Friday, September 14, 2012

Why Do Orthodox Communities Cover Up Sexual Abuse?

I just saw an interesting and painful post on one of the few blogs I regularly keep up with, citing one of the many blogs that I don’t, which posted a letter by Pearl Engelman.  Pearl is a fascinating person (whom I have never met), in that she is a member of the notoriously insular Satmar community who campaigns very publicly against sexual abuse and the cover-ups that happen in the frum community.  (Pearl’s son was molested by a rebbe as a child and subsequently left the frum community as a result not only of the molestation but of the treatment he received at the hands of the community as well.)
The post bemoans the way the case of Nechemia Weberman in Brooklyn is being handled.  Weberman is the latest in a line of frum paraprofessionals to be accused of molesting the youths they counsel.  In Weberman’s case, immediately after the accusation came out, the community pulled together a massive fundraising effort on his behalf to pay for his legal fees.  To many activists and advocates for victims of sexual abuse (myself included), this is infuriating and intolerable.
Many have asked why the Orthodox community is so awful in the way it handles child sexual abuse.  Dr. David Pelcovitz, an acknowledged expert on abuse in the frum community, says that he speaks about the issue all over the world, and he is frequently embarrassed by secular authorities asking why the Orthodox community is more invested in protecting the perpetrators than the victims.  It doesn’t look good, to say the least, and it is truly painful and embarrassing to the many Orthodox Jews who wish their community would live up to its own standards.  I feel that Pearl’s post, and the encouraging comments that follow it, stop short of providing a solid explanation for this disgrace in our community. So here is my take on why this happens.
For far too many members of the Orthodox community, an observant lifestyle is simply what they grew up with.  It is the only thing they know, and it perpetuates itself out of habit rather than out of conviction.  “This is what everyone else does, this is what we’ve always done, and this is what I do.”  It is not terribly common for frum folks (ba’alei teshuvah aside, perhaps) to sit down and examine their beliefs, why they hold them, or whether they make sense – especially in the very insular, traditional communities where such questioning is implicitly and explicitly discouraged.  (Note that I am not saying all members of one group or another are this way; I am lamenting that this approach is found everywhere in the frum world.)
Such people are denied the meaningful identity that comes from a true connection to Torah.  Their self-concept derives instead from community norms and the conformity to them which is demanded by their peers.  Adherence to these norms is reinforced by teaching that we are the Chosen People, and that only we (whichever community “we” is) have things right. (The lack of acceptance among different frum groups of other frum groups is not something anyone is hearing here for the first time.)  Anyone outside our community is mistaken, some more, some less.  All nonreligious Jews are apikorsim; all Christians are fools; all atheists are immoral; all scientists are biased.  But not us!  Because we have the Torah!  We are wise and moral and perfectly objective, or so the thinking goes.  (I believe that this is also the source of frum rejections of scientific ideas and dismissals of good deeds done by non-Jews.)
For someone who really does “have” Torah, discovering that a Jew with a big beard and a reputation to match has been involved in something so deplorable as sexual abuse is sorrowful but not incomprehensible.  It simply becomes clear that that person doesn’t actually have a real connection to Torah.  But to those whose frumkeit is really just an external adornment, a robotic comportment, the Jew who looks the part but violates children sends the message that the community’s values – the values around which their lives revolve – are worthless or corrupt.  It means that “frum people are wrong.”  But frum people can’t be wrong, because that would mean that I am wrong.  (This is similar to the reaction that we see people having when these matters come to light – “He can’t be doing these things; he’s a fine person, I’ve known him my whole life” – i.e., “I can’t be wrong!”  See this video for an example of people saying exactly this kind of thing.)  For such people, allowing that someone who looks and acts religious could commit such a heinous crime is be to undermine the very basis of their self-concept.  
This, I maintain, is why we see people vehemently, even violently reacting against anyone who makes an accusation of sexual abuse in their community, often in very short order.  Ultimately, they are not protecting that person: they are protecting themselves.  They are shielding their very identities, which have been built like castles in the sand on what others do and what others think, but unfortunately not on Torah.  And when it comes to protecting a weak sense of self, people will go to very great lengths, at very great cost.


  1. I think this is very insightful and probably correct. I had not thought about it that way.

  2. Raffi,
    A succinct summary.

    I would call the fund-raising a “knee jerk” reaction” by well-intentioned but uninformed (or misinformed) people.
    (I disagree with Yerachmiel Lopin that they are mostly evil-intentioned.
    With few exceptions, they simply don’t know what they are doing. They are mixed-up, confused and bewildered. And yes, meanwhile they are unintentionally causing a lot of damage. Hashem Yirachem.)

    BTW, As bad as it looks, Weberman is still innocent until proven guilty.

    I hope the truth will be exposed soon.

    Whether he’s declared innocent or (based on what I’ve read, more likely) guilty, it will be a powerful lesson for all.

    Let’s give the Chareidim the benefit of the doubt. (Likovod the Yomim-Noraim) This is a new reality for them/us. It may take a while to “acclimate”.

    I believe that with ongoing dialogue and pressure, these Kehillos will eventually “come around”.

    Don’t give up! In the past few centuries even fierce Misnagdim eventually became devoted Chassidim. (:

    Bottom line: These supporters of the molesters mean well. They just haven’t figured it out yet…

    We Jews are a stubborn people. Give us some time.
    And meanwhile you, and others like you, keep up the good work.
    Please keep up your “education campaign” with respect and dignity.

  3. I don't know that I agree with you that it is "well-intentioned." That's what this post is all about - where this reaction really comes from. And yes, he is innocent until proven guilty, but that is unrelated to the reaction that the masses immedaitely have as soon as someone is accused, namely, he must be innocent and we have to do everythign we can to prove it.

  4. rafi,
    very interesting take. might i add that i think that the reaction might come from something a bit more complicated as well. we are taught to protect the dignity and privacy of others. a jew is a jew even if he sins. someone who has not been proven guilty is - fortunately or unfortunately - not guilty. we have halachos relating to lashon hara and rechilus, and no matter how infuriating an accusation is, we still need to follow halacha when it comes to destroying someone's good name. there are also halachos relating to whether or not you are allowed to go to non-jewish authorities with accusations against a jew. i am not saying that sexual abuse at the hands of a jew is excusable/understandable/forgivable etc., but i do believe that as frum jews we have a different set of laws governing the way we handle such accusations. obviously we MUST teach our kids to come to us IMMEDIATELY if anything chas veshalom were to happen to them or someone they know and they should NOT worry about lashon hara and rechilus, b/c that actually doesn't fall into the catergory of lashon hara (as i heard from rebbetzin spetner). but as adults we shouldn't jump to conclusions or spread the word unless a person has been proven guilty. i think that without a clear understanding of these halachos, many people get very confused and are not sure how to handle a person accused of sexual abuse. if someone very influential and very convincing comes out with a request to collect money for the defense of a person who he deems is innocently being accused, confusion might cause many to follow him and support such a cause... (don't forget that the accused probably has a family too and friends, all of whom could never imagine that he could actually be guilty of such an accusation). the jewish people are rachmanim... unfortunately, sometimes that rachmanus is a bit misguided...

    1. The halachos of lashon hara state that while you are not allowed to conclude that the person in question is guilty, you may be concerned for the possibility and take appropriate actions. Recall that the verse "lo teleich rachil be'amecha" ends in "ve'lo ta'amod al dam re'echa."

      Moreover, what you state here does not really address the point I made - that people aggressively jump to support the accused without knowing any facts themselves. They don't explain that "the rebbe said to support him so we're supporting him;" rather, they claim that it is impossible for him to have committed such a crime, and therefore they are doing the right thing by supporting him.

    2. you are allowed to be concerned and keep your kids away from the guy, but are you allowed to spread his name across newspapers and magazines? i don't know the halacha or the case well enough to be able to apply one to the other in this specific case.
      i might be a bit bias since i know of someone over a year ago who was accused of molesting, he happened to be my best friend's father (whom i've known for 20 years and who has done a tremendous amount of chessed for kids from disadvantaged homes in israel). he was all over the news, but from what i've been able to see, nothing ever came of it. since i've known him and his family forever, and since i've seen many of these young children that he has helped (they are literally treated like family at his house), i agree that i find it very very hard to believe he would have done anything like that. however, that is not because he represents judaism to me and has to be ok b/c judaism is ok - it is simply b/c i know him and his family well for 20 years and it seems unfathomable to me that he would molest anyone - he has spent his entire life just caring for kids. and yes, i know an outsider would say that that is the perfect cover for a child molester, and it could very well be that he is chas veshalom a child molester, but it is still not a conclusion i would jump to or spread without seeing incriminating evidence. the situation could be far more complicated then what it seems on the surface. i would assume his wife and kids would want to ensure him a great lawyer, and i would assume that they would turn to others for help if they felt they needed it and weren't too embarrassed to ask. if he admits he was wrong, it is one thing, but if he says he doesn't know where these accusations came from (which was his claim), i would believe him until proven otherwise. but once again, i would do that since i know his family well, not because he is frum and represents truth to me.

    3. "you are allowed to be concerned and keep your kids away from the guy, but are you allowed to spread his name across newspapers and magazines?"

      On the basis of one accusation, no. On the basis of "continuing rumors," yes (see Bach CM 388).


      "i know him and his family well for 20 years and it seems unfathomable to me that he would molest anyone"

      This has been said of many, many molesters in many, many different cases. If you were to spend a few years working in this field, you would probably have less of a hard time believing it could be true.


      "it is still not a conclusion i would jump to or spread without seeing incriminating evidence."

      What evidence are you waiting for? Medical reports from the victims? Taped recordings of the accused telling his friend about the children he's molesting? Perhaps you want two kosher witnesses to come forward and testify that they saw him actually molesting the child?


      "i would do that since i know his family well, not because he is frum and represents truth to me."

      Right - and notice how you are not the one out there making a big scene, threatening and intimidating victims and their families, discrediting them, etc.

  5. It's definitely an very interesting phenomenon. Just to contrast the "frum" Jewish example: Catholic lay people just about crucify their accused child molesters even for what they supposedly did, no benefit of the doubt there. Similar, albeit toned down reaction from Protestants too based on my interaction with them in this instances. But the victims in these camps are totally supported, believed and defended. Why as Jews are we different in this? I think this was your question.

    I believe, Raffi that you've touched on something much bigger here with a broader application. I mean how many of us REALLY internalize our davening, our learning? How many of us REALLY change during the Yomim Noraim? I think that it is a spiritual epidemic that the vast majority of frum Jews just go through the motions, and perhaps one latent showing of this failing in us is the support of such people to the deference of the victim. Like a subconcious projection of what's lacking in us. The Naviim are still relevant because we're still doing the same things...when are we going to listen? I'm including myself here!

    As much as I've pondered this I obviously don't have a big solution other than doing one's best to internalize what we learn and daven, but l'maase something we can do right now is to go out of our way to support the victims of these horrible situations.

  6. Boaz, I'm not Catholic, but I have been following the scandal in the Catholic Church for a while, and while you are correct that laypeople are outraged now, for a long time children were ashamed to tell and very often were not believed and punished when they did.

    The difference is that there has been a longer period of scandals and exposures concerning Catholic priests. In the US, IIRC, there was a major scandal publicized in the national media in Louisiana in 1993 and a bigger one in Boston in 2002, and others. Philadelphia today is repeating a twenty-year old story, plus there have been major scandals in other countries as well.

    As we all know now, or should know, pedophiles frequently appear caring, benevolent, even "saintly." It would have been natural for Orthodox Jews to suppose that what happened among celibate Catholic priests had nothing to do with their rabbis, educators and counselors, and of course, they wanted to believe that.

    In both cases, people want to believe that commitment to their respective religious traditions protects against sin, particularly sins as repulsive as this. It's hard for any believer to accept that God tolerates such horrible hypocrisy and desecration of His name, even though we know it happens.

  7. So "Anonymous" are you suggesting in time the trend will shift in "frum" circles too?

  8. Interesting that it was just revealed that the Boy Scouts has been hiding child/sexual abuse in their ranks for decades. They claim they wanted to maintain the image of a safe place for children...obviously at the expense of the victims that were forced to be silent.

    1. I think it's a bit of a different phenomenon. It seems to me that in situations like these, the people who knew actually believed the accusations; why they didn't report them might be close to what they said, or might not. (Could be similar in that for those at the top, their whole life is probably wrapped up in the Boy Scouts; to see it admit to such a thing and possibly sink is too difficult.)

      In our case, by contrast, it really seems that the vocal defenders DO NOT believe the accusations. To them, it simply can't be true.

  9. Raffi:

    Why you seem to have a good insight into one aspect of the current crisis – there are other aspects you are overlooking in this post (I understand you focus on the social/psychological parts.)

    Why do big ravs warn people about mesira in these cases?

    Why do community leaders have toughs run around and intimidate victims and their families? Either physical intimidation or the typical warnings about shidduchim and school?

    Why do rosh hashivas fire people they strongly suspect of child molestation, only to silently stand by and watch them move on to other schools to prey on new children?

    Take a crack at that stuff too. It is just as much of a question as why rank and file frummies have a hard time believing x is a molester. And it has a different answer, but would be interested in your take.

    Finally, why is community comportment and secrecy the utmost value? So much so that threats hover over the heads of anyone who is perceived as different?


    1. I don’t see why you need to find another explanation. It seems to me the same issue is at the root of all of this. Do you think that just because someone is a “community leader” that they have necessarily thought through all their beliefs intellectually and do not feel personally threatened by challenges to the system? I think all of the issues you mentioned basically come down to the same thing. Perhaps it could be added that for people in power, the impetus to protect the status quo is all the more urgent lest their empire come tumbling down.

      Nonetheless, if you have another perspective, I’m open to hearing it.

  10. All I’m saying is rank and file frummies are of course too insulated from realities regarding the behavior of frum people – so they deny the possibility.

    But if a head of a school sees it actually occurring to his own students – and turns away from it, fires the guy, and watches him move on to prey on others – he is not so much denying it as ignoring it.

    It’s a different mechanism. But you are absolutely right that he would worry about his school’s reputation.

    So perhaps it is normative Judaism to weigh the two issues – molestation versus his school’s reputation (and his parnussa) and come down on the side of protecting his school’s reputation.

    This is a decision arrived at that, while running counter to modern values (read goyishe values) is in keeping with a frum system of thought. It is valid Judaism.

    What I think is people who are frum but modern are desperately trying to re-brand modern values as Jewish.

    Modern frum people are mortified by the reality of the frum value system – and therefore deny it. They don’t deny the molestation – they deny the frum values that seek to keep it quiet and intimidate the victim.

    I know many baal teshuvas who repeat that the way the frum community has intimidated victims and the attempt to keep the police out of it are NOT frum values. But they are. What they are not are modern values.

    There’s more going on psychologically here than a simple “they are too invested in innocence to acknowledge the possibility.” There are more themes here.

    Additionally, I know from personal research, primary research, in depth field work that prostitutes in NYC count frum men as among their best customers. Rabbis know this. Some rabbis have made a part time job out of working with the police to shut down apartment based brothels in frum communities. It is a constant project of the South Brooklyn Task Force of the NYPD.

    Because this is a “victimless” crime – of course, no one is going to get too worked up about it. The ones I visited to see for myself were all in Manhattan.

    There are gay frum Jews who go to gay bars. There are gay frum Jews who pick up men on the subway.

    Again, I know this from talking to gay friends who are aware of some of this from first hand experience.

    More stuff that is victimless – and therefore not a big problem from the community perspective.

    There is widespread abuse of welfare programs – there is real evidence of this. Politicians are terrified of ethnic or religious groups, so nothing really happens (which of course encourages the behavior.)

    Again, there are no huge problems, no victims. The community can deny ALL of these categories of crime – and they do.

    The only reason the child molestation situation changed is because of Joe Hynes, DA of Brooklyn, who (at his political peril) decided he could not look the other way. He set up Kol Tzedek in the DA’s Office – so that frum victims could come forward anonymously and NOT be intimidated, threatened, or expelled from the community. Let’s see if he can get reelected.

    Basically, you are addressing a piece of the situation. There is so much more here for you to look at. You should write a book.

    Kol Tuv,

  11. There is plenty to take issue with here, but I think the most glaring point is where you assert that covering up molestation and intimidating victims are frum values. You are grossly mistaken. Human sacrifice was repudiated by our forefathers long ago.

    And I am still waiting to hear what your opinion is on what else it is I need to be looking at.

  12. The guys who are intimidating victims are not being exiled from the community. They are tolerated by the leadership. There are leaders who will take a “machmir” approach that holds masirah concerns as trumping molestation.

    How do we know? Rav Yitz Adlerstein wrote poignantly about polling frum leaders in the haredi world about whether it was appropriate to turn in a molester to police.

    Some said they would. Some said they would not.

    Therefore, it is pretty plain that there are various opinions on this matter.

    Whether it constitutes human sacrifice is another question. They have weighed it out and some come down on one side, other Talmud chachim come down on the other side.

    Raffi, either you’ve got the intellectual firepower to look at these questions from several angles, or you’re just stuck on a textbook, simplified, notion about people who can’t get outside their own identity long enough to criticize their community, its members, its problems.

    That is one problem. That is not the problem of a yeshiva head who has the problem of students going home with blood in their underwear, a particular teacher who he suspects of raping children, and a decision taken to simply dismiss said teacher.

    That is a different guy. He’s not the frummie too insulated to believe misconduct is occurring. He’s someone who knows it is occurring, and takes actions to protect himself, and place more children at risk.

    That’s simply one more “type” out there in the frum world.

    So, I have outlined two beyond the insulated frummie you wrote about.

    First, the rav who says that while goyishe people think it is a normal moral value to turn in a predator and protect a victim, it is not so clear in the frum world. Not that one can’t come down on that side; just that it is not clear.

    Men far greater in Torah than yourself or me have made decisions regarding mesirah that, while painful for moderns to hear, are made with the weight of their presumed Torah knowledge.

    That we would not buy their reasoning does not make their reasoning false – it just makes it non-modern.

    They are as frum as anyone.

    That is one type.

    The other type to consider in the frum community is the community leader (in this case a rosh hashiva) who knows that kids under his charge are going home with blood in their underwear, knows the teacher involved, and dismisses him. And knows that the teacher winds up at another school.

    He too is not the typical insulated frummie. He is someone who is not like the typical insulated frummie who just doesn’t believe child predators are possible in their world. He knows they exist. He has hired and fired them.

    That’s two types in the frum community besides the one you identified. I bet those with more insight, and information than I have could identify more types.

    I know people in the Jewish marketing world who would take a simple approach – your approach. It’s not complete. It doesn’t cover the types, the problems. The reasons people don’t turn in predators.

    I’m just adding to your essay. I know things up close about the frum community that my friends and relatives in kiruv simply don’t want to know about. I am just trying to make clear that the frum community is made up of different kinds of people – a cast of different types of characters – and we can identify more than one impulse in people grappling with the specter of child molestation.

    That’s it, bud.


    1. Yes, you're right. There are folks who are not just hanging on to their identity. But the rosh yeshiva you're talking about is also not the guy militating in the streets. He is merely sitting quietly as these events pass him by, or he is paskening in favor of the molester. I think the angry, vocal crowd out there is mostly comprised of the "type" I described, and that's who I was aiming to define.

      I totally dismiss your reasoning that because a rosh yeshiva or "talmid chacham" said it that makes it a frum approach. That their reasoning is non-modern does not make it true. Show me a rabbi who opts to protect a known predator over a known victim, and I'll show you a fraud. (Of course when there is doubt it's much more complicated - but what constitutes doubt, and what the realities of abuse are - these are frequently dependent on a knowledge of the issue of sexual abuse and not on Torah-based insight.)

  13. Ok. Truce. I am always glad to hear there are frum folks who want to deal with problems. As a counselor, you will see many of them I am sure. My cousins in kiruv are hell bent on presenting an early 1960s style “Ozzie and Harriet” Orthodox Judaism to secular Jews. I see holes, but they tell me to zip it.

    I was exposed to kiruv for many months, really years, and finally backed away from yiddishkeit in order to save my mental health. Though I do recognize that for some of my friends, embracing yiddishkeit was just what the doctor ordered. (Though I believe many of the more ultra fanatical among them suffer from mental health issues. Another story for another day.)



  14. Well, I guess you don't attract a lot of new initiates with tales of frum molesters walking free, do you?