Judaism child abuse JudaismSo Many Rules, So Little Protection, Sex & Suppression Among Ultra Orthodox Jews
Lilith / Winter 2006–07
The first time 12-year-old David Framowitz had his genitals fondled by a respected teacher from his yeshiva, he panicked, desperate to flee the parked car in which the man had given him a ride to school. Later, when he told his parents about what had happened, they dismissed his story, unable to fathom that a rabbi could be capable of such behavior. Not wanting “to cause trouble,” Framowitz continued to suffer the abuse in silence, until he changed schools two years later. Now 48 and the plaintiff in a civil suit against this rabbi, and the school and camp that employed him, Framowitz has come forward to tell his story. Not surprisingly, reactions to it in the ultra Orthodox world have hardly been encouraging for other victims.Last May, New York magazine ran an article about the Framowitz allegations, and while many members of the ultra-Orthodox community expressed their outrage in private conversations, or anonymously on Internet blogs, the communal leadership remained silent. The few rabbis and other leaders who acknowledged the report expressed anger not about the alleged abuse and cover-up, but at those who brought the crimes to light.
A Torah-observant life does not lead to aberrant behavior; it helps prevent it.…That fundamental Jewish truth that human inclinations are harnessed and controlled by Torahlife and Torah-study is self-evident to anyone truly familiar with the Orthodox community. The vast majority ofThere is no doubt that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews are caring and responsible individuals, and that Judaism stresses ethical conduct. Further, because the reasons for pedophilia are not completely understood, to assert a causal relationship between this disorder and the strict regulation of sexuality is problematic, just as inaccurate as blaming pedophilia on MTV or Woody Allen. However, many interviews I have conducted over three years with people intimately familiar with ultra-Orthodox life— including therapists, social workers, physicians, educators and community members themselves—suggest that some aspects of today’s stringent ultra-Orthodox approach to sexuality, intended to promote marriage, procreation and a strong family life, can also (unintentionally) create conditions conducive to sexual abuse.
its members are caring and responsible people who lead exemplary lives, free in large measure from societal ills like rape, AIDS, prostitution and marital infidelity that affect their less “repressed” neighbors…. To imagine that what ha defined traditional Jewish life for millennia is somehow a risk factor for abuse is to turn all logic and experience on their heads. The true risk factors, as mental health professionals attest, are things like absent parents, alcohol and drug abuse, lack of support systems and the touting of a Woody Allenesque “the heart wants what it wants” mindset, all considerably underrepresented in the Orthodox community. If any environment can reasonably be imagined to foster the bane of child abuse, it is the charged atmosphere of MTV, R-rated movies, contemporary advertising and uncontrolled Internet usage, not the universe of Jewish values.
atmosphere of sexual repression in yeshivas (at least the kind of yeshivas I’m
directly familiar with) contributes to many sexual perversions in people not
otherwise inclined to behave that way. I’m not only talking about the rampant
gay sexual activity (“rampant” as in relative to what I would
expect; I don’t know if it’s rampant relative to a similar secular
environment), but also pressuring younger boys into acquiescing to certain acts
by the older boys, offering payments— or certain electronic goods in lieu of
payments—for outright molestation, and sometimes even rape. The vicious cycle is
sometimes continued by newlywed young men coming back for their favorite “pets”
even after they have a chance for something different (either because they are
gay, or because they feel more of an emotional connection to their friends than
they do to their wives). Even without the above, the outsized emphasis put—both
explicitly and implicitly—on the sin of masturbation, combined with the extreme
sexual repression, leaves many detrimental affects [sic] on most going through
the system. Now combine all of the above with the fact that many people in
positions of authority over young boys and teenagers are young men not yet
mature enough to have acquired a healthy attitude toward sex after the perverse
environment in yeshiva.
While this man stressed that the abusive behavior he described is by no means a universal feature of yeshiva life, his overall assessment of the environment, and its potential impact on students, was echoed by other people I have spoken to at length. A married Hasidic woman with whom I communicated online wrote “Everyone knows frum boys fuck around with each other in yeshiva, mikvah (the ritual bath). Because they are told DON’T EVER look at a girl...Blah Blah Blah.... They get married but still think of gay sex once in a while”—even though male homosexual sex is forbidden by the Torah. These observations were confirmed by a sex therapist working with ultra-Orthodox clients, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity because of her sensitive therapeutic role. She likened the situation in all-male yeshivas to that of prisons, or the military. “It’s the same thing. People are sexual and it gets acted out.” In fact, several men told me that sexually abusive teachers would often target boys they knew were already “sinning” by experimenting sexually with their peers, as a way to ensure their silence about the teacher’s abusive behavior. Further, my own research revealed that many Hasidic boys were groped or fondled in the ritual bath (mikvah), something that has been the subject of recent discussion on blogs like failedmessiah.typepad.com and jewishsurvivors.blogspot.com.
Some women also reported same-sex activity in all-female seminaries; notably, the women tended not to experience these relationships as hierarchical or abusive, but more playful or even loving. This may have to do with the fact that there is no explicit Jewish religious prohibition against female homosexual acts, and thus perhaps less guilt, shame and coercion surrounding such encounters. The sex therapist noted that the prohibition against male masturbation (“spilling seed”) can exacerbate problems for boys—at least those who take it seriously. Without any outlet for their normal sexual urges—one man told me that he and his classmates were
instructed not to touch their penises even while urinating, lest they accidentally get aroused—particularly at a time when those urges are strongest, boys may act out sexually in ways they otherwise would not if other options were not forbidden.
Young people growing up in ultra-Orthodox communities generally receive no formal education about sex. All of the Hasidic men I spoke with told me that in their schools, boys skip the sections of the Talmud that deal with sexual
matters. While their non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox counterparts apparently do study this material, they do so in a very technical manner, focusing, for example, on laws relating to sexual relations in marriage, or on menstruation.
WHY THE SILENCE? FEAR OF BRINGING SHAME ON THE FAMILY KEEPS PEOPLE FROM REPORTING ABUSE AND PROSECUTING ABUSERS.
Sanctioned sex education generally occurs only in the weeks before one’s wedding, typically an arranged marriage. One man summarized for me the session with his “sex rabbi” this way: “He told me to do a little kissy, kissy, touch her here and there, and then put it in.” A Hasidic woman described being on the receiving end of such advice: “My husband had no idea what he was doing,” she told me. “It hurt and was humiliating.”
People in the secular world are hardly immune to such experiences. However, a taboo against talking about sexuality can do more than predict awkward wedding nights; it can also foster a profound sense of shame around sexuality, and about the body and its functions. Many Hasidim told me that they had never even learned the words for genitals, but were taught to use euphemisms instead; for men, for example, “the organ of the bris.” With no vocabulary—let alone permission—to discuss matters of a sexual nature openly, people who have been sexually abused often have trouble communicating, or even understanding, what has happened to them.
A social worked illustrated this quite strikingly when she described to me an interview she conducted with an 18-year old Hasidic victim who had been molested: lacking the words for parts of his own body, the young man had to use gestures to indicate what happened to him. Even for people who are able to speak about such experiences, there is often an inordinate amount of shame involved in the disclosure.
One woman recounted her parents’ reaction to her revelation that she had been repeatedly raped by her brother:
[You] know damn well that anything sexual is not discussed in a frum household. My mom and dad, they moved on, dismissed it like it never happened. [My mother] does not know that such actions screw you for life. She is in denial. I don’t know if it’s only my parents or all frum parents. My father, after he was told, did mention he wants to kill my brother, that’s all. I was told [by a non-family member] to buy a book and read it, regarding incest. On my wedding day, my father found it and was so upset that I was reading such a sexual book. Oh, come on, it’s ok for your fucking son to fuck me, but it ain’t ok to heal through reading such a book.
One highly regarded Manhattan psychiatrist, who treats many ultra-Orthodox patients and who spoke on condition of anonymity in order not to compromise his therapeutic relationships, told me he had noted a good deal of what he called “casual incest”—sexual activity between siblings— among his patients. He attributed this to the fact that boys reaching puberty are denied what would be considered healthy contact with females apart from close relatives and, with masturbation considered sinful, end up acting out sexually with whomever was available. Of course, no one suggests that there are more abusers in the ultra-Orthodox world than in the general population. Research by psychologist Dr. Michelle Friedman, appearing last summer in the annual student journal of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, Milin Havivin, found that Orthodox girls and teens report rates of sexual abuse similar to that of their secular counterparts. The main difference is that, for a variety of reasons, within the ultra-Orthodox world abuse if it does occur is more likely to go unchecked, allowing abusers to remain in business longer, creating more victims.
Why the silence?
Bringing shame on one’s family is a significant obstacle to reporting abuse and prosecuting abusers. Because most marriages are arranged on the basis of individual and familial reputation, public knowledge that a person has been a victim of abuse severely compromises his or her options for making a “good match.” The stigma of abuse taints not only the victim but siblings and other relatives as well. As a result, those who have been abused (and their families) have a tremendous incentive to keep the abuse a secret. One woman told me that her father, learning that she had been raped by a respected member of the community, threatened to burn her with a hot pan if she ever told anyone in the community about it; she was 10 years old at the time. Another serious impediment to rooting out abuse is the communal prohibition against mesira, betraying the community to outside authorities. Once punishable by death, mesira is still taken seriously, discouraging most people from reporting abuse to the police. When I asked her whether she had ever considered going to the police, one woman who was molested replied, “I don’t think so! It does not work like that in the frum world. You shall not be a moser, which means no telling on others; suffer in silence.” This attitude is pervasive, despite a recent ruling by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, a Jerusalem rabbi considered by the ultra-Orthodox to be one of the most respected interpreters of Jewish law. Elyashiv’s ruling held that it is permissible to hand over a child abuser to the American police in cases where “It is clear that [the person] has committed a foul deed, and that this [informing] constitutes a sort of repair of the world.” However, even in light of this clear ruling, the fear of being branded an informer remains strong, and is often exploited by those in power as a means of silencing victims, protecting the community’s “good name”—and protecting the abuser
in the process.
Many parents privately express concern about this issue, and claim they would like their leaders to prevent sexual abuse in institutional settings, and to deal with it effectively when it does occur. Most also say, though, that they themselves are unlikely to speak up about their concerns, let alone “inform” to the police on an abuser. Further, most admit that they would not allow one of their own children to marry a known victim of abuse.
While the outside world responds to such reports with shock, there is no denying the role played by the larger society in enabling this state of affairs. In the name of deeply held American commitments to religious freedom, these communities have been allowed to flourish with little outside oversight.
A combination of ignorance and nostalgia often makes these very stringently observant and closed communities immune to serious scrutiny by fellow citizens—particularly liberal Jews who may idealize or romanticize this way of life, or politicians who appreciate the fact that ultra-Orthodox leaders can and do deliver votes in a bloc.
Unlike their public-school counterparts, administrators in ultra-Orthodox schools and other non-public schools are not required to run background checks on teachers, and because clergy are exempt from being mandated reporters, ultra-Orthodox teachers (most of whom are rabbis, at least in boys’ schools) are not legally required to report suspected cases of abuse. And where distortions of Jewish law and custom may be invoked to prevent people from taking legal action, and educational options are limited, there may be little motivation for self-policing, aside from the obvious: the health and welfare of young people. Instead, this past August, a few months after the original magazine article appeared, the teacher accused of sexual molestation was spotted escorting young campers to a water park in Connecticut, and a reliable source told me that he has since been soliciting parents to sign their children up for a similar outing next summer. At Rosh Hashanah, he was also reportedly asked to blow the shofar in his shul, an honor accorded only the most respected members of the community. One can only imagine how his victims must feel about that.
Hella Winston is author of Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels. She received her PhD in sociology.