Speaking up

The Crisis Center for Religious Women is fighting to raise the religious community’s awareness of sexual and child abuse with a groundbreaking conference.

The Crisis Center for Religious Women (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Crisis Center for Religious Women
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Not long ago, a religious woman complained to the police that her father had molested her and her siblings when they were children. She did not come alone but was escorted by representatives of the Crisis Center for Religious Women, who had helped her reach the decision to do so – having gotten in touch following a phone call her husband made to the center, after learning of his wife’s painful past.
Though the father was sentenced and jailed, the women’s extended family refused to believe the man had molested his daughters, and accused them of ruining the family.
It is this type of reaction that the Crisis Center for Religious Women is working to eliminate, by educating the religious public that abuse does happen within the community and that it must be addressed properly.
Officially set up in 1993 following a series of child sexual abuse incidents in founder Debbie Gross’s Har Nof neighborhood, the Crisis Center for Religious Women initially helped women suffering from any type of issue, be it drugs or molestation. Nowadays, 60 percent of the calls the center receives through its hotline are about sexual abuse, 30% are about domestic violence, while the remaining 10% are about other crises.
The center operates the hotline 24 hours a day in a number of languages, including Amharic and Russian, and has received some 80,000 calls since its inception. In addition to the hotline, the center gives workshops to different communities, schoolchildren, teachers, religious leaders, fathers, the police and state authorities. The center is run by a staff of 13 as well as 160 active volunteers, all trained by Gross, an expert on crisis intervention and developmental psychology. The Welfare and Social Services Ministry funds 20% of the center’s activity, and the remaining budget depends on private donations.
The Crisis Center for Religious Women’s goals are “to help women overcome crisis through emotional support by telephone, to help prevent further occurrences of abuse, violence and rape through educational workshops, and to increase awareness within the religious community about these sensitive topics.”
“We can stop the epidemic of child sexual abuse,” says Gross. “People are starting to see there’s no way to keep our community safe without speaking about it.” This wasn’t the case in the past, when incidents of domestic and child abuse were hushed up by families and the community.
According to Gross, the religious community faces specific difficulties in dealing with the issue of abuse, and therefore requires a specific center to address them. “The Jewish community is a family,” she says. “When you go to the police, everyone knows about it. It’s horrifying for the victim.”
“We know there’s domestic violence, we know there’s abuse, but we don’t think it can be in our population,” Gross says of the religious community’s awareness of the issue, but adds that “it can happen to anybody, it does happen to everybody.”
“In most cases, it’s hushed up – and that’s where we come in,” she says. When a woman calls the hotline, she remains anonymous and receives counseling over the phone. In the case of mandatory reporting, for example when a child is involved, the center invites the caller to come in and discuss the situation, then escorts her to the police.
In cases that don’t require mandatory police reporting, the center offers other means of help, such as calling a woman’s rabbi to get a psak (religious ruling) from him to use birth control or undergo an abortion in cases of abuse, while keeping the woman’s identity under wraps. Often, it just provides a sympathetic ear and emotional support to women who are lonely and in need.
The center’s workshops aim to educate as many people as possible about the occurrence of abuse and the ways to prevent and deal with it, and is sensitive to cultural differences among religious communities. When addressing ultra-Orthodox schools in Betar Illit or Modi’in Illit, for example, the presenters come dressed appropriately, and make sure to communicate in terms the participants will feel comfortable with. “We say the word ‘sexual’ once, say it in a way that will be easier for them to listen,” Gross explains.
There is increased awareness in recent years that child abuse and sexual abuse are taking place within the religious community, but according to Gross, there are also more such cases. This, she says, is due to the widespread availability of media and inappropriate images nowadays, as well as the fact that people who were abused themselves in the past have a tendency to abuse others, enlarging the circle of violence. This requires immediate attention, she stresses, emphasizing the crucial need of the workshops the center provides for schools.
Religious beliefs and norms also sometimes prevent abuse from being identified and treated. “A lot of our work was to make people understand this is a problem in our community,” Gross says. “Often, victims or schools will not come forward because it will desecrate the name of God,” or because they think reporting a person is an act of lashon hara, defamation, she says. Religious communities abroad are concerned that revelations of abuse will lead to an anti-Semitic public opinion toward them.
Understanding these cultural and religious norms is key to addressing the issue of abuse and preventing it, and it seems progress has been made. When the center was founded, Gross went door to door to get rabbis on board and receive their approval and blessing. Nowadays, the center’s upcoming conference on abuse in the religious community is attracting top health professionals and religious leaders, all ready to bring up the painful topic.
The conference, taking place from December 1 to 3 in Jerusalem, “will offer a social, halachic and educational focus on this epidemic facing Jewish communities worldwide. The Crisis Center for Religious Women aims to present a comprehensive, varied, thought-provoking and informative program appropriate for a wide range of professional disciplines, as well as community leaders and concerned parents.”
The conference is set to be attended by leading experts from Israel and abroad, as well as Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Welfare and Social Services Minister Meir Cohen, and leading religious leaders such as Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow and Rabbi Yosef Blau. Just getting such a variety of religious figures at the conference is an achievement Gross is very pleased about. “The fact that people are sitting together – Orthodox, secular, not Jewish – is a big thing,” she says.
Ayelet Wieder Cohen, a clinical psychologist and the former director of the Kolech Orthodox feminist organization, is going to participate in a discussion about culturally sensitive treatment of victims of sexual abuse.
“This conference is important because it represents an approach of communal responsibility toward sexual abuse in the religious sector,” she says.
“Today, there is no argument that the phenomenon exists in the religious sector. There is difficulty in taking responsibility,” she notes. “There is a willingness to individually help those who are hurt. At a publiccommunal level, victims need support and trust… and the condemnation of the perpetrators. In this aspect, there is a lot of work to be done in the religious sector.”
One factor that distinguishes the issue of abuse in the religious community is abuse by religious leaders, which not only harms the body, but can also affect the victims’ spiritual world. This is often accompanied by the continued support of the community toward the perpetrator, making life very difficult for the victim, she says.
“The religious sector is very family-like, very communal. That’s why the community, the sector, has very strong power, regarding both the potential of the rehabilitation’s success and the potential to harm the rehabilitation.”
Shoshannah Frydman, director of family violence services at New York’s Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, is set to speak at the conference about building bridges between justice systems and religious communities. “When working with victims of family violence, it is critical to understand the many systems they encounter, including criminal justice, civil/legal and their religious community,” she says.
“As advocates and professionals in the field, it is our job to help build bridges between the systems and assist them in working together to help survivors and ensure safety. Not only do we need to help the survivors understand the legal community, but we also need to help the legal community understand the needs of insular communities, in order make it accessible to those in need,” she adds.
“This conference is an important part of this effort – joining with other advocates and professionals to share our expertise and knowledge, and become better-equipped to help the most vulnerable.”
Cherlow, a leading national-religious rabbi, will take part in a discussion titled “Religion: The Solution or the Problem?” His answer to that is complicated.
“We see with a lot of people that religion itself serves a lever for violence, as well as a barrier to dealing with it. For example, the mitzva of respecting parents mistakenly and unjustly blocks many children from complaining about their parents,” he says. “However, the encounter with God can make the person better, because he has additional motivation – on top of the human, humane motivation – to do good in the eyes of God. It is our job, therefore, to channel religion in the direction of the solution.”
“This conference is important mainly in two ways. One way is the obligation imposed on all of us to reduce violence in general, in the family specifically, and not allow the existence of injustice. The second way is the religious area – the utmost religious importance of maintaining mitzvot between people – and, as mentioned, turning religion from part of the problem to part of the answer.”
“Everybody can come, learn something, discuss some things and go back to their communities,” says Gross. The main message she’d like participants to take with them from the conference is: “It’s my job, no matter how big or small I am in my community, to stop the violence and build a safe community and a safe school.”
Just the fact that the conference is taking place is highly important, and illustrates the change in the religious community’s increasing awareness and willingness to talk about sexual and child abuse, Gross says, stressing that it wouldn’t have taken place even two years ago.
“Everybody should get out there and come, making a statement we will no longer allow this to exist,” she concludes.