For several weeks in April last year, the seven-year-old son of residents of the ultra-Orthodox Ramat Beit Shemesh neighborhood insisted on staying at home. "This was odd, because he always loved to go to school," relates his mother. "All of a sudden he looked scared and tried to find excuses not to go."
Then one day the boy suddenly told his elder brother: "The rabbi touched me."
"The rabbi" is a teacher at the ultra-Orthodox Yishrei Lev school for boys, which the boy attended. "When his brother asked, 'Where did he touch you?'" relates the father, "the boy pointed to his intimate parts."
The parents, who immigrated to Israel from the United States about 10 years ago, are very active in the ultra-Orthodox "Anglo-Saxon" (English-speaking) community in Ramat Beit Shemesh. As soon as the incident became known they received phone calls from rabbis and community functionaries who tried to dissuade them from continuing to investigate, and pressure them to deal with the incident with the help of the Mishmeret Hatzniut modesty patrol from Mea She'arim in Jerusalem.
The parents, who initially submitted to the pressure, ultimately took courage and in August 2008 they filed a complaint with the police. From the questioning of the boy by the police it emerged that ostensibly innocent tickling descended into indecent acts every day during recess over a long period. Parallel to the investigation the parents turned to the school directors, and the teacher was fired. During the following months three other boys from the class also filed complaints against the rabbi with the police.
However, at the start of the current school year the suspect had no difficulty in finding another educational institution in Ramat Beit Shemesh, and has been teaching there ever since.
This week the Jerusalem District Attorney's Office decided to close the case against the teacher for lack of evidence. The boy's parents have appealed this decision. They complain that the case was dealt with in a flawed way after several investigators were replaced during the course of the investigation. Beit Shemesh police dismiss these claims.
Ever since the affair was revealed, the parents have been vulnerable and exposed to a community that is condemning them for having laundered their dirty linen in public, and especially for complaining to the authorities. Later on their names were made public, and rumors were circulated to the effect that it was one of their sons who molested his brother. The father of the family has had to leave his synagogue because of the alienating way he was treated by the congregation.
But the most resounding slap, according to the father, was felt by the family when the principal of the school to which their son, the victim of the abuse, had been accepted during the summer, informed them that he had decided to revoke his acceptance on the excuse that he would need treatment that the school did not have the capacity to offer. "I think they simply want to distance us because we are a family that makes problems," says the father. "My son asked me, 'Daddy, is it because of what happened?' What answer could I give him?"
The storm around the Yishrei Lev story refuses to die down, especially as other affairs involving sexual abuse of children have surfaced lately. Four 10-year-olds from the ultra-Orthodox Bais Shalom institution for boys filed complaints with police this year against two rabbis on suspicion of physical and psychological abuse. In the course of the investigation it emerged that one of the teachers is also suspected of sexual molestation.
According to a source familiar with the details of the case, the rabbi would yell at the children that they are stupid and dolts, hit them on their sexual organs and twist their arms tightly.
According to Rabbi Tzvi Rabinsky, the director of the Toras Habayis educational institutions, of which Bais Shalom is one of three schools, the management is not obligated to report as long as the cases have not been proven to it. Also, because the investigation of the institution was carried out during vacation time and found that they are clean, there was no need to suspend the teachers.
According to Rabinsky and educational supervisor Rabbi Yosef Juliard, the complaints refer to the two best teachers at the school, and throughout the entire year during which the parents are claiming the teachers abused their children the directors heard only praise of the teachers from parents. Moreover, according to them, one of the families that filed complaints continued to send the complainant's younger brother to study with the teacher who is suspected of abuse.
To support their claim regarding the teachers' innocence, the directors showed a graphological test of one of the teachers in which he came out clear of any suspicion. They say they were prepared to see to all the necessary tests carried out by expert psychologists, but the parents of the children were not prepared to cooperate.
"We initially thought of going to the police, but we can't spill innocent blood. And apart from that the parents of the other children pressed us not to fire the teachers," said Yuliard and Rabinsky. According to them the parents' accusations against the teachers derive from the fact that the teachers sent their children for diagnosis, and there are parents who feel pressured by this.
The second case involves a complaint to the police in December last year by parents concerning the suspicion that their 6-year-old daughter had been molested when she was three by an assistant nursery teacher who is still working at the kindergarten. At around that age the little girl stopped talking and her behavior became problematic. The parents took the girl for various treatments and, as a result, two years later she began to function again normally.
According to the mother, only this year her daughter spontaneously related that the assistant used to strip her naked, tie her up and ask her to touch her body in different ways. "The child had never seen people behaving in a sexual way," says the father, with tears in his eyes. "How could she have imagined all those details?"
In the meantime the case has been closed for lack of evidence because the girl did not cooperate with the investigation. About a year ago, when the suspicion of another case arose and the parents demanded that the institution take action, the kindergarten employee was suspended, but she has since returned to work.
In Ramat Beit Shemesh, the population consists mostly of ultra-Orthodox Jews from abroad, who are considered more open than the Israeli-born ultra-Orthodox. Most of them work and therefore are more connected to the world around them. However, as new immigrants they are prisoners in the hands of the rabbinical establishment that is the captive of the most extreme Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy. The parents' reporting to the police in the three cases has been interpreted by the rabbis and school directors as traitorous to the community.
In all the cases, the children's departure from the schools stirred up a storm. The parents have been cold-shouldered by neighbors and friends, and have had to stop worshiping at their synagogues. As a result of the demands to retract their complaints they are feeling threatened. One family has even left Israel but is continuing to cooperate with police investigators.
"Instead of looking inward in an attempt to understand how Ramat Beit Shemesh has become a city of refuge for pedophiles and how to stop the plague, they are thinking about how to silence us," said one parent whose child fell victim to sexual abuse.
"There is denial here by an entire community," says Helise Pollack, a former welfare officer from Ramat Beit Shemesh and an expert on children who have experienced sexual abuse, who is treating some of the children. "They simply don't believe the complainants. The people suspected of sexual abuse do not look like monsters. These are people who have families, regular people. They make an excellent impression on their surroundings. What happens is that the victim's family is put on trial."
However, if thus far the community's attitude toward those who decided to complain to the police has been one of condemnation, only now, in the wake of the additional cases, are voices beginning to be heard calling for protest against the silencing of the incidents at the price of exposing children to risk of abuse. Recently fear of the "plague of sexual abuse," as people in the community are defining it, has led to some urgent assemblies of parents to discuss the problem.
About three weeks ago parents whose children are enrolled at the educational institution where the assistant is working convened to discuss what steps to take following a rumor that there has been another complaint against her. A week later, about 15 women met in a private home to hear Pollack and get her advice. "People in Ramat Beit Shemesh are taking the law into their hands," Pollack said. According to her, "Pedophilia is an addiction. Pedophiles must not be around children."
Pollack told the women that if the school does not fire the teacher, they must withdraw their children from the school in order to protect them. Her familiarity with the welfare system, the fact that she is religious and not ultra-Orthodox and the fact that she is Anglo-Saxon in origin have made her the address to which the parents are turning. The women were raised in a society where problematic topics like abuse are not discussed, and as mothers they are now going through a process of opening their eyes and mouths in order to warn their children.
"In ultra-Orthodox society the child's voice is not heard. They prefer to be considerate of the adult," said one mother.
The women confessed to Pollack their bad feeling about the beatings in heder (traditional school for young boys) as a matter of routine - a rabbi who crudely pushes a child's face into the Pentateuch on the table, another rabbi who cruelly twists ears - and said that this reality has to stop.
"Write about us compassionately," one of the women requested after the meeting. "I love this community. "
At another meeting held this month on the issue of sexual abuse, attended by nearly 100 people, the lecturer, a volunteer from the hotline on sexual abuse issues for religious women and girls, apologized for talking about immodest things. "I didn't understand why she was apologizing the whole time," complained one woman. "I got up and said, 'We're talking about child abuse. What does that have to do with modesty?'"
The speaker, D., is the mother of children who studied at an institution where sexual abuse took place. Ever since the abuse affairs became known, she has been acting unremitingly to fight the community's terrible silence. "They are saying that to blame the teachers is murder," she says, "and talking about how rabbinical law prohibits harming their livelihood. But against that, what about the danger of the harm to children? I am asking how it is possible to keep someone who is suspected of abuse at a school with little children."
During the past year 10 families applied to the welfare office in Ramat Beit Shemesh and the National Council for the Child concerning such issues. According to the NCC's director, Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, this represents an increase in the rate of applicants from that neighborhood. However, according to Kadman and Pollack, in Ramat Beit Shemesh a kind of social chaos prevails. "Beit Shemesh has grown at dramatic rates but the welfare office has not been given extra manpower slots. There aren't enough social workers and welfare officers," says Kadman. "Among other things a population has arrived here that is closed and extremist, and requires complex treatment."
The prosecution did not bother to inform the complainants in the Yishrei Lev case that it had been closed, because of a malfunction. This fact added to the parents' overall feeling that they are being punished for reporting the abuse. "If in this particular community, someone who gathers up the courage and complains doesn't get the fastest and best treatment, he will retreat and the whole community will get the message that it is not a good idea to report," says Kadman. "We mustn't miss this window of opportunity."
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