of a Survivor.” Cheifetz’s presentation was, for many, the highlight of the evening. He said: “I am standing here not as David Cheifetz, but as one nameless, faceless victim who has chosen to share his name and show his face. I stand here and look out at this audience... and I know that I am not speaking only for myself, but for the twenty percent of people in our community, including numerous people in this room right now, who were sexually abused as children.” (See his speech on page 30.)
Audience members were noticeably moved and impressed by Cheifetz. After he described the trauma, shame, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that resulted from being abused and the failure of others to properly respond, Cheifetz concluded: “The most important take away from my own recovery, the key for me, was dealing with my own sense of guilt and my own fear. And I say to you today that I was a victim of a terrible crime. It was not my fault. And I am no longer afraid.” He continued: “We as a community cannot be afraid to address this terrible demon. We must face it head on.”
Meyer Seewald said: “David’s bravery and courage last night was remarkable. He stood in front of a crowd of his peers and his community, and shared his story. He did it, not for himself, but for all the other people and their children, to save them from the pain he suffered. He is one of the few to give a voice to the voiceless and a face to the faceless. As the lone soldier David Gordon once wrote ‘he blushed for a few so others won’t have to bleed.’ David is a hero.”
Benny Forer said “I have worked alongside David and Rabbi Blau for a number of years. I deeply admire both for their stance on this issue and I fully support their perspectives, designed to effectuate a positive change in the community, support survivors of abuse and their families and educate the community on the particular issues. It is of utmost importance that we protect our children, and the way to do so is by having open and honest dialogues regarding these issues–both with our own families and with the community at large. In balancing the interests of the survivor and the protection of the community versus the privacy or comfort of a perpetrator, the former is far more important and should be supported wholeheartedly, regardless of its detriment to the abuser.”
Chris Anderson commented: “I was tremendously impressed by the community’s support for David in particular. It was also especially heartening to see people’s willingness to openly discuss and learn about SA. There are relatively few faith communities that have been so proactive in seeking information that will help them better protect children and support survivors. This is a deeply divisive and difficult issue, and I feel all those who had a hand in making last night’s event happen are to be commended. I hope the information and lessons from last night will spread through other Jewish communities and as well to all other faith communities. We can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to abuse, nor a deaf ear to survivors.”
The panel discussion concluded with “Parenting and Protocols: Protecting Children from Abusers” by Dr. Shira Berkovits, a youth consultant for the Orthodox Union’s WINGS (We Inspire New Growth Synagogues) program and a Global Justice Fellow with the American Jewish World Service, working to combat trafficking and sexual violence against women and children. She provided concrete guidelines for appropriate individual and communal response to suspicion of “risky behavior.” Berkovitz explained that “there is no prototype. Child molesters look and act like everyone else... they are just really good at picking children with holes in their hearts.”
In addition to tips for educating children such as teaching respect for personal space and putting children in charge of the giving and receiving of physical affection, Berkovitz provided resources for individuals and the community at large, and recommended the website www.d2l.org.
When the floor was opened up to questions, topics discussed included encouraging youth-serving institutions such as camps and schools do extensive background checks, screening, and in-service training. Dr. Berkovitz suggested that rabbis give talks about the topic. “We see the clergy show up to support the offender, but never once to support the victims. What message does that send?”
Cheifetz agrees that the message must be changed, saying that we need to change a culture that downplays SA, to provide support for current victims and their families, and to create mechanisms to supply ongoing support for victims and survivors of all ages. Rabbi Adler advises: “Believe the person, and demonstrate that as a community, we care about this issue. Ask institutions about their policy.” Said one audience member: “This is a good beginning.”
By Lisa Matkowsky