Thursday, March 03, 2016

Spotlight – On Us!

Manny Vogel, a survivor of abuse, in Crown Heights (Newsweek)
Everything you ever wanted to know about abuse in the Chasidic world is in Newsweek. In what has to be the most comprehensive story ever published in the non Jewish media, Newsweek discusses cases of physical abuse and mostly sex abuse where survivors were victims of rabbis, teachers and others.

While the article focuses on Chabad, they are not alone in how poorly abuse has been dealt with. It is not limited to Chabad or other Chasidim. It happens in similar ways in the non Chasidic world of Yeshivos too. Modern Orthodoxy is not exempt from this either.

In all cases, there have been attempts to cover up sex abuse at the expense of the victims. Some more egregious than others but cover-ups at one level or another seems to be a universal response by religious institutions of any hashkafa (or any religion - as the move 'Spotlight' showed about the Catholic Church for example). Religious institutions simply do not want to damage their reputations. After all, they represent God. That there was sex abuse going on at their religious institutions is the antithesis of being Godly.

The problem with that of course is that keeping things like this quiet ends up increasing the frequency of its occurrence. Abusers don’t get punished and are merely kicked out of the institution and maybe the city  they were caught doing it – only to find another one to do it, where nobody knows who they are or what they did.

That’s the consequence of trying to keep abuse quiet. The thinking used to be (and still is in many cases) that as long as the abuser was out of their hair, that was all they had to worry about. Their secret remained a secret. And we all know what kind of damage that has caused.

The question raised by this article is whether the insularity that is the hallmark of the Chasidic world and to a lesser extent, the non Chasidic Yeshiva world is in any way contributory to this phenomenon. In discussing a particular case of abuse, the Newsweek article made the following observation: 
While there is no evidence that child abuse is any more likely to occur in ultra-Orthodox schools than in public or secular institutions, stories like Reizes’s—an alleged abuser sheltered and victims unwilling to talk for fear of losing the only way of life they know—are common in the Hasidic school system. The many former students, advocates, sociologists, social workers and survivors interviewed by Newsweek , along with recordings, documents, public filings and personal emails that Newsweek obtained , place the blame on a confluence of factors: widespread sexual repression, a strong resistance to the secular world, and, most important, a power structure designed to keep people from speaking up about abuse. 
If children aren’t taught by their parents and teachers about appropriate sexual behavior, they have no way to sense when touching turns into something that is wrong. “You don’t even know what your body is,” says Lynn Davidman, a professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Kansas who grew up in a religious Jewish family. “And you are not supposed to touch or know, and then all of a sudden you are introduced to forbidden knowledge in a most abusive way.” The abused have no way to make sense of what’s going on, to stop it or to tell anybody about it.
She has a point. While the article pointed out that there is no evidence that sex abuse is any greater in the Orthodox world, that doesn’t mean isn’t. But we  will never know. Attempts made to gather data has been met with strong resistance by these communities that prefer keeping their lives as private (and insular) as possible.

If you are indoctrinated to shun the outside world and not trust anyone in it, then of course you aren’t going to participate in any studies. You suspect everyone outside of the religious community having an anti Charedi agenda.

Which is why they consider ‘Mesira’ - informing on Jews to secular authorities - as such a grave sin. ‘You are informing on a Jew to an ‘enemy of the Jews’! Their insularity gives them no real life experience with the real world. Their attitudes are therefore based on an antiquated idea of an antisemtic outside world out to ‘get the Jews’.  This is what their teachers tell them.

Granted that Chabad is the antithesis of insularity. But at the same time Chabad prefers to teach religious studies only and not offer secular studies in their wide network of schools where they don’t have to. Brooklyn’s Crown Heights Neighborhood where Chabad headquarters are located is once such place. So young children there have little contact with the outside world. Leaving them ripe to be indoctrinated to see the outside world as an evil place to be avoided if - not for their outreach work.

Other Chasidic enclaves are even more insulated – shunning the outside world completely except as necessity demands.

I will end with the following. I recently received a e-mail from one of the many Charedi mental health professionals I know.  He sent it to me in the context of another issue before this Newsweek article was published. I think he hit the nail on the head: 
It is endemic to our yeshiva community.  A rebbe who crosses boundaries with a talmid, with any form of abuse (including sexual, emotional, verbal, physical, etc.) is to be protected at all costs.  A rebbe who embarrasses a child will never ask mechila from the victim.  If anything, the talmid must seek mechila from the rebbe (who is a baal aveiroh).  Why?  Just ask.  The answer is “Kavod”.  I guess asking mechila is a denigration of one’s dignity.  How do these people face the (Ribono Shel Olam) ” on Yom Kippur?  Or do they?