Sunday, September 21, 2008

An Analysis of Denial

The fallout from the resignation of Dr. Benzion Twerski from the commission on sex abuse is still reverberating in the Jewish media. The outrage is enormous – as it should be. I truly hope this event will trigger the kind of change we need

One of the most frustrating things about this is the protection given to molesters in the Jewish community. Why is this issue treated so gingerly? How can people be so callous to the pain of the victim?

No matter how much is written about the subject. And no matter how well respected the writer may be on the subject it seems to have little impact. And what’s worse is that there are people who are vehemently opposed to any efforts to improve things. Take the protectors of Avreimal Mondrowitz, for example.

I’m not sure who is behind the efforts fighting his extradition to stand trial for his crimes. But if I understand correctly - they are respected members of the Ger community. And even if they are not so respected the Gerrer Rebbe certainly has not ordered them, to cease and desist in their efforts on behalf of Mondrowitz.

How can this be? The Gerrer Rebbe is a widely respected rabbinic leader – respected far beyond the community of Ger.

Does he not know the pain of Mondrowitz’s victims? Does he not know about the wide array of destruction that a molestation results in? There are so many: A victim will often suffer lifelong depression that may result in suicide. Future intimate relationships with a spouse will surely be negatively affected - often leading to divorce! Often they will go of the Derech. Or he may become a perpetrator later in life as is often the case. A victim can suffer from any or all of these problems.

The answer is yes, I’m fairly certain that he knows this. As do other prominent rabbinic leaders who have been slow to act in the past.

The question is why then is there such reluctance to act forcefully?

We know part of the answer is. It has been discussed to death: Protectionism. The activists think their Torah community reputation is harmed when these accusations are made public.

After thinking about this a bit I realized that there is an underlying premise at work here: Denial. It is my firm belief that it is an essential part of the problem. These people just don’t believe it. Not even about Mondrowitz! This is their predisposition. And I can understand why.

Think about the scenario which I believe is typical of insular communities like Ger. No one in that community is exposed to the secular media. The religious media never mentions these kinds of stories. Even if they did, no name would ever be mentioned. Avreimal Mondrowitz who has a very winning personality moves in with his wife and children. They are quite normal in every way. Beyond that he is fine and decent in every respect except for the obvious one – which of course they don’t know about – a true Jekyll and Hyde.

Mondrowitz quickly becomes a popular member of his community. He walks the walk and talks the talk. He looks like a Gerrer Chasid (which he is) in every sense of the word. He is meticulous in Halachic observance and all the customs of Ger. His father is a widely respected Talmid Chacham and Mechaber Seforim. In short he leads a picture perfect life - outwardly.

All of a sudden rumors filter into the community that he has done some unmentionable things in the past. Community members and friends of his simply do not – cannot - believe it. They attribute all this to rumors and innuendo from a secular media that is never to be trusted. Testimony reported therein from victims is not believed either. It’s impossible – they think – that this wonderful Chasid with this beautiful family has done anything remotely resembling this.

He has ingratiated himself to the community for so many years without a hint of those crimes. Even when the victim reports are multitudinous, they still can’t believe it of this fine and gentle soul who has been leading an exemplary life.

Though not insular, I have fallen victim to this mindset myself. The Chicago butcher who has been accused by numerous victims of molestation remained a member in good standing in the Chicago community many years after the fact.

He had a butcher shop that was widely patronized by the Jewish community. His long white beard, gentle demeanor, and reputation for honesty, low prices, and quality goods brought him a lot of business. Except for those ‘in the know’ nobody would have suspected this kindly religious gentleman of anything but the best behavior.

All three of my daughters worked for him successively when they were in high school. One day a friend of ours called and asked to speak to us. She came over and asked us of we were aware of his molestations. We had just begun to hear the rumors but didn’t believe them. We knew this man for many years and he was the model of a religious and ethical Jew. She assured us that it was true. She is a founding member of Project Shield that was created to deal with child molesters in the Chicago Jewish community.

Both my wife and I were taken aback. But even after we were told we decided to let our youngest daughter complete her ‘career’ there working for him. We just couldn’t believe it even then. And we felt that since this was generally a crime of opportunity that our daughter was not in danger as she was always at the checkout counter in front of the big storefront window facing a busy street. Thankfully nothing ever happened. He eventually retired and closed his butcher shop. I don’t see him much anymore. He is probably in his late seventies. His children are great people and I recently attended the wedding of his granddaughter.

That he molested young girls seems to be a fact. He was never prosecuted and was allowed to remain in the community with the caveat that he stay away from any contact with young girls. Very few people outside of his victims even knew about his crimes at first. But eventually it became more widely known. He too was a Jekyll and Hyde personality.

This is a tough nut to crack. Unless you or someone you know is molested - or unless you are involved communally in some way as is Rabbi Yakov Horowitz - it is at best just a remote possibility to the average Jewish community member. They simply refuse to believe it is anything but rare – and therefore highly unlikely that it will ever happen to them. 99 times out of 100, they’re probably right. But for the victim, it is a 100% certainty. So - we remain in denial.

I’m not sure how we get people to change their thinking. The disgusting harassment of Dr. Twerski can perhaps be explained in this light. Are their misguided acts derived of good intentions? Maybe but I doubt it. But there is definitely a certain amount of denial involved in the entire Jewish community that is at work here which allows them to carry out their nefarious acts. But as Chapztem showed in a brilliant editorial cartoon – what ever their motivations - it is a road paved to hell!