This Sunday another victim of child abuse was buried in the ultra-Orthodox community.
Joey DiAngello was born Yoli Deutsch. His life was destroyed at age seven, when he was raped in a mikve. Hoping to excise his scars, he became an advocate for victims of abuse. Ultimately, however, he failed to rid himself of his demons. Recently the pain became unbearable. On Simhat Torah he died of an apparent drug overdose.
Unfortunately, Joey’s story is not unique; there are many kids in the hassidic community who, like him, have been violated at a young age. I grew up in Joey’s community. My family davened at the same shul as his, and we attended the same good (but intense) school.
We were expected from a young age to be there quite early. By the time I was 10, I would leave for school at 7:00 am every day. Since my school was far from my house, I had to take a bus to get there. There was a designated stop where I would be picked up daily.
Given that the community we lived in was rather safe, despite my young age my parents would allow me to walk to the stop and wait there by myself.
I was not the only child at the stop, other kids were there as well, all of them getting there by themselves. At some point we kids decided to take advantage of this privilege. We would leave home early to play games and run wild, usually without any adult supervision.
The streets felt safe enough that our parents permitted us do this even in the winter, when it was still dark outside at that hour.
As it happens, the bus stop was in front of a grocery store. Every morning, while we were waiting, wholesalers would drop off their supplies.
One of the delivery men would deliver the daily supply of bread.
The delivery man’s father was the sole provider of kosher bread at the time. The bakery was owned and operated by the family. Each family member had a task; one was distributing the bread. He would drive around, dropping off fresh bread at every grocery store in the neighborhood.
Unfortunately, delivering bread was not the only thing he did. Under the cover of darkness he would randomly pick up one of the boys playing innocently at the store, take them in his car for a spin, molest them, and bring them back to the stop, dropping them off as if nothing had happened. This was the routine for years.
For a long time his victims were too embarrassed to reveal that they had been violated. When they eventually shared their pain with the community, there was a slight uproar.
Ultimately, however, the community leaders decided to do nothing, turning a blind eye to this violent criminal. They are a prominent and wealthy Jewish family in an insular hasidic group; the community’s leadership was too afraid to antagonize them. The perpetrator was consequently not taken to task for his crimes.
Such outrageous behavior begs explanation.
In order to make some sense of this community’s abhorrent and cavalier attitude toward sexual violence it is important to emphasize a basic distinction: the difference between sex, something physical which we do instinctively, and eros, an emotion which has to be learned.
Having sex is innate. Cats, bees and even flowers do it. Sexuality and sensuality, on the other hand, is not. Animals, bugs and flowers do not feel sexual nor do they experience sensuousness. Developing a sexual persona is a learned skill; sensuality is an acquired emotion.
Nobody is born feeling sensuous or having a sexual identity. The adults in our lives help us develop those identities and cultivate those emotions.
Recognizing the distinction between sex and sensuality should make us appreciate the futility of trying to address the seriously flawed sexual mores of Satmar and other ultra-Orthodox communities.
Like all human beings, haredim, too, have sex. Fornication is an instinctive human behavior. Emotionally, however, they are different.
Their value system largely prevents them from experiencing eros.
The haredi sexual ethos is that the only purpose for having sex is procreation; sensuousness is frowned upon and sexual awareness condemned. A haredi man or woman is, therefore, not encouraged to feel sensuous, nor do parents or educators teach children how to develop a “sexual identity.” They mostly view sex as a necessary evil whose sole purpose is the propagation of the species. He/she merely performs this human (and according to some “beastly”) activity so that the couple involved in the act can procreate.
Their apparently cavalier attitude toward child molestation is likely informed by this minimalist understanding of sexuality. In their mind, sexual abuse of a minor is merely an inappropriate act; the perpetrator is simply acting immodestly. For them, sex is just sex.
They do not appreciate the larger implications it has on our psyche and identity. Accordingly they do not share the outrage we intuitively feel toward such dastardly behavior. They do not see the abuse as having broader psychological implications for the victim because sex for them is a physical act which is psychologically inconsequential.
Those who love the ultra-Orthodox community and care about the way it raises its future generation have to realize that condemnation is not the solution, nor are cosmetic fixes the elixir. Change will come only when the haredi leadership is courageous enough to drastically transform their sexual mores and revamp their assumptions regarding sexuality and sensuality. Only by transforming sex to eros will they come to understand, and perhaps even cherish, the crucial role sexuality plays in the development of healthy and fully realized human beings.
Once eros is embraced, their attitude toward sexual abuse will finally change. They will appreciate the physical and psychological horror such abuse inflicts on its victims. This will result in turn in a more aggressive response toward sexual abuse within their community.
Most importantly, it will ameliorate the pain of all those young innocent victims about whom we read too often in the newspapers.
The author, a rabbi, grew up in the ultra-Orthodox Satmar community. He is the Chair of the Talmud Department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, the director of Judaic Studies at Luria Academy and the rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul.