The children and families in the close-knit neighborhood used to help their friendly neighbor in his garden. The middle aged Jewish man was an athletic coach in a local junior high, and he had a way with kids. He gave them treats, always had a smile and a game, and earned the trust of the parents. Imagine the shock when one child confided to his mom that the man had been exposing himself to the kids for several years, as "just a game."
Leah sent her son to a small Jewish boarding school, which offered lots of personal attention. She was concerned when the supervision over the boys seemed a bit weak, but was somewhat mollified when the administration kept assuring her. To her dismay she learned that her gut feeling was right; halfway through the year word leaked out that the young men hired as dorm counselors were molesting the younger teenage students and offering them prizes to keep quiet.
These true and recent stories demonstrate the fallacy of a prevalent myth about child predators and abusers. These heinous acts are seldom committed by the shadowy character in a trench coat lurking on the edge of the park. About 90 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by someone who has painstakingly built up a relationship of trust with the children, someone they know and perhaps even love, often someone within their community, school or camp.
Yechezkel "Chezy" Goldberg was a Jerusalem based social worker passionately striving to educate the Jewish community about abuse when he was brutally murdered in a terrorist attack in 2004. In a series of articles, he elaborated on this issue:
"It's hard to face that someone we know — and even like — might be a sexual abuser. However, the statistical data is accurate. Consider yourself warned. Pedophiles confess time and again how they exerted enormous energies building trust with their victims. The fact that pedophiles often operate in positions where they have influence and trust of parents and children is validated by the reality that pedophiles do not commit the crime once and stop. Child sex abusers repeatedly molest. Often, when cases do finally come to light, it is discovered that sexual abusers have indeed worked on whole groups of children in schools, communities and families. They are trusted and so they continue to operate."
The second myth that the Jewish community has clung to is that this is not our problem. "Such things don't happen among Jews!" As with other social ills such as domestic violence and alcoholism, the Jewish community is not at all immune. One in five girls and one in seven boys will be sexually abused by the age of 18. These figures are constant for every religion and religious denomination and socio-economic level—they apply to our kids too. As Chezy noted, "Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance and denial can lead to tragedy."
To fight abuse, the Jewish community must learn to overcome a prevalent attitude—the "shanda factor." Shanda, a Yiddish term meaning disgrace, is often the first response upon the uncovering of child abuse in Jewish settings. Rabbi Mark Dratch, director of Jsafe, explains: "These ills exist despite the denials, despite the skepticism that such ugly behavior can exist among our people always so proud of our exemplary home-life; despite the fear that exposing them will bring Jews into disrepute; and despite the apprehension that our reputations will be tarnished."
Denial is unhealthy in all types of abuse. But secrecy, shame and hesitancy to confront are especially favorable to creating the dank climate in which the child predator can thrive. "Child sexual abuse is a disease of secrecy," says Dr. Robert Bloom, executive director of Chicago's Jewish Children's Bureau. "It needs to be opened up. Like cleaning out a boil, you have to open it up before you can treat the underlying problem."
Dratch elaborates on the problems caused by denial. "Denial and shame makes the victims or parents of victims reluctant to come forward. We like to portray an image of ideal communities. It is important for our young people to have a positive image that they look up to. The problem is when we don't talk about issues that are very real and not perfect. We have to find ways to educate our communities and our leaders and have appropriate conversations about issues like abuse."
Through preventative education we can and must do everything we can to protect our precious children and make our communal institutions truly wholesome and safe.
A good starting place is this list of parental guidelines, compiled by Chezi Goldberg, of blessed memory:
· Watch for signs of inappropriate touching, closeness, dominating and abuse
· Teach and demonstrate how to say "no" when your boundaries and space are threatened or violated
· Speak up when you see "warning sign" behaviors.
· Teach children the proper names of body parts.
· Teach children the difference between "okay touch" and touch that is "not okay."
· Teach children that secrets about touching are "not okay."
· Teach your children that families have boundaries that have to be respected; there are private times and places that outsiders are not welcome
· Tell your children that you want them to tell you if anyone ever talks to them about or does "touch that is not okay."
Rabbi Dratch turns the shanda issue on its head. "The biggest shanda is when the community covers up these problems. We are not judged by other Jewish communities or by the non-Jewish world by the incidents of abuse themselves. Unfortunately, they can happen. We are judged by the way we take responsibility for them."
The same beautiful qualities that make Jewish communal life so endearing can be a breeding ground for a pedophile: the emphasis on modesty and privacy, the warmth and openness, and orientation toward seeing people in a positive vein and judging them favorably. Should we then live in isolation, suspicion and mistrust? "Don't separate yourself from the community," our sages advise. Communal life and support is an integral part of Jewish life. But, we cannot stick our heads in the sand or be foolishly naïve. By learning about the issues and signs, being aware and alert, we can properly educate and protect our children.
Communities can ultimately be a tremendous source of mutual strength and support in coping with the destruction wrought by child abuse. Once the true nature of the neighborhood pedophile described in the beginning of this article came to light, the entire community rallied, holding educational meetings at the day school and inviting a panel of police, mental health professionals and clergy to address the concerned parents. The children and parents who first came forward were lauded as brave and heroic, rather than being isolated or ostracized. The community charted a course of action to help all the children, those directly and indirectly affected, to heal.
Many Jewish clergy and mental health professionals are working earnestly to change the modus operandi of the Jewish community and create vehicles for better preventative monitoring, reporting and treatment.
Among them are:
Jsafe: The Jewish Institute Supporting An Abuse Free Environment is an organization led by Rabbi Mark Dratch, which provides a certification program for communal institutions, publications and educational initiatives. Jsafe.org
Ohel Children's Home and Family Services of Brooklyn, NY, has therapy and treatment programs for both victims and perpetrators, sensitive to Jewish needs. Ohel family, org, 800-603-OHEL
The Awareness Center is a coalition of Jewish mental health practitioners dedicated to building awareness in the Jewish community. Awarenesscenter.org
Shalom Task Force Hotline provides information on rabbinic, legal and counseling services for victims of abuse in the Jewish community. (888) 883-2323.
Faith Trust Institute, a clearinghouse for information on domestic violence and clergy abuse in the Jewish community. Faithtrustinstitute.org.
Association of Jewish Family and Children Services (AJFCA). (800) 634-7346. firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Center for Victims of Crime. (800) FYI-CALL.
National Child Abuse Hotline. (800) 4-A-CHILD.
National Hotline for Victims of Sexual Assault. (800) 656-HOPE.
National Organization for Victim Assistance. (800) TRY-NOVA.
Find Jewish resources by state at www.jewishwomen.org/directory/state_res.htm.
Sources for internet and general safety include kidsafe.com. Much additional information is readily available online, through family service agencies, and in the library.