The Woman Spearheading the Fight Against Sexual Assault in ultra-Orthodox Society

Rivka Schwartz belongs to a community which treats the very word ‘sex’ as taboo, but after finding out at 16 that her best friend had been sexually abused, she vowed to help victims of the phenomenon

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Attorney Rivka Schwartz.
Attorney Rivka Schwartz.Credit: Emil Salman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

Attorney Rivka Schwartz remembers vividly the first time she ever heard about sexual abuse within the family. She was 16 at the time, attending summer camp. She and one of her best friends – also a Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, girl from Bnei Brak – were having trouble falling asleep. They talked well into the night, and Schwartz’s friend revealed something that astounded her.

“She told me that a member of her family was forcing himself on her,” Schwartz recalls now, speaking with Haaretz at a café in Jerusalem. “I was stunned. I hardly knew anything about [sexual] relations then, and certainly I didn’t think anything like that – sexual abuse – existed. None of us had internet access, and it wasn’t something that people talked about. I was also shocked because I knew the man. I felt guilty for not having seen it sooner. I didn’t understand how I could have known her for so many years without having the least idea.”

Schwartz decided she had to help her friend. “I sat with my mother in the kitchen and told her the whole story. She said, ‘No way, it can’t be.’ ... She said that maybe my friend had dreamed it and that I should let it go.”

But Schwartz, who is today 36, did not let it go. “I thought I was being smart, and I persuaded my friend to tell her parents. Their reaction was to accuse her of being immodest. They said she had seduced the man. She was sent to a school abroad to keep her away from him. Finally, she left Israel [for good], and afterward also the religious way of life. She broke with her family – and with me, too, because from her perspective I was the one who had harmed her. I’d encouraged her to tell her parents, and the result was that she’d been punished and lost her family and her whole world.”

Schwartz was haunted by the realization that, instead of helping, she had only made matters worse. But the lesson was clear.

“I understood that there was no one to turn to in such cases,” she says. “I am not someone who accepts the idea that nothing can be done. I decided that one day I would do something about it, so other 16-year-old girls in similar situations would have someone to turn to.

“The second thing I understood was that talking and exposure exact a steep price, so you have to know how to go about it. You mustn’t remain silent, but you have to know how to not stay silent. I decided that in the future I’d find a way to help other girls.”

However, that future had to wait. As one of 11 siblings in a family affiliated with the Vizhnitz Hasidic sect, Schwartz was steered from childhood into attending a Haredi girls’ school and marrying.

She only departed from the path to the extent that she refused to marry someone within the Vizhnitz court. And even that was related to the assault she’d been told about as a teenager.

'I understood was that talking and exposure exact a steep price, so you have to know how to go about it.'

“I didn’t want to marry anyone from a community where such things happen,” she explains now, adding, “Until then, I had the naive notion that it didn’t happen in other communities.”

The matchmaker suggested Meni Gira Schwartz, then a 19-year-old yeshiva student from a different sect, a businessman and also editor of Behadrei Haredim – which bills itself as “the world’s biggest Haredi website.” The parents on both sides weren’t enthusiastic, but the couple insisted, and three weeks after their first meeting they became engaged.

Schwartz, who was 19 when she married, subsequently continued her studies to become a teacher, training at an ultra-Orthodox seminary. She had two daughters, and at age 26 chose to enroll in the law faculty at Ono Academic College, in Kiryat Ono, near Tel Aviv. It was the only law school that would admit her without a high school matriculation certificate. She’s the only one of her siblings to receive an academic degree.

During her studies, Schwartz volunteered at the college’s legal clinic, the Noga Center for Victims of Crime. There, for the first time, she discovered that the scale of sexual abuse, in society in general, far exceeded what she had imagined, and was hardly confined exclusively to ultra-Orthodox sects.

“Not many Haredi women contacted the aid center,” she recalls. “But I realized that in the same way a woman would better understand another woman, a Haredi woman will understand another Haredi woman better. It was clear that a Haredi who was victimized should be treated with Haredi ‘tools.’”

Schwartz also volunteered at an Israel Bar Association clinic that offers pro bono legal assistance to indigent persons.

The clinic often received ultra-Orthodox who had experienced sexual assault, and referred them to the relevant organizations. That experience only reinforced Schwartz’s belief that a Haredi facility – with an understanding of that community’s special needs and language – was needed to help in such cases.

'The ignorance stems from a lack of awareness. We live in a closed community. The community wants to protect its members.'

After completing her studies, Schwartz clerked in the criminal department at the State Prosecutor’s Office in Jerusalem, which marked the first time she encountered incidents of sexual assault – including in Haredi society – that were considered serious criminal offenses.

She also discovered that in some cases, ultra-Orthodox assailants were simply ignorant of the law. She cites the case of a man from the Haredi town of Modi’in Ilit, who wanted to appeal a 13-year prison term to which he had been sentenced after being convicted of having sexual relations with a boy of 12.

“The man had a business, where the boy worked as a messenger, and the close working ties between them led to forbidden relations,” Schwartz relates. “Years after those relations ended, when the boy was 21, the man tried to hug him when the two met by chance on the street. The victim re-experienced the trauma and filed a complaint. The assailant had no idea why he was being investigated. He told the interrogator, ‘The boy didn’t resist, it didn’t hurt him, he wanted me. He even came to me on his own.’”

The man was aware he had violated Jewish law, having had relations with another male, but wasn’t familiar with the concept of statutory rape, when a minor is involved – and a crime even if consensual.

“For him, it was like someone turning on a light on Shabbat,” explains Schwartz. “He said it was between him and God. He didn’t know there’s no such thing as consensual relations in such a case. The ignorance stemmed from a lack of awareness. We live in a closed community, but I see that not as [a means of] silencing but as protection. The community wants to protect its members.”

On the condition that it’s really protection and doesn’t expose others to danger.

“Right. In the past, the community prevented exposure and wider publicity of these cases. The Haredi media didn’t report them. The Haredi public didn’t hear about them. When offenders were put on trial, I [as a member of the community] didn’t know about them.

“When I started to work in the State Prosecutor’s Office, I was shocked by the scale of the phenomenon. I realized that people who had suddenly disappeared from the landscape, and were said to be abroad, were actually in jail. The public wasn’t aware they’d been punished, so there was no deterrent effect.”

While clerking six years ago, during a tour of a Social Affairs Ministry center in Jerusalem that treats sexually abused children, Schwartz learned that 75 percent of the youngsters treated there came from ultra-Orthodox families. Though this was due in part to the high proportion of Haredim in the city, the information staggered her.

'I realized that people who had suddenly disappeared from the landscape, and were said to be abroad, were actually in jail.'

Schwartz: “I wrote about this in a Haredi Facebook forum, noting the high percentage of Haredi victims and the fact that people were in prison and we didn’t know the first thing about it. In response, people accused me of defaming the community. They said I was making things up. The forum’s manager told me we don’t wash our dirty linen in public, and deleted the post. I felt helpless. I wanted to fight the ignorance, so that potential offenders would know what lies in store for them from the legal standpoint, and preclude such cases.”

In-depth care

In 2013, after starting her own law firm, Schwartz founded Min Hameitzar (“From the Depths”), an organization that provides support and legal assistance to Haredi victims of sexual abuse.

She manages the organization, which operates on a national basis, with the aid of three administrative assistants and a team of volunteer lawyers. When it comes to psychological assistance, Min Hameitzar cooperates with other groups, such as Bayit Cham (“Warm Home”), which works with both at-risk teens and adults in ultra-Orthodox communities.

“Min Hameitzar is an organization that’s about victims, not criminals,” Schwartz says. “That’s the motto. The aim is to assist victims as such, and not necessarily to hunt down the offenders. I want to do what’s good for the victim. If it’s necessary to file a [formal legal] complaint, we will do that. If not, we won’t. If what they need is assistance in submitting a request to the National Insurance Institute to determine the level of their disability, that’s what will happen.

“We provide a response for a range of needs of the Haredi victim,” she continues. “That means psychological support, helping during criminal proceedings, representation in damages suits, assistance in dealing with social welfare, National Insurance and other authorities. It’s all on a voluntary basis. Our work also involves enhancing awareness by writing educational programs about prevention and organizing conferences.”

How does your organization’s work differ from the treatment of similar cases among the secular population?

'A Haredi child is incapable of uttering words that he perceives as immodest. He will say ‘below.’ That’s not enough for an indictment.'

“Overall it’s the same, but at the practical level, the professionals are Haredim and the cultural language they use in the treatment is different. At the time we founded the organization, there was only one investigator dealing with cases involving Haredi children in the whole country. In time, it was understood that Haredi society could learn the professional tools – psychological and legal alike – from the outside and use them in treatment within the community.

“Many studies have shown that if the therapist is from the same community as the person he’s treating, the treatment is more effective. Statistically, when the therapists and the investigators belong to the same community as the victims in criminal cases, there are more convictions.”

Isn’t there concern that people from within the community will encourage a policy of silence?

Schwartz is incensed by the question. “I don’t for a minute doubt the ethics of the professional therapists. Rabbis, too, have clear rules about when it’s necessary to file a complaint with the police – for example, in cases where it’s clear the offender is likely to assault others.

“In contrast, my ethics have been ‘doubted’ in the past. Recently, I was at a hearing as the lawyer representing victims in the case of a Haredi advertising man who was accused of rape. The defense counsel asked me to leave the courtroom, claiming I was liable to obstruct justice. The judge had me removed, contrary to the victims’ rights law. But the next day, it was actually the defense counsel himself who leaked to the press all the evidence he’d presented in court, which he didn’t want me to know about.”

In recent years, the Israel Police have hired 16 investigators, both men and women, to work within the ultra-Orthodox community. Even so, professionals in the field maintain that police handling of cases of sexual assault in the Haredi community is inadequate.

To begin with, 16 officers out of a police force of some 35,000 is an extremely small fraction, especially in light of the fact that the ultra-Orthodox public constitutes 12 percent of the country’s population. In Jerusalem, for example, there are only two Haredi investigators. The result is that many assault cases go unreported.

In addition, according to informed sources, in many cases victims who are willing to file a complaint find that, when seeking help from the police, they encounter a lack of cooperation, unclear terminology and an inadequate explanation of the procedures and possible consequences.

“The interrogation of a victim of sexual assault is always a difficult experience,” a source in one aid organization says.

“For example, when a Haredi woman is asked about an orgasm – and these are questions the police ask – and it’s a word she’s never heard before, that’s a problematic situation. There isn’t enough social support for the complainants even among the secular public, still less in the Haredi community. A woman who files a rape complaint will be asked by people in her circle how she ever found herself in a situation in which she was alone with the perpetrator in a room. It’s a case of being victimized twice.”

Still, the presence of Haredi interrogators has substantially improved both the attitude of the police toward the community and communication with it.

Says Schwartz: “These investigators understand the Haredi nuances and cultural language. The Haredi interrogator is able to ask questions that only Haredim would understand. For example, a suspect said he did nothing bad, that the boy only sat on his lap during a religious lesson. The Haredi policewoman asked him how he could have touched the boy and not washed his hands afterward, before returning to sacred matters. That’s a question a secular interrogator would never think of asking. At that point the suspect found himself in trouble and the case took a major turn.”

She gives another example: “A Haredi child is incapable of uttering words that he perceives as immodest, like names of the body organs the assailant touched. He’s used to having his mouth slapped if he speaks those words. He will say ‘below.’ That’s not enough for an indictment. You have to say exactly where. A Haredi interrogator understands that the boy will try to avoid those words,” and will find a way to work around the problem.

The rabbis’ role

According to state prosecutor Lizu Wolfus, who is in charge of cases of sexual assault in the Jerusalem District, recent years have seen a highly significant change in Haredi society’s approach to this subject, and groups like Min Hameitzar are among the reasons for this.

“Rivka understands the criminal process and is able to simplify it into the victims’ language,” Wolfus says. “It’s also significant that she can convey to them the law pertaining to the rights of victims of abuse, which is complicated. And, of course, there’s significance in the fact that she’s a female attorney – the women in her community see her as a feminist model. She helps girls at the lowest point of their lives, and that naturally enhances the role model.”

Wolfus, like Schwartz, refutes the widespread notion that it’s the rabbis who prevent complaints from being submitted. “In the cases I have handled,” the prosecutor notes, “I don’t recall even one in which a rabbi blocked submission of a complaint to the police. I do know of cases in which important, well-known rabbis did a great deal for victims – referring them to helping organizations and the police, helping uncover [the perpetrator] and even testifying.”

For her part, Schwartz argues that “it’s all too easy to accuse the rabbis of silencing things. But I have yet to meet a rabbi who did not allow me to handle a case. Not every case is suitable for a complaint to the police, but there wasn’t a single rabbi who told me not to deal with a case or tried to ‘silence’ the matter. Sometimes matters have to be dealt with within Haredi frameworks, but the rabbis don’t prevent this.”

Are things done more discreetly within Haredi frameworks?

'Charlatanism is rampant in this field. We have dealt with many cases in which secondary damage was caused.'

“Yes. An effort is made to avoid making the offender’s name public, in order not to hurt his family, but certainly no one says not to deal with it or to go to the authorities. For example, the offender’s name is never published on Behadrei Haredim until there’s a court conviction. That’s an approach I agree with. Even the director general of the Justice Ministry, Emi Palmor, recently concurred in the opinion that, for the benefit of all parties, the accused’s name should not be made public. The offender’s name is not important to the public. What’s important is for the public to know that the incident happened, so they will be careful.”

Occasionally, however, there are reports about specific ultra-Orthodox rabbis who are said to have tried to silence complainants. One such case, which surfaced two years ago, involved a pedophile who assaulted children in Modi’in Ilit. Rabbis prevented a formal complaint from being filed against him and made do with “exiling” him to Bnei Brak – where he attacked another girl.

“I can’t tell you about cases that I didn’t handle,” Schwartz says. “I can testify to what I am familiar with, namely that in regard to the obligation to report, which exists when the victims are minors, I have always obtained full cooperation from the rabbis.

“Recently there was a story of a grandfather who assaulted his granddaughters for years. The parents came to me and demanded that we go to a rabbi. He said that a formal complaint had to be filed. The grandfather was [convicted and] a few weeks ago was sent to prison.”

At the same time, Schwartz is adamant that in cases in which reporting an event is not mandatory – because no minors are involved – going to the police is not always the most appropriate solution.

“The police are only a means, they are not the goal,” she explains. “The primary goal is to help the victims. Here, too, I always see full cooperation from the rabbis. There were occasional cases when we wanted to file a complaint, and the rabbis of the victims’ communities asked whether I thought it was essential to get the police involved. I always found a way to conduct a dialogue and arrive at an arrangement that was mutually acceptable. It’s also very helpful to the victims when the rabbis support them, whether that involves going to the police or psychological treatment.”

How do you enter into a dialogue with the rabbis?

“We try to make them aware of the victims’ feelings, and not berate or offend them. Recently, I met a rabbi in a community in which a woman who was abused filed a complaint with us; what the rabbi would say was very important to her. He is a person of great stature, but extremely conservative. When we entered, he immediately asked whether I was going to record him. I told him, ‘I am not from the media, I am here to get support from the rabbi.’ In the end he told the woman she should give thanks every day that she found Min Hameitzar, and he encouraged her to go to the authorities. The rabbis don’t kick me out, because I come to them in the spirit of dialogue based on shared values. I don’t come to them with a knife.”

As an independent, feminist woman, doesn’t it infuriate you to have to go through bodies consisting of men who get to decide how to proceed and must authorize every move you make?

“Infuriating or not, that’s the situation. There’s no point railing against it. Among the ultra-Orthodox, when something happens, you don’t go to a professional. If someone in the secular population is very sick, for example, he finds the best doctor and goes to him. A Haredi goes to a functionary, and the functionary refers him to a doctor. If you were arrested on suspicion of having committed an offense, you would hire a lawyer; the Haredi goes to a functionary, who sends him to a lawyer. If a child is harmed, they don’t turn to the welfare authorities, but to the local rabbi or functionary. That’s what is called ‘Haredi nuances.’ The achievement is that, whereas in the past the functionaries and rabbis tried to handle matters in their ways, today, thanks to growing awareness, they know they should refer people to us or to the authorities.

“What’s important,” Schwartz continues, “is for the rabbis to cooperate and not try to deal with things themselves, as they did in the past.”

In general, she adds, “The bureaucracy is very tough. It’s very difficult to get a case to the indictment stage when it involves a minor, for example, because the case can very quickly be ‘contaminated.’

“In the case of a young child, it’s always possible to claim he has a highly developed imagination or that his mother ‘helped him to remember.’ A recent check of data in the Be’er Sheva branch of the Beit Lynn network – of centers for the protection of minors who have been sexually assaulted – found that only 15 percent of the complaints they receive about minors lead to indictments.”

Muting the ‘S’ word

One of the major changes that Min Hameitzar has spearheaded, says Schwartz, is the heightened awareness that exists among the Haredi public about the very existence of sexual abuse, and the possibility of their talking about it, even before seeking the pro bono aid she offers. Nonetheless, there is still much work to be done, and she remains – at age 36 and the mother of four children – true to her idealistic 16-year-old self, who wanted the world to hear about the horrors perpetrated behind closed doors.

Among her many pursuits, Schwartz co-manages the largest Haredi Facebook group on the web, which has 17,000 members.

The closed group, whose name translates as “Some girls, and what’s between them,” was established “with the aim of speaking and sharing socially,” Schwartz explains, “and became a social-economic initiative. You can share anonymously in the group. Many women have described sexual abuses from their childhood, violent husbands, abusive parents. They receive vast support and advice and a hug from the public. It’s part of the revolution. After sharing online, some women told their story openly and asked for help. That has led to the creation of more aid organizations.”

Attorney Rivka Schwartz.Credit: Emil Salman

In Schwartz’s view, the increasing number of organizations seeking to help victims isn’t a completely positive phenomenon. There are unqualified therapists who sometimes cause the victims serious harm.

“Some groups don’t have proper training but purport to assist victims of sexual assault,” she points out. “Charlatanism is rampant in this field. We have dealt with many cases in which secondary damage was caused – such as a father who raped his daughters, who were then taken by the mother to a psychologist who wasn’t qualified. The therapist extorted money from them by threatening to tell everyone what happened, and also tried to dissuade the girls from lodging a complaint against the father. She [the therapist] is now on trial.”

There are assistance organizations that are, to her mind, too occupied with exposing incidents of assault and the names of the offenders even before they have been brought to trial, she adds. In some instances, they make public material that Schwartz says is “verging on pornography,” without considering the damage liable to be caused to the families or the victims themselves. “Undue exposure is also liable to frighten the public. Our goal is to bring about a meaningful change from the bottom up, from the public, not to create fear,” she notes.

The boundary between silencing and discretion can be elusive.

“There are groups that describe Haredi society as primitive for not giving children sex education, or educating them in self-defense. But that’s not so today. Haredim don’t silence people, but they aren’t always eager to make things public. There’s a sensitivity that has to be taken into account. A child who’s abused and has his name publicized is a marked person. A person who’s charged is marked, as is his whole family.

“Every case we deal with and that you hear about in the media went through a rabbi. The Torah demands that we deal with it. For example, after the rape of Dinah in Shechem [Genesis 34], her brothers came to avenge her [by killing all the men of Shechem]. The Torah says, ‘You will sweep out evil from your midst.’

“It’s not like other sensitive issues, such as agunot [women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce]. To bring about a change for agunot, you need to change the halakha [Jewish religious law]. But in the case of sexual abuse, the halakha is with us and the Torah is with us. The rabbi won’t say that the matter should not be dealt with, but he will say it must be treated in a way that avoids harm to the community.”

One of the most sensitive issues Schwartz has to deal with is the language used. The word “sex,” for example, is beyond the pale. “I don’t use the term ‘victim of sexual assault,’ but ‘assistance to victims of an offense,’ and everyone knows what is meant,” she says. “That also goes hand in hand with legal language. The law, for example, is called the Rights of Victims of Offenses Law. Sexual abuse is a societal ill. I want the treatment in Haredi society to be done in a language that’s appropriate for ‘subjects about which silence is golden,’ but at the same time not to silence things. If that means conducting an entire conversation with a child in which the word ‘sex’ is not used, then it won’t be used, but the child will understand what he needs to be wary of.”

Does Haredi society have an institution comparable to the Takana Forum in religious-Zionist society, which tries to cope with sexual abuse without involving law enforcement authorities?

“Takana Forum is a splendid idea. It exists in the Haredi community to a certain extent – there’s a committee of rabbis that works with the social welfare services. If reporting is not mandated by law, and if the welfare official decides that it might be possible to deal with it within the community, by means that do not necessarily involve other intervention – the social welfare people consult with the rabbis committee.”

What about the danger to public safety? After all, reporting to the police isn’t intended to help the victim but to prevent the offender from harming others.

“One consideration is whether the offender will go on doing harm. We apprise the victim of that consideration, both in conversations and during a treatment process. We have a case of a man who was abused when he was a minor. When he arrived, he wasn’t capable of submitting a complaint, and he started treatment. After a few months, he was ready to file a complaint with the police. There are some who will never be mentally ready. Our approach does not come from a place of wishing to conceal, but from a place of wishing to assist the victim.”

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