Child sexual abuse at religious Jewish camps, schools no longer secret - opinion

If a young child today suffers abuse, chances are, it will have been recorded in some way. A reconstruction of that moment with the use of modern technology, enables them to speak up.

 ‘I CANNOT keep quiet.’  (photo credit: Kristina Flour/Unsplash)
‘I CANNOT keep quiet.’
(photo credit: Kristina Flour/Unsplash)

I am ready to raise a storm. I don’t think I have a choice anymore – I cannot keep quiet and I will use the powers I have to raise awareness.

I feel a little like the character Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, when she would sit down and write her funky articles on single life in one’s forties, from her cute little apartment. There, she’d sit at her desk in front of open windows overlooking a charming street in Manhattan, while wearing a super-cool outfit and her hair up in a trendy bun.

I am also by a window overlooking a stunning view of the Knesset, but that is where the similarities end. I am wearing a headscarf, hoping my kids are sleeping in their beds and knowing, in the back of my mind, that I still have to finish the dishes, load a washing machine and make sure uniforms are ready for school the next day. Oh, and I almost forgot – I am not writing about the single lives of wealthy girls in their forties, but about a subject that frightens me: sexual abuse of young boys.

My seven-year-old boy is finally sleeping calmly in his bed. I stare at him, with his blond hair and blue eyes. He looks like a mini Leonardo DiCaprio.

Yesterday, I got a call from a friend in Milan asking me if I was interested in sending him to camp there. For years, I went to that same camp as a child, and then as a teenager. I was in the girls’ division and I loved it.

I have such good memories of the place: A large Tuscan villa nestled between the Tuscan mountains, with gorgeous views and only 30 minutes from the Mediterranean Sea and the gorgeous town of Viareggio, known for its beaches, markets and stores.

 Israeli kids wearing school bags. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Israeli kids wearing school bags. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

“Of course I would love to send him,” I heard myself saying out loud, that’s “my camp.” My oldest girls went there in the past, and this year, it’s my seven-year-old boy and nine-year-old girl’s turn.

A few nights after that conversation about camp, however, I found myself sitting up in bed, unable to sleep.

“What if it happens to him?” I thought to myself.

I have been hearing rumors for quite some time: Stories from all over the world about what happens in boys’ camps, boys’ schools and yeshivot. I heard stories of friends falling apart 30 years later because of a secret they were hiding since childhood, and then it came out.

Suddenly, I understood their occasional weird behavior or lifestyle, as if something was not quite right. Then I realized that this person must have gone through something traumatic at a younger age and never spoke about it.

When I went to camp 30 years ago, these thoughts would never have entered my parents’ minds – no one spoke about it as it wasn’t something that was taken into consideration.

Yet, here I am, more or less the same age as my mum at that time, wondering whether my child might be sexually abused if I send him to a religious camp.

What has happened to our world? Was it always like this?

Fears of sexual abuse at religious Jewish institutions

The only difference between then and now, is that 40 years ago, you wouldn’t say a word if something happened to you, because no one would believe you. If you dared to speak out, you would be ridiculed and sidelined.

Now we live in another era entirely, where we speak to our wrist to make a phone call and take videos with our phones. Secrets are hard to keep, and everything is recorded.

If a young child today suffers abuse, chances are, it will have been recorded in some way. A reconstruction of that moment with the use of modern technology, enables them to speak up. This, in turn, has empowered those who have kept their own dark secrets hidden deep in their souls for decades, fearful that no one would believe them. Now, they too feel they can come forward and tell their stories – the secret is out.

SOMEHOW, THESE dark stories of abuse all seem to have started in a kids’ camp at a very young age, often at the hands of a counselor or teacher. From that day on, their lives changed.

Boys, who are now fathers themselves, often wonder if they might have turned out differently, were it not for that little secret they kept inside for so long? Would their life choices have been different had they come forward and spoken openly about their experiences, without fear of being humiliated – or even turned away? 

This is a big problem in our society where camps operate strict rules of gender segregation: boys sleep with boys and are supervised exclusively by male counselors.

I want to be clear, that sexual abuse happens across all sectors of society, and not just in religious Jewish circles. Lately, however, an increasing number of disturbing stories have come to light concerning all-boys religious camps, schools or yeshivot where the abuse is alleged to have taken place at the hands of those in positions of power.

I never thought this appalling situation could, one day, hit so close to home – where I would be scared for my own son.

Until seven years ago, we were a “girls only” house – then my little boy was born. Friends had warned me, about how different it would be with a boy. I thought for sure, no more bows and frills, but boring boys’ clothes and short hair.

And then it slowly dawned on me while eavesdropping on a parents’ meeting, and listening to friends reminiscing. As I gathered more information, I became aware of a big problem which is no longer hidden from view. Sexual abuse – a subject which is now openly discussed, just as we would discuss any other subject surrounding boys’ activities in class, school or camp.

Sexual abuse, can range from an improper comment directed to a boy, to full blown physical abuse – and all that lies in between.

When they are young, our greatest worry concerning our boys, is why they don’t sleep at night, or that they might destroy our house. Once they start going away to overnight camps, school and yeshivot, suddenly the nights seem so long and silent as we wonder if everything is okay with them, wherever they are.

When they come back home, it’s important to stay up late into the evening, talking to them and encouraging them to be open with us. We must encourage them to share any dark secrets they might have and be ready to help if necessary.

I don’t think I will send him to camp this year – not yet. I am not ready to face this dark side of reality.

When your child goes away, be aware – watch out for clues of anything unusual and be prepared to help him, should the worst happen. 

The writer is from Italy and now lives in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. She heads HadassahChen Productions and hosts a weekly talk show on Arutz7.