True or false?
1) Child abuse does not happen in the Orthodox Jewish community.
2) Child abuse is particularly prevalent there.
3) Halacha-observant living actually encourages child abuse.
4) The Orthodox community has not taken measures to prevent child abuse.
Answers: 1) false 2) false 3) false 4) false.
Abuse of children unquestionably exists in the Orthodox community. So, though, does fanciful speculation of its extent. Consider a recent long, lurid article about a child molestation lawsuit against an Orthodox rabbi.
(Full disclosure: An Agudath Israel-affiliated camp is named as a co-defendant in the lawsuit. The allegations include acts said to have been committed against two adolescent boys in the camp, where the alleged abuser was employed some 30 years ago. The other defendants in the lawsuit are Yeshiva & Mesivta Torah Temimah of Flatbush and the alleged abuser, Rabbi Yehuda Kolko.)
Robert Kolker, writing in New York magazine, cleverly and subtly sandwiched an admission of a dearth of statistical evidence about abuse in the Orthodox world between a sinister question and a damning speculation: “Is molestation more common in the Orthodox Jewish community than it is elsewhere? There are no reliable statistics … but there’s reason to believe the answer to that question might be yes.”
The “reason to believe” is based on speculation by Hella Winston, who has written about once-chasidic people who turned their backs on their communities. She recounts how “shocking” it was to hear how “so many boys [emphasis hers] have had this experience.”
Leave aside her unquestioning acceptance of her subjects’ claims. Focus only on the essential, glaring problem of drawing so sweeping a conclusion based on so slender and specialized a sample. Abuse, tragically, may well have been a factor in the trajectory of those disheartened Jews’ lives. And if it was, our hearts must ache with the anguish of the victims. But to consider their agonizing experience as somehow emblematic of chasidic life, much less broader Orthodox life is like deciding there must be a national tuberculosis epidemic after visiting a hospital and seeing “so many” patients there suffering with the disease.
Kolker then goes on to make an even more offensive and groundless speculation, safely qualified with the preface “There are some who believe.” What they believe, he reports, is that “the repression in the ultra-Orthodox community can foster abuse.” By “the repression” he means things like the strict forbiddance of sexual relations before marriage and the Jewish family purity laws that regulate when married couples may and may not engage in intimacy. The “few outlets for an Orthodox man with compulsions” create “a fertile environment for deviance.”
Here snideness slips toward slander, not only of Orthodox Jews but of Judaism itself. Larger society has ample “outlets” for sexual expression (including many Kolker doesn’t likely prescribe). Yet abuse there is hardly unknown. Might the lack of sexual discipline inherent in a culture of “anything goes” be a greater risk factor for abuse than the ethic of personal responsibility cultivated by Jewish law?
Permit me a counter-hypothesis: A Torah-observant life does not lead to aberrant behavior; it helps prevent it. “I created an evil inclination,” the Talmud quotes the Creator, “And I created the Torah as its antidote [literally: ‘seasoning’].”
That fundamental Jewish truth that human inclinations are harnessed and controlled by Torah-life and Torah-study is self-evident to anyone truly familiar with the Orthodox community. The vast majority of its members are caring and responsible people who lead exemplary lives, free in large measure from societal ills like rape, AIDS, prostitution and marital infidelity that affect their less “repressed” neighbors.
That shouldn’t surprise; halacha-observance stresses family, community, compassion for others, control of anger and passions, ethical ideals. To be sure, there will always be observant individuals who sometimes fail the test of self-control, even with horrendous impacts on the lives of innocents. But that no more indicts Jewish observance than the fact that there are corrupt police or drug-addled doctors renders law enforcement or medicine suspect.
Preparing this essay, I interviewed some of the most respected mental health professionals with experience in the Orthodox world. To a person, they believe (based on their experience; as above, there are no statistics) that the number of child abusers in the Orthodox world is, like that of practitioners of other types of aberrant behavior, below that of general society. Anyone who thinks there is “reason to believe” otherwise has not consulted professionals whose on-the-ground experience uniquely qualifies them to speak to the topic.
At the same time, though, just as bad cops and strung-out MDs must be rooted out, so must we address child abuse, whose victims, tragically, can be emotionally scarred for life. Even if the problem is less prevalent in Orthodox circles than elsewhere, abuse should be nonexistent in a community that believes in the sublime value of children, the momentousness of their upbringing and the consequence of the Torah’s laws to which abusive behavior is unambiguously antithetical.
Anyone who has shown a tendency toward abusive behavior has no business serving as a teacher, counselor or youth leader, and institutions must have procedures in place to ensure that they do not. And, while there is still much to do in this regard, the community can point with some degree of pride to important strides that have already been made.
Many Orthodox schools and summer camps have for years had in place clear policies and effective safeguards to help prevent abuse. Three years ago, the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools published and disseminated internal school guidelines for preventing and dealing with abuse, including reporting to civil authorities when appropriate. Sessions at its conventions focusing on the issue and featuring leading mental health professionals have been standing room only and lasted late into the night.
Special Jewish courts have been established in a number of Orthodox communities across the country to deal with abuse accusations (and have, in cases of proven guilt or admission of a crime, put suitable restrictions in place). A number of Orthodox mental health organizations and social service groups deal both with victims of child abuse and with abusers.
And contemporary rabbinical leaders have publicly spurred their followers to action on the issue. David Mandel, head of the Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, which operates a sexual abuse prevention and treatment program, said, “The degree to which Torah leaders have spoken out [on abuse in the Orthodox community] has been remarkable.”
Has all that been enough? Nothing is, at least not until abuse is nonexistent in the community. Must more be done? Yes. And it will be.
As progress continues, though, we would do well to avoid the New York magazine mind trap. To imagine that what has defined traditional Jewish life for millennia is somehow a risk factor for abuse is to turn all logic and experience on their heads. The true risk factors, as mental health professionals attest, are things like absent parents, alcohol and drug abuse, lack of support systems and the touting of a Woody Allenesque “the heart wants what it wants” mindset, all considerably underrepresented in the Orthodox community. If any environment can reasonably be imagined to foster the bane of child abuse, it is the charged atmosphere of MTV, R-rated movies, contemporary advertising and uncontrolled Internet usage, not the universe of Jewish values.