Orthodox Jews Grapple With How to Talk About Sexual Assault, Domestic Abuse

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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.
A session at this week's 'Shedding Light on the Darkness of Abuse' conference. The idea is for this week’s trainees to try what they learn back home, too.Credit: Lior Mizrahi

More than 1,000 ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews from around the world gathered in Jerusalem this week to tackle some of their communities' darkest taboos: sexual abuse and domestic violence. 

The three-day event they are attending, which began Monday, is the second annual conference on the subject spearheaded by the Israeli nonprofit Tahel, the Crisis Center for Religious Women and Children. Headlined “Shedding Light on the Darkness of Abuse,” the gathering offers five hands-on training tracks, including one specially tailored to rabbis and people who work at yeshivas.

That track – “Building Safe Synagogues and Yeshivas” – features sessions about high-profile abuse cases, defining offenders, abuse in marriage and other key subjects.

Tahel has organized pilot programs on these subjects in ultra-Orthodox and other institutions in Israel, Johannesburg, Sydney, Melbourne and London, director Debbie Gross told Haaretz. The idea is for this week’s trainees to implement what they learn back home, too.

Other training tracks in the conference are geared to individuals who monitor sexual harassment in educational institutions, lawyers and therapists. Organizers will be launching an international network that will enable lawyers to help agunot – Orthodox women who are refused a Jewish divorce by their husbands.

Some 1,100 people registered for the conference this year – an estimated 30 percent of them women – with participants coming from Israel, the United States, Britain, Canada, South Africa, Australia and European countries. 

Chief Rabbi Lau addressing participants at the conference. Rabbis and teachers should not “cross the line” into inappropriate behavior, he said.Credit: Lior Mizrahi

Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau addressed the opening session, emphasizing the important role rabbis have as "an address" for people who are victims of abuse. He said rabbis and teachers "need to know the line and not cross it” into inappropriate behavior, and added that he feels that awareness in the religious community of the issues raised by the conference “has grown and is growing.”

High-profile cases, such as those involving alleged child sex abuse at yeshivas in Sydney and Melbourne – which prompted public hearings on the handling by Jewish communal leaders of the suspected acts – have put a spotlight on this phenomenon in religious communities. The topic of the growing openness within these communities, which have traditionally hunkered down and kept abuse cases secret, came up frequently at the conference on Monday. 

“Fifteen years ago in the United States, you couldn’t say the word cancer, and we would say hamakhala ("the illness," in Hebrew),” said Zvi Gluck, head of the U.S. nonprofit Amudim. “Five years ago, you couldn’t say the words ‘sexual abuse.’ Now you can.” 

Still, many rabbis are not equipped to deal with sensitive subjects. “Yeshiva didn’t prepare us for this,” said Rabbi Avrohom Union, the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Rabbinical Council of California, who flew in to address the male-only rabbi track.

Monday gave a taste of what was to come in sessions aimed at training rabbis in the following two days. In one candid session, Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu discussed his experiences in dealing with abuse cases.

Earlier this year, Safed was faced with a highly publicized sexual assault scandal involving Rabbi Ezra Sheinberg, the head of the city’s Orot Ha’ari Yeshiva. In July, Sheinberg was arrested at Ben-Gurion International Airport while trying to flee the country, and was indicted for raping, sodomizing or sexually assaulting 12 women, most of whom were young religious women married to his students. His attorney has called the indictment “inflated” and “partly baseless.”

Eliyahu alluded to tensions between secular and rabbinical authorities when dealing with abuse in the religious community, and also discussed when and how to work with police.

Veteran American ultra-Orthodox social worker Debbie Fox gave the audience a rundown on advising parents as to how to talk to their children about abuse, another key skill for rabbis.

Union, who spoke among other things about how to deal with religious persons who have suffered abuse and are convinced that God is punishing them, told Haaretz that he gained expertise in the subject after many years of working with health-care professionals. 

“The vast majority of rabbis are deeply caring and deeply touched by the plight of individuals who have seen abuse in any form,” he said. “But many rabbis have not had the experience to know how this takes place, and they have not always responded in the most effective way.”

One thing rabbis need help with is in realizing where their job ends, said Rabbi David Fine, head of the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics in Israel, which trains ordained religious Zionist rabbis in community-related skills. “He has to know when he has to refer to professionals.”  

One of Fine’s rabbis-in-training, Eli Schonfeld from Givat Ze'ev, outside of Jerusalem, agreed that this is key: “I need to know how to respond the first time someone approaches me, and then how to help. I am very against rabbis being psychologists, therapists – and clowns. We are a little of everything, but we can’t do everything.”