Breaking the code of silence

Sexual abuse scandals are continuing to rock ultra-Orthodox community, as more victims come forward

The last time Nanette Eisgrau spoke to her father was in 1994. She was 19 years old, and her father – Rabbi Eliezer Eisgrau, the principal of the Torah Institute of Baltimore – had found out she had been seeing a secular-trained (but Orthodox) therapist to deal with the emotional fallout from the sexual abuse, she says she endured as a child, inflicted by her father and maternal grandfather.
“My father forced me to perform oral and anal sex repeatedly between the ages of three and seven,” Eisgrau recounts to The Jerusalem Report during a conversation at her home in a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community in Israel. “My grandfather also exposed himself to me, and touched me in my private areas.
“But when I confronted my father about it, he threatened to sue the therapist I had been seeing. He said she had convinced me of things that never happened. There was no fatherly attempt to hear my pain or to try to work through the issue together, just total denial; and he blamed me for trying to ruin his life.”
Following the confrontation with her father, her siblings demanded that she stop “telling stories” in public; and when she refused, the family sought the advice of Rabbi Yakov Hopfer, a respected authority in Baltimore’s Orthodox community, but with no secular training as a psychologist or family counselor.
After brief conversations with Nanette Eisgrau and a psychiatrist who treated her for crisis management following a suicide attempt several years later, Hopfer determined that her accusations were baseless. He advised the family to cut off all contact with her, saying they had to choose between their father and sister – and he advised the community to do the same.
“I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociative identity disorder, but it was such a shanda [shame] for them, they just couldn’t deal with it,” she says now. “My mother continued to talk to me for a while after I was cut out – we even tried joint therapy together for a while after I tried to kill myself, but she denied that I had any baggage or any reason to be in treatment.
“What they have done to me since is a lot worse than even the original abuse. They cut me off in the most complete way I can imagine.
What’s even worse, I don’t think it’s only about me. They’ve made an example of me for the rest of the community to make sure that nobody else speaks out about abuse.”
When Manny Waks went public in July, 2011 with allegations that he had been repeatedly molested by staff members at Chabad’s Yeshiva College in Melbourne in the 1980s, the news sent tremors through the Australian Jewish community. Three years earlier, the community was scandalized by accusations that a female school principal from Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox Adass community had sexually molested dozens of students, and that the community had closed ranks when police got wind of the story. Eventually, police believe, the woman was spirited quickly out of Australia to prevent legal authorities from launching a full-scale investigation.
Like in the Baltimore case, Waks informed rabbinical authorities of the abuse, but they, too, advised him not to seek professional counseling and forbade him from reporting the abuse to the police. And like Eisgrau, Waks, too, paid a heavy price for his decision to go public.
“I’m not observant anymore, so the rabbis don’t have terribly much power over me,” Waks tells The Report. “But they have tried hard to silence me by making my family suffer: My parents are 100 percent dedicated to Chabad and its teachings, but my father isn’t allowed to have an aliya in shul anymore.
Several longtime study partners have abandoned him, either because they feel I have betrayed the community, or because they fear a backlash from the community for supporting my case.”
The Eisgrau and Waks cases are only two of a slew of sex scandals that have rocked Orthodox Jewish communities around the world in recent years.
In Israel, prominent Zionist rabbis such as Mordechai Elon and Shlomo Aviner have been accused of sexual misconduct; and in the United States, modern Orthodoxy’s flagship Yeshiva University was rocked last year by allegations that rabbis there had abused students in the 1980s, and that others had failed to report the abuse to police or child welfare authorities. And in January, both the massive 103-year prison sentence handed down against Nechemia Weberman, a member of Brooklyn’s Satmar Hassidic community who was convicted of abusing a teenage girl, and the reported rape of a five-year-old ultra- Orthodox girl in the Israeli town of Modi’in Illit, and the subsequent cover-up, sent shockwaves around the globe. But they, too, are just the tip of the iceberg.
Abuse and cover-up stories have been reported from Ramat Beit Shemesh to London, from Lithuanian-style yeshivas such as Baltimore’s Ner Yisrael and Melbourne’s Kollel Beth HaTalmud, from within Hassidic groups including Chabad and Satmar, and from elsewhere.
In Israel alone, support organizations that deal with sexual abuse receive thousands of requests for assistance from ultra- Orthodox communities every month.
According to Magen, a Beit Shemesh-based organization that focuses on preventing child abuse and encourages people to seek professional counseling and to report sexual offenses to civil authorities, there are strong cultural explanations for the fact that the vast majority of offenders do not get caught, but it isn’t because people don’t want to deal with this phenomenon.
“Nationally, about 2 percent of the population reports child sexual abuse cases to law enforcement officials,” David Morris, the group’s founder and chairman, tells The Report. “In the Orthodox world, that number appears to be far lower – in 2010, Beit Shemesh recorded the lowest proportion of abuse reports in the country, followed by Bnei Brak and Beitar Illit. There are several explanations for this, including strong social mores attached to sexual matters, and because of a strong social contract to deal with the issues facing the community ‘in house.’ “Traditionally, religious Jews really believed that sex abuse was just not a problem in ‘our’ communities, so strongly that any suggestion to the contrary was dismissed almost out of hand. That position is no longer tenable, and nobody who wants to appear serious would make that claim anymore.”
Morris adds that rabbis who are asked to adjudicate sexual abuse claims often have serious conflicts of interest with regard to those claims. “Some of this has to do with the multiple roles that a rabbi has in a religious community. Many times, an individual can serve as the principal of a school, the rabbi of a synagogue, the head of a local charity fund and a halakhic authority for the whole community.
So when a parent complains that his child has been abused, which of those authorities is receiving the complaint? Add in to the mix a strong desire on the part of the rabbinic establishment to maintain control of communal issues and you’ve got a recipe for at least the appearance of cover-ups,” Morris notes.
But, at the same time, Morris asserts that there are signs that grass-roots activity is beginning to combat the phenomenon. Not only have victim-support organizations cropped up in virtually every Orthodox community in the world, run by Orthodox lay people and mental health professionals, but Orthodox people themselves are taking advantage of their services.
Morris says that in 2011,the first full calendar year after Magen was founded, reporting from Beit Shemesh rose by 43 percent. In cold numbers, more than 200 victims of abuse have come forward to tell their stories, and they have identified more than 100 perpetrators, and there is an increasing trend to report abuse.
“There is a scourge that is affecting our communities and our children are at risk.
People are sick and tired of pretending these issues don’t exist, and they no longer have confidence that community rabbis can deal effectively with their problems on their own.
Community rabbis do have an important role in investigating these issues – they can calm down the community, can educate parents about child protection, encourage people to come forward, protect them from backlash and provide counseling for victims and families.
“People here are scared. They want abusers fired from their jobs as teachers and yeshiva rabbis, and they want criminals to go to jail. Moreover, people are saying loud and clear that they want professional help for their psychological trauma. More and more, people are saying ‘no’ to the suggestion that untrained rabbis can act in the place of trained social workers, mental health professionals and of police investigators.”
Nowhere is this trend more pronounced than in Australia, and nowhere has it had more of a positive effect. Manny Waks says his pleas in the 1980s for help and justice went unheeded, and he says the current community leadership of Chabad continues to criticize him and to ostracize his family. But his campaign to encourage victims to break their silence has begun to bear fruit. Two of the individuals that Waks originally accused are now on trial in Melbourne, and multiple victims have stepped forward to testify in these cases.
Perhaps even more significant has been the response by Australia’s official rabbinical bodies. Whereas Waks says that Chabad officialdom has continued its “campaign of intimidation” against him and those who cooperate with him,” the Rabbinical Council of Victoria and other official rabbinical organizations, which are dominated by Chabad rabbis, have made a series of strong statements encouraging people to report sex crimes to the police.
Furthermore, there are signs down under, even from within Chabad circles, that previously held norms may be changing. Take for example the mid-February announcement that New South Wales police had opened an investigation into the Chabad-run Yeshiva Center in Sydney for alleged sexual abuse at the school in the 1970s and 80s. The day the investigation was announced, the yeshiva issued an official statement condemning the abuse and encouraging victims to report their experiences to the police.
While there is no question that instances of sexual abuse have skyrocketed in recent decades, mental health professionals are split when it comes to explaining the phenomenon.
One Israeli psychiatrist tells The Report that there was little hard data that would allow mental health professionals to draw up policy recommendations to combat the phenomenon.
The psychiatrist also points out that the details of abuse were different in the Orthodox world than in the general population. For instance, he notes, Orthodox abusers were more likely to molest boys than girls, probably due to the fact that they had fewer opportunities to abuse girls. He compares this phenomenon to prison: It is a well-known phenomenon that men engage in homosexual acts in jail not because they are gay but because men are the only sexual outlets available.
On the other hand, he also notes that in Orthodox societies, women are essentially exempt from much of the “benign” sexual harassment (such as inappropriate comments) to which women are often exposed in secular circles. Solid data on this topic was almost impossible to come by, says the doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noting that many of his patients are ultra-Orthodox and he did not want to compromise his ability to treat them.
What is clear, however, is that mental health professionals say sex abuse has reached “epidemic” proportions, in Israel and abroad. In Jerusalem alone, the Crisis Center for Religious Women has handled more than 72,000 cases since its establishment in 1992. According to Debbie Gross, the center’s founder and director, there isn’t a single community in Israel that has not been affected by this phenomenon.
There are many factors to explain why sexual abuse has grown so fast, Gross tells The Report. A major factor, she says, has nothing to do with Haredi social norms – pornography.
“Thirty years ago, when people went looking for pornography they found pictures of naked ladies,” Gross says. “That would almost qualify as family entertainment today.
The porn that’s out there today is violent; it features sex with animals and with children, and most of all, it is readily available. Sexuality, then, becomes identified with aggression and predatory behavior, and people can become addicted. Once that happens, they feel a need to act out the fantasies they’ve watched in pornographic movies.
“The second thing that’s changed is that in years gone by, no one talked about boys being victimized. So more often than not, their trauma went undiagnosed and untreated, and they in turn became abusers. So you might have had one person abuse 300 kids during a teaching career. If ‘only’ 10 percent of those victims grow up to be abusers, but each of children, you’re looking at a lot of people,” Gross says.
When trying to deal with this problem, experts are split on how the war against sexual abuse should be waged. Whereas Magen’s David Morris says that rabbis must be taught that they do not possess the skills or the knowledge to correctly ascertain on their own whether abuse has taken place, or the ability to treat victims of abuse, Gross feels it would be a mistake to lay all the blame at the feet of the rabbinical leadership.
“You cannot blame the rabbis alone,” she says. “How about we talk about the police and the media role in all this? I’ve accompanied many women to the police, helped them file complaints – only to read about their cases in the next day’s newspaper. True, the reports don’t reveal names, but they can feature so many details that it’s easy to figure out who the victim is. So victims walk away feeling violated again, and sorry that they’ve reported the issue.
“If we want victims of abuse to come forward, we have to create a situation in which his or her privacy will be totally respected.
That would go a long way towards encouraging people to speak up,” Gross says.
Gross adds that civil authorities in Israel and abroad must readjust their thinking if they are to craft policies that could seriously address the issue. “We tend to look at this issue as a criminal one, but I’d suggest that the correct way to look at it is as a health issue,” she says. “It’s an epidemic, like any other epidemic.
Compare sex abuse to swine flu: We were worried about a mass outbreak of swine flu, but health officials around the world took responsible measures to prevent it.
“Sex abuse is similar. I don’t believe we can stop it completely, but we can teach people how to build safer environments for children.
Our staff and volunteers have been giving workshops for Orthodox parents, teachers and school administrators all over the world.
We give them tools to make schools safer – for example, you’ve got to make sure there are teachers on duty at the boys’ bathroom every recess period. You’ve got to have teachers or parents patrol the school during break time and after school. Remember, predators do not want to get caught, and if they know people are watching, the chances go down that they’ll be able to abuse,” says Gross.
Although there are no signs that the epidemic is subsiding, there are signs that ultra- Orthodox communities are beginning to act.
One Haredi man who spoke to The Report on condition of anonymity said the issue of protecting children is a topic of conversation today in all parts of the ultra-Orthodox world.
Another said people are talking openly with their children in a way that they would never have done even five years ago.
The ultra-Orthodox establishment, too, has started to turn to professional organizations to deal with the phenomenon. Gross says she now gives regular workshops to rabbis and schools in all Haredi neighborhoods in Israel, at the behest of the communities themselves.
“Obviously, there is no more sensitive or painful subject for a community to deal with,” Gross says. “It’s taken religious communities a long time to wake up to the reality they are facing, but it’s happening. It is our responsibility to make sure there is an infrastructure in place to deal with problems when they arise, or even better – to create a situation in all communities in which sexual abuse simply cannot thrive. It’s a slow process, but I’d have to say that it’s happening.”
Rabbi Yakov Hopfer responds: “Ms. Nanette Eisgrau’s accusations were made known to police and local social services authorities at the time. She also consulted with many psychologists, none of whom took her seriously. At the time, I advised her siblings to maintain contact with her, and to be understanding and kind to a young woman who clearly had many problems. I also suggested that Ms.
Eisgrau attend therapy sessions – with a therapist of her choosing – with one of her sisters, and that they agree to follow whatever advice he or she gave. They went for that counseling, and the therapist strongly recommended that Ms. Eisgrau put her issues behind her and get on with her life. She refused,and only then did I advise the family to break off contact.
“Sexual abuse is a vitally serious issue, and I take these allegations very seriously.
Moreover, professionals in the state of Maryland are legally obligated to report abuse to the relevant authorities. This was done in this case, by more than one professional, and we have taken action in other cases where action was warranted.
But not all allegations are true.”