Chaya’s older yeshiva-bochur brother told her that there was no problem with his touching her body. He told her it wasn’t against the Torah, and he seemed to know a lot more Torah than she did at the tender age of 6. He continued to touch her first over her clothes, but as the years passed, the abuse progressed to actual rape. Eventually he got married and started a family, appearing to function just fine to nearly everyone in the community. However, he left his younger sister, now in her late twenties, crippled – emotionally, sexually and spiritually.
There are over fifty young women with backgrounds extremely similar to Chaya’s in just one very recently formed support group for women. They all grew up in frum homes and they have all been sexually abused. They are the tip of the iceberg, just now becoming visible. They are just the most courageous young women, who have (just barely) emerged first. The vast majority of survivors live in tremendous fear of telling their stories (even to another survivor of abuse) for many understandable reasons.
What’s the silver lining, when this type of abuse has been going on for many years? (In some families, this seems to be a “heritage” that has been passed from one generation to the next.) The silver lining is that now, as thank G-d, the abuse is starting to come to light, and each previously isolated victim is starting to learn that he or she is not the only one with this secret corrosive problem, we finally have the opportunity to take necessary constructive actions. Now, not only can we support those who are already victims, and this is sorely needed, but also thanks to the many brave survivors of abuse who are finally, painfully starting to share their stories, we can do even more. We can implement effective education on prevention in order to stop the growth of abuse from continuing in our communities.
Of course, it’s not only teenage older brothers or cousins who can become sexual abusers. Uncles turn out to be frequently cited as perpetrators as well as, neighbors and fathers of friends. A trusted family member or family friend commits approximately 80 percent of sexual abuse, with roughly 15 percent being committed by teachers, coaches, youth group leaders or clergy. Less than 5 percent of sexual abusers are strangers to their victims. This makes sense because gaining the trust of the victim is a prerequisite in the grooming process leading to sexual abuse occurring and not being reported.
Why has the sexual abuse of children become such a pervasive problem in our community, when our core values are diametrically opposed to this lowest and cruelest kind of behavior? It’s this simple: For generations, frum perpetrators were allowed to get away with it. A few sick individuals were tolerated in every one of our neighborhoods. Each of these sick individuals typically scars more than 100 children. Many of the victims who have been molested repeatedly, grow up and sexually abuse other children, creating thousands of victims. That is how the problem has increased exponentially – it has gone unchecked. Silence may be golden, but not when abuse is involved. Abuse thrives in silence.
Chaya, at age 6, needs to be taught that she has the right to say “NO!” to any unwanted touch – even if it’s from an older brother or an uncle. Hershel, at age 4, needs to be told that nobody should touch him in the private areas that are covered by his bathing suit, unless it is for health or hygienic purposes, even if it is his babysitter or his stepfather. Rivka, at age 9, needs to learn to tell a trusted parent as soon as possible if anybody attempts to touch her in a confusing way.
Yeshiva students need to get specific information about sexual topics outside of their Gemara Nashim. Their normal surge in hormones needs to be acknowledged and addressed. Clear-cut directives about not touching younger girls and boys, even if they are siblings or cousins, the addictive pull of acting on sexual urges, and the usefulness of physical activity in decreasing their urges by positively channeling their energy, is much more productive than denial.
Parents need to be taught to report abuse to child protective services or the police. Expert professionals are needed when dealing with these serious and dangerous problems that are beyond our capabilities. The most compassionate thing that can happen to perpetrators is for them to be caught and stopped as early as detected. The earliest point of all is beforehand – so prevention is of paramount importance.
In most states, parents and students in public schools have been required to learn basic information about protection from sexual abuse for over twenty years. Parents of students in our day schools still feel unequipped to be proactive in protecting their children from predators. The students in our day schools are unprepared to respond to advances from familiar adults unless they are clearly instructed about this very real possibility.
Educational materials appropriate for all for all age children, including our teens, needs to be made available for use in our day schools, our yeshivas, and our homes. One place to access this essential curriculum is from Mrs. Debbie Fox, at Jewish Family Services in Los Angeles. She has spearheaded the creation of great resources for frum youth on this topic. (Literature and videos are available by contacting Mrs. Fox at email@example.com.) If groups of parents request their school’s involvement, they can be even more effective in implementing this critical programming. By increasing awareness and making prevention education a top priority, we can greatly minimize the proliferation of abuse.
The darkest form of education has been going on for far too long behind our own closed doors. Can we now end the strong resistance to seeing what has been happening and open up these same doors to light?
Thank you, Chaya. You are a real woman of valor, teaching us so painfully what we weren’t facing.
Bracha Goetz is the author of ten children’s books, including Aliza in MitzvahLand, What Do You See at Home? and The Invisible Book. She also serves on the Executive Committee of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children. To enjoy Bracha’s presentations for both women and children, you’re welcome to email firstname.lastname@example.org.