Thursday, March 29, 2018

Freedom for Our Children and Our Children's Children

“If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our ancestors from Egypt, behold we and our children and our children's children would [all still] be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

This text from the Haggadah begs the famous question, “Really?” That is to say, ancient Egypt is long defunct.  Had we really not been taken out by G-d at that time, probably we would have eventually gotten out of that jam when Egypt was conquered by the next up-and-coming world power. So what is the Haggadah talking about here? The famous answer is that we are not talking about physical freedom, but about spiritual freedom, which, after all, is what Judaism is all about.  Had we not been saved from Egypt, we would have completely assimilated and lost our Jewish identities, our Jewish selves, our Jewish missions. 

The impact of the environments we live in and of our surrounding cultures cannot be taken lightly.  Though we were nearly lost in Egypt, Jews have remained Jews through the worst physical persecutions.  Jewish identity in America today is more threatened than it was for centuries in Poland under oppressive regimes and crushing poverty, until the Enlightenment opened up new avenues for Jews into European society and assimilation began en masse.

Modern Western culture may share more with ancient Egypt, however, than with the Europe of recent history. The linguistic root of the word “Pharaoh” in Hebrew means “wild, let loose, shameless.” When we say we would still be slaves to Pharaoh, we indeed mean a spiritual slavery, a slavery of our soul to our baser instincts. One can be free to move about as he pleases and still be acting more out of compulsion than contemplation.  If you aren’t sure how to understand this idea, ask someone who’s addicted to drugs, or alcohol, or better yet, internet pornography – they’ll tell you what it’s like to be enslaved to the power of desire.

Our society today aggressively pushes a life of the body over the mind, let alone the soul.  Our girls are taught that their only value is in the shape of their physique, and that only one kind of shape is acceptable.  They are sexualized at younger and younger ages and are being taught how to flaunt that sexuality front and center, rather than channel it for meaningful ends.  Meanwhile, our boys continue to learn that their greatest worth comes from the conquest of women, and society continues to give them a “presidential pardon” when they engage in such conquest by force or coercion.  They are stars when they are celebrities and athletes, and are thus given a pass on all kinds of ignoble behaviors.

This is nothing you don’t already know. But have you stopped to think lately about how you too are a part of this shamelessness? How society has dragged you just a little bit further in than you’d like or care to admit?  Here’s one way I’ve discovered in which I am part of the problem rather than the solution.  Like most everyone else, when I come home to find my daughters dressed for Shabbos, or ready for a wedding, or wearing an outfit I haven’t seen before, what’s the first thing I say? “Ohhh, beautiful! You look so pretty!”  Don’t we all, upon visiting our friends and siblings, greet their daughters by commenting on how nice they look?

Granted, it is a little awkward to suggest opening up with “Ohhh, you are clearly very diligent and analytical!” First impressions inherently do not lend themselves to seeing beneath the surface.  But that doesn’t mean that focusing on the surface is a wise alternative.  If the first thing your children hear from you concerns their appearance, what are they to assume is your priority? Worse, what if you never do comment on their qualities of character or intelligence?

So I’m going to aim for a change. I’m done with being a part of enslaving my girls to the tyranny of cultural pressures.  I want my children to grow up knowing that the most valuable part of themselves is not how they look (and even less how others think they look), that freedom is more about choosing the right values and not the right shoes, and that ultimately their bodies are not what is most valuable about them, but rather merely a vessel to express that which is.

Postscript: Admittedly, alternatives to commenting on our children’s cuteness aren’t so easy to come up with.  Here are some of my ideas. Would love to hear some ideas from you in the comments!
  • “It’s so nice you see you!”
  • “That is a very creative hairdo!”
  • “You look all ready for Shabbos!”
  • “I see you’ve been a big helper by getting yourself dressed!”

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Five Love Languages and G-d

There is a parable of a king who sent two of his servants to fetch him a drink of water.  The first servant ran out to the royal grounds to the nearest well, drew a bucket of water, carried the bucket to the kitchen and poured off a glass of water. Panting and sweating, he then brought the glass of water as quickly as he could to the king, who smiled and thanked him before drinking it down.  The second servant likewise ran off, but as he was going, he began to deliberate.  “I am not the strongest servant the king has,” he reasoned, “surely he is not expecting me to haul a heavy bucket of water for him.  I am much more talented as an artist than a transporter. I will draw the king of beautiful picture of a glass of water. This is a much better way for me to serve the king!”  And so he did. When he brought his drawing to the king, the king was disconcerted.  “It certainly is a nice drawing – but I asked for water to drink. I can’t drink this.  It’s not what I asked for.”  The king was not happy, and the servant did not end up feeling like he had properly served the king.

This parable reflects the traditional Orthodox outlook that G-d is to be served in the way He has requested and not in the way we feel suits us best.  Drum circles and freedom seders are fine ideas, but they aren’t what G-d asked for.  G-d has made clear what he asks of us in the Torah: He has provided us with numerous ways to connect to Him and thereby to build a relationship with our Creator.  There is much room for individual expression, but not infinite room: if we want a relationship with G-d, there are avenues that will lead us there and there are avenues that will not.

This idea helps provide the answer to a question recently asked of me by one of the partners in a couple I was treating.  In working on their relationship, we drew from the theory of the Five Love Languages, which posits that there are five basic “languages” in which people communicate love. (These are Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Acts of Service, Gifts, and Physical Touch, although the details don’t concern us right now. You can read more about these in detail at my professional blog.)  For the most part, every person responds best to one of these languages and feel most loved and cared for when their partner communicates their love in such fashion.  If someone’s Love Language is Physical Touch, a nice present might be appreciated, but it won’t fill them with a feeling of being loved the way holding hands would.  For someone whose language is Acts of Service, having their partner mow the lawn or do the laundry can be a far more romantic gesture than the most eloquent verbal expressions of love.

The question I was asked in session was, “why do I have to learn her Love Language?  Why can’t I tell her I love her the way that works for me and she can get used to the way I do it?” One could answer this question in many ways, but I started by simply pointing to our relationship with G-d. If you want someone (or Someone) to accept your overtures for a relationship, it has to be done on that person’s terms and not yours.  I told this client that I surmised he may like beer a whole lot, but he probably gave his wife flowers when he first met her and not a Heineken.

Learning to relate to someone else means learning their language, their interests, their preferences, their inner selves. It means engaging with them on their terms and not yours.  “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother” – the customs and norms he grew up with – “and cleave to his wife.”  Trying to impose upon your spouse your own ways of doing things and expecting them to respond as you would is obviously rather egotistical.  You can’t make a person feel loved using the methods that make you feel loved any more than you can satisfy the king’s thirst with a drawing of a glass of water.

Having a relationship means “if it’s important to you, it’s important to me.”  Being willing to learn what is important to your spouse and what makes them feel loved is the necessary first step; you can’t assume that what moves you will impact your partner in the same way.  Step two is to do it. Becoming adept at and comfortable with your spouse’s Love Language is in fact the work of many years, not just a flash of insight.  But this is, after all, the work of every relationship, whether we call that relationship marriage or avodas Hashem: changing ourselves to comport with the needs of our beloved.  It may be a laborious task, but is a labor of love, and it brings with it the profound satisfaction that only our deepest relationships can offer.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Families With Special Needs Children Need Maps

Guest post by Dr. Judith Greenberg

If you are a parent of a special needs child, you may feel like you need some help but may not be sure who or what to ask. I always suggest that the best approach is to follow a map of the people you think may really want to help you, such as: your friends and family, pediatrician, psychologist, your shul, Rabbi, your child’s school, specific organizations, and most importantly, your own intuition.

Age and the diagnosis of your child’s special needs run the map that you create. My main recommendation is to get home activities down to a specific set of steps: getting ready for bed, dressing in the morning, doing chores, eating and listening to parents are all survival musts. Having a student behave in school is the next step on this map and the school must work with you to achieve the goals on that map.

Mornings can be very difficult if a child has to make decisions or doesn’t like your choices. Start the night before and let your child make one or two clothing choices. Only one outfit may be worn the next day, the second one is an extra in case of a change in the weather. If bathing is an issue, do that at night too. This leaves a lot less for the morning, but please remember that a half an hour is not the same to your child as it is to you. Children have a different internal clock and time is endless, so you may need to use a timer, or cell phone to remind your son or daughter that only fifteen minutes are left before leaving for the school bus. When it comes to behaviors that you would like to improve, try a sticker reward chart or a computer or video time reward for a day or week of your child controlling a behavior. If you think two behaviors can be worked on, that is fine. However it is probably more effective to work on one first and see what your child can deal with in a week. Study what makes your child happy and then reward with “happy things”. Do not punish as this just makes life harder for a child that is trying to understand what is expected of her. Start off slowly and gradually move up to more expectations.

School needs to be on your map. If you are satisfied with your Yeshiva or public school’s special needs program and your child has an IEP or 504 Plan, be sure to set up a meeting to review the plan before school starts each year as your child’s needs change quickly and it is better to be ready when school starts, but not after issues arise two months later. Schools can’t make you wait for a deadline date, you can have a meeting any time you feel there is a problem or concern. Schools have to accommodate your child and follow through on their promises.

Hold the school to the letter of the law. Whether you chose to enroll you child in a Yeshiva or in a public or private school that has better provisions for him or for her, be sure to attend Open House visits and also ask if you can visit on a regular day to talk with the principal, counselor, service providers, psychologist or any other professionals that pertain to your child. Do not select a school based on just your friend’s opinion, every child is very different. Working with an educational consultant or advocate is also helpful as such professionals attend meetings and visits schools all the time and will know answers to your questions and help you find the best public or private school for your child. A private school must also accept the IEP or 504 Plan but may change as the staff gets to know your child and to make the plan fit their program or even change to a specific Learning Plan that the school follows.

You are never alone because you always have your maps. We live in a time when research organizations are finding so many ways to help families with special needs children and there are groups all across the nation who help families find the help that children need. Join an organization that supports families with special needs. There are many that are tailored specifically to the needs of frum families. There are many special needs support organizations online, or you can check with your Rabbi, school, relatives, educational consultants, and neighbors. Financial planners and attorneys who handle trusts for special needs children and families are specialists in helping parents find help. Help is out there, even on days when you wish you could scream, hide under the bed or just get a massage.

Dr. Judith Greenberg is the director of and a principal with, a national learning resource site for kids and teens with special needs

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Does Your Therapist Need to Be Frum?

How important is it for you as an observant Jewish person to seek counseling from an observant Jewish therapist? The truth is that while any competent therapist ought to be able to help you with the issues you are facing -  whether it is depression or marriage counseling or anything else - there are certainly benefits to working with someone who is on the inside of your cultural circle. Research in fact bears out that people tend to see the most success in their therapy when they are matched with therapists from their own cultural background. Here are some of the reasons you might be better off with a therapist from an Orthodox background.

You don’t have to explain as much.

Even the best and most understanding counselor, if not already quite familiar with Orthodox practices, will need explanation about the many ways in which what we do is different from what the rest of the world does. Think about trying to explain Shabbos to someone who has never heard of the concept before. “We don't work on Saturday. Every Saturday. Except I don't mean work like you think of work. I mean all kinds of things that are considered, uh, creative labor, like cooking or driving or turning on lights.  Which I know is not really labor, but that's the definition of it. Also, Saturday really starts on Friday, at sundown, and goes until sundown on Saturday. Except not really sundown, actually, when three stars come out. Medium-sized stars.” Hopefully, if you have a good therapist, they won't start looking at you funny just because you are describing a religious system different from theirs - but it still is a lot to explain before you can get to the point of what you even wanted to talk to them about it. With a frum therapist, all that is already understood and taken for granted. It's a lot of time and effort saved.

You aren’t judged on your religious beliefs or behaviors.

Theoretically a therapist is never supposed to being judging you, but one can imagine it might be difficult for someone totally ensconced in Western values to be fully accepting of some of the things we do.  You’re struggling with stress and anxiety and you’re thinking about having more kids? You’re having trouble with your non-frum parents and you still refuse to eat at their house? There are certain values we maintain in the Orthodox world that need to be taken as given; trying to negotiate on whether you really need to eat kosher is probably not a helpful route to take for you. (Note that I am not advocating shutting out one’s parents over kashrus; of course there are many ways to appropriately address the problem(s) described above - but ditching kashrus is probably not one of them for you.)

You don’t have to worry about getting advice that runs counter to halacha.

This also relates to the question of what kind of advice you might get from a non-Orthodox counselor.  This can arise in many different areas - such as a suggestion for an anxious person to be more lax on their halachic standards (which may or may not be appropriate - I am not saying that be lenient is automatically a bad idea), or a recommendation to watch a certain show or movie that may not be appropriate. One topic where this is especially relevant is around issues related to intimacy, where that which is common practice in secular society might be completely forbidden in the Orthodox world. (This is a very delicate topic and requires specific personal guidance, from a rav as well as the right counselor.)

Your therapist just gets it.

Culture is a broad concept that comprises many facets - religion, language, shared history, music, and values, to name just a few.  Nobody can fully understand another culture unless they live it.  And while that level of understanding may not be strictly necessary for a therapist to be able to help you, it sure makes it easier. It also usually makes it more comfortable for clients when they know their therapist has a solid understanding of the issues they are conversing about rather than trying to learn it on the fly.  It’s hard to explain the many shades of meaning and feelings generated by one’s child going off the derech, by a broken engagement, or by a frum person showing up in the news as a criminal. Sharing these experiences with a counselor who understands the nuances of these situations is an added relief and comfort.

There are certainly more advantages to working with a frum therapist; I’ve only mentioned a few. This is not to say that working with someone outside the frum world is necessarily a bad idea. Everything has pluses and minuses, and you have to make the decision that’s best for you.  If you think you’d like to work with a frum therapist - from the comfort of your own home, no less! - feel free to be in touch with me to see if I can be of help in your situation.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Your Kid's End-of-Year Recital

Here's another post from me on which I wrote after reflecting on my kindergartener's brilliantly produced end-of-year production. Writing this was a reminder to me as much as to any of my readers what we're doing when we do this whole parenting thing. Hope it resonates with you too!

This week I attended my 6-year-old daughter’s end-of-the-year kindergarten presentation. Her class was up on stage for maybe 12 minutes. They sang some very elementary songs (no pun intended) and each child had about a two-line speaking part. “Hamilton,” it was not. It was not even a satisfying display of the skills and knowledge I am paying through the nose for my daughter to learn there.
Nonetheless, I feel I got a great deal of value in her having put on this presentation, and in my having attended it . . .

Thursday, February 2, 2017

When Your Spouse Has a Mental Illness

I recently contributed to the growing Refuat HaNefesh blog, a site dedicated to destigmatizing mental illness in the Jewish world and educating people about it. I lent some insight about my expertise, marriage and relationships, to this particular topic.  Check it out here.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

I Need Your Shoes!

I am running a used shoe drive to raise funds for my new nonprofit, K'nafayim!  The shoes are refurbished and sent to the developing world, while I get a small donation for every pair collected.  Here's an article in the local Jewish Magazine The Where What When - check it out, and help me spread the word!

Also, if you are so motivated, click here to designate K'nafayim as your charity of choice on Amazon and they'll donate .05% of your Amazon purchases to me!

Shana and Avi had only been married three years, but already it seemed like they were headed for divorce. All they ever did was fight. The tension in the house was constant, and they could hardly remember why they had gotten married in the first place. As far as either could tell, the only reason they were staying together at this point was for their one-year-old daughter Malka, whom they both loved dearly. But Malka had an unusual medical issue that took a lot of time, energy, and money to address. Shana and Avi were physically, emotionally, and financially stressed.

It had been suggested to them a number of times to seek marriage counseling, but that was simply never in the cards. Their insurance had told them it wasn’t covered, because it was not a medical issue – at any rate their deductible was astronomical – and they couldn’t afford to pay out of pocket. They were getting increasingly overwhelmed, resentful, and hopeless.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Hamodia and Child Sexual Abuse

Yesterday an article was published in Hamodia magazine that could probably be fairly described as “unprecedented.”  The author writes about the importance of being watchful for the signals and red flags of child sexual abuse, based on a conversation with R’ Elya Brudny.  The article appropriately contains not only exhortations to awareness but also a Torah perspective on the problem.

I am not a regular reader of Hamodia, but I am guessing that this is the first time they have published something so strongly worded about the important of dealing with child sexual abuse in our community, let alone by a highly respected Rav.  (If I am wrong about this, please forgive me; it will not, however, affect the point of this post.) In this regard, it is a great step forward and an encouraging sign of future gains. 

However, there is something that really bothers me about the article.  It turns out that not once in the article is the subject matter actually identified.  The words “sexual” and “molestation” are entirely absent from the article, and the word “abuse” appears only once in the context of drugs.  I believe that this is a grave error: what the article is effectively saying is that we need to be aware of the problem – but we still don’t talk about it.  We want it to go away, but we won’t say exactly what it is, ostensibly out of a misplaced insistence on tznius.

Even if clarity is not compromised, even if we all know what we’re talking about – it still won’t do to avoid using candid and unambiguous language in this matter.  Because you and I might know what we’re talking about – but when we try to educate our children in the same mode, can we really be sure they’ll understand what we mean by people who “act in inappropriate, dangerous ways to children?” More damaging yet, what is the message to the poor souls who have already been victimized?  It is that we don’t want sexual abuse to happen, but if it did, we don’t really want to hear too much about it.  It’s not something we talk about.  This message yields the same silencing effect that the article purports to reject.

How can we prevent a problem whose name can’t even be mentioned?  It brings to mind a morbid version of the game Taboo (clearly appropriately named).  Try teaching kids about smoking without using the words “smoke,” “cigarette,” “tobacco,” “nicotine,” or “addiction.”  It’s a losing proposition.  We will not be able to effectively combat the problem if we are unwilling to say the words.  Is it a loss? Certainly.  I wish we lived in a time and place where children didn’t need to be educated in this way.  But we don’t, and they do.  We can’t prioritize purity of speech over the well-being of countless children.  And that is exactly what Hamodia is doing by refusing to use words that name the problem for what it is.

I am not suggesting we need to be graphic or frightening. But we need to be straight about it.  There are sexual abusers out there.  They want to molest children.  And they thrive in an environment where their crimes have no name.  It’s good to be holy.  It’s good to be modest.  But at what cost?

Hamodia is scaling mountains by publishing an article on the issue of child sexual abuse.  But they’ve got their foot on the brakes all the way up.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Summer Safety Video for Kids

This is a great video put out by Jewish Community Watch.  Definitely worth sharing with your kids.

Monday, May 23, 2016

To Protect Our Children - Get Rid of Sex Offender Registries

You might think that as an advocate of child safety and an educator on the topic of child sexual abuse, I might be gung-ho about doing everything possible to keep sex offenders away from children.  The reality is that it's not so simple.  Check out this new article I wrote for Kveller that gives a different perspective on this question.  This is only the tip of the iceberg, but you can get an idea from these points that registries may in fact not be the best approach to keeping our
kids safe.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Safety Kid & Connect with Respect

Last night Debbie Fox delivered a presentation here in Baltimore for parents on the topic of child
sexual abuse.  Mrs. Fox has been leading the charge on this important issue for many years, and her Safety Kid program is currently being used in communities all over the US and Canada.  I myself ran this program in various schools in New Jersey while I was the outreach coordinator for Project S.A.R.A.H., so I am intimately familiar with it, and I am very glad that my kids will now be exposed to it as well.

Many times when I had finished presenting the program in a school, they would come back to me with a boatload of positive feedback, and then they would ask, "so what do you have for middle school?"  The answer at the time was, "nothing," and it remained so for a good while, until one rather assertive guidance counselor said, "Well, we're going to be doing something for our middle school.  I hope you're it."  And with that motivation, I set to work creating something we could offer to Jewish middle schools.

Some years and many revisions later, Connect with Respect is ready to roll!  You can see a brief overview of the program here.  (Note that originally Safety Kid was running only up until 4th grade, so mine picked up with 5th grade; now I understand they are doing Safety Kid in 5th grade as well, so I will likely be running Connect with Respect in 6th, 7th and 8th grades instead of 5th, 6th, and 7th.) Currently I am in contact with several communities (including, of course, Baltimore) who have expressed interest in the program.  If you'd like to know more about it or would like to bring it to your town, please contact me!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


Apparently there's a new Jewish organization on the child sexual abuse prevention scene, Amudim.  I don't know much about them, but I just saw this video they produced, which is extremely disturbing and emotionally jarring.  It warns that the video is graphic, which is not entirely accurate - but it is definitely triggering for anyone who might have trauma in their past, so please consider whether you want to watch this or not.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The 36 Shailas That Lead to Love

shidduchim helpI just came across the following article in the NY Times from last year about “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love” and I thought it had a lot of applicability to shidduchim.  In it the author cites another article called “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” which is also very relevant in that it affirms that love is not something we have to resign ourselves to “falling in” but rather it’s something we can purposefully create.  This is an important antidote to the media’s incessant portrayal of “love at first sight” and romance as the highest ideal.
So the 36 Questions That Lead to Love comprise a list of questions that become increasingly intimate (by which I do not mean graphic or inappropriate).  They were created as a part of an experiment to see if love can be invented instead of discovered, the idea being that the more you let someone into your self, the more connected you will feel.  For those of who you are unsure what to do on an actual shidduch date or what to talk about, this list is a handy reference. 
Obviously, you should start at the top of the list and work your way down – slowly.  One does not on the first date open up question #29 (“Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life”).  But it might very well be something appropriate a few weeks into things. It does take some judgment.
Fortunately, the start questions are really great for learning about each other in a very non-threatening way.  “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” is a great conversation starter!  (If this exercise yields one-word answers and no more – “Rambam.” “Oh.” – then one or both of you are doing something wrong.)
I found the list very intriguing and can imagine many hours of discussion arising from these. Maybe you will as well.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Best Gift for Your Children

I've recently been thinking about the adage familiar to many marriage counselors that "The best gift you can give your children is shalom bayis."  There are many reasons this is true - it is neither some crazy therapist thing nor a mystical idea.  Check out a quick run-down I wrote for here, or a longer series of posts at my Baltimore Therapy Center blog, starting here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Roshei Yeshiva on Successful Marriage

Last night I was fortunate to be able to attend a Q&A session with noted Rosh Yeshivas R’ Aharon Feldman and R’ Reuven Feinstein.  It was an illuminating session, in addition to being unexpectedly quite funny.  One of the questions posed was a very broad question on what the keys are to a successful and long-lasting marriage. R’ Feldman offered an answer without skipping a beat, followed by an addendum from R’ Feinstein. I thought I would share their comments here.
R’ Feldman suggested three points that he feels form the basis for a solid marriage.  First, mutual respect – spouses who are not respectful towards one another cannot expect to have a fulfilling marriage.  Second, control what you say.  Words can be very damaging and a person has to be careful not to throw things out there that can’t be taken back  Third, gratitude.  A person should think about the very many things their spouse does for them and recognize that they far outnumber the perceived offenses.  Even just being married is something we should be grateful for.  It would be terribly sad if a person were 45 years old and still single; we should be grateful to our spouses for saving us from that.  (I wish I could elaborate more on the these, but his response was fairly concise.)
R’ Feinstein then added on that a person should avoid using the words “always” and “never,” as in, “you never change” and “you always do the same thing.”  His point seemed to be less about the unfair generality of such a statement and more about the necessity of letting bygones be bygones.  He compared it hypothetically to a person coming before HaKadosh Baruch Hu on Yom Kippur and doing teshuvah on some particular transgression. The next year he comes back and has to apologize for the same thing, and G-d gets annoyed. On the third year, G-d rejects him entirely, saying, “Didn’t you come for this the past two years?”  Obviously, this doesn’t happen.  So too, indicated R’ Feinstein, we should not be going back to our spouse’s past mistakes. Once s/he does teshuvah, that’s it- we accept it and move on.  He explained that by the Yom Kippur service of the Kohen Gadol, his wife is referred to as beiso, not ishto.  Why with beis and not alef?  The beis, explained R’ Feinstein, is closed on 3 sides – you can’t look back, only forward.  So too, with one’s wife, one should not look back to old grievances.  Once there’s teshuvah, it’s over.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Sexual Abuser Exposed

Earlier this week I found out that a therapist I used to work with at a community mental health agency was busted for being sexually involved with (and filming) a 16-year-old boy he was treating.  As if that’s not bad enough on its own, this therapist used to do classroom presentations as part of the sexual abuse prevention program I ran in Jewish schools in New Jersey.  It boggles the mind to think about someone walking into a classroom to teach kids how to avoid being abused, then walking into his office that night and abused a kid.  Wow.

Initially I was thinking that this could be a big blow to the agency’s credibility in offering sexual abuse prevention services – if they can’t even prevent it in their own daled amos… (note: I don’t know whether any abuse actually took place in the agency or with the agency’s clients as opposed to possibly his private clients elsewhere).  But then I realized, it can actually be used to their advantage, to wit: there really is no way to spot an abuser a priori – they come in all shapes and sizes, genders, family situations, classes, etc.  (Yes, many abusers are well-educated and are married with kids – as this man is.)  And sexual abuse education does not suggest otherwise.  Rather, it focuses on teaching adults how to spot the behaviors that are suspect (primarily the grooming process, in which an abuser gradually earns trust, provides extra attention to the victim, and introduces sexual content to their interactions), and teaching kids about body ownership (the classic “my body belongs to me”), inappropriate behaviors on the part of adults, and the importance of telling someone should they r”l find themselves in that situation.

Indeed, if I may plug myself, this is why I created a sexual abuse prevention program for Jewish middle schools – after several years of running one for Jewish elementary schools, it was clear that there is need for further education through the early teen years (and even beyond – but one step at a time). So, if you are interested in bringing my program – called Connect with Respect – to a middle school near you, please be in touch. I would love to get this out there and in use so that, B”H, we should see fewer and fewer kids falling prey to abusers.

Check out the video prospectus for Connect with Respect here.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Domestic Violence: Physical and Emotional

A common perception about domestic violence is that emotional and verbal abuse* are very bad, but a situation of physical abuse is urgent. It is true that sometimes physical abuse can be severe to the point of medical emergency.  However, it is important to understand that in fact, most victims of abuse will tell you that the emotional and verbal abuse are worse.  Much worse.

This can be hard to understand for someone who has (thankfully) not experienced abuse in a relationship.  Let us consider the following points.  Which would you rather endure, physical pain or emotional pain?  I think most of us would choose the former.  Indeed, many of us have made that very choice when, for example, picking up a needy child even when we are exhausted/sick/etc. We would rather experience physical duress than watch our child cry (or, possibly, endure the incessant whining).

Furthermore, in general physical injuries will heal with little effort from us.  Bruises disappear whether or not you do anything about them.  Emotional wounds, however, are not so effortless. A victim who is made to feel stupid does not automatically grow out of that; low self-esteem does not heal itself. A wife who is told by her husband that he never found her attractive anyway is not likely to slowly regain feelings of attractiveness in the same way that wound slowly fades.

Another important distinction between the physical and emotional abuse is that physical abuse usually leaves marks you can see.  Even if a victim cannot – or does not wish to – show them to others, at least s/he can point to something and know that they’re real. By contrast, an abuser who is not physically violent tries to undermine the victim’s own confidence; victims are often left wondering what happened, if they’re crazy, if it’s all their fault – it’s much harder to recognize for what it is, and that itself makes the situation that much more unbearable.

The pain of emotional abuse runs much deeper.  Feeling bad about who you are is much more painful than a broken arm.  As one victim put it, “The physical abuse makes me hate him; the emotional abuse makes me hate myself.”  Victims time and again testify that they would rather suffer the beatings than the verbal attacks.

I was reminded of this question and decided to write a post about during my morning seder.  In Erchin 15a the Mishnah discusses a motz shem ra, one who falsely accuses his wife of not being a virgin on their wedding night.  Should it be discovered that he is lying, the fine is 100 selas.  However, notes Rashi, if a man rapes a woman, he owes only 50 selas.  We see, explains the Mishnah, that ha’omer b’piv chamur min ha’oseh maaseh – one who injures with his words does more damage than one who does an actual act*.  Indeed, Chazal are in agreement that verbal abuse is worse than physical abuse.

*I have used verbal and emotional abuse fairly interchangeably here, although strictly speaking there are differences despite the overlap.  For example, abusers can emotionally abuse their spouse by cheating on them, giving condescending looks, etc., without saying a thing.
**Obviously, the damage caused by rape is primarily emotional, not physical.  For reasons beyond the scope of this post, Chazal’s approach to rape is different from our modern one (and not because Chazal didn’t care about women). Nonetheless, the point still stands that Chazal are asserting that “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

Thursday, August 27, 2015

American Orthodox Rabbis Say: Report!

I am so glad to read this report about a list of American Haredi rabbis who have publicly signed on to a statement that halacha requires reporting to the secular authorities in cases where there is a reasonable suspicion of child abuse. It seems that authoritative opinions are shifting - or at least becoming more vocal - such that the idea of "handling it internally" is increasingly being recognized as a futile and improper approach.

If you are aware of a potential situation of child sexual abuse, please, don't keep it quiet.  Consult with your rabbi, consult with professionals (including myself), by all means - but report it to the officials as well.  For our children's sake.