Over four hundred Orthodox Jews from around the world gathered at the Ramada Renaissance Hotel in Jerusalem for a three-day seminar earlier this month to learn more about violence and sexual abuse and discuss ways to combat it. The conference, spearheaded by Tahel—Crisis Center for Religious Women and Children, an Israeli non-profit organization, tackled a wide range of related issues. There were sessions on the neuroscience of pedophilia, human trafficking, the rabbinic role in preventing abuse, the interface between the Orthodox community and the criminal justice system, the need to keep our students safe, and the healing process, among other topics. Speakers stressed that cooperation and coordination among communities in different countries is critical to prevent perpetrators from simply moving once they have been uncovered. Said Tahel director, Debbie Gross, “Such a conference could not have taken place ten, or even five, years ago.”
Keeping our Students Safe
In a panel session with Debbie Gross, educators and rabbis discussed the challenges involved and the steps to take in keeping our seminary, yeshiva and college students safe.
“Abuse isn’t a religious problem,” began Dr. Chaim Nissel, Yeshiva University Dean of Students. “It’s found all over secular colleges worldwide. That said, seminary students are particularly vulnerable because they are unlikely to press charges. The girls are embarrassed; they have their whole lives ahead of them and do not want the stigma; they don’t have the time to press charges; they are afraid they won’t be believed and may even be blamed; and, in cases where the perpetrator is a faculty member, the girls may not want to get him fired,” he said. Since many abuse cases are reported only months and even years after the incident, the girls are afraid that they will be asked why they waited so long. Taking these factors into account, in the secular world, sixty to ninety percent of breeches aren’t reported; in our world the numbers are probably even higher.
Guidelines for Educators Focusing on the relationship that forms between a rabbi and the teenaged girls that he is teaching, Dr. Nissel pointed out several stumbling blocks that educators must be made aware of. “The position of rebbe is a delicate one,” said Dr. Nissel. “He is expected to function as teacher, parent and therapist.” Add to this the fact that this is the first time that a girl is building a relationship with a male outside her family and the need for strict guidelines becomes obvious. “The halochos of yichud must be carefully kept – there have almost always been breaches of the halochos before an assault. The rebbe must always tutor in a group session and avoid learning alone with a student. One-on-one conversations about modesty and intimacy should always be carried out with a female faculty member. Once the girls return to the States, while they may need to turn to the rebbe for advice, there is absolutely no need for texting or skyping.”
Rabbi Shimon Kurland, dean of Darchei Binah Seminary in Jerusalem, noted that in addition to the recommended guidelines, stringencies are also necessary to maintain the proper distance between faculty members and students. “While the ball starts rolling in the school, the assault won’t happen here,” he said. He suggested installing cameras in the offices of the faculty and also pointed out the advantages of glass doors. In addition, in order to maintain the necessary distance, a rebbe should avoid calling a student by her first name or posing for a photo with her. Above all, “the staff must have open channels of communication so that members feel comfortable approaching each other for advice or even to point out behavior that may have slipped under the educator’s radar,” said Rabbi Kurland.