By Ruth Elgash (Jerusalem Post)
June 3, 2009
For Zehava (not her real name), the decision to break with the stringent cultural norms of her tight-knit haredi community in Ramat Beit Shemesh and report the suspected sexual abuse of her three-year-old child to the secular authorities came quickly.
"I grew up in the community, but I have always been open and accepting of the world around me," begins the haredi-raised Zehava, as she shares the story of her battle against the town's religious leaders, who in her view turn a blind eye to the ongoing problem of sexual abuse in the semi-private haredi school system.
"We have an epidemic on our hands, and there is complete denial here that there is anything wrong," she continues. "I spoke to the rabbis and other community leaders here, but they all called me a liar and said that this kind of thing does not happen here... but it does."
Sadly, Zehava, a recent immigrant from the US, has proof of such abuse and is one of a growing number parents from Ramat Beit Shemesh becoming increasingly frustrated with their leaders' continual denial of the problem.
"Families of the victims are made to feel stupid," she says, adding that they are very often ostracized for speaking out about the problem on any level. "But I will not keep quiet; I want to do all I can to make sure that this does not happen to another child," she insists.
"I still feel guilty that I did not pay attention and continued to send my child to [kindergarten] every day," continues Zehava, describing how her child stopped talking, would not sleep at night and was often inconsolable after being continually abused by the teacher.
Only after two years of medical checks and, eventually, speech therapy did the whole story come out. Zehava took her child to the Jerusalem Center for Child Abuse, where her suspicions were confirmed.
"I know this has happened in other schools, too, because I have since met several parents who tell similar stories about their children," says Zehava, who met with other haredi parents earlier this week under the auspices of the Beit Shemesh-based community organization Lema'an Achai to brainstorm ways to tackle the issue.
"We are a lightning rod for all sorts of problems in the community here," says David Morris, founder and chairman of Lema'an Achai, which provides among its services support and guidance for haredi parents who believe their children might have been sexually abused.
Last summer, the organization set up the "Safe-Kids" hot line in conjunction with the Beit Shemesh social welfare services to provide a lifeline to local families whose children have been abused. While the service has not been inundated with calls, Morris says there have been between five and 10 concrete reports of sexual abuse in the community - and that is just the tip of the iceberg.
"If only one in 10 children actually reports what has happened to them, and then only one in 10 parents goes on to officially report what has happened to their child, and the police or social welfare services only get around to investigating one in 10 complaints, that means there are many more cases out there that we don't get to hear about," he says.
According to Morris, the problem is concentrated in local independent schools - facilities partially funded by the Education Ministry but not supervised by it - which have failed to be supportive of parents who claim that their child has been a victim. In most of the schools, a rabbinic authority has the final say, and in many cases ends up believing the perpetrators' story over the victims', he says.
"I don't know why the community leaders chose to protect the adults over the children, but we hope that we can now start to get the word out that children have to be listened to and protected at all costs."
Morris also says that the response of the authorities such as the police and social services is slow and bureaucratic, with the accused not being found guilty or exonerated for years.
"It's a no-win situation," he continues. "Most people are greatly disappointed by the official response from both within the community and from outside."
"There is a combination of denial, protecting your good name and not involving the secular world, that is preventing [this community] from dealing with this problem," says one parent, whose child was sexually abused in a Beit Shemesh elementary school last year.
Asking to remain anonymous, the father recalls how his family was threatened and pressured by community leaders not to pursue the matter with the police, and how his child was ostracized by most former classmates.
"I was not willing to sit quietly and let it happen," says the father, adding that he immediately took the child to the Jerusalem Center for Child Abuse.
The social harassment is ongoing, he says, highlighting how even though the school's administrator initially fired the accused teacher, the institute's rabbis pushed to bring him back into the school.
Despite the pressure, "I was not afraid to speak out against the abuse... This is an issue that has to be addressed," the father says.
Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, executive director of the National Council for the Child - a nonprofit organization that lobbies for improved legislation to protect children and provides a support network for abused children - says Lema'an Achai's work and the efforts of individuals from the haredi community willing to speak out are great steps forward.
"There are serious problems with sexual abuse among the haredim in general, and particularly in Beit Shemesh," says Kadman, who has worked on several cases and has raised the problem with Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog.
"It is very difficult for individuals to break cultural norms and get the word out about what is happening," he observes. "And sadly, when they finally pluck up the courage to do so, the authorities do not deal with it quickly enough, and then it becomes too late. People retract their statements, or the children refuse to talk about it."However, Kadman says, "I am really happy that people are willing to speak out finally about this problem. There are lots of barriers to dealing with this problem, but there is one law for everyone, and the rabbis or religious community leaders are not exempt from that law."
A spokeswoman for the Welfare and Social Services Ministry said the authorities were familiar with the matter, and it was being dealt with.