Yisro 5773 -- Why Prosecute; The Man from Vilna
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 1, 2013
The sentencing of Nechemia Weberman to over 100 years in prison last week has once again brought the issue of child abuse in our communities to the fore. Many of us do not want to believe that child abuse in any form is found in the Torah community. Or we imagine that if it does exist, it is confined to obviously deranged and marginal individuals. At the very least, we wish that somehow matters could be worked out in private, in a way not pointing a bright searchlight on our community and forcing us to confront difficult realities.
Alas, there is no possibility of quiet resolution – at least not if we want to protect our children's bodies and souls. A community that attempts to deal with abuse issues quietly, in ways that protect our peace of mind, is a community that emboldens predators into thinking that they can get away with it – that sympathy for their families, or the instinctive recoil from admitting that such things can happen in our world too, or communal shame at being exposed before the secular world will serve to protect them.
Every predator will take steps to ensure that his victims remain silent. He will warn them of dire consequences if they tell or try to convince them that no one will believe them if they report what has happened to them. If children's complaints are routinely suppressed or discounted, the perpetrator's warning, "No one will believe you," gains credence and make it less likely that the victims will report. Experts in the field estimate that only in one out of ten victims reports what happened to him or her to an adult in a position to help them.
The feeling that they will not be caught emboldens predators. And by the same token, the assurance that they will be caught and prosecuted is the most effective way to stop abuse.
To understand why reporting to authorities when there is good cause for suspicion of abuse is so crucial it is first necessary to understand the impact of abuse on the victims and the importance of "validation" of their suffering in order for them to heal. (I'm drawing primarily on a chapter by Dr. David Pelcowitz, "Treatment of Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse," in a volume entitled Breaking the Silence.)
Victims of abuse understandably suffer a loss of trust and security. When the perpetrator is someone to whom they look for security or someone representing authority within their community, that loss of trust is greatly magnified. How can they place their trust in a community that has failed so dramatically to protect them? Mrs. Debbie Fox, who established an abuse prevention program in Los Angeles Torah schools, which is now being widely emulated nationwide under her direction, writes in Breaking the Silence that victims often express greater anger towards those who failed to protect them than with the perpetrator himself.
A community that cannot provide security and which betrays the natural trust of our young and helpless will not command their allegiance. When family members do not believe the victims or are unwilling or unable to take steps to protect them, writes Dr. Pelcowitz, "a generalized lack of trust in friends, family and community develops."
Victims may experience not only rage against the community, or the "system," in general, but also against Hashem for not running His world with Justice.' That is one reason victimhood correlates so highly with being "at-risk."
Victims frequently experience general feelings of worthlessness and blame themselves for what happened to them. It is crucial that when they report being victimized that they hear a clear and unambiguous message that they have been wronged and are not to blame for what happened to them. According to Dr. Pelcowitz, however, it is relatively common for parents or others who receive indications of abuse to downplay the significance of that abuse. Yet when the response of the community does not actively and unambiguously support the child by validating their feelings [of being horribly wronged] and ensuring that they feel safe, feelings of guilt and worthlessness can be significantly exacerbated," concludes Dr. Pelcowitz.
Many victims of abuse adopt a pattern of hopeless passivity. When adults act upon their complaints and take them seriously, they counteract those feelings of helplessness and passivity. Other victims engage in dissociation – i.e., enter a state of dream-like numbness to avoid the pain inflicted upon them. Before they can heal, they need to be able "to name the monster." But that naming of the monster can only take place in an environment where they feel comfortable talking about what happened to them and that they are taken seriously.
So important is validation as a first step in healing that one social worker with whom I spoke actually took a young victim to file a police complaint against a perpetrator who had died in the interim. Dr. Pelcowitz concludes that "one of the best predictors of recovery is the level of support offered once the abuse is disclosed."
And conversely, even adults who were victimized as children experience a reopening of their childhood traumas when they see new victims denied communal support and protection. That is something that those who ask, "Why can't they just get on with their lives and leave the past behind?" can't understand. The past is often still with them, especially if they did not receive the support they needed.
The Man from Vilna
What Mishpacha reader has not heard composer Abie Rotenberg's "The Man from Vilna," many times? You know the one with the refrain, "We danced round and round in circles as if the world had done no wrong/From evening until morning, filling up the shul with song/Though we had no sifrei Torah to clutch close to our hearts/In their place we held the future of a past so torn apart."
The author relates how he met an old man at a wedding in Chicago, and asked him why at his age and experiencing such difficulty walking, he still made the effort to attend simchas away from home. The old man's explanation is much like that which Rabbi Yisroel Zev Gustman, the only surviving member of the Vilna beis din, once gave to someone who asked him why he so enjoyed going to the Kosel on leil Shabbos to watch the bochurim from Yeshivat HaKotel dance: "If you've witnessed as much Jewish tzores as I have, you can never see too much Jewish simcha."
The old man relates to his interlocutor a story from the first Simchas Torah after the War, when a group of survivors made their way to the main shul of Vilna to celebrate, and found sifrei Torah strewn all around but none with which to dance. "Then we heard to children crying, a boy and a girl whom no one knew/And we realized that no children were among us but those two." So instead of the sifrei Torah, they took the two children and danced with them: "Though we had no sifrei Torah to clutch and hold up high/In their place we held those children, am Yisrael chai."
The song is a real tear-jerker. But its broad outlines are absolutely true. (Forgive the suspicion, but we are not exactly lacking for lachrymose, fictional stories and songs.) The protagonists in the story are Rabbi Leo (Yehuda Aryeh Leib) Goldman from Oak Park, Michigan, who passed away recently at 94 and whose Shloshim is this week. A yeshiva bochur from Koritz in the Ukraine, he was conscripted by the Soviets at the outset of World War II. Fortunately, for him he was wounded early in the fighting against the Germans, and sent far east to Uzbekistan for rehabilitation. There he met his wife, who was from Lithuania.
After the War, the Goldmans travelled to Vilna to see if any of her relatives had survived. Still wearing his Soviet army uniform, Rabbi Goldman (he had received semicha while still in his teens) asked a young boy in the shul if he was Jewish, and then proceeded to lift him up and carry him around in the dancing.
The little boy was Abraham Foxman, today director of the Anti-Defamation League. Born in Baranowitz, his parents hid him with a Polish woman during the War. They only succeeded him gaining him back with great difficulty after the War, as his caretaker – who had taught him to cross himself when entering a church and to spit at the sight of a Jew – very much wanted to keep him. His father brought the five-year-old boy to shul that Simchas Torah, just a short time after being reunited.
That encounter left a profound effect on both the Russian soldier and the little boy. The former spoke about it every year on Simchas Torah and on other occasions from his pulpit in Oak Park, Michigan. Eventually, he told the story to Rabbi Paysach Krohn, who recorded it in Echoes of the Maggid, and independently to Abie Rotenberg.
Foxman related how a soldier had lifted him high and proclaimed, "This is the Jewish flag," in his autobiography Never Again.
But the two men did not know of each other or meet again until 65 years after the Simchas Torah in question, when they met in Detroit, where Rabbi Goldman served as a rav for well over half a century.
This past October a number of Rabbi Goldman's grandchildren and great-grandchildren came to visit him. He was in failing health and had not been out of bed since Yom Kippur. But with eineklach and ur-eineklach gathered around, he mused in words echoing the song: "Just imagine, I'm alive and Hitler, yemach shmo, is dead. Am Yisrael Chai."
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Jewish Ethics, Personalities, Social Issues
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