Sunday, September 07, 2014

Business as Usual or a Teachable Moment?

Two young women studying at a seminary in Israel (TOI)
Cross Currents beat me to it. But that does not mean I am free to ignore it. Rabbi Yakov Horowitz has posted on his website what I consider to be the sine qua non for all seminaries in Israel. (Part of it was re-posted on Cross Currents.)

He enumerates three possible scenarios with respect to how seminaries will handle the abuse issue raised by the Meisles/seminaries scandal. Will the victims who came forward be treated... 
1) As nashim tzidkaniyos (righteous women) who, at great personal risk, did the right thing to protect others from what had happened to them?
2) As troublemakers and m’saprei lashon ha’ra (gossip-mongers), who ruined the career of Rabbi Meisels and jeopardized the very existence of the seminaries?
3) Or they are not mentioned at all – basically, “Let’s-Not-Spoil-the-Party-by-discussing-sordid-things-like-this.” (In the month of Elul, no less). 
I wish I could believe that scenario one will be the model that seminaries follow.  Not only would that be the right thing to do, but an absolute necessity. The culture of institutional self preservation above all - must end. But my guess is that it won't be. The culture of self preservation will prevail. Seminary leaders will no doubt continue to believe that they will be able to handle it in-house. And we all know how well that usually works. 

There is no excuse in taking either of the 2 remaining options. This is called ‘sweeping abuse under the rug’.  Option 2 would be the more egregious of the 2 remaining options. Not only would it ignore a problem, it would vilify the students who spoke up and in essence abusing them a 2nd time. They would be sacrificing the welfare of perfectly innocent young women that were victims of sexual abuse in order to save the institutions and the jobs they provide. This is the tactic that was used in the past that is finally being recognized as the wrong way to go – to say the least.

My guess is that it will be the 3rd option that will be taken. They will ignore it. But that in my view is almost as bad. By not talking about it, they leave open the possibility that it will happen again. If not in one school, then in another. Young women attending these schools will remain vulnerable if schools decide to ignore it. They will be unprepared to know how to deal with attempts of abuse and not know what to do if God forbid it happens to them.

The seminary experience can be a very valuable maturing experience for a young woman. But without preparing them for the worst, should it God forbid ever happen to any of them - it will be anything but maturing. It will be devastating. They will not know what to do or where to go. Should they report it? What will happen to them if they do? Will victims be ‘thrown under the bus’ so that the school will be spared any bad publicity? Or will they be treated as scenario number one says - as ‘nashim tzidkaniyos (righteous women) who, at great personal risk, did the right thing to protect others from what had happened to them’?

If they are not taught what to do at the outset - they may suffer the same fate that many other victims of abuse have suffered.  Which include among other things - shame, post traumatic stress, going OTD, depression, and an increased possibility of suicide! I agree with Rabbi Horowitz who said:
Giving the young ladies messages contrary to these -- either by commission or omission -- after such a public scandal occurred, will create a toxic and unsafe environment for them both physically and spiritually.
Everything must be done to prevent this from happening again… and to prepare these young women in how to handle any attempt at ‘unwanted  physical  contact of a sexual nature’. If it somehow does happen, they must be taught to go immediately to the schools leaders to report it. If they refuse to act or are reticent about it… or worse they tell these young women to keep it to themselves - an alarm bell should go off and they should immediately go to the police and report the abuse.

There is no other way to proceed. The time has come to rid our world of sexual abuse…and take the concrete steps necessary to do so. Uncomfortable though it may be to discuss topics like sexual abuse, I don’t think we have any choice anymore.

If there is anything positive coming out of this scandal, it ought to be a zero tolerance policy with respect to abuse; that the Halachos of Yichud be strictly observed; and that a universal program is implemented among all seminaries  that will take option one as the only legitimate approach. Silence on this issue is not golden. It is criminal.

I hope that any future accreditation of seminaries in Israel by American Yeshiva type colleges is predicated on them having such programs.  I also hope that when parents research seminaries for their daughters, that they make sure that such programs are in place.

If all this is done, then only good will result. Without it well… to quote the great American philosopher, Yogi Berra: It may be Déjà Vu all over again. And that is no joke.