Israel's Chief Rabbis Urges ultra-Orthodox Not to Cover-up Sex Abuse Claims

Recent spate of sex offenses in ultra-Orthodox Israeli circles spark chief rabbi's unusual and sharp appeal.

Israel's Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau in 2015.
Lior Mizrahi

The multiplicity of investigations and indictments against sex offenders in recent weeks, primarily involving the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community, has spurred Israel's chief Ashkenazi rabbi, David Lau, to take the unusual step of speaking out on the issue.

Lau issued a call to Haredi parents and educators to take seriously any stories of sexual assaults of children and to increase awareness of and vocal opposition to any such incidents.

“It is absolutely forbidden to sweep these things under the rug and to evade dealing with these difficult phenomena which, if they are not stopped, could cause numerous other souls to be hurt,” Lau wrote, in a letter to a conference of Haredi teachers.

A session at this week's “Shedding Light on the Darkness of Abuse” conference in Jerusalem, which offers sessions for Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews from around the world on dealing with taboo subjects.
Lior Mizrahi

The letter was written during an especially turbulent time, during which every few days a new horrifying story has emerged or an indictment filed on suspicion of sex crimes against women or minors in family frameworks and educational institutions alike.

Among other developments, charges have been filed against six teachers in a Talmud Torah school in central Tel Aviv; a man from a famous rabbinical family has been indicted for allegedly abusing his daughters; and charges have been filed as well against a senior rabbi at a Jerusalem yeshiva, who is accused of serious sexual assaults, including rape, over a period of years, of members of his family since they were young girls – a case that may mark a turning point in the Haredi public’s approach to sex crimes.

To these must be added the case of Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who was deported to Israel and arrested last month for alleged sexual crimes.

In pursuing some of the recent cases, the Israel Police received cooperation from community leaders which it could not have expected in the past.

All these developments are being closely followed by Haredi news websites, which are covering them much more extensively than the mainstream media. Indeed, the Haredi dailies and weekly papers, which as a matter of policy do not report on sex crimes, have for the past few months ignored the incidents that have been riling the community. This makes Lau’s public comments even more exceptional.

Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who is suspected of sexual abuse in Israel, arrives at court in Haarlem, the Netherlands, November 17, 2014.
Koning Sander, AFP

“Unfortunately," he noted, "we have recently become aware of the terrible phenomena taking place in our courts and communities. Cases in which boys and girls have been harmed in their homes or in educational institutions have taken place recently and they are heart-rending. How painful it is to hear that the places which are supposed to be the source of support and strength for children and teens have become sources of nightmares and fear.

“At this time, parents, teachers, relatives and all those engaged in the holy work of education must keep their eyes open and assist those who need it in any way possible," Lau added. "Burying our heads in the sand is not the answer to these difficult and painful issues, and everyone must take responsibility, even if these things do not affect him directly.”

The chief rabbi also said that he was “disgusted” by the fact that he must even have to deal with such incidents, “but necessity makes it unavoidable. As people for whom pure education is a top priority, you have an especially great obligation to keep watch and give the greatest possible attention to phenomena that are liable to harm the delicate psyches of young people.”