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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Raffi Bilek

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 blogsthat 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.

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