As more alleged victims step forward, the Orthodox community grapples with the phenomenon while maintaining its insular traditions. Leading rabbis met in New York this week to broach this delicate issue.
The Orthodox Jewish community is slow to change, even – perhaps especially – on difficult issues like child sexual abuse. But speakers at a gathering of leading Orthodox rabbis and others made clear that significant changes are underway at both institutional and cultural levels. For example, a joint project of the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America to create training programs for synagogue staff, in an effort to help prevent sexual abuse, is getting started.
The very fact that Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, spoke at the meeting also reflected a shift. While the topic has been addressed at recent Agudah conventions, this was the first time that Zwiebel addressed it outside of his own community, he told Haaretz.
It is a challenging subject for a community that prizes modesty, deference to rabbinic authority and believes that turning in a Jew to secular authorities is a violation of Jewish law, especially if there is suspicion but not certainty of sexual abuse. Yet “if you compare the landscape to just a few years ago there have been enormous changes” in the Haredi community, Zwiebel told the opening session, in a conference room rented from UJA-Federation of New York in midtown Manhattan.
The “Global Summit on Child Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community” was put together by Manny Waks and his organization Kol v’Oz. Waks, who was sexually molested as a child in Melbourne, Australia’s Chabad community, started Kol v’Oz last year in Israel to deal with the issue.
The aim of the two-day gathering is to allow experts in childhood sexual abuse to network and share best practices, Waks told Haaretz. Ultimately, “the goal is a collaborative global coalition” to work on the issue. Two similar gatherings were convened in Israel in recent years, but this is believed to be the first time that such a meeting has brought together different segments of the Jewish community in the U.S.
The meeting included a hand-picked group of leaders of social service organizations that aid victims of sexual abuse, researchers and prominent rabbis from as near as Brooklyn and as far as Israel and Mexico. Also attending was the national director of the yeshiva day school movement Torah u’Mesorah, Rabbi Dovid Nojowitz.
“There has been marked change” in how the Orthodox community deals with sex abuse, said David Cheifetz, a victim of childhood molestation himself. Cheifetz, now a victims’ advocate, moderated a discussion between Zwiebel and Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America. “This issue has come to the forefront because more people are speaking out [after having been abused],” Cheifetz told Haaretz.
Enough victims are coming forward now that they have reached a critical mass and can no longer be dismissed by Orthodox leaders as troubled, marginal people, he said. And a recent wave of suicides and drug overdoses among Haredi young adults, along with a significant exodus of people out of religious observance are also shocking ultra-Orthodox leaders into taking seriously the relationship between those things and childhood sexual molestation. [...]
Several developments have coalesced to push Orthodox organizations forward, say experts. Social media has had much to do with spreading information about abusers and connecting victims. The Catholic Church sexual abuse crisis burst onto the American scene in the early 2000s, as did several high-profile cases in the Orthodox community, beginning with that of Baruch Lanner, who then worked as director of regions for the modern Orthodox youth movement NCSY.[...]
A bill introduced in various forms in the New York State Assembly for more than a decade would eliminate the civil Statute of Limitations, meaning a victim could sue his abuser for monetary damages in a civil court at any time. That bill would also open a year-long window during which older victims could retroactively sue those responsible.
That is what the Agudah opposes, Zwiebel said, though it supports extending the criminal Statute of Limitations indefinitely and raising the victim’s age for the civil lawsuit limit. Jewish law has no Statute of Limitations in criminal cases, pointed out YU’s Blau.
Zwiebel said, of the Agudah’s resistance to a change in the law, “schools are the crown jewels of our community. For them to have retrospective liability for things done decades ago under a different administration would cause damage to those jewels,” by potentially bankrupting them.
Waks responded, in a voice full with emotion, “it often comes across in the Haredi world that they care much more about the institutions than the victims. Are they really much more precious than children’s lives?” [...]