Human Spirit: Protect and Defend
July 19, 2012
Sofer , THE JERUSALEM POST
I’m waist-deep in the local swimming pool teaching a handful of little
granddaughters to float. The oldest and skinniest is shivering. She’s
seven. Can she take a hot shower while the others continue the lesson?
I hesitate, thinking “what could happen in a women’s locker room in Jerusalem?”
What indeed might happen in a women’s locker room in Jerusalem? When her
mother, also a lover of hot showers, was a girl, I wouldn’t have worried.
Primary school children rode buses by themselves and Israeli adults seemed
to provide a protective cushion against the bumps a child might encounter.
Today we’ve discovered that some of the strategically placed adults who
are hired to guard and guide children are drawn to these jobs for the
nefarious opportunities they present. I don’t know if I am reacting out
of grandmotherly hyper-vigilance or hard-acquired wisdom. In the decades
since my own children were growing up in Israel, have the perils grown
larger or are we simply more alert because of greater openness and media
Have a few isolated incidents turned into an epidemic?
This is the operative question on an evening in Ra’anana I have been invited
to emcee for the Crisis Center for Religious Women, an organization that
raises awareness, suggests means of protection and offers healing help
for those who have been sexually abused. Following a number of cases of
sexual abuse, the Crisis Center for Religious Women was established two
decades ago in the Jerusalem kitchen of psychologist Debbie Gross, then
living in the religious neighborhood of Har Nof. The first rape crisis
centers opened in Israel in the late 1970s, but the Jerusalem women believed
that they, their husbands and their children needed guidance that would
suit their religious lifestyle.
In addition to the terrifying and humiliating experience every sexually
abused child and adult experiences, a layer of religious issues required
understanding. These include attitudes to modesty, relationships with
God and community ethos. Talking about sexuality is different among religious
families. Moreover, a common myth that such perversions couldn’t happen
within an idealized society needed debunking.
Ra’anana has a strong activist religious community, and leaders have invited
the Jerusalem-based center to their city to initiate prevention and awareness
Over 200 women and men have shown up.
The evening begins with a trigger film: Cohen’s Wife, a Yiddish-language
movie with English subtitles, made 12 years ago by Nava Nussan Hafetz.
Its plot is the fictionalized version of the story of a pious young woman
who opens her front door to give coins to a religiously-garbed beggar.
He thrusts the door open and rapes her. The abomination is exacerbated
by a religious issue: the victim’s husband is a kohen, a descendent of
the Jewish priestly tribe that presided in the ancient Temple. A literalist
reading of Jewish law demands that a kohen divorce his wife if she is
It’s easy to be distracted by the religious conundrum. Indeed, the audience
asks panelist Rabbi Moshe Taragin of Yeshivat Har Etzion many “what if”
questions that revolve around the loophole in the law that, in the film,
allows the sympathetic head of the religious court to rule against divorce.
One might also be tempted to distance the situation by assigning this
particular problem to the Yiddish-speaking haredi community.
It’s easier to talk about “them” than “us.” But sexual abuse stalks all
of us in our home communities.
Since the Crisis Center for Religious Women hotline opened, it has received
45,000 calls. In Israel, the 10 rape crisis centers get more than 35,000
calls a year. The hardest issue to deal with is that the typical perpetrator
isn’t a scary-looking stranger.
Nearly 90 percent of the complainants know the monsters who abuse them.
Almost half those who phone report rape or attempted rape. One quarter
are suffering from incest. The last quarter is divided between indecent
acts and sexual harassment in the workplace. Most of the victims are under
18. But according to Dr. Sagit Arbel-Alon, who heads the Bat Ami Center
for Victims of Sexual Abuse at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem,
abused patients range from age two to 75 – girls, boys, men and women.
That’s almost all of us at risk for this lifelong trauma. Half of the
patients in the psychiatric ward were sexually abused at some time in
I have a chance to speak to one of the Crisis Center for Religious Women’s
young therapists. I’ll spare you the worst of the details. But imagine
one case in which a teenage girl was being gang-raped by boys who threatened
to tell her stern parents if she fought them. In another case, distraught
parents wept that their elementary schoo-laged son had been cast out of
school for molesting a classmate. Only later did they learn that their
son had been molested, too.
The crisis center offers courses to children, teachers, rabbis and the
increasingly important women in the religious community: mikve (ritual
bath) attendants and counselors for brides. According to founder Debbie
Gross, there is no doubt that the incidence of sexual abuse has vastly
Messages to our children must include the sad but true instruction that
not everyone is their friend, differentiating between good secrets and
bad secrets, and that immodesty is not the cause of sexual abuse. In an
increasingly violent society, the threat grows, as does the sophistication
of the abusers – like bacteria that learn how to beat erythromycin.
Protective and defensive responses are best implemented when there exist
heightened awareness, openness to discussion and rapid response by communities
and law. Films like Cohen’s Wife raise our consciousness and provide excellent
material for discussion.
At the swimming pool, I shake my head.
No. My granddaughter cannot take a solo shower. She’ll have to wait. Instead,
she warms up in a terry robe on the hot pavement, where I can keep a watchful
eye on her. That’s how the lizard warms up, I tell her.
Then I tell the little girls about a legendary lizard that reputedly comes
out at midnight at the Western Wall when the congregation below says the
words, “nishmat kol hai,” “the soul of all life.”
Does it really happen like that, they ask? We’ll go together to see, I
promise, when you’re a little older.