Preventing sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community

With presentations in both English and Hebrew, the third annual Tahel Conference is expected to host some 600 attendees.

Tahel director, Debbie Gross gives the opening remarks on the first day of the third annual Tahel Conference on Monday (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tahel director, Debbie Gross gives the opening remarks on the first day of the third annual Tahel Conference on Monday
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tahel, the crisis center for religious women and children, is reaching out to one of the most insulated communities in Israel by tackling sexual abuse among the ultra-Orthodox.
Monday was the first day of the group’s three-day conference titled, “Creating Safe Communities; Creating Hope.” The gathering at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem brought some 100 speakers and about 600 attendees from 15 countries to discuss topics often not touched upon in the religious community. Those topics include, among others, sexual molestation, get (Jewish divorce document) refusal and domestic violence.
The conference features presentations in both English and Hebrew with five simultaneous sessions, seven times each day.
It was no coincidence that the “#metoo” campaign has influenced the conference organizers to open the event to the press for the first time to reach the widest audience in its history.
Tahel director Debbie Gross spoke with The Jerusalem Post about the evolution of the conference and how the atmosphere today differs from three years ago: “In the past, a lot of the goal was to bring awareness to the community. Today, people know there is violence in our community,” she said. “Today, people know children are sexually abused. The whole ‘metoo’ campaign brought the victims forward.”
The conference helps turn ideas into actions, Gross said. “But what I think the typical person doesn’t understand is that it is their responsibility to do something. In other words, every mother and father has to make sure there’s a program in the schools and synagogues. And I think the idea of this conference is how to build safe communities for our children. It’s not enough to say ‘This is terrible.’ You have to say ‘You cannot let this happen again.’”
Tahel was established in 1993 and works to help victims of abuse and terrorism through social and emotional-support programs.
One of the sessions titled, “Why me? Dealing when bad things happen to good people,” dealt with making sense of the chaos that results from sexual abuse, from a religious perspective.
Manny Waks, the CEO of Kolv Oz, an organization that works to prevent childhood sexual abuse in the global Jewish community, came from the Chabad hassidic community in Australia, where he was a victim of such abuse.
Waks, one of 17 children, spoke at the conference about his own experience.
Dressed in jeans and wearing an untucked button-down shirt, the clean-shaven Waks addressed a room filled with observant Jews and said: “Victims are accused of doing hilul Hashem (desecrating god) for coming forward.”
Waks presented evidence that showed one out of every five children in Israel, Australia and the United States are victims of sexual assault, and that 70% of those assaults happen in the home.
He said that coming forward “tears families apart.” He also spoke of the symptoms that accompany sexual abuse, including such maladaptive behaviors as: eating disorders, severe depression, substance abuse, violent behavior and suicidal ideation.
Waks told the Post that the biggest problem in dealing with sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community is: “a complete lack of research in this area, so anything that we talk about is anecdotal evidence and not research-based.”
He added: “If you can’t talk about sex, how can you talk about abuse? There are complicated factors and I have seen many, many people leave the fold, and many of them have experienced childhood sexual abuse.”
Debbie Gross also shared what she sees as one of greatest challenges facing the religious community in confronting the issue: “People are still in denial and they don’t think they have to worry about their children in their communities and their schools. We have to change our lives to make our kids safe. And I think the biggest asset is that people are joining together to take this on and that’s a big thing.”