People of Israel: Debby Gross

Gross, a psychologist born in Syracuse, New York, is the founder and CEO of Tahel, the Crisis Center for Religious Women and Children.

Debbie Gross (photo credit: Courtesy)
Debbie Gross
(photo credit: Courtesy)
How did you get started dealing with such a tough subject as sexual abuse of religious women and children?
I was home on maternity leave for my sixth child and a few women in my Jerusalem neighborhood came to talk to me about a problem of child sexual abuse in the neighborhood.
When was that?
1992. Such matters weren’t discussed among religious people back then. We started a hotline, and grew into an educational organization, with a lot of establishment figures like important rabbis giving us approval to work in schools, with teachers and principals and with clergy. Over the years, I’ve spoken to many communities in Israel and abroad and also in the Knesset.
Have things gotten better or worse in the quarter century since that first meeting?
Much worse. Back then child sexual abuse in the religious sector wasn’t an epidemic.
Now it is.
How do you explain the tsunami of child sexual abuse?
Boys who were abused by pedophiles and weren’t treated tend to become abusers. So if there were a hundred abusers, now there are a thousand. The access to pornography on the Internet and in the media is addictive.
Twenty-five years ago, families banned TVs from their homes, even though what you could see was limited to Israeli TV that was already partly sanitized. Now access is ubiquitous.
After hearing thousands of terrible stories, what’s your greatest disappointment?
I’m still shocked by how much incest there is within Jewish religious families.
Fathers and daughters?
No. Mostly boys sexually abusing sisters.
What do you do when you hear such a case?
Very tough. Our first step is to convince the caller to meet with us in person. She stays anonymous so that she is not afraid that we will report her. And then we try to help her through the police or social service systems. We try to stop the abuse and help her get help. Parents have to get therapy for both the abuser and the abused.
Is there more danger for boys in the religious world than in general?
Yes. The abuse of boys is equal to the abuse of girls, because they spend so much more time alone with men. Male perpetrators – in case you’re embarrassed to ask – make up between 95 and 97 percent of the abusers, depending on whose statistics you look at. Nearly 90 percent of the complainants know their abusers. These are not strangers lurking outside the corner store; they’re teachers, counselors, even fathers.
Almost half of those who phone, report rape or attempted rape. One quarter are suffering from incest.
Any good news?
There’s much greater openness. At the beginning, across the board, there was denial that a problem existed. Today there is greater awareness. No one will argue that “it doesn’t happen.”
Can you compare the situation of the Jewish community to the infamous case of the Catholic priests in Boston?
It is terrible that we have abuse by rabbis.
But the difference is that I don’t believe that is inherent to the organization like it seemed to be in Boston. In addition, today there is much more awareness not to cover up the abuse.
You recently held an international conference, your third. Who came? Any surprise guests?
We had over 550 participants from over 15 countries throughout the world. It is amazing that rabbis, teachers, parents, and professionals came from all over to learn about building safer communities and to share ideas and policies and to network. It’s meaningful that women and men dealing with topics arrive from all over the world to hear lectures and network. I overheard at lunch that a protective program in the US can consult with those dealing with the same problem in England. For instance, the British already have a program throughout the United Synagogue movement, and the Americans have a program called “Sacred Space.”
How do you address this terrifying situation of sexual abuse?
We are urging people to adopt the Tahel Standards for Child Protection Certification.
The way a restaurant needs a kosher certificate for observant Jews to eat there, a school or organization needs a certificate that it has comprehensive policies to prevent child sexual abuse and provide tools for intervention in cases of abuse. They need a code of conduct for adults and a code of contact for children.
How do you stay sane?
I go to the beach and walk near the water with my husband. I spend extra time with my children and grandchildren. I treat myself to a massage. I make a conscience effort to protect myself from burnout. This subject is too important for me to stop until we have safe communities for all.
Barbara Sofer is the Israel director of Public Relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is ‘The Daughter of Many Mothers’ with Holocaust survivor Rena Quint.