‘Major progress made on addressing sexual abuse in orthodox community’

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, the founder of Project YES, speaks about the improvements made in reporting abuse in the haredi community and the challenges that remain.

An Orthodox family in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
An Orthodox family in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park
The haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community in the US has made major strides in coming to terms with the issue of child sexual abuse, a prominent community activist told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
According to Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, the New Yorkbased founder of Project YES, a program for at-risk youth loosely affiliated with Agudath Israel of America, the progress made among both the hassidic and Lithuanian Orthodox communities has been “extraordinary.”
“It’s not even comparable” to the situation that obtained when he first began advocating for stronger measures to be taken in combating pedophiles, Horowitz told The Jerusalem Post.
“Twelve years ago, when I started writing about this, the vast majority of people thought that I had lost my mind, including some of my closest friends,” he said.
While he agreed that there was certainly “a long way to go” on the issue, he said internal opposition to change was “dissipating very quickly.”
The issue of sexual abuse among haredim gained renewed attention after an official commission in Australia revealed earlier this year that educators affiliated with the Chabad hassidic movement had covered up abuse and protected molesters.
Some critics have attacked what they call a “culture of cover up, often couched in religious terms,” in which taboos related to tale-bearing, causing a “desecration of God’s name” and informing on Jews to gentile authorities have come together to prevent those with knowledge of abuse to turn to the police.
In the wake of the Australian scandal, many in the rabbinate hurried to issue statements explaining that Jewish law required mandatory reporting of abuse.
Despite this, however, views on reporting among the ultra-Orthodox are mixed, with Agudath Israel maintaining that rabbinic sanction is needed prior to the disclosure of suspicions.
According to the group’s 2011 policy, while it is “obligatory to report suspicions of abuse or molestation,” in many cases rabbinic sanction is necessary before such a move can be made.
Horowitz, who made a presentation on this to senior Aguda rabbis several years ago, said that the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox world are “clearly aware that there is a problem and to a man they are all in favor of children being educated.”
The issue of mandatory reporting, however, is “a work in progress.”
“There are clearly differences of opinion on that,” he told the Post.
One of the factors impacting on a rabbi’s readiness to endorse reporting is age, Horowitz added. Younger dayanim, or religious court judges, generally grew up “in safety and security knowing that there is due process,” he said, while those born in Europe, generally older dayanim, were raised to be “terrified of the police.”
As an example of the progress made on this issue among the haredim, Horowitz pointed to the success of his book Let’s Stay Safe.
Published by Mesorah, a mainstream ultra-Orthodox publishing house, the book has sold more than 27,000 copies in English since 2011, accounting for what he said was “about a third of the Orthodox Jewish homes in North America that have children between the ages of two and 12.”
Horowitz added that he was now working on Hebrew versions tailored to the specific contexts of more insular hassidic communities so that it will be “culturally congruent” and allow readers to feel that it is relevant to their lives.
A Yiddish version, endorsed by rabbis of the Satmar Skver community, has so far sold 1,200 copies in the hassidic New York towns of Monroe and New Square, while the upcoming Hebrew version already has received approbation from the haredi community in Israel.
While Horowitz and the Satmar and Skver rabbis disagree on issues such as mandatory reporting, there is unanimous agreement in their communities, Horowitz said, that “the children need to be trained for child safety.”
The Satmar community found itself in the midst of its own abuse controversy two years ago when Nechemya Weberman, a Satmar hassid and unlicensed therapist, was sentenced to 103 years in prison by a Brooklyn court for sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl under his care.
The community rallied to support him while Horowitz was a major supporter of the victim, who was shunned by her former community.