Wednesday, February 08, 2017

A Welcome 180

Manny Waks at the podium - panel members seated to his left (NYJW)
At 18, he left the Orthodox community, his family publicly confronting his abusers, his faith shattered by the abuse he had suffered and the indifferent response he had encountered from many leaders of his then-charedi community. 
This excerpt from a story in the New York Jewish Week is the story of Manny Waks and supports the idea (discussed here a couple of days ago) that many of those that drop observance are survivors of sexual abuse. 

Sex abuse is an issue that has plagued the Orthodox Jewish world and has been the source of much controversy. Many Orthodox leaders have been criticized for their failure to properly address it. Positive change had slowly been taking place but had a long way to go. Leaving survivors with the feeling that they would never see justice.

Survivor advocates were often harsh in their criticism. Which was strongly rejected by rabbinic leaders who said they were not reflecting the Torah point of view. But that seems to be changing.

In what seems like a 180 degree turn… the Agudah Moetzes has dropped its opposition to extending the statute of limitations for abuse victims to file claims against their abusers and enablers. To say I’m surprised is an understatement. Nor can I express enough my gratitude for this turn of events.

It is gratifying to see Agudah’s executive vice president, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel appearing at a New York Jewish Federation conference on abuse in the Orthodox community. He was joined by Rabbi Mark Dratch a modern Orthodox leader who founded JSafe, an anti abuse organization; and two survivors: Manny Waks who organized the conference and David Cheifetz a member of the panel ( the picture above, seated in the center between Rabbi Dratch on the left and Rabbi Zweibel on the right).

The Global Summit on Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community convened last week. From the New York Jewish Week article: 
In an opening night panel discussion, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of the charedi Agudath Israel of America, said the umbrella organization’s rabbinic leadership now supports an extension of the statute of limitations in New York State for sexual abuse victims to bring civil and criminal suits.
 Agudath had earlier opposed such an extension, citing the potentially financial liability that day schools, camps and other institutions could face…
 Sexual abuse is “a very, very important issue. This is something we can’t ignore,” Rabbi Zwiebel said... “We’ve become more and more aware of it.
While I disagreed with  Agudah’s past position on this issue, I have always understood their concerns about extending the statue of limitations. They feared that viable religious schools that had long ago changed the hands of leadership since any abuse took place would be vulnerable to lawsuits decades after any abuse took place.

That would cripple them financially – possibly even forcing them to permanently shut their doors. They refused to listen to advocates that pointed to evidence that this did not happen in communities that lifted that statute.  

They felt even though justice would not be served for a survivor it was outweighed by an existential fear. Every religious school was needed have to accommodate the population explosion that has been filling classrooms to capacity...  even faster than they are being constructed. Schools would be closing because of something that happened decades ago that that current leaders had nothing to do with.

But… justice was left un-served in far too many cases. Abuse victims are often reluctant to come forward since by doing so they creates a stigma about themselves and their families causing communal difficulties for them. Like the all consuming issue these days of Shidduchim. Many survivors of abuse have therefore only come out decades after that abuse, And then find out that it’s is too late to do anything about it.

Agudah has now been convinced that their arguments are valid and have changed course.

There is yet another issue that Agudah seems to have moved forward on, that of Mesira - the prohibition of informing on fellow Jews to secular authorities. Although there are many interpretations that explain this prohibition as not applying to just societies like that of the United States - there are some that interpret it as absolute.  Here are Rabbi Zweibel’s comments about that: 
(T)he concept of mesira… is not applicable when the evidence against an accused abuse perpetrator is clear. He said charedi rabbis are instructed to tell members of their communities to immediately bring accusations of clear sexual abuse to police, instead of to rabbis. And he invited Jewish victims of sexual abuse at the hands of other Jews to bring a case in a beit din (Jewish court), where no statute of limitations exists. 
This is wonderful news. It seems the culture is changing. Past reticence to deal with this issue has changed into pro-activity. Rabbi Zweibel was asked what Agudah is doing to deal with this issue:

“Not enough,” he answered. “We all recognize that we have to do more.”

This summit did not only have Agudah representation. It even had Charedi representatiopon from Israel. Rabbi  Arie Munk who heads a mental health organization in Bnei Brak  attended and said: 
“Twenty years ago, nobody came to these conferences” — if they even took place, Munk said. In the conservative charedi world, where topics like sexuality are traditionally considered a violation of modesty standards, and abuse at the hands of community members would be considered a collective embarrassment, the topic was rarely discussed openly.
 “Nobody’s quiet anymore,” Munk said.
He wants to create a registry of  sex offenders that would bar them from entering the country.

I will end with an excerpt quoting Dr. Shira Berkovits, a psychologist and attorney who founded Sacred Spaces, a “cross-denominational initiative” which sums up my own feelings about this: 
 (I)t “was not a small thing” that Rabbi Zwiebel “was willing to state on the record that he supports an extension of civil” statutes of limitations. “It is a big deal and he should be given credit for it … and held to it.” Berkovits praised Waks’ initial advocacy work in Australia as being “light years ahead of anywhere else. He didn’t quit until the institutions began dealing with the issue. He’s done it at great personal cost.” She called Waks the most successful anti-abuse activist who had been a survivor.