Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Rabbis in Denial

I hate writing about this subject. But what choice do I have? How can anyone remain silent when things like this are going on in mainstream religious communities? Sexual Abuse of the children in Ramat Bet Shemesh schools is - it seems - at an epidemic level!

This quiet and beautiful suburban city in Israel has been in the news a lot over the last couple of years. And not in a good way.

There is strife between religious factions there. This suburb is divided into two segments – A and B.

The composition of A is that of moderate Charedim and Centrist type Orthodox Jews with a religious Zionist perspective. A very large percentage of them are Anglos – having immigrated from English speaking countries. Most of those are American.

B is comprised largely of extremist Israeli Charedim - mostly of the Chasidic type one would find in Meah Shearim. Many of their populace in fact stems for there. The clashes between A and B have mostly involved female modesty issues. But the one thing they seem to have in common is the prevalence of sex abuse in their schools.

This is what an article in the Jerusalem Post seems to indicate. What is troubling here is not so much how prevalent it is in religious communities. - although that is surely very troubling. What bothers me even more is the primitive way it is being handled by the rabbis there. Including threatening the victims and their parents if the matter was reported to the police! As a father of an abused child indicated:

Asking to remain anonymous, the father recalls how his family was threatened and pressured by community leaders not to pursue the matter with the police, and how his child was ostracized by most former classmates.

Rabbinic authorities in that area seem to be handling things the way those in the US did prior to all the exposes of abuse here. Things are still not great here. But at least we have turned the corner of awareness. Even the American Yated publisher Pinchos Lipshutz - acknowledged the gravity of the problem and the need to do something about it. Not so in the cloistered corners of the Ramat Bet Shemesh Rabbinate.

An American Charedi immigrant who lives there and who reported the abuse of her three year old to the authorities describes the situation:

"We have an epidemic on our hands, and there is complete denial here that there is anything wrong," she continues. "I spoke to the rabbis and other community leaders here, but they all called me a liar and said that this kind of thing does not happen here... but it does."

Sadly, Zehava, a recent immigrant from the US, has proof of such abuse and is one of a growing number parents from Ramat Beit Shemesh becoming increasingly frustrated with their leaders' continual denial of the problem.

"Families of the victims are made to feel stupid," she says, adding that they are very often ostracized for speaking out about the problem on any level.

It’s not like this poor mother had a knee jerk reaction to an excitable child’s misinterpretation of a teacher’s affection. She very clearly didn’t:

"I still feel guilty that I did not pay attention and continued to send my child to [kindergarten] every day," continues Zehava, describing how her child stopped talking, would not sleep at night and was often inconsolable after being continually abused by the teacher.

What is the matter with the rabbis of Ramat Bet Shemesh? Could it be that they are so isolated from the world that they do not know what’s going on in the religious world across the ocean?! Not that they don’t know about the sex abuse. I’m sure they do. But that they have not learned a thing from what has happened in America. They must be ignorant about sex abuse by Rabbis Lanner and Kolko and the damage done by those who covered it up while abuse was going on for years.

That kind of ignorance seems to be the only explanation of they are dealin with it. Because if they are aware of what has happened in the US and still follow old patterns of denial and cover-up at the expense of the victims they should be considered aiding and abetting the abusers themselves and thrown out of their community!

Thank God Ramat Bet Shemesh has an organization like Lema'an Achai. Here is how they have reacted:

We are a lightning rod for all sorts of problems in the community here," says David Morris, founder and chairman of Lema'an Achai, which provides among its services support and guidance for haredi parents who believe their children might have been sexually abused.

Last summer, the organization set up the "Safe-Kids" hot line in conjunction with the Beit Shemesh social welfare services to provide a lifeline to local families whose children have been abused.

This is a good start. But until the rabbinic leadership changes its tune things will at best move along at a snail’s pace. Is it not these rabbis who after all control education in that community?

I think an organized concerted effort ought to be made by the residents there to impress upon the rabbis of Ramat Bet Shemesh that they will not allow sex abuse to be swept under the carpet. They will not allow their children to be exposed to the possibility of sex abuse by their Mechanchim. They must be made aware in no uncertain terms that threats like the one above from the rabbis will not work.

If I were a parent living in Ramat Bet Shemesh - I would do everything in my power to prevent my child from even the remotest possibility of being sexually abused. Exactly how I would go about that - I’m not sure. But it would probably include picketing the homes of the rabbis, withholding any tuition payments and - as a last resort - pulling my kids out of the schools and home schooling them. Certainly no financial support should be given to the rabbis there if things don't change.

This situation cannot - and should not stand!