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Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Chanukah lesson about sexual abuse in our community

by Dr. Asher Lipner

What drives survivors of abuse to give up hope, and why there still is hope.

Our community was recently shocked by the news of Motty Borger’s suicide caused by emotional problems stemming from surviving sexual abuse. Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, and Dr. Benzion Twerski, Ph.D. have published a response to the tragedy in which they take the opportunity to sound a call to survivors of abuse to please reach out and get professional help.

As someone who has survived rabbinic sexual abuse, and who has been both a consumer and a professional provider of psychotherapy, I can vouch that it is certainly a good idea to find a therapist who specializes in sexual trauma, who can offer understanding and support. However, as a communal response this approach dangerously oversimplifies the issue of what Dr. David Pelcovitz has called the “unconscionable number of suicides in our community caused by sexual abuse.” Allow me to explain.

Suicide is driven largely by a deep sense of hopelessness, in which an individual feels things will never get better. I have treated and am treating many survivors who experience different levels of suicidality, from ideation and planning, to actual attempts, R”L. They have all expressed a feeling of hopelessness that can overwhelm them at times. While I personally have never considered taking my life, I can fully relate to the profound sense of hopelessness felt by survivors trying to heal in our community.

You see, the first step of psychotherapy focusing on trauma is making sure that the patient is in a safe place, not being re-victimized during the course of the treatment. You cannot effectively heal a shell-shocked soldier still on the battlefield, or a Holocaust survivor still in a concentration camp, or a battered woman who is still in an abusive marriage, or a child abuse victim who is still being molested by a rebby.

As long as our community continues to be an unsafe place for children and others seeking to avoid sexual assault, there is an inherent limitation on what “professionals” can accomplish. To imply that “lack of therapy” is the cause of survivors becoming suicidal, is like saying that the cause of headaches is a deficiency of aspirin in the blood stream. Furthermore, putting the onus for their healing squarely on the shoulders of the survivors is an example of the “blaming the victim” approach that our community seems to love to engage in. It is just like when mental health agencies “specializing” in abuse prevention educate parents to tell their children the difference between “good touch and bad touch”, but they neglect to give parents instructions on how to rid their children’s environment of molesters (i.e. report all allegations to the authorities, and do not send your children to a camp or school that does not have good safety policies or that covers up abuse).

In order for us to really give the survivors safety and hope, we as a community must take serious action to stop the abuse. Until that happens, we cannot “call on the survivors to seek professional help” and then wash our hands and say “Yadeynu Lo Shafchu Es Hadam Hazeh – Our hands have not spilled this blood.” It is enough to make you want to kill yourself.

Whenever there is an arrest of a prominent community figure, Jewish or otherwise, many victims come forward to go for therapy for the first time. Why? Because until the publicity of an arrest, they live in fear that nobody will believe them about their abuser. In our community this fear is justified. Consider the frum therapist a chronically suicidal patient of mine, first went to. When she told him that she had been sexually abused by a prominent rabbi, the therapist refused to believe her because “rabbis don’t act that way.” Even when he accepted her account (because she found another rabbi to believe her story) the therapist still did not want it publicized due to potential “Chillul Hashem.”

There are simply not enough outlets for survivors to be heard and validated in our community. One survivor became suicidal after his letter to the editor of a frum paper describing the anguish of sexual abuse was rejected. A patient of mine who unsuccessfully attempted suicide told me that he felt killing himself was the only way to get heard in our community. I wonder if Motty Borger may have felt the same way.

And what of the prominent community organizations recently exposed as having covered up for abusers under the pretext of the molesters’ rights to confidentiality? This is not any way to get survivors to feel safe and trusting that therapists are truly their advocates. No, survivors have good reason to be wary of sharing their secrets with anyone in our community. They know that their stories are not wanted and will be denied. A teenage Chassidish patient of mine, who went innocently for help to “The Rebbe” of his community was turned away and became profoundly and dangerously suicidal, because “Why should I live if nobody believes me?” Did somebody disbelieve Motty Borger?

Well meaning friends and family of the victim often stand in the way of healing as well. Sometimes they are concerned more for the victim’s own reputation, since the stigma of being a survivor is so debilitating in our community. Other times loved ones, in the ultimate act of betrayal, have more compassion and concern for the molester and his family’s reputation or the reputation of the institution that harbored him, than for the victim. One of the bravest people I know had several psychiatric hospitalizations after her family refused to take her side against a family member who molested her for years. She had multiple therapists from our community during this time but has only found healing by going outside of the community for help. However, she continues to struggle with trying to find a shidduch with shadchanim who still consider her “damaged goods”.

Another “trigger” for symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder such as suicide, is seeing that we allow institutions that have knowingly employed molesters to thrive and expand, while those who speak up for the survivors are vilified and shamed. The sad truth, recently acknowledged in a Yated Ne’eman editorial, is that our community allows molesters to remain in positions of honor and access to children. One man I knew who eventually took his own life, was tortured by the fact that his molester (an older bochur in yeshiva) had become a respected rabbi with all of the trust of the parents in his shul. Another survivor of both sexual abuse and of a suicide attempt was quoted that every time he sees his rapist getting another position teaching children, he feels raped again. The fact that this survivor has reached out to leading rabbis for a meeting and was turned down, has only added to his terrible feelings of loneliness and hopelessness, bringing back suicidal thoughts. Virtually all survivors I know feel that the intensity of the pain of being silenced by their community is worse than that of the sexual abuse itself.

Many survivors feel that their healing is hopeless within our community, which is why so many are abandoning Orthodox Judaism. I myself was once told by a non-frum therapist, who understood the problems of our community, that in order to maintain even a degree of sanity in my own life after being molested by my rebbe as a teenager, I had to choose between either abandoning my community or trying to change it.

Making matters much scarier is the fact that when a molester is apprehended, the entire community comes to his defense and attacks the victim. One survivor I know who did press charges against his molester is clinically depressed (a condition that can sometimes lead to suicide), not because of the abuse, but because the entire community is backing his molester despite incontrovertible evidence of the abuser’s guilt. In Lakewood, a Rabbi was arrested for sexual abuse, and there is a communal campaign to put pressure on the parents of the victim to drop the charges. A Boro Park mother of several children who were molested was told by her children’s Cheder that if she pressed charges against the molester who was “connected, to a Rebbe” her children would be thrown out “on the street.” A Bobover family was literally chased out of the community for daring to report their child’s abuse to the police. The same has happened in Baltimore.

One very frum person I know, who is a survivor of sexual abuse, was hospitalized due to suicide risk. This occurred shortly after we participated in a lobbying trip to Albany for the Child Victims Act (the Markey Bill.) On the way home we heard that the Agudah and Torah Umesorah rabbis had come out in opposition to the bill because they are more worried about lawsuits against yeshivas, news that left all of us struggling with “yiush.”

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the hopelessness that survivors feel, is the way that they have totally given up hope that their leaders can ever be convinced to change. Whereas a few short months ago, the Agudah dinner was protested by survivors who wanted validation, their recent convention drew no such outcry. There was a large group that considered an elaborate “Hafganah” on Thursday night to catch the attention of the powers that be, but in the end despaired of it even touching their hardened hearts. Shockingly, an Agudah insider and apologist told me that the establishment did not even attempt to address solutions to the problem of child abuse at the conference because they themselves have given up on solving it. Talk about hopelessness! Irresponsibly neglecting to talk about the issue of abuse is, on many levels, communal suicide. Sadly, it seems as if it is our leaders who are the ones in need of professional help.

Before I began to publicize the name of my own molester, I was told by a Rov that although it is in principle a Chiyuv to reveal his identity, in our community I should keep quiet, because speaking up is “like committing suicide.” Can you imagine what message this would give to a survivor who is already contemplating suicide like Motty Borger? Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Hopeless, hopeless, hopeless, hopeless…

Why I feel that there really is hope

Chanukah is fast approaching. If ever there was a season for hope, this is it. The miraculous story of victory against all odds, with G-d’s help, must inspire survivors in need of salvation. While we all know of the Jewish people’s war against the Greeks, we need to remember that the true existential threat came from inside; from a civil war between the Jewish elitist establishment who had lost their way due to the false gods of greed, lust and power, and a few sincere caring Jews who rallied behind the cry of “Mee LaHashem Aylai! - Whoever is for G-d, come with me!”

Our community has been blessed with some very special individuals, many of whom are survivors of abuse themselves, who have taken up the cause of change. To return Torah Judaism to the way it is supposed to be, where caring for others, especially the most vulnerable, comes before financial considerations, image-consciousness, the reputation of perpetrators’ families, and any other consideration. Let us count our blessings:

We have leaders like UOJ. With vision, courage and passion, he has shown us what can be and what needs to be done. He reconnects us with the integrity and true Jewish values of his illustrious grandfather Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz zt"l, who was also an American pioneer.

We have The Awareness Center, run by Vicki Polin, the one and only place a Jewish parent can go to find out who are the dangers to their children in our community. A friend of mine, for example gets a call from an “Askan” in Lakewood warning to watch his kids because a molester has moved into the neighborhood. Appallingly, the caller refused to give the name of the molester. Even the government’s “Megan’s Law” sex-offender registry cannot always keep us informed. Recently, convicted serial molester “Rabbi” Baruch Lanner deviously managed to get his name removed from the list, with nary a peep of protest from his former employers and protectors, the OU and NCSY, but The Awareness Center is on top of it, as always.

We have survivors of abuse Joel Engelman, Mark Weiss, David Framowitz, Baruch Sandhaus and Joseph D’angello, the cofounders of Survivors for Justice (along with President Ben Hirsh) who have helped advertise the need for and the method of how victims can utilize law enforcement, and have lobbied so strongly for the Child Victims Act, to extend the time molesters can be brought to justice. If only Motty Borger had been acquainted with these heroes…

We have courageous Rabbanim like Rabbi Yosef Blau, who publicizes from first-hand knowledge the inadequacy of a Beys Din system to solve abuse problems. He was joined by the RCA and the Iggud Harabbanim, in backing the “Markey Bill,” calling on our community to “bite the bullet” of lawsuits against yeshivas or camps. And most importantly, he gives spiritual support and solace to literally hundreds of Jewish survivors of abuse world wide. If only Motty Borger had known Reb Yosef Blau…

We have Assemblyman Dov Hikind who has fearlessly sounded the alarm on his radio show about sexual abuse, and has compassionately reached out to listen to the stories of hundreds of survivors. Dov has fought hard and succeeded in accruing considerable government funds for education of the community and to provide support to survivors.

Recently, we had for the first time in a black-hat community, Rabbi Yitzchak Eisenman and his shul in Passaic inviting survivors of abuse to tell their stories. 300 people were in attendance, on Erev Yom Kippur, and there was much healing in that room. For the survivors, it was worth a hundred therapy sessions. Too bad we didn’t know to invite Motty Borger…

We have Reb Nochum Rosenberg courageously fighting the powers that be with superhuman “mesiras nefesh”. He is fast becoming the “new establishment,” in the Chassidish community, as more and more survivors in pain, with no one else to turn to, find their way to his compassionate assistance.

The Jewish Board of Advocacy for Children (President Elliot Pasik) has for the past year been reaching out (as we all should) to Frum or no longer Frum, Chasidish, Litvish, Sephardic, Modern Orthodox, male or female who have been victimized by rape, incest, rabbinic abuse or any sexual abuse. We offer them emotional support, legal and mental health guidance and “J-BACking” in telling their stories to the public. We successfully lobbied for a law allowing fingerprinting and background checks in yeshivas, and continue to fight for legislating these and other crucial safety steps such as mandated reporting for Jewish and all private schools. Survivor support groups and a retreat for survivors are in the works.

We have the incredibly successful online support group allusshefellech.proboards.com, run by an amazing young woman, “Little Sheep”, where over 50 frum female survivors, young and old, get together anonymously, supervised by a therapist, to give each other chizuk and to learn from each other’s experiences. If only Motty Borger had known of the parallel group for men, AY-YNhorah.proboards.com, just getting off the ground…

We have strong supporters Mark Appel, Sherree Belsky, Pearl Engelman, Michael Lesher, Dr. Michael Salomon, Maury Kelman, Pinny Taub, Debbie Fox and Aleynu, Basya Litman and the SOVRI helpline, Rabbi Marc Dratch and JSAFE, Elaine Witman and the Shofar Coalition, Mitch Morrison, Eli Greenwald, Elie Hiller, Michael Brecher, Rabbi Zev Smason, Yerachmiel Lopin, Beth Kaplan and Sacred Lives, and many, many more, too many to list here, ken yirbu. These include the 240 proud signatories of last year’s JBAC “Yom Kippur resolution,” which can be viewed at www.jewishadvocates.org (at the end of the Position Paper).

We have Failed Messiah, and other bloggers like Frumfollies, who have informed us of the cover-ups, and who give survivors a place to vent their feelings and find others who know first hand the dark truths of our community.

We are few (me’atim), but the revolution is growing. Like in the Chanukah victory, we will need to battle those of the powers that be in our community who choose to pursue power, image and financial security for their institutions, making the mistake decried by all of our Neviim - neglecting the most vulnerable and the most in need of protection and support.

But Chanukah teaches us that a little bit of light can push off a lot of darkness. A small group of people banding together with courage and faith can merit Hashem’s miraculous salvation for themselves, for all the Motty Borgers still among us, and for all of Klal Yisroel. We must continue to unite against tyranny and to reach out to survivors to tell them we want to hear their stories, that we believe them and that we care and we want to give them back their hope. “Even if a sharp sword is placed on your neck, never give up on Hashem showing mercy.” (Gemorah, Brachos) With G-d’s help there is still hope. There is always hope.

A Freilichin Chanukah.

Asher