'Denial Has Been The Greatest Problem'

Rabbi, survivor of sexual abuse address an ongoing dilemma for Orthodox community

Jacob Kamaras (The Jewish State)
January 15, 2010

As a victim of sexual abuse, and the subsequent failure of his childhood community to follow up on the incident, Mutty Weiss of Highland Park says Jews need to "vote with their dollars" to make sure their institutions are safe.

Community members need to ask schools if they have safety plans and detailed policies for dealing with sexual predators, as well as if they administer background checks and fingerprinting for new employees, Weiss said at the Orthodox Forum of Highland Park/Edison's "Facing Up to Sexual Abuse in the Orthodox Community" program Jan. 9 at Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison. For schools that answer "no," Jews must send a message by exploring other options for their children's education, Weiss said.

In response to such demands, Weiss said, schools and other youth organizations "either go out of business, or, they do the right thing and your children are safer."

"As a Jewish community, we are not careful with [dealing with sexual abuse], and I do not know how we got like this," Weiss, who moved to Highland Park five years ago, said before a packed main sanctuary at Ohr Torah.

After Weiss recounted being abused as a teenager at the hands of Avrohom Mondrowitz, a former psychologist at Ohel Children's Home & Family Services in Brooklyn who fled to Israel after an arrest warrant charged him with molesting children with emotional problems or learning disabilities Rabbi Yosef Blau, Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual guidance counselor) at Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), gave a halakhic perspective on how the Orthodox community should deal with the problem of sexual predators within its midst.

At another forum he once attended on this issue, Blau said "an important" rabbi used non-Jews in every hypothetical example he gave of sexual abuse, as if the possibility of an observant Jew committing such acts was "beyond comprehension."

"The reason for this problem is not, chas v'shalom, that our community is more prone to it than anyone else," Blau said. "It's that we don't believe it can happen in our community."

"The danger exists within our community and denial has been the greatest problem we've had in trying to deal with it," he said.

Growing up in Chicago, Weiss said he was the kind of child who needed extra attention and didn't fit into the way his parents, including a father who was a 9th grade rebbe at a prominent yeshiva, raised him. At age 13, Weiss returned from a year at a more "modern" California yeshiva with jeans and a T-shirt, and said: "I could've come off the plane and walked right by my parents, and they wouldn't have even recognized me."

At that point, Weiss' parents sent him to New York to have Mondrowitz "straighten him out." Mondrowitz acted as charming as possible by allowing Weiss to live with him and taking him to places like the amusement park; and Weiss, as a lost yeshiva student looking for love and attention, "couldn't get enough of this guy," he said.

"It's all heimishe (homey)," Weiss said of Mondrowitz's demeanor. "He was just like the coolest guy in the world," he said.

What Weiss failed to pick up on, he said, was that Mondrowitz's whole family was away in the Catskill Mountains at the time. Mondrowitz went on to ask Weiss if he wanted to stay in one of the small, dark rooms of his children, or with Mondrowitz in his nicer, warmer bedroom. Since he grew up in a sheltered religious environment, Weiss said he "just didn't know any better" and agreed to sleep with Mondrowitz, which he did for about a week.

Since Haredi society is so focused on tznius, or modesty, the intricacies of the human body "was just completely missing from my data set," Weiss said, making him oblivious of the fact that he was being molested by Mondrowitz. In 1984, when Weiss was 18 and visiting Chicago for the first time in two years, he saw Mondrowitz in synagogue and the gravity of what happened five years earlier hit him "like a ton of bricks," he said. Weiss went home crying to his parents, who weren't used to dealing with such news since the community had no mechanism for dealing with abuse.

"It was as though I told [my mother] that Martians just landed outside," Weiss said.

A week-and-a-half later, the community's rosh yeshiva called Weiss to his house and asked him "Would you trust your children with Avrohom Mondrowitz?" Weiss said he absolutely wouldn't and explained what happened in New York, but then never heard about the matter again from the yeshiva. It wasn't the compassion he was expecting.

"They just dropped a bomb on you and there was no follow-up," Weiss said.

Blau said Weiss described Mondrowitz in "delicate terms," since Mondrowitz was later found to have molested "hundreds of individuals" in his role as a "self-declared doctor of psychology" in Brooklyn. Mondrowitz lived on a half-Jewish, half-Italian block where he began his abuse, and not a single Jew, but nearly all the Italians on the block, notified the police about his exploits. Today, "prominent religious elements" in Israel, where Mondrowitz fled in the 1980s and was finally arrested in 2007, are working to clear his name by claiming the case is "ancient history" and that Mondrowitz is a frum man who shouldn't be bothered any further, Blau explained.

"The story is an incredible warning to us of why we do things incorrectly," Blau said.

To prevent episodes of abuse, Weiss said families can start by asking themselves "What is it that you are doing to set a realistic expectation for how you view your child, based on who that child is?" Weiss said his childhood was all about following in his father's footsteps, and when that didn't happen, his father's intervention failed.

"Children need to know that no matter which way they turn out, they will be loved and accepted by their parents no matter what it is," Weiss said.

Though the Orthodox community of Highland Park/Edison is more "progressive" than his Chicago community growing up, "it's so easy to fall into the same pitfalls," Weiss said. A helpful video shiur to show children is "Talking to Our Kids About the Birds and the Bees: Sanctifying the Intimate," Weiss said. On the video, Rabbi Binyamin Yudin notes that "yesterday's teens are today's tweens" and need to be more aware of sexual issues.

"It can be done in a tzniusiddke (modest) way, but it has to be done in a way that's constantly reinforced," Weiss said.

Orthodox communities often create a stigma around cases of sexual abuse because of their preoccupation with matchmaking, Weiss said, making people reluctant to admit they were abused for fear that it will harm their ability to get a good shidduch, or the ability for anyone in their family to do so. Therefore, it's important to reach out to families of victims and assure them that they had nothing to do with what happened, Weiss said.

Regarding the importance of notifying law enforcement about abuse, Weiss said that sometimes there are wrongful convictions or exonerations in these cases, but that the least the community can do is get highly trained individuals involved.

"Just getting the police involved would make anybody think twice [about committing sexual abuse]," Weiss said.

After his story was featured on ABC's "Nightline" program, Weiss said he got a telling phone call from a childhood friend, now working for a school board in Baltimore, who asked himself on the call "Hmm, what is our policy?" when it comes to dealing with sexual predators. The school board eventually made "a policy and a half" as a result of that conversation, Weiss said, but the absence of a clear policy beforehand shows that all communities need to examine their institutions.

Blau explained that frum communities have a distaste for "mesira," or turning in a fellow Jew to secular government, and consider those who do so traitors. However, every halakhic authority agrees that Jews have an obligation to go to authorities when they see an ongoing danger, Blau said, because the community doesn't have the investigative capacity to settle the matter on its own.

Another factor convincing religious communities not to turn in sexual predators is that "every criminal in the Jewish community is an expert in explaining why it's lashon hara to talk about them," Blau said. Others think it's a "chillul Hashem," or desecration of God's name, to expose Jewish sexual predators because you are publicizing their acts, but if those acts are covered up and eventually discovered by the media, the chilul Hashem is much worse, Blau said.

Ultimately, Blau said, if the frum community takes credit for the growth of Torah and purports itself to be strong, it must stop acting weak by hiding its problems.

"Our community is very strong," Blau said. "I'm saying that because we function often as if we are very weak, threatened, or insecure."

"Strong communities confront their problems and deal with them," he said. "Only very weak ones try to cover them up."

A question and answer period following Blau's presentation focused on the resources that are available to victims of sexual abuse. Weiss suggested "Survivors for Justice" and "Jewish Survivors Network," two forums for survivors to help each other and their families cope with abuse. Blau said what children need the most is psychological support from trained experts to "live full lives" after experiencing trauma.

Audience member Donna Mensch of Edison, who works as a social worker in Union City, noted the resources offered by New Jersey's Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), which a victim of abuse can call anonymously. DYFS is obligated to decide whether to go to homes and investigate these cases within 48 hours, she said.

"In the state of New Jersey, we are legally responsible to call [for help] if we feel that there is a child in danger," Mensch said.

"We need to be more concerned on the safety of that child [who is abused] rather than, 'Oh, they are going to take that child [who committed the abuse] away,'" Kathi Krieder of Highland Park added.