by Temima Shulman (The Jewish Week)
March 18, 2009
A rabbinic expert on abuse in the Jewish community told a conference in Teaneck, N.J., dealing with child sexual abuse last week that "working outside of law enforcement is irresponsible," and was highly critical of the efforts of Borough Park Assemblyman Dov Hikind.
Rabbi Mark Dratch, who heads JSafe, a not-for-profit organization that addresses issues of abuse in the Jewish community, depicted Hikind, who has been outspoken in recent months in calling attention to the problem of abuse in the Orthodox community, as trying to be an advocate for the abused while refusing to give over the names of alleged perpetrators he says he has amassed to the police.
Speaking to about 35 people at a daylong conference sponsored by UTJ, the Union for Traditional Judaism, the rabbi said that Jewish law calls for reporting alleged perpetrators to the authorities.
"Our community has neither the expertise or authority to enforce the law," he later told The Jewish Week, "and that leads to perpetrators being unsupervised."
But while Rabbi Dratch asserted at the conference that the first action should be to report abuse to local authorities, Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry at Mt. Sinai Medical School, said that "reporting is not the very first thing that needs to happen.
"When a child discloses," she said, "the No. 1, most important thing that needs to happen is to help the child."
Rabbi Dratch acknowledged the tension between the two approaches, maintaining that it is important to help the victim, but not, he believes, at the expense of endangering untold future victims.
Attendees at the conference included men of all ages, with and without kippot, and women with and without head coverings, rabbis, psychologists, a mother who suspects her children are being abused, a teenage boy who was there in support of his friend, a victim, other former victims and even a man who confided to organizers that he is a former predator.
"Among us are people who have suffered unspeakable pain at the hands of others," said Rabbi Ronald Price, executive director of UTJ, at the outset of the program. "By us coming face to face they will know that we care that no one suffers their pain again," he said.
Both Rabbi Dratch and Dr. Michael Kaplowitz, director of behavioral health at the Kahn Rehabilitation Center in Brooklyn, cited the Torah prohibition of not standing by idly as another person suffers. This law, they said, is the basis for the obligation of Jews to protect victims of sexual abuse.
Rabbi Dratch said he became involved years ago when he saw the lack of response of his colleagues to congregants' stories of sexual abuse. He charged that some rabbis "abused Jewish laws for the sake of other agendas." He explained that the community's fear of sexual abuse being revealed — the "shanda" (or shame) of it — is actually what the community will be judged by.
"Cover-up is the larger scandal, that's the desecration of God's name," he said, referring to the fear in the Orthodox community of desecrating God's name by revealing that the Jewish community has this problem.
A panel, which in addition to Rabbi Dratch and Yehuda included attorney Michael Lesher and Rabbi Fred Hyman, covered such questions as, Should the Jewish community have a list of suspected predators? What does Jewish law require of a predator in order to repent? Can a predator ever repent, and change his behavior? Is there a place, and a structure, for a repentant predator in the Jewish community? And does a victim have to forgive?
The conversation became heated at times when former victims in the audience disagreed with Rabbi Dratch's criticism of Hikind for insisting that he will not disclose the names of any predators or victims to authorities.
But rather than silence the audience members, moderator Mitch Morrison, a writer from Passaic, N.J., who organized the program, said, "This dialectic is healthy and necessary. We're seeing the tensions here."
At one point a woman in the audience asked what to do with a court system that doesn't seem to be protecting her children, whom she fears are being sexually abused by her former husband.
Lesher, who co-authored a book entitled "From Madness to Mutiny: Why Mothers Are Running From the Family Courts," said "there needs to be a system that is governed by an explicit standard," adding that "we're in the infancy in developing this process."
Several attendees praised the conference for its openness and depth.
"I found this meeting different than all the others," said a 45-year-old man who says he was victimized as a sixth grader by a rabbi at a Boston area Jewish school. "It was a validation," the man said.
Ellen Labinsky, a New York City psychologist in private practice, said "this kind of dialogue is essential," and hoped it would help lead to systems within the Jewish community to better deal with the many resulting problems.