Haredi media calls on its own to question rash of child abuse cases

Haaretz, Israel/January 11, 2010

Last Monday, Nachman Anshin, who is suspected of having killed his 8-month-old daughter two weeks ago, called his father-in-law's home and asked to speak to his wife. "I want to explain to her. If she hears, she'll understand," he said.

The family members did not slam the phone down. They too wanted answers, wanted to understand what had caused the young man they had loved like a son or a brother to pound his daughter's head on the floor until she died. "This is a tragedy," said Moshe Starik, whose sister is Anshin's wife. "He is not just any murderer; he's an insider."

The mother of the baby was sitting shiva in the Shmuel Hanavi neighborhood of Jerusalem and could still feel the milk pulsing in her breasts, as if it were time to nurse. She did not have the strength to speak to her husband. So he spoke instead with one of her brothers. Starik says his brother-in-law is detached from reality and does not understand the severity of his actions.

"He asked my brother: 'What, is there a body? Do we have to sit shiva?'" Starik said in a telephone call from Vienna, where he lives. "I think he is in denial. He does not understand that he did something problematic from the moral point of view."

Anshin is suspected of having killed the baby on the night of December 31, after locking his wife out of the house along with her 5-year-old daughter from a previous marriage and threatening to harm the baby. Neighbors called the police, and one neighbor who broke into the house said he saw Anshin beating the baby.

It is difficult to ignore the fact that this is one of a series of violent acts in which children were harmed by members of extremist ultra-Orthodox sects. Before Nachman Anshin there was Yisrael Valis, a young father from the Eda Haredit community in Jerusalem, who was convicted of killing his infant son to death about four years ago (and then too there were complaints that the Eda Haredit community was being picked on). And there was Elior Chen, who is accused, together with his pupils from a marginal ultra-Orthodox group, of abusing children. Then there's the member of the Toldot Aharon Hasidic sect who's accused of starving her 3-year-old son, in a case that made the headlines over the summer.

Members of these extremist groups try to shake off the implications of this worrisome series of events. "What connection is there between the affairs?" asked Yona Perl of the Avraham Yitzhak Hasidic sect, to which the Starik family belongs. Perl is a kind of social worker, a member of the community who deals with its members' domestic problems. He said Anshin has a psychiatric problem that no one knew about. But other ultra-Orthodox public figures think differently. Haredi journalist Dudi Zilbershlag, for example, is calling on the community to take stock of its own shortcomings.

The Valis case and that of the mother accused of starving her child exposed the complex relationship between the extremist ultra-Orthodox groups and the authorities, especially the social welfare authorities. Residents of Mea She'arim have taken to the streets and demonstrated against what they called a "blood libel." At the height of the starvation case, posters in Mea She'arim called on the residents not to use social services and angry residents accused the social workers at a branch located in the heart of several Haredi neighborhoods of having "informed" on the mother. The head of that branch, Ruth Shapira, received threats and had to be escorted by bodyguards. Hadassah University Hospital, where the starving boy was treated, was the object of a boycott call.

Last week, after the baby girl was murdered, a member of the ultra-Orthodox community who asked to remain anonymous said that "this time there will not be demonstrations." Why? Because this time it was done in front of witnesses. Shapira also said the public aspect of the killing makes it less likely that the Haredi world will leap to the father's defense - even though some have described him as "one of us."

"This time it's not a 'Frenk' [a derogatory term for a Sephardi Jew] or a penitent - it's an Ashkenazi, one of us," a reader of a Haredi Web site wrote in a comment.

'He loved his daughter'

Moshe Starik is a Chabad emissary and the campus rabbi at the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration. It seems as if he, like other members of his family, is torn between pity for his sister - the mother of the baby who was killed - and compassion for the father who allegedly killed her, a brother-in-law who was also a friend and like a blood brother to him.

"He loved his daughter," says Starik. "The older girl too - she had a father ever since my sister married Nahman. He liked demonstrations, action, and was a chummy type, mischievous. I'm a Chabadnik and he's a Bratslaver - the two outsiders in the family. We have a great deal in common. I want to hug him and say everything is okay. I believe he did not have control. It's like a person who has caused a terrible accident. My parents also feel this way. They are noble people."

Starik believes Anshin had a psychiatric problem that neither the family nor his wife was aware of. Anshin said when he telephoned two weeks ago that "there was a matter of self-sacrifice involved, so I sacrificed myself."

How does Starik interpret that? "It sounds to me like a psychotic illusion," he says. "but there is also something biblical here. It is almost the sacrifice of Isaac. It is not a murder like in the case of Assaf Goldring, not a killing because he was furious at the mother." Last year, Goldring allegedly smothered his 3-year-old daughter to death with plastic wrap, after telling his estranged wife in a letter that he would hurt their daughter as vengeance for the separation.

Starik, who bases his remarks partly on comments he has heard from others, says Anshin is deep in debt. "Perhaps that was the trigger," he said, adding that the underlying cause must have been some kind of psychiatric problem. Haredi society, he said, tends to hide problems rather than help people get the sort of treatment that might have prevented this tragedy.

"It is important that they should tell the truth, and not sweep things under the carpet - especially psychiatric illnesses," he said. "If they don't understand that and don't deal with the problem, there will be further victims like these."

'We don't need social services'

Everyone in Mea She'arim knows Yona Perl. He is a walking social work bureau. For 30 years, he has helped solve the problems of the several hundred families who belong to the Toldot Aharon and Toldot Avraham Yitzhak Hasidic sects. He is the person who went to the Starik family to tell them their granddaughter had been murdered. For years, Perl has been a key figure who connects the Hasidic groups with the social welfare authorities behind the scenes. But in the past few months, he has changed his tune. "We don't need social services," he now says.

Since the starvation case came to light, "people are wary and don't go either to the welfare bureau or to the hospital," he said. "A child was burned. That could happen in any home. But no one wants to get into trouble because they know they will say it's violence. In the hospital they don't try to go into the matter and to see that in a family that with God's help has 14 or 15 children, and one child pulled the wire of a kettle, it's no one's fault. But they they will accuse the mother. That is why they try to go to get help at other places, private places, and that costs a lot of money. It is possible to manage alone and we also know where to turn to. I'm not dumb. What the welfare [officials] know, I know too. Once we used to work a lot with them. They would send us to suitable people, to psychiatrists, psychologists, private doctors. Today I do that."

Avigail Arieli, who heads the social welfare administration for northern Jerusalem, including Mea She'arim, says the number of people from Toldot Aharon who come to the welfare bureau has dropped since the starvation case. However, she said, the bureau is functioning normally and there has been an increase in the overall number of people approaching the social workers.

Ruth Shapira said that even at the height of demonstrations against police intervention in the starvation case, the bureau continued to handle ultra-Orthodox domestic violence cases. Recently, she said, five children from the Toldot Aharon sect were removed from their home because of sexual abuse, with the full cooperation of the police and the rabbis. In another case, a member of the community reported that a 3-year-old boy was locked in his home with his parents and had not been seen in the park or at day care. "Within two hours, we had paid a house call with the full cooperation of the community," Shapira said. "They say they don't want us but they can't manage without us, and business is continuing."

Since the latest murder, Shapira has met with members of the Toldot Aharon community to offer help to the family and to renew the dialogue with that sect. The meetings were held in secret, warily.

"They are right that in recent days there has been an excess of suspicion when a mother brings her baby to the hospital or the well-baby clinic," she said. "There is not a sense of normal conduct. But for their part, they realize the need for welfare and tell us that quite openly. We recognize the systems of support they have and we are assisted by them."

Shapira said, however, that there has been a general regression in the attitude of the ultra-Orthodox toward social services. "This week I heard that an inspector in the kindergartens of Beit Yaakov in [the Jerusalem neighborhood of] Har Nof instructed the teachers that if a social worker calls to get details about a child, they must hang up and not give any details," she said.

'Those immodest subjects'

Yad Sarah operates a large center for the prevention of domestic violence that works to prevent and treat domestic violence and enjoys the trust of the ultra-Orthodox community, perhaps because the Jerusalem-based rehabilitation center is seen as a Haredi association that primarily lends out medical equipment. Whatever the reason, two Haredi girls schools, in Betar Ilit and Beit Shemesh, have allowed the director of the Yad Sarah Family Center to instruct their teachers about domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Family center director Shlomit Lehman said it is still difficult to discuss such sensitive issues. After one of her lectures, she recalled, a principal called her to say "that some of the people had a hard time with 'those immodest subjects.'"

"I explained to him that we had to talk about it and that is was all a matter of terminology and language," she said. The center treated some 80 children last year who witnessed violence or were sexually abused, along with 150 men and 250 women.

"In the beginning, only women whose children were already married came to us. That did not endanger the chances of a match," Lehman said, referring to a prevalent fear among the ultra-Orthodox that any family problems could make it difficult for children in the family to get married. However, today there is full cooperation with the community, she said.

"Rabbis approach me," said Lehman. That might be "because I'm not a welfare worker," she said. "That makes communication easier."

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