Orthodox Jews Grapple With How To Talk About Sexual Assault, Domestic Abuse

More than 1,000 ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews from around the world gathered in Jerusalem this week to tackle some of their communities’ darkest taboos: sexual abuse and domestic violence. 

The three-day event they are attending, which began Monday, is the second annual conference on the subject spearheaded by the Israeli nonprofit Tahel, the Crisis Center for Religious Women and Children. Headlined “Shedding Light on the Darkness of Abuse,” the gathering offers five hands-on training tracks, including one specially tailored to rabbis and people who work at yeshivas.

That track “Building Safe Synagogues and Yeshivas” features sessions about high-profile abuse cases, defining offenders, abuse in marriage and other key subjects.

Tahel has organized pilot programs on these subjects in ultra-Orthodox and other institutions in Israel, Johannesburg, Sydney, Melbourne and London, director Debbie Gross told.

The idea is for this week’s trainees to implement what they learn back home, too.

Other training tracks in the conference are geared to individuals who monitor sexual harassment in educational institutions, lawyers and therapists.

Organizers will be launching an international network that will enable lawyers to help agunot Orthodox women who are refused a Jewish divorce by their husbands.

Some 1,100 people registered for the conference this year – an estimated 30 percent of them women – with participants coming from Israel, the United States, Britain, Canada, South Africa, Australia and European countries.

Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau addressed the opening session, emphasizing the important role rabbis have as “an address” for people who are victims of abuse.

He said rabbis and teachers “need to know the line and not cross it” into inappropriate behavior, and added that he feels that awareness in the religious community of the issues raised by the conference “has grown and is growing.”

High-profile cases, such as those involving alleged child sex abuse at yeshivas in Sydney and Melbourne – which prompted public hearings on the handling by Jewish communal leaders of the suspected acts have put a spotlight on this phenomenon in religious communities.

The topic of the growing openness within these communities, which have traditionally hunkered down and kept abuse cases secret, came up frequently at the conference on Monday.

“Fifteen years ago in the United States, you couldn’t say the word cancer, and we would say hamakhala (“the illness,” in Hebrew),” said Zvi Gluck, head of the U.S. nonprofit Amudim. “Five years ago, you couldn’t say the words ‘sexual abuse.’ Now you can.”

Still, many rabbis are not equipped to deal with sensitive subjects. “Yeshiva didn’t prepare us for this,” said Rabbi Avrohom Union, the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Rabbinical Council of California, who flew in to address the male-only rabbi track.

Monday gave a taste of what was to come in sessions aimed at training rabbis in the following two days. In one candid session, Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu discussed his experiences in dealing with abuse cases.

Earlier this year, Safed was faced with a highly publicized sexual assault scandal involving Rabbi Ezra Sheinberg, the head of the city’s Orot Ha’ari Yeshiva.

In July, Sheinberg was arrested at Ben-Gurion International Airport while trying to flee the country, and was indicted for raping, sodomizing or sexually assaulting 12 women, most of whom were young religious women married to his students. His attorney has called the indictment “inflated” and “partly baseless.”

Eliyahu alluded to tensions between secular and rabbinical authorities when dealing with abuse in the religious community, and also discussed when and how to work with police.

Veteran American ultra-Orthodox social worker Debbie Fox gave the audience a rundown on advising parents as to how to talk to their children about abuse, another key skill for rabbis.

Union, who spoke among other things about how to deal with religious persons who have suffered abuse and are convinced that God is punishing them, told that he gained expertise in the subject after many years of working with health-care professionals.

“The vast majority of rabbis are deeply caring and deeply touched by the plight of individuals who have seen abuse in any form,” he said. “But many rabbis have not had the experience to know how this takes place, and they have not always responded in the most effective way.”

One thing rabbis need help with is in realizing where their job ends, said Rabbi David Fine, head of the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics in Israel, which trains ordained religious Zionist rabbis in community-related skills. “He has to know when he has to refer to professionals.”

One of Fine’s rabbis-in-training, Eli Schonfeld from Givat Ze’ev, outside of Jerusalem, agreed that this is key: “I need to know how to respond the first time someone approaches me, and then how to help.

I am very against rabbis being psychologists, therapists and clowns. We are a little of everything, but we can’t do everything.”

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  1. Tahel Crisis Center for Religious Women and Children, held its second annual conference for professionals worldwide this week at the Ramada Hotel in Jerusalem.

    Dr. Michael Genovese, Chief Medical Officer of Sierra Tuscan, attended the conference and shared with Arutz Sheva some of his expertise and his views on the important work that was being done at the conference to help the Orthodox Jewish Community deal with the trauma of sexual abuse.

    “I think that it is true that the Jewish community is under-treated. They are not unique in this, as a lot of communities are afraid to step out [and recognize the need for treatment]. In my field, I treat patients for trauma. Patients who have been treated all over the world, and are still reaching out for more help.”

    Genovese says that the first step is creating awareness of the problem via education. The first step is education; the second step is taking action. “I’m a doctor and I believe people should see their doctor [to get treatment]. What are the consequences of not talking about what happened to your children after they suffer a traumatic experience? How will that effect them down the line?”

    Genovese recognized that there are risks when going for treatment of a traumatic episode. But he says the gains far outweigh the risks. “We talk about the risks of treatment sometimes. The larger risk, however, is not availing one’s self of treatment and letting things lie or fall into place. That will condemn the child to perhaps addiction, perhaps depression or perhaps something worse. [People who have suffered trauma should] go to someone they trust. In the world I live in that is the physician. People need to get the help that they can get.”

    Rachel Pill works as an educational coordinator for therapy centers, and teaches the staff involved about the different cultures of the people that they are helping, so as to help the trauma professionals get to know their patients better. Currently she represents the Orthodox Jewish community to centers such as Sierra Tuscon.

    In an interview with Arutz Sheva, she spoke of the particular issues that the Orthodox community faces when going for treatment of trauma, in line with sentiments expressed by Genovese.

    With regards to cases of certain types of taboo traumas in the Orthodox community being “brushed under the rug” Pill responded by stating that people are afraid.

    “Communities are made up of human beings, and every human being gets scared. When something happens we are scared. It is not that people want to make it go away because they are mean, but because we are afraid.”

    The solution according to Pill is a greater effort being placed upon educating and supporting community leaders to help them understand what they are dealing with, and at the same time give them a support group that they can turn to for overwhelming cases.

    “The solution is education, education, education. I don’t care if I have to visit rabbi after rabbi to teach them, we have done it in the past we will do it again. We need to make people comfortable [talking about these issues]. Sexual abuse is ever going to be safe to talk about. It is so horrific. It is every person’s greatest nightmare. Parents as well as individuals who suffer it, which means it’s every rabbi’s greatest nightmare.”

    “Some rabbis are scared and overwhelmed. When I get scared and overwhelmed I want to not deal with the situatio either. However, if the rav has four people whom he knows he can call to help him deal with the issue, then he will be far more open to dealing with it.”

    That in essence was the point of the Tahel conference. To help good people network, learn and provide a support system for one another.

    “There are abusers everywhere,” said Pill. “But there are also good people everywhere. We have a lot of good people here collaborating. We are talking and working together, and we are providing support for each other. So that the next time a rav gets approached by someone [suffering from sexual abuse in the Orthodox community] he won’t feel afraid and alone.”

    Pill pointed at previous successes that the Orthodox community has had in similar fields. “We’ve done it with domestic abuse, and with addiction on some level, and this is the next fight. We are not afraid of the fight. We are gonna do the fight. And that means we have to educate the rabbanim and the community and let people know how to protect themselves. How to have a voice, and where is a safe place to go.

    At this point Genovese chimed back in, and echoed Pill’s sentiment. “When I started medicine, it was shameful to admit that one suffered from depression or addiction. But we are getting over that now. There is hope because treatment is better. There is hope because people are talking about it. And there is hope because people care.”

    With the Tahel conference and the work that the individuals there are doing, hopefully soon the same will be said of those who suffer from sexual abuse and trauma.

    The goals of the Tahel conference are three fold. Firstly, too provide in-depth multidisciplinary training appropriate to a wide range of professional disciplines, to community leaders and parents in the field of abuse and domestic violence; secondly, to bring professionals and non-professionals from all sectors of the Jewish community together from all over the world to collaborate, learn and discuss ways of combating abuse and violence in the community while sharing their knowledge and expertise. Finally, the conference brings leading experts from Israel and abroad to present the latest research community programs and treatment modalities in the field of abuse and trauma.

    Sierra Tuscon is an international leader in the treatment of addictions, eating disorders, mood disorders, complex pain management, and trauma/PTSD.

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