Na’ama Yehuda also contributed to this article
Over the years we have received a great deal of feedback from various rabbis on an international basis. There seems to be one common theme in most of the letters. It appears there’s a lack of general knowledge of what to do and say when someone discloses his or her abuse history. Most rabbis who contacted us were unaware of sexual abuse cases in their communities. Unfortunately, this lack of awareness could be due more to the fact that most Yeshivas who train rabbis do not cover the area of sexual abuse.
Therefore, rabbis seem to be unaware of what the symptoms are, or the long-term ramifications. This is something as a community we need to change, if we are to move toward healing those who have been victimized. Until very recently, sexual abuse was a topic too taboo to even talk about, let alone learn about. We have a huge task in front of us: We need to start educating our communities (especially those who are seen to be authority figures) on the symptoms that children who are being molested might exhibit, as well as the long term ramifications of childhood sexual abuse.
One rabbi wrote us:
Your article about sexual abuse in Jewish circles is on target. Although no cases were actually brought to my attention, I am aware of teachers in yeshivot who molested their (male) pupils, “left” the school to go to Israel (to do what, I don’t know), then returned to the USA several years later. To my knowledge, the problem is far less than in the Catholic Church. The cult and missionary angle in cases of sexually abused Jewish children is most interesting.
The odds are that many individuals this rabbi has known, were sexually victimized as children – after all, statistics show that one out of every three-to-five women and one out of every five-to-seven men (in the US) have been sexually abused by the time they reached their eighteenth birthday. What is more probable is that the rabbi, as well as many others, who voice similar statements, just didn’t recognize the symptoms of abuse. Another possibility is that on some unconscious level the rabbi gave the impression that they were not comfortable discussing issues relating to sexual abuse. Survivors need to feel a sense of safety with an individual if they are going to make disclosures of this sort.
Granted, the symptoms of childhood sexual abuse are many and not everyone victimized will exhibit them all (see table for list of symptoms). What is of utmost importance is that survivors know that they can speak out safely, and that they can make the abuse stop—for them and for others who might still be in danger.
The question is, then, how do you get individuals to disclose their abuse, so that a rabbi can become aware of whether there is such a problem his or her congregation?
The first and maybe the hardest step is to admit to yourself that there might be a problem, and be ready to address it. Education is the key, learn about the issue relating to childhood sexual abuse. Read books published in the area (i.e. Courage to Heal and Victims No Longer). Contact other rabbis with whom you study, and offer to host a brainstorming meeting regarding the ways with which to address and deal with the issues of childhood sexual abuse in your congregations. Remember as long as abuse is seen as a taboo topic amongst the leaders; the rest of the congregation will also feel it is taboo to discuss (let alone disclose). As heads of the community, rabbis are expected to hold their head a notch above the rest, and to keep their eyes and hearts open to the hurdles facing their congregations.
During services you might let your congregation know that you are open to hearing and interested in learning more about sexual abuse. It wouldn’t hurt to mention that you are beginning to understand the severity of it, and how it eats to the core of the Jewish teaching of protecting the weak and needy. Let them know you are there to listen. The odds are that doing so would open up doors of trust and communications, and that some survivors will step forward. There is one draw back in doing this. A rabbi will have to be prepared to listen. You will open yourself up to hear dark and ugly secrets. It’s important for you to have a support system in place so that you can debrief. There are times that care providers (including Rabbis) develop some thing called “compassion fatigue” (secondary post-traumatic stress disorder), some people call it vicarious victimization. Basically you end up having similar symptomology as the individuals who are disclosing their histories (see list).
The second step is to educate your congregation. Bring speakers into your community to discuss the topic. Get speakers from your state’s child protection service and/or your local rape crisis center – they are well equipped to explain “how and when to make hotline reports”, as well as the process of investigation reports. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to have monthly speakers to present about the various aspects of sexual abuse. Topics could include, “good touch, bad touch”. What to do if your child is abused? How to cope when your spouse molested children (please note that both men and women can be offenders), what to do if your child is sexually aggressive, sexually reactive and/or a juvenile sex offender, etc.
The third step is to locate resources in your community. Make a list of therapists who are trained in the area of sexual abuse and familiar with Jewish tradition (or offer these therapist your counsel if they needed it when working with people who are shomrey-mitzvot). Find and/or start self-help or networking groups as resources for survivors in your congregation and the surrounding area.
Opening up darkened spaces is a scary, saddening task, but it is a sacred one as well. For as we have been taught by our learned rabbis of the Sanhedrin, “anyone who saves one soul of Israel, it is said about him that he/she has saved a whole world” (Sanhedrin 37/a.
Let us be “or La-Goyim”, a light to show the way for other nations, by mending our communities without fear or shame.
This article was originally published in 2003