Opinion |

Why My Haredi Community Can't, and Won't, Deal With Sex Abusers

Forget the secular justice system: we’re ‘handling’ sexual abuse in-house, with crimes turned into sins and punishment into repentance. No wonder ultra-Orthodox rabbis have become sex abusers’ most devout defenders

Yehudis Fletcher
Yehudis Fletcher
Victims of sexual abuse within the Haredi community 'will never be empowered to make a police report, file a lawsuit, cut off contact with their abuser, push off marriage, or otherwise rock the boat'
Victims of sexual abuse within the Haredi community 'will never be empowered to make a police report, file a lawsuit, cut off contact with their abuser, push off marriage, or otherwise rock the boat' Credit: Oded Balilty,AP
Yehudis Fletcher
Yehudis Fletcher

We all sin, although I try not to.

Sometimes I speak disrespectfully to my elders. Sometimes I rush to get ready for Shabbos on time, and sometimes my sin is that I watch the clock waiting for Shabbos to finish because it is hard entertaining three children on my own when we can’t have guests or visit family because of COVID restrictions.

When I was 18 I got married, and like my mother and sisters, I started covering my hair with a sheitel (wig). A couple of years ago I stopped wearing it, and some people see that as a sin.

In my Haredi world, masturbation is a sin, too. It is called zera levatala, wasted seed. Many Haredi poskim (halakhic experts) group that sin together with sexual abuse, as if both were the same victimless crime.

Some people will crow from the yeshiva rooftops and say our Haredi world has the lowest crime rates. It does indeed, in terms of the secular world’s statistics, because we have replaced the secular justice system by reframing crimes as misdemeanors and reinventing repentance.

What do we need secular legal systems and courts for? Why would we need to send anyone to prison? Ratting to the secular authorities when the community has everything in hand is an act of presumption and treason against the community and against God. With Repentance 2.0, God will forgive. Teshuva (repentance) doesn’t need the imprimatur of the state.

This is a gross distortion of Jewish law. Our holy texts are full of terrible punishments for all sorts of sins. Repentance is between man and God, but it is well established that societies need to have punitive measures to deter criminals. Absolving criminals from within the Jewish community of the need to face retributive justice is a crime against those of us who are most powerless.

This new version of repentance is great for criminals. Whatever crime they commited was just a sin, and Repentance 2.0 is available to everyone. All they need to do is start again, and the Disco Rabbi, who goes into prisons, introducing people to Torah, will help them. That’s all the rehabilitation they need. Who cares about their victims?

Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Grossman is the "Disco Rabbi." The sixth generation Jerusalemite wears a shtreimel and draws a salary from the State of Israel as the Chief Rabbi of the northern town of Migdal HaEmek.

He moves seamlessly between the Haredi and secular worlds. His charity, Migdal Ohr, is aimed at children from disadvantaged backgrounds to help steer them away from crime, and is supported by religious and secular Jews alike, as well as the Israeli government. He received the Love of Israel award in 1983, the Tolerance Prize in 1991, and the Israel Prize in 2004. He’s been named International Humanitarian of the Year by the Caring Institute, received an honorary doctorate from Bar Ilan University, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Distinction by Shimon Peres in 2013.

In recent years, Rabbi Grossman has developed another specialism: devout defender of sex abusers.

Rabbi Eliezer Berland, convicted of sexual abuse, appears before the Randburg magistrate's court, South Africa, April 20, 2016.Credit: Ilan Ossendryver, SA Jewish Report

In 2016, Rabbi Grossman appeared before a court in South Africa, twice, to negotiate the release from prison of former Shuvu Banim Torah Academy school dean Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who later confessed to the rape and assault of his female disciples.

In 2018, Grossman testified for bail to be given in the case of former school principal Malka Leifer, who fled to Israel after she was accused of rape and 74 counts of sexual abuse at Adass Israel School in Melbourne. Israel’s Justice Minister finally approved Leifer’s extradition on 16 December, after a decade-long legal battle.

Malka Leifer, who is being extradited to Australia to face 74 counts of suspected sexual abuse. She was the headmistress of an ultra-Orthodox girls’ school in Melbourne and fled to Israel in 2008Credit: Mahmoud Illean/AP

And just now, alongside Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush, Rabbi Grossman offered to act as guarantor for a convicted rapist requesting a furlough to attend his son’s bar mitzvah.

Every person has no more than one or two core values that are central to their belief system and around which they organize their entire life, says professor, author and podcaster Brene Brown. When someone’s behavior steps on one of your core values, the anger you feel is a form of release: it is a reaffirmation of your commitment to your core values.

The Disco Rabbi-turned-abuser-apologist treads all over all over my core values. He jumps up and down on them and grinds them into the ground.

It is not that I don’t understand where he is coming from. Sex in our community is treated as a mitzva, a God-given commandment, a duty for us to fulfill, at a specific time and with a specific person in a manner that is prescribed, instead of private. The mitzva of onah, pleasuring one’s wife, is a husband’s duty, and I am meant to take comfort from the fact that not only women are sexually coerced.

These attitudes lead straight to their inevitable mirror. Sexual crimes are treated as an aveira, a personal and private sin, a spilling of seed, and who cares into what vessel that seed is spilled.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men walk on the Old City of Jerusalem, as seen through a gap in the ancient fortress at the Tower of David Museum. October 28, 2020.Credit: Maya Alleruzzo,AP

Yichud, the laws against seclusion between men and women, are somehow supposed to keep us safe, as if sexual criminals only offend against the opposite sex and as if rapists care about halakha, anyway.

With cruel and inexplicable hypocrisy, there is also an obsession with the sexual sins that LGBT people are imagined to be committing, with consensual loving partners.

There is no basis in Judaism for sexuality to be monitored and coded in this way. It is dehumanizing and humiliating. This was never our way.

When did we start outsourcing our morality and our sexuality? It is not even to God that we do this: it is to self appointed middlemen who manage, with the right combination of charisma and lineage, to secure positions as rabbis.

Supporters of the convicted sexual abuser Rabbi Eliezer Berland outside the Israeli court where he was sentenced to 18 months in prison, after fleeing to South AfricaCredit: Moti Milrod

Maimonides warned us against worshipping intermediaries. He pointed out that a society whose religious expectations are based on the sanctity or authority of men (as opposed to God) is inherently idolatrous. We have forgotten the basic tenets of our faith. The Disco Rabbi and the institutions he protects are intermediaries, and we need to stop worshipping them.

We protect our abusers as a way of protecting our institutions. We have invested too much in them and we are afraid to let them fail. Maimonides calls this institutionalization of Torah and Judaism a bizayon, a degradation of the Torah. He considered it one of the biggest disasters to befall our people.

Outside influencers like the Australian Royal Commision and high profile trials have forced these degradations into the public eye, and so now we must be seen to be making "changes." We must protect our institutions.

To do this, we foster an ever growing bevy of quasi-therapists, self-proclaimed experts and, even worse, qualified professionals in the field of sexual abuse who buy into this worldview, who perpetuate both the abuse and trauma. They work alongside rabbis and proclaim confidently that they "handle" abuse. That’s an in-group way of saying: we deal with these issues by ourselves. On our own terms. We’ll look after the victims as an internal matter, and we’ll look after the abusers, too.

Two school aged boys walk along New Utrecht Ave. in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park in the Brooklyn borough of New York. October 14, 2020.Credit: Mary Altaffer,AP

Once, they would hold parlor meetings, but now they are on Zoom in many a Haredi dining room, telling us that maybe there are a few bad apples and sure, children can be taught to protect themselves from abuse. Their kind of therapy cures everything, so why should we change anything about the way we do things.

They offer training to Haredi teachers and parents and sometimes directly to Haredi children themselves, and no one asks themselves what has been cut out and what has been included, in order for the training to pass the communal censors.

Maybe I am too forgiving. Maybe people have asked if what’s being presented is really the full picture, and were appeased by the argument that Haredi children are not worthy of having access to unbiased, empowering information about bodily autonomy and consent.

Our rabbis insist on these quasi-para-professionals who often have little to no training: they argue that a Haredi victim needs a therapist who will be "sensitive to the needs of the community."

This is the most revealing part. We are not talking here about meeting the patient where they are, socially and culturally, so that they can engage with the therapy from their vantage point.

We are talking about making sure that victims only speak to therapists who will not divert from the script. It is just more control. Often it is sponsored by communal benefactors or charities; victims don’t have the resources to pay for actual therapy that will empower them and which clearly, absolutely, express the distance between their victimhood and the abuse of the perpetrator.

Posted in Jerusalem's Ezras Torah neighborhood admonishing those who 'ratted' to the police on a yeshiva student who abused minors. Feb 2017Credit: Yehudis Fletcher

They will never be empowered to make a police report, or file a lawsuit, or express their feelings towards their abuser, or cut off contact with their abuser or the institution where the abuse took place, or push off marriage, or otherwise rock the boat.

The goal is to "fix" victims, and make them marriageable, or if they are married, get them to a point where they can be available to their husbands again. And if they against all the odds do end up making a police report, the Disco Rabbi will be there for their abuser.

I am objectified by the expectations of my Haredi community, and too often that objectification continues when women like me reach out and try to describe to outsiders what it is like to live this life. That is why I fear my words will be misread as some kind of salacious tell-all tale of the proclivities that lurk beneath Haredi sheets and behind our doors.

But this fear, too, is part of the mechanism of silencing which my community is too eager to brandish and weaponize, and one with which I have decided to collaborate no longer.

From 1-7 February, the UK will mark sexual abuse and sexual violence awareness week. Along with thousands of police officers, frontline support workers and victims and survivors of sexual violence, I will use my voice to assure the voiceless in my own community that they are not alone, and that #itsnotok must be a core part of our vocabulary, too.

Yehudis Fletcher is a social and political activist. She is an Independant Sexual Violence Adviser with Migdal Emunah, and co-founder of Nahamu. She is a student of Social Policy at Salford University. Twitter: @YehudisFletcher

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