For Zehava (not her real name), the decision to break with the stringent cultural norms of her tight-knit haredi community in Ramat Beit Shemesh and report the suspected sexual abuse of her three-year-old child to the secular authorities came quickly.
"I grew up in the community, but I have always been open and accepting of the world around me," begins the haredi-raised Zehava, as she shares the story of her battle against the town's religious leaders, who in her view turn a blind eye to the ongoing problem of sexual abuse in the semi-private haredi school system.
"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. "But I will not keep quiet; I want to do all I can to make sure that this does not happen to another child," she insists.
"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.
Only after two years of medical checks and, eventually, speech therapy did the whole story come out. Zehava took her child to the Jerusalem Center for Child Abuse, where her suspicions were confirmed.
"I know this has happened in other schools, too, because I have since met several parents who tell similar stories about their children," says Zehava, who met with other haredi parents earlier this week under the auspices of the Beit Shemesh-based community organization Lema'an Achai to brainstorm ways to tackle the issue.
"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. While the service has not been inundated with calls, Morris says there have been between five and 10 concrete reports of sexual abuse in the community - and that is just the tip of the iceberg.
"If only one in 10 children actually reports what has happened to them, and then only one in 10 parents goes on to officially report what has happened to their child, and the police or social welfare services only get around to investigating one in 10 complaints, that means there are many more cases out there that we don't get to hear about," he says.[...]