Friday, June 15, 2012

Huffington Post: The Grave Truth Threatening Orthodox Communities


June 14th, 2012
Chaim Levin

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.
Before coming forward, I was concerned with the pernicious yet persistent misconception that being molested makes people gay. Numerous studies and the American Psychiatric Association have concluded, "no specific psychosocial or family dynamic cause for homosexuality has been identified, including histories of childhood sexual abuse. Sexual abuse does not appear to be more prevalent in children who grow up to identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, than in children who identify as heterosexual." Nonetheless, when I was younger, I was mislead into harmful and dangerous "reparative" therapy, which maintains this unscientific misconception. The biggest shanda (shame), the worst part of the abuse for some in my family is that I "turned out" gay. Sadly, these people and many others fail to realize that it is far more likely that I was molested because I was gay and consequently vulnerable because I was different and felt isolated; my abuser counted on me remaining silent. And, I had suffered silently through the abuse and its long lasting effects. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, severe anxiety, extreme difficulty concentrating, constant nightmares, those are only some of the results of being molested. My orientation is most certainly not. I am very blessed to be who I am; I am very proud of my gay identity, which is not related to the horrific trauma that I endured for four years of my childhood.
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.
This same organization has been directing followers not to report sexual abuse without the permission of a rabbi. The New York Times reported that when Rabbi Zwiebel discussed this policy with the Brooklyn District Attorney who allegedly "expressed no opposition or objection". The Brooklyn D.A. appears to have been complicit in making sure that sexual abuse in religious communities is not prosecuted. On June 20th, a protest will be held outside the Brooklyn D.A.'s office to protest "the history of colluding with Rabbinical authorities to enable the cover up of child abuse in Ultra Orthodox communities of Brooklyn, NY. As a result molesters have remained free to victimize children at will."
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.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Marching in the Celebrate Israel Day Parade: Walking into the Lion's Den

Some people looked at us in surprise or shock, and others, in horror. A few parents covered their children’s eyes as we went by. I tried to disregard the slurs and middle fingers, but one woman refused to be ignored. She accosted us after the parade, berating us that we do not belong and should be ashamed of our ourselves. But, I was proud to march and represent LGBTQ Jews in the largest event in the world transcending movements and politics and representing Jewish solidarity; and, by and large, it was a wonderful success. Still, after learning that our group of LGBTQ brothers and sisters would be allowed to march in the Celebrate Israel Parade for the first time since its inception in 1964, I had been conflicted.

On one hand, I was thrilled. The progress made within Jewish communities towards tolerance of LGBTQ people has been been remarkable, and our being allowed to participate in the Parade was an historic symbol of the progress. Gay Jews had been prevented from participating openly in the event previously, and the negotiation of the terms for our participation this year was wrought with difficulties. This foreshadowed some hostility I anticipated not without trepidation. But, it was not fear of homophobic responses at the parade that gave rise to my conflict. However, the intolerance I witnessed and this religious woman’s unprovoked attack and unconditional declaration that we did not belong did sharpen my dissonance.   

I had been conflicted about marching in support the state of Israel. I’m happy that the state of Israel exists, and the Jewish people have a land that we can call home. Indeed, it has been my home; I had lived there as a teenager, some of my family come from Israel, and I have loved ones there. I am also extremely proud that Israel is the most gay-friendly country in the Middle East. Nonetheless, I found myself unsure about whether it was right for me to march in the parade when the innocent people in Israel find themselves without basic rights or even a homeland because of beliefs they cannot be tolerated and do not belong simply because they are African immigrants or Palestinians.

Growing up with an extremely limited “secular” education in a very right wing Orthodox section of Brooklyn, I was taught that the state of Israel was the holiest place in the world and that all the Arabs of the world wanted to kill and destroy the Jewish nation. Arabs were equated with Muslims, Muslims with Palestinians and Palestinians with anti-semitic terrorists. Fear of anti-semitism was seared into my heart and mind by my parents, teachers and community leaders, whom I looked up to while growing up in Crown Heights: “They hate us, they all do, and there will be another holocaust in America one day”. I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve heard such declarations. When I started leaving the fold of the Orthodox community, I approached the greater world with an irrational fear that I was hated as a Jew unconditionally and that, if the evil people of the world had their way, we would be destroyed and wiped out completely as a nation. But, it was not until I realized that I am gay that I learned what discrimination and hatred really are. Even before I came out, I felt shamed and tortured by my religious counterparts when I was outed at yeshiva at the age of 16.

I had not experienced anti-semitism, but I knew homophobia.

And, I am ashamed to know that some of my own relatives had been involved in anti-Palestinian violence in the rebels’ uprising before the state of Israel was established. Some in my family take pride in this heritage a legacy of cold blooded murder of innocent women and children in a town called Deir Yassin. For me, it’s a stain of intolerance, heartlessness, hatred and murder.

Despite what many try to deny, Palestinian people, who have lived in the region long before the nation of Israel was recreated, have suffered oppression, hatred, pain and denial of basic human rights simply because they are different and declared intolerable and not to belong. A woman recently argued to me, “There are 27 other Arab countries in the Middle East, why can’t any of them take in these Palestinians?” Essentially, her argument was that everyone living in Palestine who doesn’t belong should move to another country. Before the establishment of the state of Israel, it was felt the Jews did not belong in Europe and represented a threat, and they were forced to leave the countries they lived in or into ghettos and were eventually slaughtered. When I was younger, I attempted suicide because, in the community I was raised in, gay people did not belong. Still today, I am told on innumerable occasions that I should move somewhere, anywhere else than Crown Heights because I do not belong. And, at the largest event in the world representing Jewish solidarity, we were told that we did not belong.

Marching at the parade, the truth dawned upon me: the people who have actually oppressed me have been self-proclaimed religious Jews, who would preach love and tolerance. Jews in America today have every single right and protection afforded to other minorities. But, as a gay person, I face oppression and discrimination and cannot even marry the person that I love with the same protections and benefits as every other American. As I grew into my gay identity, I learned that being a Jew in America today is a breeze
even when I walked the the streets of Paris at 16 dressed in traditional religious garb, I never faced a single anti-semitic remark. But, today here in the country I was born in, my rights are denied because small-minded, intolerant bigots refuse to recognize the constitutional separation between church and State. And, I am told that I do not belong at  secular event celebrating Jewish solidarity.

Aside from the homophobic remarks and actions of some, the reception of those watching the parade was positive. Indeed, I believe it was a monumental achievement that we marched openly as a group. I knew that my presence at the parade was important because numbers speak louder than anything. And, thankfully we did have numbers; lots of us showed up and marched proudly as LGBTQ Jews down fifth avenue. Even as some watched in shock and horror, others may have been encouraged. Younger LGBT people who saw us marching knew that they are not alone, and that we do belong despite what others may say.

The woman who declared that we should be ashamed and did not belong at the parade criticized us about our t-shirts, insisting that she doesn’t walk around parading that she’s heterosexual. I had to observe, “you’re wearing a sheitel (wig); that’s your parade.”; she declares her heterosexuality and religious affiliation every day for the whole world to see, and I have no doubt that she does so with observant pride. Many religious communities deny our very existence, people like this woman seem to prefer that we do not exist, we have been denied representation in the event for decades, and LGBTQ Jews are largely invisible. Consequently, it felt imperative on that day to declare that we do exist, that we do belong and and that you are not alone on banners and shirts. But, the rainbow Israeli flag on my chest made me feel like a walking target, proud yet conflicted.

I stand with the state of Israel. But, I also stand with the Palestinians, who are living on the marginal territory without any citizenship or civil rights. My heart bleeds for the innocent lives taken. I cry for the innocent LGBTQ young lives lost because because of hatred, intolerance and feeling they did not belong in their communities. I stand for all people living under oppression all over the world. Just as much as I hope for LGBTQ equality, I hope that the conflict between Israel and Palestine is resolved before any more innocent lives are ruined.