by Hella Winston (The Jewish Week)
December 17, 2008
At this time last year, Dr. Asher Lipner had no idea he was on a course to become a grass-roots community organizer, particularly around such a delicate issue: child sexual abuse in the Orthodox community. But having successfully organized a conference attended by close to 50 survivors of abuse, clinicians, advocates and rabbis in Brooklyn in September, that, as well as a compassionate and outspoken advocate for victims of abuse throughout the Orthodox world, is exactly what he has become.
Lipner, who is 42 and lives in Flatbush, has a Ph.D. in psychology and works in the Orthodox community as a therapist specializing in issues related to sexual abuse. He is a teddy bear of a man, with dark hair and a salt-and-pepper beard, and over coffee at a cafe in his neighborhood he spoke thoughtfully about an issue that he has become passionate about.
Lipner claims that the idea for the conference came out of a growing sense of frustration among colleagues and friends who had been dealing with the issue largely in isolation, and longed to find a way to work with others to confront what they saw as a communal problem. Lipner drew on his extensive network of clinicians, advocates, survivors and rabbis to create a list of invitees, which ultimately grew into the triple digits.
The conference, which was held on Sept. 21, drew men and women from, according to Lipner, "Yeshivish black-hat backgrounds, Modern Orthodox, Satmar Chasidim and Lubavitch/Chabad, some religious, others no longer so." Featured speakers included Rabbi Yosef Blau, the mashgiach ruchni (spiritual adviser) of Yeshiva University, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind and Elliot Pasik, the president and a founder of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children. Sessions focused on topics ranging from "Enlightening Our Leaders" and "Community Education" to "Government at Work Protecting Kids" and "Survivor Support." Attendees came from as far away as Baltimore, Florida and Los Angeles.
Despite the level of interest and participation, the meeting was not publicized beyond the list of invitees out of concern for the privacy - and even safety - of the participants.
"It actually felt a bit like a meeting of Soviet Refuseniks discussing survival under the nose of the KGB," Lipner said. "It's a shame that our community still has this need to protect its own image more than it's ready to protect its children," he added, noting that significant progress has been made.
"Dov Hikind has been publicizing this problem on his radio show, the Jewish Board of Advocates has successfully lobbied for legislation to protect yeshiva students, and now [the haredi umbrella group] Agudath Israel has publicly agreed to back up their position on mandated finger printing and background checks."
While Lipner says he is not yet sure what the fruits of the meeting will ultimately be - a handbook for parents, teachers and survivors is already in the works - he says the reaction of one of the survivors in attendance convinced him that the gathering alone was worthwhile.
"An adult survivor who has been especially outspoken was supposed to moderate one session of the meeting," Lipner said. "However, in the middle, he began to walk out. I followed to see if he was all right, and he said that the subject matter was overwhelming him emotionally. You have spoken to hundreds of rabbis and leaders about your personal story. Your story has been written about and publicized. You are a courageous fighter for change. And my meeting has overwhelmed you?'" Lipner asked the young man. "His answer made my day: Asher, he said, this is the first time I see that people care.'"
While Lipner's work as a therapist has given him tremendous insight into the issues confronting those who have been sexually abused - not to mention the particular struggles of Orthodox abuse survivors - he also has a more personal connection to the topic.
As a teenager, Lipner attended an East Coast yeshiva, where, he claims, he had "a relationship with a rabbi who acted inappropriately and made sexual advances." While the experience proved traumatic for the "young and naive" Lipner, he was able to tell his mother about it, and she promptly intervened, causing the rabbi to back off. However, another student, a friend of Lipner's, wasn't as lucky.
After enduring similar treatment at the hands of the same rabbi, this young man went to the administration, which, without conducting an investigation, promptly asked the boy to leave the school. It was only after some "political maneuvering" that the student was allowed to remain at the school, under the condition that he keep quiet about the incident.
To this day, Lipner says he feels "guilty that I did not come forward and stand up for the injustice and for the danger that this rabbi presented to others. My fear and shame, so common to victims of abuse, prevented me from coming to the help of another innocent victim."
Lipner, it seems, is no longer content to remain silent. Though he acknowledges that speaking out can have a price, he is committed to this issue and will continue to work on it.
"Some people feel ... if you publicly name a rabbi as a molester, you are anti-rabbis,' or if you publicly criticize a yeshiva that acts irresponsibly you are attacking yeshivas,' or if you say the Orthodox community has a problem, just like everybody else, then you are anti-Orthodox.' Several people who care about me warned me that I would not be able to advance as a professional in the Orthodox mental health field, and that my shidduch [marriage] potential would be hurt."
Despite these dire warnings, and a few raised eyebrows, Lipner claims nothing he has done has hurt him in his "career nor in my personal life." In fact, he feels that things are beginning to change in the Orthodox world, and that the "fear so many have of speaking up is based on a stigma that is illogical and disappearing with education and awareness" - both things he hopes to continue to provide.
"The sex abuse problem can only be cracked with an interdisciplinary approach, and that is exactly the type of conference Asher organized," says Pasik of the Jewish Board of Advocates For Children. "With passion and a sense of purpose, he brought to the table representatives from law, government, criminal justice, medicine, psychology, and rabbis. It was a huge stepping stone towards concrete solutions, including much overdue legislation that will finally rid our yeshivas and all nonpublic schools of people who would do harm to our kids."
Ultimately, Lipner believes, education and awareness are about healing.
"I see this kind of healing beginning to take place in therapy rooms where families torn apart by sexual abuse courageously learn to love each other in healthy ways," he says. "I see it in the coming forward of hundreds of victims to Dov's task force to tell their stories, and in the letter sent out by a yeshiva principal in New Jersey to parents ... encouraging them, with the backing of a reputable posek halacha [decisor of Jewish law], to cooperate with a police investigation of [a coach accused of] sexual abuse. I see healing in the public statements of Agudath Israel expressing empathy and understanding for bloggers who have been more than critical of what they perceive as Aguda's lack of leadership on this issue.
"This olive branch is, I believe, a harbinger of reconciliation between those who have been hurt in our community and the leaders who represent the community."