The sentencing of aWilliamsburgresident to over 100 years in prison last week has once again brought the issue of child abuse in our communities to the fore. Many of us do not want to believe that child abuse in any form is found in the Torah community. Or we imagine that if it does exist, it is confined to obviously deranged and marginal individuals. At the very least, we wish that somehow matters could be worked out in private, in a way not pointing a bright searchlight on our community and forcing us to confront difficult realities.
Alas, there is no possibility of quiet resolution — at least not if we want to protect our children’s bodies and souls. A community that attempts to deal with abuse issues quietly, in ways that protect our peace of mind, is a community that emboldens predators into thinking that they can get away with it — that sympathy for their families, or the instinctive recoil from admitting that such things can happen in our world, too, or communal shame at being exposed before the secular world, will serve to protect them.
Every predator will take steps to ensure that his victims remain silent. He will warn them of dire consequences if they tell, or try to convince them that no one will believe them if they report what has happened to them. If children’s complaints are routinely suppressed or discounted, the perpetrator’s warning, “No one will believe you,” gains credence and make it less likely that the victims will report. Experts in the field estimate that only one out of ten victims reports what happened to him or her to an adult in a position to help them.
The feeling that they will not be caught emboldens predators. And by the same token, the assurance that they will be caught and prosecuted is the most effective way to stop abuse.
To understand why reporting to authorities when there is solid cause for suspicion of abuse is so crucial, we must first understand the impact of abuse on the victims and how crucial validation of their suffering is to the healing process. (I’m drawing primarily on a chapter by Dr. David Pelcowitz, “Treatment of Victims of Childhood Abuse,” in a volume entitled Breaking the Silence.)
Victims of abuse understandably suffer a loss of trust and security. When the perpetrator is someone to whom they look for security or someone representing authority within their community, that loss of trust is greatly magnified. How can they place their trust in a community that has failed so dramatically to protect them? Mrs. Debbie Fox, who established an abuse prevention program in Los Angeles Torah schools that is now being widely emulated nationwide under her direction, writes in Breaking the Silence that victims often express greater anger towards those who failed to protect them than with the perpetrator himself.
A community that cannot provide security and betrays the natural trust of our young and helpless will not command their allegiance. When family members do not believe the victims or are unwilling or unable to take steps to protect them, writes Dr. Pelcowitz, “a generalized lack of trust in friends, family, and community develops.”
Victims may experience not only rage against the community, or the “system,” in general, but also against Hashem for not running His world with justice. That is one reason victimhood correlates so highly with being “at-risk.”
Victims frequently experience general feelings of worthlessness and blame themselves for what happened to them. It is crucial that when they report being victimized that they hear a clear and unambiguous message that they have been wronged and are not to blame for what happened to them. According to Dr. Pelcowitz, however, it is relatively common for parents or others who receive indications of abuse to downplay the significance of that abuse. And when the response of the community does not actively and unambiguously support the child by validating their feelings [of being horribly wronged] and ensuring that they feel safe, feelings of guilt and worthlessness can be significantly exacerbated, concludes Dr. Pelcowitz.
Many victims of abuse adopt a pattern of hopeless passivity. When adults act upon their complaints and take them seriously, they counteract those feelings of helplessness and passivity. Other victims engage in dissociation — i.e., enter a state of dreamlike numbness to avoid the pain inflicted upon them. Before they can heal, they need to be able “to name the monster.” But that naming of the monster can only take place in an environment where they feel comfortable talking about what happened to them and they are taken seriously.
So important is validation as a first step in healing that one social worker with whom I spoke actually took a young victim to file a police complaint against a perpetrator who had died in the interim. Dr. Pelcowitz concludes that “one of the best predictors of recovery is the level of support offered once the abuse is disclosed.”
And conversely, even adults who were victimized as children experience a reopening of their childhood traumas when they see new victims denied communal support and protection. That is something that those who ask, “Why can’t they just get on with their lives and leave the past behind?” can’t understand. The past is often still with them, especially if they did not receive the support they needed.
Remembering the Man from Vilna
What Mishpacha reader has not heard composer Abie Rotenberg’s “The Man from Vilna,” many times? You know, the one with the refrain, “We danced round and round in circles as if the world had done no wrong/ From evening until morning, filling up the shul with song/ Though we had no sifrei Torah to clutch close to our hearts/ In their place we held the future of a past so torn apart.”
The singer relates how he met an old man on the way back from a wedding in Chicago, and asked him why at his age and experiencing such difficulty walking, he still made the effort to attend simchahs far away from home. The old man’s explanation is much like that which Rabbi Yisroel Zev Gustman, the only surviving member of the Vilna beis din, once gave to someone who asked him why he so enjoyed going to the Kosel on leil Shabbos to watch the bochurim from Yeshivat HaKosel dance: “If you’ve witnessed as much Jewish tzaros as I have, you can never see too much Jewish simchah.”
The old man relates to his interlocutor a story from the first Simchas Torah after the War, when a group of survivors made their way to the main shul of Vilna to celebrate, and found scraps of sifrei Torah strewn all around but none with which to dance. “Then we heard two children crying/ a boy and a girl whom no one knew/ and we realized that no children were among us but those two.” So instead of the sifrei Torah, they took the two children and danced with them: “Though we had no sifrei Torah to clutch and hold up high/In their place we held those children, am Yisrael chai.”
The song is a real tearjerker. But its broad outlines are absolutely true. (Forgive the suspicion, but we are not exactly lacking for lachrymose, fictional stories and songs.) The old man in the story was Rabbi Leo (Yehuda Aryeh Leib) Goldman from Oak Park, Michigan, who passed away recently at 94, and whose shloshim is this week. A yeshivah bochur from Koritz in theUkraine, he was conscripted by the Soviets at the outset of World War II. Fortunately for him, he was wounded early in the fighting against the Germans, and sent far east toUzbekistan for rehabilitation. There he met his wife, who was fromLithuania.
After the War, the Goldmans travelled to Vilna to see if any of her relatives had survived. Still wearing his Soviet army uniform, Rabbi Goldman (he had received smichah while still in his teens) asked a young boy in the shul if he was Jewish, and then proceeded to lift him up and carry him around in the dancing.
That little boy was Abraham Foxman, today director of the Anti-Defamation League. Born in Baranovich, his parents hid him with a Polish woman during the War. They only succeeded retrieving him with great difficulty after War, as his caretaker — who had taught him to cross himself when entering a church and to spit at the sight of a Jew — very much wanted to keep him. His father brought the five-year-old boy to shul that Simchas Torah, just a short time after being reunited.
That encounter left a profound effect on both the Russian soldier and the little boy. The former spoke about it every year on Simchas Torah and on other occasions from his pulpit in Oak Park, Michigan. Eventually, he told the story to Rabbi Paysach Krohn, from whom it made its way to Abie Rotenberg’s Journeys album. And Foxman related how a soldier had lifted him high and proclaimed, “This is the Jewish flag,” in his autobiography Never Again.
But the two men did not know of each other or meet again until 65 years after the Simchas Torah in question, when they met in Detroit, where Rabbi Goldman served as a rav for well over half a century.
This past October a number of Rabbi Goldman’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren came to visit him. He was in failing health and had not been out of bed since Yom Kippur. But with eineklach and uhr-eineklach gathered around, he mused in words echoing the song: “Just imagine, I’m alive and Hitler, yemach shemo, is dead. Am Yisrael Chai.”