'Reality Is Changing'

Although the Katsav trial elicited some shocking support in Orthodox circles for the ex-president - even after his conviction - overall, the case has increased awareness and discussion of sexual abuse among religious women

Last Wednesday, the day after former President Moshe Katsav was sentenced, Tirza Frenkel, vice-principal of Tehilla, a state-religious girls' high school in Jerusalem, was planning to discuss the case in her 12th-grade civics class. But even earlier, she says, students stopped her in the hall and asked her to address the matter.

Frenkel has a reputation at the school for devoting a lot of attention to sexual abuse, in general, and to the Moshe Katsav affair in particular. The issue preoccupied students throughout the trial (which began in the summer of 2009 ), she says, and discussions were held in classrooms at high points in the proceedings, such as after the verdict.

Demonstrations against Katzav
Tess Scheflan / Jini

"I used the case in civics classes to describe court proceedings, to explain what a plea bargain is and why Katsav turned it down - and to discuss sexual abuse," Frenkel says. "In Orthodox parlance, we talk about how every woman was created in the divine image, and therefore has a right to her body and must not be violated."

She told her students that "the personal message to all of you is that you has the right to safeguard your body and to do with it as you see fit, and nobody has the right to demand anything else."

Most of Frenkel's students do not know that Frenkel herself was the victim of a childhood sexual assault. A letter published in late February, before Katsav's sentencing, from a group of national-religious rabbis expressing support for the former president made her so angry that she decided to protest it publicly by publishing an open letter to the rabbis on Yedioth Ahronoth's website Ynet, identifying herself by name as the victim of a sexual assault.

"When I saw the list of rabbis it made me queasy," she says about the letter, which suggested Katsav's conviction was based on lies, and urged him not to lose faith in his eventual vindication. "There were people whose opinion I respect, with whom my children and the children of friends and relatives study. Suddenly they were signatories to a letter like that. In my eyes this is first and foremost a violation of the very foundations of the state. But beyond that, as a victim of sexual assault, I was personally offended. What does a woman feel who had been thinking about turning to one of these rabbis, or who previously turned to them in distress, after she was violated? After all, he is telling her, 'It doesn't matter what you feel.'

"For a long time there was a sense that things that happen to women in secret are a gray area. We went through a lot to make it black and white; to understand what is forbidden. The rabbis took us back to the darkness of the Middle Ages."

Frenkel says her e-mail box was overloaded with stories about abuse and harassment from Orthodox women, who thanked her for her courage and for "saying what they were thinking."

In the public discourse that accompanied the Katsav case, the voices of Orthodox feminists stood out. The Orthodox feminist organization Kolech: Religious Women's Forum joined a petition against a 2007 plea bargain, later cancelled by the defendant, that would have seen Katsav plead guilty to lesser charges than rape and avoid jail time. A number of women, including Frenkel, published articles on the web, in which they championed the complainants. That voice grew louder following the letter published by rabbis from the national-religious community, in which they expressed support for Katsav and cast doubt upon his guilt.

Debbie Gross, the founder and director of a crisis hotline for Orthodox women and girls, points to a rise of 10 percent in the number of calls after the verdict in Katsav's trial, which was announced this past December 31.

"From the moment he was found guilty the calls increased," she explains. "That still doesn't mean that complainants will go to the police." In fact, Gross says she worries that the case will actually cause female victims to refrain from going to the police for fear of exposure during a trial. Nonetheless, she notes, "it's progress, because they are prepared to reveal what was done to them."

Rabbi Elon affair

It appears that a number of notorious sexual harassment cases in recent years involving public figures and rabbis - and particularly since the affair of Rabbi Mordechai (Motti ) Elon, who is being investigated on charges of molesting minors - paved the way for such an adamant stance by religious women against Katsav.

Jerusalem city councilwoman Rachel Azaria, an Orthodox feminist lawyer who is active in battling gender segregation on buses, says that she was surprised to learn of women in leftist organizations who were reluctant to expose cases which cast suspicion on their male colleagues. "We, the Orthodox feminists, came to our senses immediately when we realized that even a person who is a spiritual authority is capable of sexually violating women or men," she stresses.

At the Midrashiya, the girls high school of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where the curriculum includes gender studies, principal Meirav Badichi addressed the student body last week after the sentencing.

Frenkel thinks that issues concerning sexuality need to be addressed seriously and directly also at institutions of a more insular "Hardali" (Hebrew acronym referring to national ultra-Orthodox Jews ) nature, where talk of such subjects is usually played down or silenced.

Malka Petrokovsky, a teacher of Jewish studies for women, is married to a rabbi and is one of the founders of the Takana forum, an association of Orthodox rabbis and other public figures that deals with sexual abuse cases in the religious community, and which blew the whistle in Elon's case.

"There is no open conversation whatsoever in religious boys and girls high schools about romance and sexuality," she explains. "And as for what happens in the case of a person who 'did not conquer his desire,' the religious public hasn't gotten to that yet. But maybe now, in the wake of Katsav's trial, girls will see that even someone who is meticulous about the daily morning prayers might be abusive, and that there is no connection between his being a religious person, or a rabbi, or some other spiritual authority, and the fact that he assaults others. On the other hand, someone who has experienced something [of a sexual nature] will be able to gain confidence because they believed a woman like her, her sister, over the No. 1 citizen."

Petrokovsky says she was pained to see that "so many skullcaps surrounded Katsav in court. People like that should have been the ones to demand his denunciation by human society and not to support him." And naturally she is angered by the rabbis' letter, even though there were a few names on the list whose support for Katsav did not surprise her.

Petrokovsky says her own awakening came first of all through her studies. "The Tannaim and the Amoraim [two of the groups of sages involved in writing the Gemara section of the Talmud] were brave enough to tell me about their desires and their screwups - about the fact that even if my name is Rabbi Meir, I can stumble."

A decade ago she was involved in exposing suspicions against a well-known rabbi who had allegedly been assaulting women for years. It did not lead to trial because the women were pressed to drop the charges against him. That experience opened her eyes even further. "Until then I knew there was such a thing, that even a person who is a spiritual authority might be abusive, but it seemed far removed from me. When you are exposed to such a bad case, you realize that everything has to be examined in depth. I convey this to my daughters as well - not to accept the rabbi's halo and spiritual authority as the be all and end all."

Petrokovsky educates her daughters, who are aged 12, 16 and 18, to be cautious, without worrying about being perceived as paranoid. "If it just seems to you as if something bad may be happening, scream your head off and then call Mom," she tells them. "My children also underwent a painful awakening with regard to the rabbis, but in the extended family there are still those who are mad at me for 'falsely accusing' someone 'innocent and honest.'"

As someone who stood by Orthodox women who complained about sexual harassment by prominent rabbis, Dr. Chana Kahat, the founder of Kolech, is also intimately familiar with the gap between women who fight to expose the blight, and rabbis and yeshiva boys who are still living in total denial and take the abusers' side. She thinks there is a connection between the rabbis' letter from February and the refusal of rabbis to report to the police for questioning .

"When a rabbi who is [suspected of committing a crime is] called in for questioning and refuses [to go], this is part of a patriarchal mindset that says he is above the law, [and embodies] an utter lack of faith when it comes to listening to women," Kahat explains. "In the name of this patriarchal mindset, injustices are being done to women and they are effectively silenced. When a person speaks positively about a rapist, he hurts the complainants very badly. This is also an attempt to terrorize future complainants."

However, Kahat adds, "when I started handling the cases of women who complained of harassment, there were 120 rabbis against me. But rabbis switched sides and today they are part of Takana. They are aware of the phenomenon, and believe the complainants, whether male or female."

The set of regulations the Takana forum presented to educational institutions, demanding that they act against sexual abuse, is another facet of the progress being made. More and more schools are opening up to workshops on empowerment for girls and violence prevention that Kolech holds in cooperation with a crisis center.

"We still have a long way to go," says Kahat, "but if we compare the education of the Bais Yaakov network [ultra-Orthodox schools for girls] - where there is still an absolute taboo - to what is happening today, we see that there is greater legitimization for getting help from figures in authority when something happens. Reality is changing in front of our eyes."

The Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, together with the hotline for religious women, has developed sexual-assault prevention workshops for children. According to Debbie Gross, awareness is still low at religious girls high schools and colleges for women, but the situation is actually getting better in kindergartens and lower grades. Just this year, facilitators from the crisis hotline for religious women ran 1,200 workshops, most of them in kindergartens for Orthodox girls and boys. A few were aimed at the Haredi community.

"People understand today that there is an epidemic of sexual abuse of children in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox publics," Gross says, adding that data on trends within the Haredi community cannot be publicized because of the delicacy of the subject there.

For its part, the Haredi press did not even mention the Katsav trial. Rabbi Yeshayahu Lieberman, head of the teacher-training seminary Merkaz Beth Jacob in Jerusalem, says that he himself does not know much about the case, and that it was not a matter for discussion at the seminar. "It doesn't concern us and doesn't interest us," he says. But even he knows that seminary walls do not keep out information from the outside world. Recently someone posted Tirza Frenkel's letter against the rabbis on the religious Internet forum Behadrei Hadarim, which led to an open discussion on the subject.