This past sunday, a townhall meeting was held in Crown Heights to raise awareness regarding the epidemic of child sexual abuse within Orthodox communities and their problematic responses. The event hosted by Eli Federman, a long time community activist and champion of these important causes, and included incredible panelists: Rabbi Yosef Blau, a vocal advocate and supporter of survivor's rights; Irwin Zalkin, an attorney for survivors of clergy sexual abuse; Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney; Mordechai Feinsten, a survivor and advocate; and Zvi Gluck, community activist and founder of Our Place, a safe space for survivors. Along with the panelists, the Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes spoke. He attempted to justify his legally dubious and controversial practice of keeping confidential the names of religious Jews prosecuted for these heinous crimes, adding "I created a system that keeps the names of offenders out of the public only to protect victims, and I'll be damned if I change that."
Perhaps, he should be. The Orthodox community is his most powerful voting block, and his policy protects Orthodox offenders and complies with the community's general suppression of sexual abuse, which the D.A. himself acknowledges involves more "intimidation [than] in organized crime cases". The Orthodox community, especially leaders and educators were conspicuously absentfrom this event, but, three weeks ago, they had come out en masse.
On May 20th 40,000 religious Jews gathered at Citi Field to discuss the "grave" threat the internet poses to their religious lifestyle. From the moment I found out about this event, I was dumbfounded. I simply could not understand how a rally on the "dangers" of the internet was rational, productive or even fair -- not just fair to all the real issues ignored in these religious communities, but also to the people themselves, who were blindly following their religious leaders.
Just before this event took place, leaders of the Williamsburg Satmar community held a fundraiser for a man accused of raping a young girl repeatedly over the course of years; community leaders called for everyone to come donate money to fund his defense. The leaders further claimed that such allegations in general pose a great threat to the future of their community. While the community embraced the accused abuser, it has harassed, ostracized and intimidated the survivor. While I and a few others were protesting this event, a religious woman said to us simply, "I know him [the accused]; it can't be true" -- as if she had some special method of knowing for a fact that Weberman did not commit the crimes he was accused of. Such blanket denial is something I witnessed firsthand while growing up. It was an ignorant and dangerous response from a parent, that is indicative of actual grave threat facing the children of religious communities such as Williamsburg, which would rally to raise funds for a man accused of ruining an innocent life. Four days later and three million dollars spent, 40,000 religious Jews came to Citi Field proudly and listened as their religious leaders proclaimed the evils, ills and dangers of the internet. The internet is seen as a threat to religious life; otherwise suppressed stories of abuse within religious communities are being revealed via the internet.
Trying to come to terms with being sexually abused from the ages of 6 to 10, I had kept my childhood traumas out of the public eye for as long as I could. It had been my deepest secret, my biggest shame and the most toxic driving force in my life. Coming out as a survivor seemed especially important now. Given the very clear denial of the threat that children face and leaders' attempts to suppress rather than address the problem, publicly acknowledging what I have struggled with for most of my life seemed imperative in order to shed light on the problem and provide people some hope.
Stories of precious childhoods stolen by sexual abuse are coming out now more than ever. These stories were kept secret for years as survivors suffered silently, faulted themselves for the trauma they endured and believed that did not deserve justice. Every day, the media hands us another heart-wrenching story about an innocent child or young adult who was abused by someone more powerful and were then forced to keep quiet and intimidated into not reporting the crimes, in some cases with threats against their livelihood or their families. Many such stories are shared on the internet.
In order to denounce the internet as a danger facing the Jewish people, approximately three million dollars was spent to rally every Hasidic Jew who would listen. Child abuse was not mentioned once. Many other demonstrators and I held signs reading "the internet never molested me", "how many children can $3,000,000 save" and others that made clear our reasons and motives for protesting this event, which many of the attendees claimed was a "great kiddush HaShem" (sanctification of G-d's name). Every second standing there, I was shocked by the masses of attendees showing up, many with children and grandchildren. I could not help but feel sad and concerned for the younger innocent ones who might be harmed because their gedolim (most revered rabbis) concluded that the threat to their lives was the internet rather than the gnawingly obvious problem of child abuse that enough survivors had bravely come forward to expose. The internet has been a vital resource we survivors have used to attempt at healing ourselves and sparing others.
Rabbi Zwiebel of Agudath Israel of America (an umbrella organization for Orthodox Judaism in America) lambasted discussion of sexual abuse on the internet stating, "through the pressure [bloggers] have created, communal issues that need to be confronted were moved to the front burner and taken seriously. A case in point is abuse and molestation issues. The question is, if the fact that [bloggers have] created some degree of change is worth the cost. At the very least, it's rechilus [gossip], lashon hara [derogatory language], and bittul zman [waste of time]. That's a high price to pay." From the Agudath's standpoint, preventing molestation and sparing children are wasteful and less important than avoiding disclosing and reporting true but disparaging information about others.
While religious leaders would obstruct justice and suppress exposure of sexual abuse over the internet and the DA seems unable or unwilling to fairly pursue abuse that is reported, others would divert attention from the problem by extolling the virtues of the Orthodox lifestyle. A Hasidic woman named Chaya wrote What Women's Media Needs to Know about Chassidic Women in response to the buzz surrounding the internet rally, which women weren't invited to attend. Chaya's assertion that women who keep the Jewish laws of family purity have lower rates of cervical cancer and portrayal of lives of Hasidic women as glorious and fulfilling went viral. When I posted a link to one of the many responses to the article, strangers bombarded my facebook page with comments along the lines of: Stop trying to represent us; the real Hasidic women choose our lifestyles and are happy with it. I was berated by some for not being fair in disagreeing with Chaya's belief that she wrote was actually what the media needed to know.
Chaya failed to mention that she didn't grow up within the fold of the Orthodox community. When she bragged about her college experience ("magna cum laude baby"), she did not mention that in Crown Heights where I was raised Orthodox, the idea of even going to college was a foreign one. Those of us who lived through horrors created by oppressive environments like the one Chaya attempted to glorify are still struggling with our nightmares as the people who hurt us walk around freely without any accountability and posing a danger to others because a corrupt system is more interested sparing the community the imagined shame in addressing sexual abuse than in protecting its children.
Many people ask, or rather complain, why I don't just leave the community behind and let them live their lives in peace and do as they choose. Rosa parks did not leave her seat, and she did not leave Alabama; she stayed, and that taught me a lot. While I do plan to leave Brooklyn in the near future, I simply cannot turn a blind eye to problems I am painfully aware of, and I certainly will not disconnect from the internet.
The internet has been an invaluable resource for many of us who suffered abuse, oppression and torment in our communities. When Ricky Martin discussed having feared coming out, he said, "If someone asked me today, 'Ricky, what are you afraid of?' I would answer, 'the blood that runs through the streets of countries at war...child slavery, terrorism...the cynicism of some people in positions of power, the misinterpretation of faith.' But fear of my truth? Not at all! On the contrary, it fills me with strength and courage." The internet has been one thing that offered us strength, courage and hope; it allows us to know that we are not alone and, hopefully, others to be spared. The internet forced the issue of child abuse in religious communities into the public eye, and the reprehensible behavior of leaders who protect offenders is now coming to light and may be investigated further. The internet may very well spur change that will save those in religious communities, for which the only real threat is abuse and its suppression.