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Child Molestation in the Jewish Community: Overblown or Understated

By: David Mandel 

Published in The Jewish Observer, September, 2007

Abstract: A more open dialogue on the issue of child molestation is a key to prevention. It is not stranger danger; child molestation most commonly occurs by a person known to the child. By having a dialogue with your children on personal safety we can help prevent the victimization of children. By removing the shame and stigma associated with victimization, children, adolescents and adults will not be as fearful to report and to seek support. Perpetrators may be less likely to offend children knowing their community will not tolerate their behavior. 

Child molestation in the Orthodox Jewish community is not a new phenomenon. This problem, as other social ills, has existed for generations and centuries. The problem of men (and some women) inappropriately touching children, young boys and girls was sufficiently recognized by our great sages. They addressed it in several responsa (Minchas Chinuch, Mitzvah 209). The issue of drug usage has also been commented on, Rav speaking to his son Chiya (Arvei Pesachim 113a). Is our community responding to this problem? The answer, in these past years, has been a resounding yes. Is it enough? NO! There is still so much to do. 

Our Roshei Hayeshiva have publicly addressed the issue. In September 2000 at a forum titled “Let’s Talk About What Never Happened, But It Did”, Harav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlita, stated “such an evening brings this issue out from under the rug, and people who need help should seek it from a Rav, a psychologist or a psychiatrist”. Harav Pam z”tl, at the same forum on the issue of depression, spoke of bochurim who believed they sinned based on what they may have learned in divrei mussar, “Don’t let the past linger and paralyze you, don’t feel worthless”. The Rosh Hayeshiva was speaking to victims of molestation who have suffered, who have been burdened, who feel it was their fault. Thousands of tapes of this forum and of a subsequent forum in November 2001 have been disseminated by OHEL. 

HaRav Avrohom Chaim Levin, Shlita, Rosh Hayeshiva of Telz Chicago, addressing several hundred principals at a Torah U’Mesorah convention in May 2002 on the issue of child molestation stated, “there is no more room under the carpet”. And most recently at Torah U’Mesorah’s convention in May 2007, HaRav Levin encouraged every yeshiva, day school and high school to address and respond to this issue. 

In September 2003, Torah U’ Mesorah, the National Council of Hebrew Day Schools, under the signature of leading Roshei Hayeshivas issued standards and guidelines on prevention and response to child molestation. On the issue of mesirah, reporting, it states “such action may include, under appropriate circumstances, reporting to the civil authorities when the principal determines that there is reason to believe that inappropriate activity has in fact occurred, insofar as halacha and secular law require such reporting”. Professor Aaron Twerksi, Dean of Hofstra Law School, and OHEL were instrumental in working with the Roshei Hayeshivas of Torah U’Mesorah in preparing these guidelines. 

Prevention of unwanted touch means parents speaking to their children. Children are unprepared and don’t know how to respond to these terrible acts which go way beyond the boundaries of yichud. Prevention involves yeshivas and day schools providing information and education, parents and teachers becoming more alert to red flags, and Rabonim addressing the issue in shuls. An educated, informed communal response by parents, educators, and Rabonim – three primary sources of information and learning for children at an early age – would lead to fewer children being hurt. Equally important, it could lessen the shame and stigma associated with being a victim of child molestation, which remains the primary reason for underreporting. 

This is all not limited to a one-time conversation. A parent knows their child best, what and how many words to use – V’higadita l’vincha bayom hahu. Rabbi Yehoshua Fishman, Executive Vice President of Torah U’Mesorah, notes the primary responsibility for teaching children these personal issues lies with the parents. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe z”tl, in Planting and Building: Raising a Jewish Child, describes how the Chofetz Chayim z”tl spoke with his sons at age fifteen (Feldheim Publishers 1999, pg 67). As Rav Pam z”tl said, there was only one Chofetz Chayim. It is up to every parent to determine at what age to speak with their child and how often to reinforce this message. Dr. Susan Schulman, a pediatrician in Brooklyn, describes prevention as speaking to your child about good and bad touch at a very early age, then again when they begin school, then again when they go on a bus, then again when they go to camp, then again when they go to a sleep-away Yeshiva. Hillel Sternstein, Coordinator of OHEL’s RESPECT Program on abuse, describes it as teachable moments. 

Ninety percent of children who are molested know their abuser. Parents cannot speak about “stranger danger” with their young children and expect them to understand this also means not becoming a victim at the hands of a relative, neighbor or rebbe. This lies at the heart of the complexity of child molestation, being hurt by a person a young child or teenager knows, trusts, loves or admires. 

Several yeshivas that wanted to hold seminars on safety and prevention from unwanted touch were reluctant to do so lest they be perceived as engaging in sex education or worse, stigmatizing themselves as a school with a problem. 

Professional staff in OHEL’s school-based mental health program and in other well regarded organizations, such as Debbie Fox of Jewish Family Services in Los Angeles who developed a prevention model, provide this information to students, faculty and parents in dignified, professional, age appropriate ways and in lashon nekia (clean language). Yes, it is true that some children may be hearing concepts and words they don’t yet fully comprehend, that by engaging them at an early age we may be opening a door to more information than we would like. On the other hand, one can posit it is better for the child to learn in a structured, safe environment where they can ask questions and know they can turn to parents, a rebbe, morot or teachers to ask questions. This is a much better option than “learning on the street”. 

Schools can incorporate these forums for parents into their PTAs, train faculty as part of an educational curricula day or a special workshop, and educate camp counselors during their summer orientation. Students in 5th through 12th grades can participate in prevention workshops. Ten year olds begin to hear, understand and experience life events and a new sense of self. Finally, a shul or community center or a group of synagogues and community centers can host a lecture on the issue. 

In these discussions with parents and educators red flags are described, behaviors a child may display when victimized, and how to respond to the child. At community forums, Ohel disseminates information on thirteen stages a child may go through from being a victim to becoming a survivor and how best to develop a community protection plan. Often the question and answer dialogue becomes an integral aspect of the forum. There are several good handbooks and guidelines parents can reference. Examples include, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (www.missingkids.com) and more. OHEL also has an educational videotape that can be used by schools and community groups. The Task Force on Children and Families at Risk, a consortium of thirty social service organizations across the Orthodox community, has played a leading role in hosting seminars on abuse. 

How prevalent is child molestation in our community? No one knows for sure. It is vastly underreported as it is in every community. For decades, police departments across the country publish crime statistics and asterisk sexual assault, a range of crimes historically underreported. This is not a problem restricted to the Orthodox Jewish community as some in the media portray. People, by nature, are private and modest. G-d instilled a sense of shame and guilt in us. People in every culture possess shame. It is a good trait. It is one of our characteristics that keeps us civilized. Indeed, contemporary “mandated reporting laws” were legislated to force licensed professionals who were viewed to be ignoring and underreporting these events, to make formal reports to child protection agencies. 

It is widely documented that China and India, the world’s most populated countries, have experienced similar issues with regard to vastly underreporting and responding to child molestation. So too, Muslims, the Amish and countless other peoples across the spectrum. 

Uncomfortable as it may be, we are now forced to be more open and confront this painful discussion; child molestation is a serious problem. Hundreds if not thousands of children, teens and adult survivors have been victimized. It is a problem in our community albeit at a much smaller number relative to the general population. We must embrace this discussion and respond on a communal level. 

Dr. David Pelcovitz, a child psychologist and a leading expert in treatment of children who have been abused, notes the extreme rarity of a child self-disclosing s/he was a victim to this type of abuse. Children do not disclose due to a combination of fear, shame, loyalty and stigma. At varying ages, each of these issues may be internalized in the child or outwardly displayed in a different manner. And because most children are hurt by a person they know, these issues become embedded in the child’s psyche. 

A primary reason a child does not disclose he or she was molested is fear. The child may be afraid of his or her parents’ reaction. The child may be afraid to speak lashon hara. The child may fear his abuser who may threaten to hurt him or his parents if he discloses. 

A second reason children do not disclose is shame. The young child or adolescent may be confused about what occurred and is embarrassed about his involvement and response. The molester may have said to him he will tell everyone what they did together. He is afraid he will be made fun of by his friends. 

A third reason is loyalty. To disclose that a person they love hurt them would be disloyal. As difficult as this may be to understand, remember, it is a person s/he likely knows and trusts, a parent, relative, neighbor, role model or other such person close to the child. These are all people the child has loyalty to. 

A fourth reason children and their parents do not disclose is stigma. Does this require much explanation in our community? The stigma of shidduchim for this child or siblings becomes an overriding concern. Or it is the stigma of people saying ‘well, they’re a dysfunctional family anyway’. 

Any one or a combination of these four factors would lead the victim to not disclose and to keep the abuse a secret and to intensify the painful consequences of these experiences. This person may hold the secret for years and decades. Harav Shmuel Kamenetsky was so moved to receive a letter from a 70 year old woman who, after sixty years, related for the first time of being abused as a young child by a relative that the Rosh Hayeshiva related this story numerous times. 

Demonstrating support to a child or adolescent who has been victimized involves telling them you believe them, you love them and it wasn’t their fault. We cannot do this enough for our children under conventional circumstances, how much more important is this for children under extreme stress. This begins the healing process and the transition from being a victim, which is a passive term, to becoming a survivor, which signifies strength. Parents should neither overreact and blame their child nor deny them the opportunity to heal. 

The overwhelming majority of children who are molested can and will, Baruch Hashem, grow up healthy and lead normal lives. Children, as Dr. Pelcovitz notes, are resilient and will be able to cope and deal with this as they progress and mature. They may never forget “the event” or the perpetrator, but they can move on. In the aftermath of the tragic events at Virginia Tech College, the murder of thirty two students, the resilience of the students and community was often cited as an important coping mechanism in the healing process. 

A small percentage of children and adolescents are so traumatized they will need psychological treatment. This should be provided by a person with a specialty in this area, and not by a general mental health practitioner. They may require short-term treatment lasting several months or possibly several years. Girls who are molested as adolescents are especially vulnerable due to a sense of shame and pre-marital concerns. This becomes even more complex if the girl had been molested by a family member or a person she idealizes. These young women should receive professional treatment to help them cope and transition to marriage as they may experience relationship and communication problems with their husband. It is tragic that we may avoid seeking treatment to protect our children’s future opportunities for good marriages, only to see the problem surface again with greater complexity within the marriage. 

How does a perpetrator succeed in luring children? A perpetrator works through a process called grooming. He cultivates a relationship with the child involving friendship and trust. He then transitions to a physical relationship first with a “light” touch followed by more physical involvement. Using incremental steps, the perpetrator gently gets close to the child’s mind and heart. 

Perpetrators “look normal”. They have a variety of respectable jobs. Many are married and parents. 

Perpetrators have preferences. Data available on several dozen perpetrators in our community is consistent with data on perpetrators in the general community. That is not surprising. Pedophilia, meaning love of children, is a psychiatric illness and follows a pattern. A pedophile is likely to be consistent in seeking out a young boy or a girl or a male or female adolescent. 

A perpetrator will generally not stop on his own. Once again the data is consistent. The majority of perpetrators reveal they molested several children repeatedly. As time goes on the perpetrator may develop more complex rationalization for his deviancy. There are also men (and some women) who reveal involvement with a significant number of children over many years and decades. 

Pedophilia is considered a treatable, manageable illness. Treatment generally consists of a comprehensive evaluation and weekly individual and group sessions lasting two to five years. A person must learn to behave differently, to modify or suppress their deviant interests and to be truthful. Treatment also incorporates the spouse who must work through her own issues of shame and guilt, especially if victims included her children. Rarely does a perpetrator self-disclose and seek treatment; they need to be pushed into treatment with some form of “stick” swaying them. 

The public discussion in our community in recent years has directly resulted in greater disclosure by victims. This has resulted in evaluation and treatment of scores of perpetrators. It has become more safe for victims to disclose and for parents to seek help. This has been one of the most important and dramatic shifts in our community, a recognition that disclosure and obtaining treatment is more important than living with shame and guilt. More mental health professionals are developing a specialty in this area. At virtually every workshop my colleagues or I give on prevention and safety throughout the United States and Israel, at least one adolescent or adult will privately share with us their experience of having been molested. That several Roshei Hayeshivas have spoken publicly and encouraged victims and parents to seek help has been an enormous catalyst towards a communal attitude change. The most recent letter by the Vaad HaRabonim – Rabbinical Council of Greater Baltimore (Abuse in our Community - April 11, 2007) should act as a precedent for other communities to issue similar letters. 

That most perpetrators do not go to jail is not a Jewish phenomenon. Former Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro was noted for her aggressive pursuit of pedophiles. In six years of sting operations, 1999-2005, she succeeded in the arrests of 111 men with a 100% conviction rate. The overwhelming majority received probation with only eight perpetrators sentenced to jail (New York Times, 10.13.06). 

The shame and guilt of our communities that prevent our children and families from reporting these crimes to our authorities also protect the perpetrators. He is impervious to the community’s concern. A public discourse involving education and awareness, vigilance by principals, educators, youth and camp directors, drashas by Rabonim will inculcate a zero tolerance mindset into our community and inoculate our children. It goes without saying we need a system to protect children by preventing mechanchim and other educators whose harm to children has been substantiated from moving to another school to do more harm. 

Several Batei Dinim have been established in major Jewish communities across the country to deal specifically with allegations of child and adolescent molestation. These batei dinim also rely on advice of mental health professionals who may be asked to interview the victim(s) survivor, evaluate the alleged perpetrator and recommend appropriate treatment. Professor Aaron Tweski and I have been privileged to meet with numerous Rabonim in the establishment of Batei Dinim. 

It is most important to keep the perpetrator in the community under a watchful eye, not to push them out so they can move to another community or another city and continue their horrible acts. A perpetrator who discloses his wrongdoing, who actively participates in treatment and who remains under watchful supervision in the community has the best chance of not re-offending. If Chas v’Chalila he does re-offend, his treatment and supervision may limit the number of victims and the severity of the offense by detecting the re-offense sooner. 

My colleagues and I at OHEL have been led by a Board of Directors whose vision and sense of communal responsibility has enabled us to speak publicly and develop services in this sensitive area. Ohel has been fortunate to have Harav Dovid Cohen, shlita, as our Morah D’asra. Our ability to speak with gedolei haTorah throughout the country provides hadracha and strength. This has enabled us to provide consultations to Rabonim, principals, yeshivas, day schools, and community groups. 

When asked if I’m frustrated by all that isn’t accomplished by the glacier progress in this area, I respond, it took 5700 years to come to this point, we have to concentrate on tomorrow not on yesterday. As my colleague Hillel Sternstein points out, discussions on child molestation have moved from private midnight talks to daylight seminars that are open to the community. Yet we can’t dwell on or be satisfied with accomplishments. Children are being hurt every day. We must respond to them and prevent tomorrow’s child from being hurt. 

The best way to stop perpetrators is by teaching children and encouraging a greater openness in the community, as has begun. Perpetrators who know that parents, principals, Rabonim and the community will confront them are less likely to hurt children. Children who know they can report an incident without being fearful, shamed or stigmatized may stop a perpetrator from hurting the next child. 

It is now time to have these discussions with our children. Today. And in the future.

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  • 08/20/2012 - Camp Kaylie Inaugurates the Kleinman Bais Medra...
  • 08/03/2012 - Ruach K’tonton in West Hempstead...
  • 08/02/2012 - OHEL Congratulates Our Own Misayim HaShas...
  • 07/24/2012 - NBA Greats Thrill Campers...
  • 06/19/2012 - Golf Classic...
  • 05/26/2012 - Getting Older...
  • 05/21/2012 - Day of Remembrance...
  • 03/07/2012 - Challenges of Anger Disorders...
  • 03/06/2012 - Bais Ezra 30th Anniversary...
  • 02/14/2012 - Ohel Draws Capacity Crowd...
  • 01/25/2012 - Mel Zachter Named OHEL Co-president...
  • 01/16/2012 - Gary Schaer To Receive the “Legislator of the...
  • 01/02/2012 - Cherish the Children...
  • 10/05/2011 - OHEL Bais Ezra’s Sibshops Program Empowers Si...
  • 08/30/2011 - Kaylie Day: A Dream Fulfilled...
  • 06/28/2011 - Pomegranate’s Chef Boris Grills Up a Great T...
  • 06/24/2011 - OHEL Golf Classic...
  • 05/25/2011 - OHEL Institute for Training Workshop Addressing...
  • 04/13/2011 - OHEL Institute for Training Addresses Eating Di...
  • 03/17/2011 - Over 400 Celebrates Purim with Matisyahu...
  • 03/11/2011 - OHEL Appoints New Director of Development...
  • 03/11/2011 - New OHEL Video Colorizes the World ...
  • 03/02/2011 - Reggae Star Matisyahu To Perform ...
  • 12/20/2010 - OHEL Regional Family Center of Northern NJ Tra...
  • 12/16/2010 - OHEL Provides Training on Addictions ...
  • 12/16/2010 - OHEL Residents and Neighbors Gather for a BBQ ...
  • 12/07/2010 - OHEL Insitute Provides Training On Short-Term T...
  • 11/24/2010 - OHEL Sixth Annual Benefit Concert ...
  • 11/21/2010 - OHEL Benefit Concert November 21st...
  • 11/11/2010 - Team OHEL Wins For OHEL Bais Ezra Kids...
  • 11/10/2010 - OHEL Working Breakfast Addresses Student-Issues...
  • 11/09/2010 - Gaining Couple Therapy Expertise at OHEL...
  • 07/19/2010 - Large Turnout at First Camp Kaylie Open House...
  • 07/13/2010 - “Building Resiliency in Our Children”...
  • 06/28/2010 - OHEL Golf Classic Benefits Children!...
  • 06/08/2010 - Training for Parents of Children with ADHD...
  • 04/28/2010 - Long Islanders Ride for OHEL Residents of the 5...
  • 04/07/2010 - “Reaching Out to Special Friends” Competit...
  • 03/11/2010 - Shloime Dachs Annual Siyum and BBQ...
  • 03/01/2010 - OHEL Draws Capacity Crowd To Celebrate 40 Years...
  • 02/12/2010 - Malky Giniger Presents a Star-Studded New Show...
  • 02/05/2010 - Meeting the Challenge of Postpartum Depression...
  • 01/21/2010 - OHEL 40th Anniversary Annual Dinner...
  • 01/10/2010 - Professionals Prepare to Address Teen Behaviors...
  • 01/08/2010 - Record Number of OHEL Bais Ezra Day Trips ...
  • 01/03/2010 - OHEL Celebrates Purim with Le Cirque Du Purime...

ARTICLES

  • Overnight Respite...
  • Employment: The Power of a Paycheck...
  • After the Brooklyn fire tragedy in which seven children died...
  • Rav Elya Brudny and Others Address Over 200 at Conference to...
  • Does Alan Turing have Aspergers Syndrome?...
  • Foster Parenting: How will it affect my children?...
  • “Hard to Place,” Not Hard to Love...
  • The Ties That Bind: Keeping Siblings Together in Foster Car...
  • Confronting Abuse in the Frum World ...
  • Understanding the Educational and Behavioral Needs of Childr...
  • When Divorce Can Save a Marriage...
  • Jewish Kids are in Foster Care, Too...
  • A Fulfilling Life ...
  • Richard Bernstein to Become First Blind State Supreme Court ...
  • Ask the Expert: Eligibility Specialist...
  • Meachorei Hapargod: Lessons for Elul, Courtesy of Summer Ca...
  • Early Parental Loss...
  • Are Gedolim Stories Good Chinuch?...
  • Is Recovery From Mental Illness Possible?...
  • Helping Your Child Accept a New Baby...
  • Self-Esteem or Self-Validation?...
  • “Knock, Knock” “Who's There?” OPWDD: Welcoming the F...
  • Developmentally Disabled Employees Shine In The Workplace...
  • “I Take Care” — Mrs. Miriam Lubling, a”h...
  • The Hallmark of Klal Yisrael: A Caring Heart… Foster care ...
  • Redefining strength...
  • Sustaining the Excitement of the First Year of Marriage...
  • No Complaints...
  • No Shidduch Left Behind...
  • Statewide Project Continues Offering Services to Sandy Victi...
  • 75th Anniversary of the Horrors of Kristallnacht...
  • Etta at OHEL Dedicates Fourth Group Home...
  • Staten Island Jewish victims of Hurricane Sandy Still in Nee...
  • A Slice of Home: Through the eyes of a foster child...
  • Ask Sarah: Newly Married & Worried About Divorce...
  • As New Year Approaches, N.Y. Community Devastated by Hurrica...
  • Oniomania: A Look into the Minds of Compulsive Shoppers...
  • Teens and Saturday Nights: A Parenting Approach...
  • The Loss of a Dream...
  • Help! My Adolescent is Out of Control!...
  • Protecting Our Children: Does a Bakery Have a Soul?...
  • Who Am I? Standing at the precipice of death longing for sta...
  • Nobody Quite Knew What to do With Yaakov...
  • Understanding the Coordination between Early Intervention an...
  • Understanding your "peckel", your packet of problems...
  • Life for Frum Women in domestic violence shelters...
  • United We Stand: The Impact of Disabilities on Marriage...
  • Unique Needs of Children in Foster Care...
  • The Success Story that Finally Happened...
  • It’s a painful process to watch. We joke about it all the ...

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