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Around five years ago, Rabbi Yehuda Silman, a dayan (rabbinical court judge) in Bnei Brak court, approached Doron Agasi, a religious social worker, and asked for assistance in dealing with sex offenders. The request seemed like a call for help and Agasi, the principal of a boarding school for children-at-risk in Bnei Brak was acquainted with the problem first-hand. He proposed treating the offenders. He recalled the youth probation office's success with group therapy, which was offered as an alternative to imprisonment to youths who were sex offenders.

The proposal fell on open ears. The principle behind this method - that offenders are not removed from the community, that is, sent to jail, and no police file on them is opened - seemed like a solution that the ultra-Orthodox leadership could live with in peace.

That is how, with the full backing of rabbis, Agasi founded the Shlom Banayich (welfare of your sons) association for children-at-risk. Behind the somewhat vague name stood the first clear-cut social program to expose the dimensions of sex offenses in the ultra-Orthodox sector and treat it. Violence against a sexual backdrop raises unbearable questions in a society that prides itself on its moral superiority. It seems that a professional like Agasi, who belongs to the Hardal (abbreviation for Haredi-Leumi, or ultra-Orthodox nationalist) stream and is well-acquainted with the ultra-Orthodox and secular worlds, was needed in order to achieve a breakthrough. With his yeshiva-student like appearance - without the sneakers and the large crochet skullcap - he might have looked like an average ultra-Orthodox man, and his sensitivity generated a lot of trust. He basically worked as an intermediary between the ultra-Orthodox community and Dr. Talia Etgar, an expert in treating sex offenders at the Elem Association for at-risk youth.

Last week saw the end of the first course of its kind - for ultra-Orthodox therapists - in group therapy for offenders. The course was the initiative of Shlom Banayich in collaboration with Elem. The association with Elem came about after five years of fruitless contacts with the Probation Service and endless entanglements in the bureaucracy of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Half of the funding for the course was finally obtained from a contribution (from the high-tech company, Check Point); the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs agreed to fill in the rest.

Thirteen therapists took the six-month course. Soon they will begin their practical work: every pair of therapists will spend a year and a half working with a group of five boys. The treatment is based on having the offender confront his responsibility and educating him about sexual behavior that is appropriate to the codes of ultra-Orthodox society. The group framework is meant to provide support and teach the participants to have mutual respect for others.

The potential participants in the group are ultra-Orthodox boys who are being monitored by the Youth Probation Service or those who are not obligated to check in with a probation officer (cases that are not included for various reasons in Amendment 26 of the criminal code). Working with them is dependent on the cooperation of the welfare officer and the rabbis. Every case is first reviewed by Elem's Center for Sexual Violence and then undergoes a risk evaluation, after which the boys are divided into groups.

The deterrent factor, according to Agasi, is the alternative: the boys know that if they don't take part in the group, a police file on them will be opened and they will be sent to jail.

"Sex offenses exist in every society," says Dr. Talia Etgar, "and ultra-Orthodox society is no different." According to her, there is no data on the scale of the phenomenon because only a few causes are reported to the police. This is one of the difficulties in dealing with the problem. According to her, experts today attribute considerable importance to the culture from which the offender comes, and therefore separate groups have opened for Russians, Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox.

The language of treatment and the offender's world vary from one culture to another. Therefore, one of the first things the course did was to translate the lexicon of terminology Etgar offers into language that is common in the ultra-Orthodox world. "At first, I didn't understand [what the reference was] when a patient told me that 'he touches the brit [sex organ - T.R.], or what 'doing it for nothing' [masturbation - T.R.] meant," says Dr. Yehuda Bergman, one of the participants.

According to Agasi, there are frameworks for treating victims of sex offenses in ultra-Orthodox society, but it was also necessary to treat the offenders. With them, simple logic is used: the treatment aims to prevent a recurrence of the problem. Moreover, the research shows that most offenders were themselves victims. "The offenders will continue to enlarge the circle of attacks as they mature and if we can stop them now, we have spared victims," says Agasi.

Blaming victims

For a long time, ultra-Orthodox society made sure to protect offenders at the expense of the victims, who often were blamed for the offense happening. Pedophiles were dealt with using traditional methods: house arrest in the home of the rabbi or in a yeshiva, being sent away, with a divorce or to a yeshiva abroad, or threats of violence from the modesty patrols. When ultra-Orthodox society started opening up to the possibility of psychological treatment, it seemed like a good solution. And yet, according to Dr. Amram Gafni, a psychiatrist who took the course, the social tendency is to turn the offender into a "psychiatric case" in order to reduce the severity of the action and of the punishment.

The willingness today to recognize sex offenses and treat them is indicative of the size of the phenomenon, the three therapists agreed. According to them, the walls around ultra-Orthodox society have cracks in them. In their perception, the sexual permissiveness outside is seeping in and influencing the ultra-Orthodox sector and prompting sexual assaults. They prefer to blame the phenomenon on the society around them and not to do some soul-searching of their own. Accessibility to the Internet and pornographic content is also stirring, in their opinion, the offender's dormant potential. Bergman thinks that it is impossible to control exposure to the Internet, which has infiltrated "even into Me'ah Shearim."

"Once an adolescent was not exposed to nudity. It was possible to restrict or watch over. Today this is almost impossible."

Agasi explains that in such a closed society there is withholding of sexual stimulation and therefore the level of frustration grows and paves the way to sex offenses. The head of a yeshiva for children at-risk, who created the Lev Shome'a (attentive heart) hotline for treating youths, and is very involved in Shlom Banayich, makes a problematic claim implying that foreign workers are the ones spreading pornography. Etgar is more cautious when discussing the causes for the outbreak of sexual offenses. "The world is full of temptations, and still some people attack and some don't. It differs a lot from one boy to the next, there are some for whom exposure to pornographic content causes trauma and others for whom it doesn't."

Agasi says that ultra-Orthodox society realized that it had a problem and that the traditional tools for dealing with it had lost their effectiveness. He says ultra-Orthodox communities in Elad, Jerusalem and Kiryat Sefer approached him with requests to copy the course model in their communities. Because few people still go to the police to report sexual offenses, the impression of increasing numbers of sexual assaults is based on the increase in the number of victims calling the hotlines of the rape victims' crisis centers and on the growing number of victims turning to ultra-Orthodox therapists for treatment.

"Below the surface, ultra-Orthodox society is undergoing change," says Agasi. "It is growing. On the margins there are frictions with the secular world and this encounter creates in adolescents great frustration and a feeling of missing out."

The openness to group therapy, Agasi feels, is a result of the availability of therapists that ultra-Orthodox society can trust, such as the course participants. Gafni, who returned to religious observance, is a young man doing his residency in psychiatry and has so far treated 10 ultra-Orthodox offenders, feels the norms of reporting offenses brought to the ultra-Orthodox world by the newly observant are gradually being internalized by the ultra-Orthodox public. "Many people who returned to religious observance and whose children were hurt, are not willing to accept ultra-Orthodox society's policy of keeping silent and silencing others." "Once we saw an unfortunate offender," says the rabbi responsible for Lev Shome'a's hotlne. "We took him to a psychologist and a psychiatrist, who saw him as an unfortunate. Etgar said, "Gentleman, he's not unfortunate, he's dangerous and he must take responsibility. There is no such thing as 'what can you do, my evil inclination overpowered me,' as they say in our community. You have to realize that you and only you are responsible for your actions."