Monday, April 26, 2010

Sexual Abuse in the Orthodox Jewish Community

by Robin Sax and Vicki Polin

The history of the Jewish people is filled with traumatic experiences stemming from anti-Semitism. In the Jewish community, especially in the ultra-Orthodox world, there has always been a general fear of airing dirty laundry.

In the past, going public with community problems might increase the likelihood of another pogrom. This is one of many reasons that Jewish survivors of sexual abuse have kept silent. Many fear that if the gentile (non-Jewish) world finds out that sex crimes occur statistically at the same rate as in any other community, it would threaten the cultural perception of the wholesomeness of the Orthodox Jewish family. The reality is that in all cultures, one out of every four children will be sexually abused by their 18th birthdays, and Jewish adults are assaulted at the same rate as in any other ethnic group.

Orthodox Jews account for approximately 10 percent of all Jews nationwide, and not surprisingly, a far greater percentage live the metropolitan New York area. According to New York's Jewish Federation (UJA), it is estimated that 36 percent of the more than 520,000 Jews living in Brooklyn are part of the Orthodox community. That means, statistically speaking, 130,000 would be survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Given these facts, it is shocking to learn that only recently have cases of sexual abuse within these communities started being prosecuted in criminal courts.

To understand the dynamics of sex crimes in the Orthodox world, it helps to know how the community dealt with sexual-abuse allegations in the past. While this list isn’t exhaustive, it certainly offers some perspective.

1960s: Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach was like a rock star, known for his dynamic singing and song-writing, which lured unaffiliated Jews back into the fold. But secretly he was a monstrous figure who sexually terrorized young women and teenage girls. It wasn't until 1998, when Lilith Magazine dug into this case, that there was any awareness Carlebach's actions might have been considered sex crimes.

Just as in many cases in the secular world at the time, the rumors were brushed aside and many of our rabbis would say things such as "boys will be boys" or "he's an artist, what would you expect?"

1970's: Joyce and Eugene Abrams were convicted on charges of incest and running a child pornography ring out of their Long Island, New York, home. Still, most believed such crimes were extremely uncommon in the Jewish community, let alone the Orthodox world.

1982: Dr. Eugene Aronin molested children at the Magnolia Middle School in Maryland, where he worked as a counselor. He then moved on to Texas, where he sexually abused more children. In 1984, Dr. Aronin's sentence was modified, allowing him to move to Illinois. In 1991, he allegedly molested another child. while teaching at a University. In Chicago, rumors about his past convictions spread through the Orthodox community. Aronin felt he had no choice but to flee to the northwest suburbs. To this day, this convicted sex offender teaches at the university level and has been known to seek work tutoring students, with the backing of some rabbis.

1984: Rabbi Avrohom Mondrowitz's case first broke in the New York Times. Besides carrying the alleged title of “rabbi,” he also promoted himself as a psychologist. He had strong ties with Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox mental health center -- Ohel Children's and Family Services. Like other Orthodox offenders in the past, Aronin avoided prosecution by escaping to Israel, which has no extradition treaty with the United States, and spared his family, friends and community embarrassing media attention.

We can't forget to mention the case of Rabbi Ephraim Bryks, who fled Canada for Brooklyn after the suicide of Daniel Levin, one of his alleged victims. The Canadian Broadcast Company produced "Unorthodox Conduct," a documentary about this case. Bryks has never been tried on charges in Canada. Nor have adult women who alleged sexual abuse felt safe enough to file criminal charges against him.

Another strange case is that of Rabbi Alan Horowitz, MD, a convicted sex offender. As part of his probation agreement, Horowitz was allowed to move to New York to study Torah at Ohr Somayach. The agreement ordered that he live on campus, even though the yeshiva also housed young men, including teenage boys. It is believed that while attending Ohr Somaych he was ordained an Orthodox rabbi, yet a few years ago this rumor was disputed once Horowitz made it to the FBI's most-wanted list. As a psychiatrist, Horowitz specialized in working with adolescents. His resume also includes volunteering as a Boy Scout leader and writing for NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association) publications. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, and received his Ph.D. and medical degree from Duke University.

In 2000, the case of Rabbi Baruch Lanner broke in the more modern Orthodox community. This landmark case, which was international news, led to the formation of organizations like The Awareness Center. Without Lanner's 2002 conviction, none of the cases heard more recently would have ever been brought out in the open.

Though many ultra-Orthodox rabbis and leaders are still in denial, some have stepped up to familiarize themselves with past cases and make changes for the future. They are starting to see how cases were mishandled. Slowly more of these rabbis are deciding rabbinic approval isn't necessary to make a police report (a huge victory). Meanwhile, Orthodox Jews are realizing that Jewish law requires all community members to report such crimes.

The national media have avidly followed cases of sexual abuse by clergy in other religious communities. In recent years the Roman Catholic Church has come under fire for transferring predatory clergy from one parish to another without telling parents or reporting the crimes to police. Catholic dioceses have had to pay millions of dollars to abuse survivors. Members of a polygamous offshoot of the Mormon Church were recently charged with ignoring the systematic sexual assault of children in their care. Authorities removed children from the Arkansas compound of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries amid allegations of beatings and sexual abuse.

But we have rarely heard about sexual abuses committed in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. The only real data was compiled in Israel in the Mikvah study.

Roman Catholic, Amish, Eastern Orthodox, Jehovah's Witness and Mormon groups all have been accused of denying that sexual abuse occurs within their communities. Similarly, Orthodox Jewish leaders deny altogether or claim they didn't know rabbis have been sexually assaulting women and children. It took decades for the Roman Catholic Church to even admit that such crimes were occurring in its parishes.

Vicki Polin founded The Awareness Center, based in Baltimore, about 10 years ago. It gathered just about everything known about sex crimes and put it into a Jewish context, hoping to break through the denial. Though the information reached many insulated communities around the globe, denial and resistance to education and change appears to be growing into a holy war of sorts.The key players in many communities are establishing pseudo vaads (rabbinical councils serving as religious courts) and organizations to deal with sex-crime issues. But instead of working with secular law enforcement officials, they are just using these vaads and other programs as a cover to do the same old thing.

How long will it take in the Orthodox Jewish community? Most yeshivas, schools that train primarily Orthodox Rabbis, have refused to cover the area of sexual abuse -- supposedly for reasons of modesty. Until recently, sex abuse claims were handled quietly and secretly by local Orthodox rabbis, rarely going as far as a beit din (rabbinical court), let alone child protective service hotlines or local police.

Some rabbis active in Orthodox politics publicly support taking charges to police, yet when cases come across their desks privately, they encourage their congregants not go to the civil authorities. The concern often is that the offenders will not be treated fairly in secular courts and will be targets of anti-Semites in the prison system. In addition, the offender's family will suffer financially while the offender is incarcerated.

New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind has been publicly calling for change in the status quo. But instead of working with established rape crisis centers, he's trying to keep help for sex-crime victims within the Orthodox community, overseen by rabbis.

If someone's home is on fire, they don't need a rabbi's permission to call 911; if someone is ill, they can call an ambulance on their own. But if someone suspects a child is being abused or neglected, they have no guarantee within the Orthodox community that their civil rights as U.S. citizens will be recognized or protected.

New York's Orthodox religious organizations still aren't complying with mandated reporting for sexual assault. The families are still going to the beit din and letting rabbis handle the cases internally. Why is mandatory reporting a good thing for the community? It allows people to report anonymously and begin an investigation that will determine whether abuse has occurred. It allows use of best practices in child sexual assault reporting (for example: SANE teams, forensic interviewers, video recording). Reporting solely to the beit din does the victim little good. There is absolutely no substitute for a police report.

Back in 2007, Hikind said he had collected more than 1,000 complaints and the names of over 60 accused sexual predators. But he still hasn't released these names. This is truly unbelievable. Six Orthodox Jews, former yeshiva students, hired attorney Michael G. Dowd, a leading advocate against sexual abuses in religious communities. Dowd filed a lawsuit claiming sexual abuse by a teacher in Borough Park, Brooklyn. He served Assemblyman Hikind with a subpoena in November 2008 demanding that he surrender the files he keeps under wraps. Ironically, by keeping these disclosures secret, Hikind seems to agree with the Orthodox party line that abuses can be handled internally.

When Hikind's radio program went on the air in 2007 discussing the taboo subject, i.e. child molestation among members of the insular world of Orthodox Jews, it didn't get much attention nationally. Now that Hikind has brought the issue to light, it is his responsibility to follow through. And it is our responsibility to make sure we hold him -- and the community --accountable. Do your part!

Comment on this blog to start the discussion and write to Assemblyman Hikind: 1310 48th St., Brooklyn, NY 11219, call 718-853-9616, or visit Hikind's website.

Vicki Polin, MA, LCPC, is the founder and director of The Awareness Center, which is the international Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault. She has over 25 years experience empowering both adult and child survivors of sex crimes.Vicki was the author of the 1997 Chicagoland Area Sexual Abuse Resource Guide and has authored numerous articles.She has also provided educational and experiential workshops across the United States.


Kathryn Casey said...

It is obvious that these are allegations of crimes, outside the realm of religion, and must be referred to authorities, as in similar situations in other faiths. When did organized religion decide it is above the law?

For too long, those in charge have allowed faith to be manipulated by criminals to conceal their crimes.

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