The Human Spirit: Not in my school
There was that pervasive myth that such perversity didn’t exist in the idealized religious community.
Once upon a time, I was roommates at an educational conference with
psychologist Debbie Gross. As her phone rang every half-hour, day and night, I
felt a growing panic. Gross heads 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. Every call was about a
different case of sexual abuse in the religious community, each one worse than
From December 1 to 3, the Crisis Center for Religious Women is
hosting an international conference called The Jewish Community Confronts
Violence and Abuse, to be held at Jerusalem’s Ramada Hotel. This couldn’t have
taken place a decade ago. Sign up today.
Just to give you a sense of the
content, in one time slot you have a choice among: 1. Collaborative treatment
approach to incest; 2. Preventing child sexual abuse in the religious community;
3. Community programs to combat domestic violence; 4. Spiritual abuse; and 5.
Spiritual abuse is a new category, says Gross. It’s about
women whose husbands’ increased religiosity isn’t about getting closer to the
Creator, but controlling their wives’ behavior and isolating them. Sound
familiar? Gross founded the Crisis Center for Religious Women in her Har Nof
kitchen over two decades ago, following a number of cases of sexual abuse.
Israel’s first rape crisis centers opened in the late 1970s, but Jerusalem’s
women believed they, their husbands and their children needed guidance that
would suit their religious lifestyle. Attitudes towards modesty, relationships
with religious authorities and community attitudes were different. Even talking
about sex was different.
But most of all, there was that pervasive myth
that such perversity didn’t exist in the idealized religious community.
Not in my community. Not in my school.
That fantasy seems to have been
debunked. Among those who will open the December conference will be Mayor Nir
Barkat and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau. Attending will be rabbis Abraham
Twerski, David Cohen and Yosef Blau, who have been mavericks in confronting
these dark subjects. Dr. James M. Cantor and Linda Graham will bring
international expertise from outside the Jewish community, and educators are
flying in from everywhere in the Jewish world. That, my friends, is the good
Inside or outside the Jewish world, violence and abuse is a
We all know that. But for those of us who are living
our lives within the observant Jewish community, there is the widespread belief
that observing Torah Judaism should restrain even those with indecent desires,
and that the modesty and greater supervision of activities should provide some
I asked Gross if we’re fooling ourselves – if just the
opposite is true. Are we providing increased opportunities for perverts, or just
talking about this subject for later application in the general community? “The
incidence of sexual abuse within the religious community is about the same as in
general society, but the situation should be better,” she said.
religious boys, it’s worse. The abuse of boys is equal to the abuse of girls,
because they spend so much more time alone with men. Male perpetrators – in case
you’re embarrassed to ask – make up between 95 and 97 percent of the abusers,
depending on whose statistics you look at.
Nearly 90% of the complainants
know their abusers. These are not strangers lurking outside the corner store;
they’re teachers, counselors, even fathers. Almost half of those who phone
report rape or attempted rape. One quarter are suffering from incest.
Most of the victims are under 18, but there’s a session at the December
conference on abuse of the elderly as well.
Okay – full disclosure – this
subject makes me sick and angry. I’m happy to see Yehudit Sidikman, who founded
the self-defense school El Halev, on the podium.
Says Gross: “The recent
publicized horror stories – the boy killed in Brooklyn... the exposure of
abusive rabbis and teachers in the Diaspora and Israel – have alarmed many
members of the community. But still, with this awareness, the feeling persists
that it can’t happen right in my neighborhood; not in my kids’ school.
“We have to provide the best protection we can with courses in safety, making
clear the difference between sharing secrets and evil talk, and the availability
Educating the public and those in positions to change policy is
critical, says Gross.
“Many rabbis think that if a perpetrator has
expressed regret and verbalized repentance, then placed in the same situation he
won’t do it again. But they don’t understand that abuse and pedophilia are
The issue of trusted religious leaders going unpunished and
even holding revered positions is a terrible burden for those they have
molested. The public relations needs of religious communities often trump the
air and light of exposure.
The good news is that many institutions are
beginning to take the need for safety seriously. More girls’ high schools and
colleges are bringing in lecturers and providing trained monitors who will deal
with incidents sensitively and swiftly, says Gross. She is receiving many
requests to write protocols for these schools.
Rain or shine, volunteers
from the center will escort victims to the police. “The Israel Police have made
great strides in under - standing the problem and treating victims with
dignity,” she says.
The court system and social workers, however, have a
long way to go, she notes.
The trend of giving fathers – even abusive
fathers – more time with their children is problematic. “I get many calls from
mothers who have divorced their sexually abusive husbands, and then find that
their sons and daughters have to sleep at his home without any supervision.
Because some women used fear of sexual abuse as a means to discredit their
ex-husbands, judges tend to wave away these complaints – particularly when
social workers are liberal to fathers.”
Since Gross opened the hotline,
there have been over 80,000 calls. Remember that you don’t have to give your
name to talk to someone, or even to come in and see a counselor. That makes the
process much easier for those who are embarrassed, ashamed and afraid to call.
You are simply listed as Esther or Haim Cohen.
Take Esther Cohen, No.
50,000. She is 24 years old, raped by a friend of the family at 15. No one
knows. No one understands why she won’t agree to any of the matches proposed by
her family or a matchmaker. It’s her deep, dark secret, and it’s destroying her
Or Esther Cohen No. 70,000, who was fondled by her older brother
starting at age six. Today she’s 19, doing national service, and she can’t get
over it. Her brother is married, with beautiful children she adores.
Should she cause bedlam in the family by bringing up this unpleasantness? Esther
Cohen No. 50,000 needed legal advice and counseling. She received it at the
Esther Cohen No. 70,000 heard a lecture by Gross as part of her
national service. She has also received counseling. She wrote a letter to her
brother, who – it turns out – was also burdened by this childhood expression of
sexuality. He undertook to stay away from the family home while she went to
He also went for therapy which involved his wife. Today the
family is united in its healing, and they can go forward together, wiser and
Esther Cohen No. 50,000 called Gross from the delivery room
– where she gave birth to a beautiful little girl. She was able to put her life
But for each of these happy endings, there are so many cases of
abuse that could have been avoided, and could have been treated.
Esther and Haim better than that.
The conference is open to all, and
offers simultaneous translation in Hebrew and English.