'Standing Silent' and Speaking Loudly

by Elissa Schwartz (Washington Jewish Week)
November 30, 2011

Every two minutes, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. Approximately 2/3 of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted by age 18.

Sexual abuse scandals come to light every so often. I personally get upset and often feel helpless. Over the past few weeks, we have been hearing individual stories of abuse of power and position. The scandals that are unfolding at Penn State and Syracuse have many of us upset, but they, unfortunately, are not unique. We have all heard the stories in which a close-knit community within a community withheld information and consequences for individuals behaving inappropriately who were respected people of power, stories that focus on the shame or repercussions that the issue might bring to the community, rather than thinking of the victim(s). In other versions we can substitute "political leaders within the government" or "medical professionals within the health community" or "clergy/religious leaders within the Jewish/Christian/Catholic/Muslim community" for "sports community within the collegiate community."

Abuse occurs at the same rate in the Jewish community as it does in others. Child sexual abuse occurs at the same rate across the socioeconomic scale. We all know someone who has been a victim of a sexual assault.

Next Wednesday, at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, there will be a screening of Standing Silent, a documentary that highlights the issue of sexual assault in our own community. I had an opportunity to watch Standing Silent this past week with my husband. The documentary follows WJW editor Phil Jacobs, who at the time of filming was editor at the Baltimore Jewish Times, as he helped expose predators and give voice and empowerment to the victims. The documentary is presented in a sensitive and respectful way, uncovering the issue in this microcosm, without bashing the community. The lessons we can learn from the stories highlighted in this example are great and of great importance.

Statistics are startling. They shock us, but they don't personalize who the victims are and the effects of their victimization on those who love them. These statistics show that we all know someone who has been a victim of a sexual assault. This documentary highlights personal stories of children and adults who have survived sexual abuse and their journeys as they gain strength from the professionals who have helped them work through the pain and victimization as well as support from other survivors. Director Scott Rosenfelt does a remarkable job allowing the stories of the survivors and search for the truth to evolve and deepen as the film progresses.

Lashon hara, a Hebrew term that means speaking ill of others and is considered a sin, is a topic that comes up multiple times in the documentary. We must all balance the idea of lashon hara with pikuach nefesh, a Hebrew term that means that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious consideration. When the life of a specific person is in danger, almost any negative commandment of the Torah becomes inapplicable. As Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, whose knowledge of Torah and psychology is beautifully and powerfully intertwined within the documentary states, "Do not stand idly by while your brother's blood is being spilled."

As a mother of four young children, the statistics surrounding child sexual abuse scare me. I think I ask myself the same questions many of us ask-- How can I protect my children? How can I help protect their friends whom I have grown to love? What can I do?

I think the first step is awareness. We need to be aware of the signs of victimization that children or any of our loved ones may exhibit. We must not remain silent when someone comes forward to confide in us or seek assistance. We need to seek the support and guidance of professionals so as not to further victimize anybody in our efforts to help. (For a list of signs of abuse, go to stopitnow.org.)

Talk to your children about appropriate and inappropriate touching. Let them know they can come talk to you, you will always believe them, no one will hurt you or them if they tell you. Let them know that they don't have to come to you; they can choose a family friend or another trusted adult. Let them know they can keep talking until someone listens and does something to help.

This documentary and the latest scandals have brought this important issue to the forefront. I would ask for all of us to stay in this moment. Take this opportunity to put the victims first, follow in Phil Jacobs' and Scott Rosenfelt's examples of giving voices to those who have been silenced and holding the perpetrators, no matter who they are or what positions they hold in their community, accountable for their crimes.

We all know someone who has been a victim of sexual abuse.

May our work as a community enable the abused to discover that they are not alone; that they are not at fault; that they can find help. Not only should we not deny that abuse exists, but state loudly that it does - so that we can bring an end to it. May we not stand silently while others suffer.

Elissa Schwartz is executive director of JCADA - Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse. If you or someone you know needs assistance, please contact jcada.org, jssa.org or shofarcoalition.org.