Monday, August 24, 2015

Changing the Culture of Silence

Dayan of Agudath Israel of Illinois, Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst
It’s about time. But better late than never. The Jewish Press and the Jerusalem Post reported yesterday that over 100 prominent rabbis have signed a document urging people to report to the police all suspicions of child abuse. There is not a word in that document about going to the rabbis first.

This is very significant since the Dayan of Agudath Israel of Illinois, Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst was heavily involved in putting this document together. Rabbi Fuerst’s views are highly respected because Rav Moshe Feinstein personally mentored him and gave him Semicha (his rabbinic ordination). 

I don’t think I can overstate the significance of this document. It is a Kol Koreh. Which is how Charedi rabbinic leaders have always informed the public about their public policy statements on issues affecting the Jewish community.

Unfortunately in our day, this means of communication has been severely abused by unscrupulous people pushing their own agenda, often listing signatures of prominent rabbis that never agreed to sign their document. But this is clearly not the case here. It took a lot of courage to put out a document like this and a lot of effort to get the signatures of these  prominent rabbis.

This document is in stark contrast to previous Agudah Moetzes statements. They urged first reporting suspicions of sex abuse to rabbis to see if those suspicions were credible. That meant that personal bias was involved – even if unintentional. When prominent and respected individuals are accused of sex abuse, the common reaction to it is disbelief. Rabbis are human. If they have a relationship with someone they know to be an exemplary member of his community, they are naturally reluctant to report them to the police. Thus allowing the abuse to continue to the same or other victims. 

Not to mention the devastating affect disbelief has on a victim. Or the collateral damage to members of his family. One need not look any further than what happened to a prominent Magid Shiur (Torah lecturer) in Lakewood not long ago. When he reported the abandonment of a treatment program by his son’s abuser (his day school Rebbe) - he was vilified as a Moser (informing against a Jew); accused of molesting his own son - blaming it on someone else; and eventually hounded out of town.

That seems to have changed now. At least according to the signatories on this document.

Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechoffer, one of those signatories, made a very strong comment about this with which I completely agree. From the Jewish Press
The document is a great start,” said another one of the signers, Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer, a distinguished author and maggid shiur at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach, Monsey. “Rabbis whose signatures are absent can be asked by their constituencies why they are not signed on it, and thus be led to join in. 
Indeed. As far as I can tell, no where to be found on this document are any of the Agudah Moetzes members. I may be wrong but I find it hard to believe that a respected Dayan of Agudah did not approach them. If he did, why are their signatures not on this document?  Do they still maintain that rabbis must be first consulted before going to the police? If so, what happened to Daas Torah? Are these Charedi rabbis rebelling?

I am glad to see this turn of events. Sex abuse has long been the stepchild of issues confronting Orthodox Jewry. Everybody admits that it goes on. But most people prefer to ignore it. They don’t want to get involved. But the Torah is very clear about this. Which this document points out: Lo Samod Al Dam Reyecha. Do not stand idly by on your friend’s blood.  People that have suffered sex abuse never get over it. It stays with them forever. Some can function well in life despite that. But many don’t.

Those who don't can suffer from depression, guilt, and shame. They may turn to drugs and alcohol. The tendency for families to hide these things because of Shidduch issues for their other children can hurt a victim insurmountably. The attempted suicide rate among abuse victims is very high. Sometimes they are successful - adding tragedy upon tragedy. So standing idly by is not an option.

Rabbi Fuesrt knows this. It is actually mentioned in the Kol Koreh itself.  I’m sure that is what motivated this good man to act. I hope that the Agudah Moetzes will reverse course and do the same thing. Let the members of the Moetzes sign on to this document without any reservations or caveats about going to rabbis first. If that happens the culture of silence might just change in the direction of justice.