Barbara Sofer

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The Human Spirit: Protect and Defend

July 19, 2012


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 reports?

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 programs.

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 raped.

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 the past.

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 increased.

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.



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