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One of the first lessons I learned practicing law was that there are usually two sides to a story, no matter how compelling your client's version. My lawyer's antennae were pricked last week by a front-page article in this paper headlined: "Haredi parents take on sexual abuse of children. Ramat Beit Shemesh parents increasingly frustrated with leaders' denial of problem." The piece portrayed two parents who bravely bucked "the stringent cultural norms" of their "tight-knit haredi community in Ramat Beit Shemesh" to seek redress for the alleged sexual abuse of their children.
Another hero of the piece was David Morris, director of Lema'an Achai, who promoted his organization's efforts to assist haredi parents versus the rabbinic authorities who, in many cases, end up "believing the perpetrators' story over the victims." Morris speculates that there is an epidemic of child abuse in Ramat Beit Shemesh based on the wild claim that every case investigated by the police represents 1,000 others not investigated.
WHAT AROUSED MY SUSPICIONS? For one thing, not one local rabbi was quoted. Nor was there any indication that any had even been contacted. The story fit a little too neatly into familiar stereotypes of the haredi world. First, the portrayal of the community and its rabbinic leaders as hopelessly backward, with no knowledge of psychology or awareness of the darker side of human nature. Second, the idea of a community so insular that it would rather let its children be traumatized for life than address its problems or seek outside help.
I have many friends in the English-speaking community of Ramat Beit Shemesh "Aleph" and know many of the communal rabbis. And, frankly, the application of these stereotypes to them seemed preposterous. For starters, ba'alei teshuva comprise a very large percentage of the community - in some shuls almost 100 percent. These are not people with no knowledge of the outside world, who have never heard of sexual perversions, or whose every behavior is shaped by generations-old social mores. Few of them would silently endure the sexual abuse of their children, or tolerate rabbis they viewed as passive in the face of such abuse.
The community's rabbis are young, worldly and energetic. None come from a generation that might have believed that these problems do not exist among religious people. Child abuse is currently a hot topic in the haredi community. There is an ever-widening awareness of the traumatic impact of abuse on the individual child and the community, and that victims may themselves become perpetrators if not treated professionally and promptly. Rabbi Elimelech Kornfeld told me that extra vigilance is needed in a new community like Ramat Beit Shemesh, where people have not known each other for years and everyone comes from some place else.
I was even more confident that none of the rabbis I know would be indifferent to accusations of child abuse. Why would they be? The greatest posek of the generation has written that where adequate grounds for suspicion exist, one should go to the police. And one friend of mine was told by a leading member of the Eda Haredit that he should help a young man report a case of abuse to the police.
Ramat Beit Shemesh is not an established community with venerable institutions which there might be some impulse to shield. None of the communal rabbis have any interest beyond the well-being of their congregants. And they take that task very seriously.
I have met David Morris and been impressed by Lema'an Achai's work on behalf of the Jews evicted from their homes in Gaza and refugees from the North during the Second Lebanon War. (My wife worked for many years as a therapist for Lema'an Achai.) I can understand that he was displeased with the results in a particular case (The Jerusalem Post article appeared the same week the police declined to pursue a further investigation against a heder rebbe in the neighborhood - one of the two concrete cases described). And no doubt he feels he knows better than the rabbis how to handle the problem of child abuse, just as the local rabbis, many of whom have far greater experience than the five or 10 calls that Lema'an Achai's Safe Kids hot line claims to have received, do not assume that Morris (who is not a professional therapist) is the alpha-omega on the topic.
But I don't believe Morris thinks the rabbis are clueless about the issue or routinely believe accused perpetrators over children. It is true that the rabbis do not think a teacher should be automatically fired the first time any student complains of untoward behavior, and he and his family stigmatized for life. (When the police receive a complaint, they do not even routinely inform the institution in question.) The rabbis will, however, advise the institution to put the teacher on notice that he or she is under supervision and give him or her a set of inviolable rules while an investigation is in process. (One Bnei Brak heder installs a camera in the classroom in such cases.)
LENGTHY CONVERSATIONS with three rabbis in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph confirmed my suspicion that there is more than one side to the story. Local rabbis and communal organizations dealing with youth work with the police and welfare department. The rabbis also provided me with lists of therapists with whom they work to evaluate and treat possible victims. (Those therapists, incidentally, are required to report any incidents of abuse to the police.)
Kornfeld described at length at least three cases where problematic individuals or families were forced to leave the neighborhood. In each case, the rabbis in their new communities were also alerted. Far from the more modern Orthodox community coming to the rescue of the benighted haredim, on at least two occasions Kornfeld had to work hard to convince more modern elements in the community of the potential danger posed by individuals about whom he learned through international haredi social networks.
The rabbis' preference for working behind the scenes derives not from a desire to sweep problems under the rug, but from a considered philosophy about what is best for victims, their families and the community. The knowledge that incidents will be publicized can keep victims or their parents from coming forward. In addition, publicity can lead to hysteria in which parents become convinced that their children are at great risk in school. (In fact, more abuse takes place within families or involves older children as perpetrators.)
The rabbis recognize that ultimately the only cure for child abuse is prevention, which means above all educating children as to what is impermissible touching and must be reported immediately, and alerting parents to signs of possible abuse. One rabbi told me of an upcoming meeting with Dr. Susan Schulman, a Boro Park physician and author of Understanding Your Child's Health, to discuss ways to improve community education.
The skewed portrayal of the rabbinic leadership of Ramat Beit Shemesh provides one more example of how much more complicated is the reality of the haredi community than the stereotypes which abound.