By Maayan Jaffe
Sexual abuse of minors has for many years been among the most controversial and suppressed issues in the Jewish community. An inaugural conference in Israel next month will, at the very least, contribute to the conversation on that issue.
“The mere fact that we are talking with each other is crucial,” said Prof. Asher Ben-Arieh, director of the Jerusalem-based Haruv Institute, whose stated mission is “to become an international center of excellence contributing to the reduction of child maltreatment.”
The First International Congress for Child Protection Organizations in the Jewish Community takes place from March 3-5 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Sponsored by Haruv and Magen LeYeladim U’Lemishpachot, the conference will draw representatives from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Belgium, South Africa, and Israel to talk about how to deal with sexual abuse of minors, particularly in the Orthodox Jewish community. Attendees will strategically review the participating organizations and their programs, and collaboratively generate a code of best practices.
“Ultra-Orthodox communities around the world are similar and share communal characteristics,” Ben-Arieh told JNS.org. “We also learned that… in many cases, perpetrators are ‘shipped’ to different communities instead of being dealt with.”
Magen, a Hebrew word meaning “protector,” is the catalyst for the conference as well as for bringing the topic of sexual abuse of minors to light among Israel’s Orthodox community.
In 2010, Magen was founded by David Morris to serve the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh. Three years later, the three-person operation is becoming well known across the Jewish state, as its efforts have resulted in sweeping change for the 98,000-person community.
Underreporting of sexual abuse is a global problem. According to Israel’s National Council for the Child, only about 1 in 10 cases of abuse reach the authorities. But in Beit Shemesh, it was an epidemic. In 2010, according to Beit Shemesh resident and non-profit consultant Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll, Beit Shemesh reporting was only one third of the national average. That equates to one in 30, the lowest rate in Israel.
“We want to think it won’t happen. We want to think it doesn’t happen. But it does,” wrote Jaskoll in an op-ed for the Times of Israel.
Morris came to know this all too well. He told JNS.org that Magen was started after he tried fruitlessly to gain assistance for a boy who was molested at school.
“A mother approached me for help when her son, after refusal to go to school and [demonstrating] peculiar behavior, confessed that his rebbe had touched him [inappropriately] and regularly for months. I turned to a community rabbi who was in a position to protect the family,” Morris said. “But instead of advising them to call the police, which is required by law, he referred them to the Modesty Patrol” in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, he said.
Morris said it became increasingly clear that for victims of abuse and their families, there was no professional and responsible recourse or assistance within the community. Thus, he opened Magen. Since then, the organization has handled upwards of 250 cases, and reports to Magen are doubling each year. Furthermore, reporting of sexual abuse in Beit Shemesh has increased by more than 50 percent.
Magen works on four fronts. First, it educates. Professional or volunteer representatives are out in the community offering lectures and seminars to help parents and child educators understand the threat of sexual predators and how to protect their children against them.
Second, Magen offers a hotline and informational service, which can be contacted anonymously (Hotline@MagenProtects.org or +972-2-999-9678). Third is case management.
“An allegation or a case of child abuse is a trauma, much like bereavement. People really don’t know what to do,” Morris explained. “So we hand-hold, we support the family through the process.”
Finally, Magen helps with the management of alleged perpetrators in the community. Even if a case goes through the correct legal procedure—to the police, to the courts—and the even if the perpetrator gets sentencing, at some point he will return to Beit Shemesh.
“This is a community issue. What should a community do to safeguard its children?” said Morris.
All four components of Magen’s role are essential and necessary for the successful reduction of sexual abuse of minors in a community, explained Helise Pollack, a therapist in private practice in Beit Shemesh. She has been working with victims of childhood sexual abuse for 26 years.
“It is important for families to receive support and for children [victims] to receive intervention and treatment for dealing with their feelings of humiliation, anger, hurt and pain. If they cannot talk about it and understand it wasn’t their fault, then they carry this pain inside them and at some point it comes through,” Pollack said. She noted that victims who have kept the abuse a secret often become anxious teenagers, use drugs or alcohol, act out violently, or hurt themselves/become suicidal. Many leave religion. Others become perpetrators themselves.
Rabbi Yaakov Haber, rabbi of Kehillat Shivtei Yeshurun in Ramat Beit Shemesh, has been supportive of Magen. He said the organization has given potential perpetrators a fear they did not have before.
“It took away their safe haven,” he told JNS.org, explaining that a perpetrator might now think twice before acting on his inclination for fear of public and legal repercussions.
The rabbi also made clear that he does not think there is more abuse in the haredi community than in any other community, but rather, there are additional complications members of the haredi community consider before reporting such a crime. For one, he said, most Orthodox communities are close-knit, which means everyone knows and/or is related to everyone else.
“Once you run to the police and report this man… all of a sudden his [seven] kids are having difficulty in school, the wife is struggling—it is just a tremendous amount of pain,” said Haber. “This is really the fault of the poor choice of the abuser, but you can understand … how it will affect every single aspect of a very large family—even cousins.”
Additionally, he said there is a perception—especially in Israel, where “everything is so politicized”—that the press will jump on any report of abuse and make it a bigger issue than it might be.
Nonetheless, Haber advocates for turning to the police. So do most parents of victims, when they know what their options are and how cases will be handled. At a recent Magen event titled “Who are the people in our neighborhood,” dramatic presentations of three real Magen cases, written by local parents of children who were sexually abused, were read to the audience by volunteers. One boy was molested by the teenage son of a well-known community rabbi.
“We all assumed the perpetrator was some drifter from outside the community. We never imagined it could be a boy from a successful family within our own community,” said Parent A, who remained anonymous. “This boy was not some kid off the derech [non-religious kid]. His family was the derech we all admired and aspired to achieve.”
Parent A was told not to work through Magen, and not to work with the police by some area rabbis. But he worked with Magen anyway. Shortly thereafter, similar stories began to surface. With people aware and looking for the perpetrator, one afternoon he was caught shortly after he abused another victim.
“The boy was arrested. He has been placed under the supervision of the courts. … My 8-year-old’s cry for help and our full disclosure has led to other boys being saved,” said Parent A.
In another case, two young girls were molested by their 70-year-old grandfather. Parent B filed a report, and the grandfather and the young girls are getting the help they need.
“Sometimes doing the right thing will not make everyone happy,” said Parent B. “But it has to be done.”
“The more we speak about [sexual abuse], the more we write about it, the more we stand against it, the greater chance we have of preventing it,” Jaskoll said.
Maayan Jaffe is a freelance writer in Overland Park, Kan.