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A Long-Needed Discussion

Yonoson Rosenblum

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The lengthy Mishpacha piece on Rabbi Moshe Bak’s Project Innocent Heart (“King of Hearts,” January 1, 2014) and the plethora of responses it generated in the letters section last week are indicative of a positive trend in our community. Child abuse is no longer a taboo subject that can never be discussed. The numerous organizations in the field addressing various aspects of the problem indicate that it has moved to the top of the communal agenda.

That itself is an achievement. For years, predators have been emboldened by the unwillingness of the community to discuss, much less address, the issue of abuse. Now that the issue is out in the open, they can no longer hide in the shadows confident that a conspiracy of silence protects them.

The different emphases of Project Innocent Heart and groups like Magenu and Magen also remind us of an important truth: On very few complex and important issues is there one self-evident, correct response. And oftentimes, the best response is a multilayered one that combines the varied expertise of major actors in the field.

ONE LINE DID STICK OUT in Rachel Ginsberg’s genuinely path-breaking interview with Rabbi Bak: his statement that Project Innocent Heart does not “hunt predators.” No organization in the field, as far as I know, focuses on hunting predators. Rather, their concerns are the education of children, parents, and teachers; and early intervention and treatment for the victims.

I should emphasize that I did not for a moment read Rabbi Bak’s statement as one of a lack of concern with removing predators from our communities. Elsewhere he states, “We don’t care who the perpetrator is. It [the abuse] must stop and the abuser must be punished.”

But I think it is important to emphasize that removing predators from our communities is inextricably related to the issues of prevention and successful treatment of victims. As Tanchum Burton, a therapist with a great deal of experience in the treatment of predators, wrote to Mishpacha last week, predators do take into account the likelihood of being caught, especially where detection entails the likelihood of a long prison term.

One of the many crucial points Rabbi Bak made was that pedophilia is a disease — one that seems virtually incomprehensible to those not afflicted. Like any compulsion, it is difficult to treat, and we fool ourselves if we think that mere threats will be sufficient to deter it. I know firsthand of a case where a pedophile was repeatedly warned by neighbors, given a protocol that he was to follow, and pressured to enter therapy. In addition, neighbors informed one another that they should make sure that their sons stayed well clear of him.

No one wanted to see him go to jail, and there was widespread sympathy for his family. Yet, perhaps inevitably, there were those in the neighborhood not “in the loop” — new baalei teshuvah, non-Hebrew speakers — who never received the message to protect their children and whose children may have been more vulnerable as well. The warnings were not heeded, the protocols not followed, and the therapy abandoned, with the result of damage to more precious souls.

NO LESS CRUCIAL is a point I have made before: Prosecution of predators is a crucial component in the therapeutic treatment of their victims. (Here I’m drawing primarily on “Treatment of Victims of Childhood Psychological Abuse” in Breaking the Silence by Dr. David Pelcovitz, the Orthodox community’s go-to expert on the subject.)

Another of the very important points made by Rabbi Bak is that perpetrators are far more likely to be family members or those well-known to the victim than they are to be educators. But whether the perpetrator is a family member or an authority figure bearing the communal imprimatur, the inevitable result of abuse is for the child to experience a dramatic loss of trust in those structures to which he looked for protection, whether they are communal or familial. Those structures have failed him by not protecting him.

Mrs. Debbie Fox, the creator of the “Safety Kid” program being used in many Orthodox schools today, writes that victims often express greater anger toward those who failed to protect them than toward the perpetrators themselves.

If a child who has been victimized sees his abuser still walking free in the community, his generalized sense of betrayal is magnified. Even if the abuse has stopped, each time he views the perpetrator, he experiences a fresh reminder of what happened to him. The trauma remains an open wound that cannot even begin to be healed. The perpetrator’s presence conveys a message to the victim that the “system” — in this case, the religious community in which he lives — does not really care about what happened to him.

Dr. Pelcovitz emphasizes the crucial nature of “validation” of what the child has suffered for any therapeutic intervention to be successful. In other words, the child seeks support for his feelings of having been horribly wronged. Where parents or others show a reluctance to prosecute the perpetrator — sometimes out of sympathy for the perpetrator or his family — the child will experience that reluctance as minimizing the magnitude of what he has suffered. Indeed, writes Dr. Pelcovitz, it is relatively common for parents to downplay the significance of what has taken place, perhaps out of a misplaced feeling that doing so will make it less traumatic.

Victims of abuse typically experience feelings of worthlessness and are prone to faulting themselves in some way for what happened to them. That is one reason why it is so crucial that they be treated as victims and not as accomplices. Reporting and prosecuting predators is a crucial component of validating the child’s status as a victim. “[W]hen the response of the community does not actively and unambiguously support [children] by validating their feelings and ensuring that they feel safe,” writes Dr. Pelcovitz, “feelings of guilt and worthlessness can be significantly exacerbated.”

Those feelings of worthlessness are often expressed in patterns of hopelessness and passivity. When a child sees, however, that his complaints are acted upon, he realizes that he is an actor — not just a passive victim — and his generalized feelings of helplessness are alleviated.

TRANSPARENCY, it is said, is the best disinfectant. By opening its pages to this vital discussion, Mishpacha has gone a long way toward bringing closer the day when our community is no longer “safer for a pedophile than for a kid,” in Rabbi Baks’ words.

(It goes without saying that this column is not meant as halachic advice, and readers should consult with their poskim when that advice is required.)


A Few Precious Words

Among the joys of writing a weekly column is the opportunity it provides to forge a relationship with readers and, as a consequence, to develop certain themes over time. (It would be interesting for me to hear from readers what they think some of those themes are.)
One such theme is that each of us is broadcasting dozens of messages each day, wittingly or unwittingly, about what it means to be a Torah Jew. We do not sufficiently appreciate the impact that our actions or deeds can have — for good or bad. And oftentimes, we will never know what our impact has been.
I gave one example last week of a young man who approached me at a wedding and told me — to my great amazement — that I had changed his life with a brief compliment of which I had no specific memory (though I did remember what had triggered it).
Later that same evening, I attended another wedding — that of the daughter of my friend Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky, just two weeks after he had undergone major surgery. Reb Dovid told me that the day before someone he had never met had brought to his house biographies he had authored on Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel and Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zichronam livracha. As it happened, that visitor was another friend, Rabbi Yehuda Heimowitz.
Reb Yehuda had heard about Rabbi Orlofsky’s surgery and wanted to tell him of the major impact he had had on his life. Close to 15 years ago, Reb Yehuda was learning in Yeshivas Mir. He knew that he would be returning to New York that summer to complete the requirements for a graduate medical program.
Somehow, he came across the tape of a talk Rabbi Orlofsky gave to an Ohr Lagolah training program for yungeleit expecting to return to chutz l’Aretz for careers in the rabbinate or chinuch. In that class, Reb Dovid discussed what he tells parents of yeshivah students whose sons want to return for a second post–high school year in Eretz Yisrael.
Reb Dovid related how he cites the Rashi that the entire fate of the universe hung in the balance on whether the Jewish People would accept the Torah (Rashi to Bereishis 1:31) “Do you think Rashi was serious? Do you think Chazal, whom Rashi is quoting, were serious?” Reb Dovid asks rhetorically. “Or were those merely mili guzma b’alma — exaggerated figures of speech?”
That question hit Reb Yehuda full force. Until then, he had understood that each Jew had an obligation to fix times for learning, but that full-time learning was only for those who had a passion for it. After hearing the tape, however, he realized that Torah learning is not something one does just for himself, but for the entire universe.
He never made it back to the United States for the planned medical career. Instead, he stayed in full-time learning for many years before beginning a second career as one of the premier writers in the Torah world for ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications and as an editor for Mishpacha magazine. Of late, he has also joined Rabbi Orlofsky as an extremely effective teacher in a number of seminaries for post–high school students from America.
Had Reb Yehuda not shown up at Reb Dovid’s house to give him reading material for his recuperation, Reb Dovid would never have known of the life he changed with that particular class or even of the existence of that particular listener.
When we review our ledger in Shamayim, each of us will find numerous instances where our words or behavior influenced someone else’s life, sometimes dramatically. Let’s hope that the majority of that influence is for the good, like Reb Dovid’s.

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