Child Sex Abuse: Why Does the Jewish Community Tolerate It?

We must shift our interest from protecting the reputations of abusers and their institutions to helping abused children and preventing potential victims.

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As I read the article, all I could think was, not again. ”Nineteen former students of a Manhattan high school run by Yeshiva University have filed a $380 million lawsuit against Yeshiva University accusing administrators and teachers of covering up decades of physical and sexual abuse.”

The courts are yet to decide whether they will hear this case, which alleges abuse dating back some 40 years, for in New York cases of child sexual abuse must be brought before a victim’s 23rd birthday. According to the Forward, the lawyer representing the alleged victims argues that the statute of limitations does not apply because Yeshiva University fraudulently covered up the abuse. For us, the Torah has no statute of limitations on liability. It is never too late to address the problems of sexual abuse in our community, and to take affirmative action to prevent it.

Irwin Zalkin, a preeminent litigator in abuse cases wrote in his op-ed, “The ‘Them Vs. Us’ Shtetl Mentality Protects Sexual Predators:”

“The sexual abuse of children in our society is a national epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1-in-4 girls and 1-in-6 boys will be sexually abused by the time they are 18 years old. This is not a problem unique to the Orthodox Jewish Community, it crosses all social, religious and economic strata of our society.”

That this issue is prevalent across social, economic and religious bounds does not make it any less troublesome as we grapple with abuse in our own - Jewish - backyard. When cases like Yeshiva University and countless others like it come to light, we, as a community, must engage in serious introspection. And when rabbis - colleagues that we respect and admire – are involved, this cannot compromise our response.

The case of Yeshiva University High School for Boys reminds me of what happened with Baruch Lanner, a former high school principal and director of regions for the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth. When the story by Gary Rosenblatt of the Jewish Week broke in 2000, Lanner was accused of abusing numerous children that had been entrusted to his care during a period of more than 30 years. He was convicted in 2002 of sexually abusing two teenage girls at the high school where he was the principal, according to the New York Times.

In both the Lanner and Yeshiva University cases, rabbis and administrators allegedly protected the perpetrators, and, in the process, their institutions. In the current instance, after being allowed to quietly leave Yeshiva University and being honored at a farewell dinner, one of the named rabbis, Rabbi George Finkelstein, moved on to become a principal in another school and later became the director general of a synagogue. According to the Forward, Finkelstein was accused of further abuse while serving both of those roles.

The synagogue board, prior to hiring the rabbi, heard rumors and checked with an “authority” at Yeshiva University, the Forward reported, and twice the synagogue was reassured that the concerns were baseless. This was in 2001, within a year of when the Lanner case broke, the scandalous details of which were widely circulated in the Orthodox community.

In the words of the great Spanish philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Thus, we, as a community, must take these cases as a sign that it is time for soul searching, and ask, why do we tolerate child abuse?

Of course there are the monetary concerns associated with an institution’s damaged reputation. But putting that aside, there is also the misguided application of the halakhic principle “moser,” informing on another Jew to non-Jewish authorities. According to the Rambam, Maimonides, moser is usually done for financial benefit or to curry favor - neither of those are even remotely applicable in these cases.

The inescapable conclusion is that we are somehow able to rationalize child abuse as less than devastating and truly harmful to our children. And by we, I mean men. In many cases of documented abuse in religious communities, it isn’t women in positions of power deciding not to report acts of sexual abuse on defenseless children; it’s men. Studies are inconclusive, but it appears that the vast majority of child molesters are men, while only a small percentage are women, according to the National Council on Child Abuse and Family Violence.

Perhaps at some deep level, Jungian psychology suggests, males traditionally identify with the perpetrator and resist empathy with the victim. Each of us has a dark side that we keep hidden - even from ourselves. But when there is documented child abuse, the concern has to be for the abused children and potential victims, not the perpetrators.

In coming to terms with his own silence as a student at the Yeshiva University high school, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky writes, “But what must be obvious to us now is that it is both folly in practical terms, and corrupt in spiritual terms to think that we are in any way strengthening Judaism through turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the cries of the innocent. Indeed, if Judaism means anything at all, only the precise opposite could possibly be true.”

What should we do to stop tolerating sexual abuse of our children? Rabbi Kanefsky put out a call to his YU classmates to offer their own apologies to those whose distress they ignored. The Rabbinical Council of America, at their recent convention, issued strong guidelines for preventing future cases of abuse. I would add to their list that we can insist that women are included in the oversight committees of organizations that deal with internal review of abuse and harassment issues.

It is now long past the time to realize that sexual predators do not stop until they are stopped. Above all, we must acknowledge that no matter the position of respect and authority that a colleague may hold, nothing can compromise our love and responsibility for all the children entrusted to our care.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.

'The inescapable conclusion is that we are somehow able to rationalize child abuse as less than devastating and truly harmful to our children.'Credit: Emil Salman

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