Leiby Kletzky had been kidnapped, murdered, and dismembered, and that the suspect was a man who lived in the child’s Orthodox Jewish community of Brooklyn. Members of that community were devastated beyond words. One of their own had brutally killed a helpless child—a child who had also been one of their own. Journalist Eishes Chayil describes the horror that Jews felt in her recent article in the Huffington Post:
The ultra-Orthodox world of Brooklyn came to a terrifying halt. Tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews froze in horror. They recoiled in shock. They gathered together, bound in their mind-bending grief, people weeping in the streets, asking the questions again and again. How does such a thing happen? How does a Jew do such a thing? How, God, how?
But Chayil also states that many Jews were not shocked. In particular, survivors of child sexual abuse.
For the hundreds of victims of sexual abuse who have lived through childhood in fear and silence, this is not a new question. They did not know the words sexual, abuse or molestation, but lived day after day through the raw horror of it, leaving old scars still bleeding like open wounds. How does a teacher, a counselor, an uncle, do such a thing? And why did nobody warn us about it, they ask.
For too long, Orthodox Jewish Communities have kept silent about abuses that go on inside their socially isolated world. Children are raised to believe that only those on the outside do bad, evil things to people. They are told to fear outsiders and encouraged to completely trust anyone who is one of them.
More members of the community are talking about child sexual abuse. How yeshivas harbor pedophilic rabbis, and how incest is a reality in Jewish households. Some Jewish leaders and others are encouraging survivors to talk about their struggles in an attempt to lift the cursed veil that, as Brown says, blinds people from what is really going on.
Standing Silent (Bennett-Robbins Productions, 2011) is a new film featuring Phil Jacobs who spent years uncovering rabbi-perpetrated child sexual abuse for the Baltimore Jewish Times. (Jacobs now is editor of the Washington Jewish Week.) In his film, Jacobs compassionately allows abuse survivors to tell their stories, hounds rabbis accused of having molested children, and reveals that he, himself, was raped when he was young. In Standing Silent, Jacobs frequently describes how members of his community badger him about exposing the truth about child molesters in their midst.
Yet there is one group that is most responsible for failing victims by its insistence that such crimes be kept quiet: powerful rabbis who, by their very words, control how Jews interact with each other and live their lives. These religious leaders have historically warned Jews not to talk about child abuse to outsiders, claiming that this would violate such Jewish laws as mesirah—the reporting of one Jew by another to secular authorities—and lashon hara, harmful gossip. In fact, even as the frantic search for Leiby Kletzky was underway, one of the country’s most prominent rabbis, Shmuel Kamenetsky, reiterated the mantra that Jews must consult a rabbi before reporting child sexual abuse to civil authorities.
But this has not stopped concerned Jews from speaking out. In her Huffington Post article, Eishes Chayil explains that, when she wrote her book Hush, which exposes abuses in the Orthodox Jewish community, she used an alias to avoid being castigated by fellow Jews. (In fact, she did receive threatening letters.) Now, however, the writer reveals her true identity.
For too long we have tiptoed around our flaws with fear and caution, pushing them into the shadows in hopes they will disappear. For too long, victims have been made to be the villains, and abuse was called loshon harah, evil talk. For too long, we have refused to honestly discuss the horrific possibilities, and in doing so allowed our children to fall victim to them. And for too long, I have allowed my own fear to make me part of a wall of silence—guilty for what I had seen, guilty for what I had written. I refuse to continue to allow that fear to force me into hiding over a book that should have been written long ago. I no longer want to be known only as Eishes Chayil when my name is Judy Brown. I must find the courage to stand with the victims who carry the burden of our silence for the rest of their lives.
It is up to rabbis and other members of the Jewish community to also find the courage to “stand with the victims,” by talking about sexual abuse, supporting survivors’ need of counseling, and reporting perpetrators to secular authorities.