Few would deny that as a community, chareidim were slow to recognize and deal with the scourge of abuse. Only gradually have we acknowledged that we are not immune to societal ills. And only recently has the full impact of abuse on victims and the larger community begun to emerge.
Virtually every victim of abuse is bound to harbor feelings of deep bitterness against all those charged with his or her protection, and his or her sense of security, upon which healthy social development is dependent, will likely be shattered. When the abuser is one in a position of authority, someone whom the child was taught to respect as a representative of Torah, the child's faith in that authority and the Torah itself is dealt a heavy blow.
Delay in recognition of the danger and the institution of additional protections for our children exacted a heavy price. But that recognition has now taken place. Parents are learning how to speak to their children to lessen their vulnerability, and our educational institutions have put into place protections not formerly thought necessary. Though much remains to be done, an awakening has taken place.
Thus I was surprised a couple of weeks ago by a front-page headline in the Jerusalem Post: "Haredi parents take on sexual abuse of children. Ramat Beit Shemesh parents increasingly frustrated with leaders' denial of problem." The headline pricked my antennae because I know personally many of the leading rabbis in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, and did not think it likely that they – the leaders referred to in the article – were in denial.
The piece portrayed two parents who bravely bucked "the stringent cultural norms" of their "tight-knit chareidi community in Ramat Beit Shemesh" to seek redress for the alleged abuse of their children. Another hero of the piece was David Morris, the director of Lema'an Achai, who promoted his organization's efforts to assist chareidi parents versus the rabbinic authorities who, in many cases, end up "believing the perpetrators' story over the victims." Morris speculates that there is a huge epidemic of child abuse in Ramat Beit Shemesh based on the wild claim that every case investigated by the police represents a thousand others not investigated.
THE ARTICLE AROUSED MY LAWYER'S SUSPICIONS? For one thing, not one local rabbi was quoted. Nor was there any indication that any had been contacted. The story fit a little too neatly into familiar stereotypes of the chareidi world. The portrayal of the community and its rabbinic leaders as hopelessly backward, with no knowledge of psychology or awareness of the darker side of human nature, followed familiar secular stereotypes. As did the picture of a community so insular that it would rather let its children be traumatized for life than address its problems or seek outside help.
I have many friends in the English-speaking community of Ramat Beit Shemesh "Aleph." And, frankly, the application of these stereotypes to them seemed preposterous. For starters, ba'alei teshuva comprise a very large percentage of the community – in some shuls almost one hundred per cent. These are not people with no knowledge of the outside world or whose every behavior is shaped by generations-old social mores. Few of them would silently endure the abuse of their children, or tolerate rabbis whom they viewed as passive in the face of such abuse.
The community's rabbis are young, worldly, and energetic. None come from a generation that might have believed that these problems do not exist among religious people. Child abuse is currently a hot topic in the chareidi community. There is an ever widening awareness of the traumatic impact of abuse on the individual child and the community, and that victims may themselves become perpetrators, if not treated professionally and promptly. Rabbi Elimelech Kornfeld, one of the leading local rabbonim, told me that an extra level of vigilance is needed in a new community like Ramat Beit Shemesh, where people have not known each other for years and everyone comes from some place else.
I was even more confident that none of the rabbis I know would be indifferent to accusations of child abuse. Why would they be? The greatest posek of the generation has written that where adequate grounds of suspicion exist one should go to the police. And one friend of mine was told by a leading member of the Eidah Hachareidis that he should help a young man report a case of abuse to the police.
Ramat Beit Shemesh is not an established community, with venerable institutions, which there might be some impulse to shield. None of the communal rabbis have any interest beyond the well-being of their congregants. And they take that task very seriously.
I have met David Morris and been impressed by Lema'an Achai's work on behalf of the Jews evicted from their homes in Gaza and refugees from the North during the Second Lebanon War. (My wife worked for many years as a therapist for Lema'an Achai.) I can believe that Morris, who is not chareidi, thinks he knows better than the local rabbis how to deal with the problem, just as the local rabbis, many of whom have far greater experience than the five or ten calls that Morris claims have been received by Lema'an Achai's Safe Kids hotline, do not look to Morris, who has no relevant professional training, for guidance..
But I do not believe that Morris thinks the rabbis are clueless about the issue or routinely believe accused perpetrators over children. What is true is that the rabbis do not feel that a teacher should be automatically fired the first time any student complains of untoward behavior and he and his family stigmatized for life. (The Israeli police when they receive a complaint about a teacher do not even routinely alert the institution in question.)
The rabbis will, however, advise the institution to put the teacher on notice that he or she is under supervision and give him or her a set of inviolable rules while an investigation is in process. (One Bnei Brak cheder installs a camera in the classroom in such cases.)
LENGTHY CONVERSATIONS with three rabbis in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph confirmed my suspicion that there is more than one side to the story. Both the rabbis and communal organizations dealing with youth work with the police and welfare department. The rabbis also provided me with lists of therapists with whom they work to evaluate and treat possible victims. Rabbi Kornfeld described at length at least three cases where problematic individuals or families were forced to leave the neighborhood. In each case, the rabbis in their new communities were also alerted.
And far from the more modern Orthodox community coming to the rescue of the benighted chareidim, on at least two occasions Rabbi Kornfeld had to work hard to convince more modern elements in the community of the potential danger posed by individuals about whom he learned through international chareidi social networks.
The rabbis' preference for working behind the scenes derives not from a desire to sweep problems under the rug, but from a considered philosophy about what is best for victims, their families, and the community. The knowledge that incidents will be publicized can keep victims or their parents from coming forward. In addition, publicity can lead to hysteria in which parents become convinced that their children are at great risk in school. (In fact, more abuse takes place within families or involves older children as perpetrators.)
The rabbis recognize that ultimately the only cure for child abuse is prevention, which means above all educating children as to what is impermissible touching and must be reported immediately and alerting parents to signs of possible abuse. One rabbi told me of an upcoming meeting with Dr. Susan Schulman, a Boro Park physician and author of Understanding Your Child's Health to discuss ways to improve community education.
The skewed portrayal of the rabbinic leadership of Ramat Beit Shemesh provides one more example of how much more complicated is the reality of the chareidi community than the stereotypes which abound.