May 7, 2012
Yoelly Twersky* grew up in the Hasidic community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His father wore a sleek fur hat, and his mother smelled of vegetable soup and rugalach. When Yoelly started eighth grade, his new teacher seemed to take an immediate dislike to him, striking him almost every morning.
"I thought the teacher knew what was best," Yoelly says, thinking back. "Physical punishment was normal in my school, and I figured it had to be that I deserved it."
Six months into the year, his teacher called him into the school's boiler closet. In that dark dank room, the teacher pulled down both their pants, and raped the little boy.
"I was screaming the whole time," Yoelly recalls. "When he finished, he went back to the classroom and I stayed where I was, in shock, gushing blood."
Hasidic children are not given sexual education and Yoelly had no words to describe the rape that continued to occur for the remainder of the school year.
For Yoelly, those awful days were not the worst of it. A few months later, he found the courage to tell his father what had happened. His father slapped him and told him never to mention such immodest things again.
"That day was the worst day of my life," Yoelly says. "I realized that I was all alone. There was nobody to keep me safe."
The teacher who raped Yoelly still teaches at that school. As an adult, haunted by the thought that other children were enduring what he had, Yoelly sought a private audience with the grand Rebbe, or leader, of his Hasidic sect, to discuss the issue. After he told the Rebbe what had happened, the Rebbe turned to his personal assistant.
"He's a shaigetz," the Rebbe said, using a derogatory slur for a non-Jew. "Get him out of here." Yoelly was hustled out of the room with threats of violence.
My story is different. I was the fifth of 11 children in a non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox family. As a teenager, I realized I didn't want to be as religious as my family.
"I want to go to college," I told my mother.
"We'll have you locked up!" she thundered at me in reply. My parents consulted with rabbinic leaders and by the age of 16, I was ostracized, and shortly thereafter, left to fend for myself on the streets of New York. I found an apartment and a minimum wage job, and learned to call a handful of ketchup dinner. Some days, when I couldn't afford the subway token, I walked from Brooklyn to my job in Manhattan. But the terror of my parent's abandonment and my community's rejection was worse than any poverty. Naive and alone, it wasn't long before I was found by people quick to take advantage of me.
When Ari Mandel thinks about his vulnerability as a religious child in Monsey, N.Y., it isn't abuse or neglect that jumps out at him, as much as math class -- or the lack thereof.
"As an 11-year-old, I was in school from 7:30 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, studying religious texts. We had 'English' from 4 until 6 at night, but the class was treated like recess, and after a long day of learning, we had no patience to sit in our seats."
At the age of 12 Ari was sent to yeshiva where he studied religious texts exclusively. That was the end of his secular education.
"When I got married at 18, we had to sign up for Food Stamps and Medicaid," Ari says. "I thought credit cards were free money and racked up thousands of dollars of credit card debt. I couldn't do basic multiplication or division and my English vocabulary was hugely limited."
Ari went on to earn a GED by himself, at the age of 24, so he could join the U.S. Army, but he still can't sign his own name in cursive and only gained a basic grasp of geography as he was stationed around the globe.
"It's a staggering handicap," Ari says. "When we deprive our children of a basic education, we leave them hugely vulnerable to abuse, poverty and even crime."
When Yoelly, Ari and I heard that thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews from many different communities were gathering together to rent Citi Field, to address a pressing issue in the religious community, you might understand that we were frustrated -- no, furious -- that the issue being addressed at the unusually elaborate meeting was the dangers of the Internet.
We don't deny that the Internet is a serious concern for a community that strives to shelter its members. But we do feel that the Internet should not be getting more attention than the safety of children.
If it were only Yoelly, Ari and me, we'd still believe that is cause for soul searching and reform, but our experiences are not unique. There are far too many stories like ours. Although some efforts have been made to address these issues, not enough is being done.
And so, on May 20, Yoelly, me and Ari, along with defenders of children from every walk of life, religious and secular, Jewish and non-Jewish, male and female, old and young, will gather outside Citi Field to raise awareness about the need to develop reforms to keep our children safe. Neither God nor Judaism is being attacked in this protest. This is strictly a message to rabbinic leadership to work harder to keep our children safe by ensuring those who abuse children are reported to the appropriate authorities, that families are supported to stay together even if they make differing religious choices and that children receive a basic education.
Although some worry that this protest is an inappropriate airing of "dirty laundry," we say, when it comes to the safety of our children, we must be united and unabashed in our actions.
*name changed to protect his identity.