The Plight of Children at Risk in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Communities and the Failure of Government and Pandering Politicians to Protect Them
Children in the United States are routinely sacrificed on the pyre of their parents’ faith by pandering politicians without a moral compass. Children don’t vote but insular religious communities often vote as a bloc mandated by the male officials at the top, and that fact is not lost on power-hungry politicians like those in Utah who let the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) patriarchs marry off girls and abandon boys so that the men will have a better place in heaven. The same relationship between elected officials and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities exists: there are known risks to children but these politicians look the other way as they are feted by the rabbis and a community that keeps children at risk.
It is the time of year when Jews observe a series of important religious holidays beginning with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I submit this column as a subject to be pondered in the midst of celebration and reflection.
As with the FLDS, the ultra-Orthodox communities have put children at risk due to inadequate medical treatment, educational neglect, and mostly undeterred child sex abuse. In an interesting twist, the gender most severely affected in this community is male. Boys are at risk of herpes infection from metzitzah b’peh, or MBP and boys are less educated than girls because their education is focused on the Torah rather than secular subjects. Both, however, are at risk of sexual abuse. As in every community, that risk is significantly higher for the girls than the boys. Therefore, boys and girls in this community need prompt attention from the authorities, and politicians pandering for bloc votes need a conscience check.
MBP Rule Repeal: Leaving Mohels to Use Oral Suction Following Circumcision
Last year, I wrote here about the risk posed to male infants in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community who are subjected to the religious practice of MBP: the practice of following circumcision by a mohel with the mohel engaging in oral suction on the wound. The practice creates a foreseeable risk that the infant will contract herpes, which at such a tender age can be deadly or cause permanent disability. At the time, the New York Health Department had issued the weakest of prevention strategies by requiring mohels to produce an informed consent form to the parents as a prerequisite to doing the procedure. It was a typical political grandstand by which Mayor Bloomberg and his Health Department were saying they intended to protect these children at risk while they created an unenforceable and toothless policy they knew the community would ignore.
In fact, some in the community did pay attention and filed a lawsuit alleging a violation of religious liberty. The Second Circuit mistakenly agreed in Central Rabbinical Congress v. New York City Dept of Health & Mental Hygiene, because the policy was specific to one faith. So the Department went back to the drawing board for the protection of this voting bloc and not infants, and simply repealed the MBP informed consent rule.
There is no reason to expect the Health Department to do anything else for these at-risk infants. They have sailed to the bottom of the slippery slope of unaccountability. Therefore, prevention seems out of the question.
The only hope for these children is if doctors report such infections in young infants recently circumcised to the authorities and then the authorities choose to investigate and prosecute when a child dies or is permanently disabled. Former Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes made noise about such an investigation but he never pursued it, which brings his treatment of this issue into line with his studious refusal to prosecute child sex abuse perpetrators in the community. The other possibility is a serious public information campaign, but that is hampered by the next problem.
Educational Neglect: Failure to Teach English and Other Secular Subjects
The reporter who deserves a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering risks to children in the ultra-Orthodox communities, Hella Winston, recently released her in-depth reportage on the failure of the ultra-Orthodox to educate their children in secular subjects, including English. She tells the story of boys who can’t speak English, do simple math, or know any history or science, because they spend the vast majority of their school day studying Torah, or religious texts, instead of even the basics in secular subjects.
The result is that children are deeply disabled from being able to function in the larger community, and have virtually no chance of ever making their own decisions regarding faith or community.
The failure of most New York and New Jersey officials to ensure that these children are educated is attributable in part to the wrongheaded free exercise decision at the US Supreme Court, Wisconsin v. Yoder. As I have discussed in God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty and elsewhere, this is the only decision in which the Supreme Court applied strict scrutiny to a neutral and generally applicable law (Wisconsin’s compulsory education law).
The result is that the Supreme Court cleared the Amish to take their children out of school after eighth grade and to move them into an agrarian life. The decision is based on unrealistic and foolish assumptions about the unfailing goodness of the Amish (which is not to criticize the Amish per se but rather to point out they are human). Unfortunately, all religious parents gained a toehold on refusals to adequately educate and a route to incapacitating their children. Children in these communities are virtually walled off from the outside world, and the ones who do choose to leave suffer dearly for their lack of education.
Yoder, however, does not stand for the proposition that children have no rights. Prince v. Massachusetts before it stated baldly that parents may not make “martyrs” of their children. Elected officials have an obligation to ensure that they do not.
Much of the educational neglect in this community has occurred with federal, state, and local officials fully aware of what is happening. Finally, New York City is looking into the issue. For the sake of the children and our future as a society, may New York do significantly more for these children than it has on the MBP issue.
Sex Abuse: Weak District Attorneys Put Children at Risk
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes was widely criticized for his failure to prosecute child sex abusers in the ultra-Orthodox communities for political reasons. It was a primary reason he lost to Kenneth Thompson, the current Brooklyn D.A. Last month, 107 rabbis signed a public statement agreeing to report child sex abuse directly to the authorities, with a number from the community, but the list is missing the heavy-hitter leaders in this world.
Agudath Israel, however, is notably silent on the issue. The community also has engaged in extreme practices to persuade those that do come forward to be quiet as I discuss here. Thompson has cut some sweetheart deals with defendants from the community that led many who had championed his cause to wonder if he will make a difference for the children being sexually abused in the faith, for good reason.
For example, witness-tampering is usually deeply disfavored by prosecutors, and Thompson did initiate an investigation into it in the Lebovits sex abuse trial in April 2015. Yet, the investigation was closed without prosecution. The victims of child sex abuse in this community desperately need a champion in law enforcement.
When a faith community follows a path that endangers children, those children have few if any defenses. Only other adults can help them. When their faith-filled parents can or will not protect them, in the United States they become the responsibility of the government and elected officials. When the government and vote-pandering politicians turn the other way, these children suffer.
The time has come to rip off the rose-colored glasses and to treat children in every setting as humans with rights—even if religion is in the picture. Their suffering and disabilities are our problem.
Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, and the author of God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty and Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children. She also runs two active websites covering her areas of expertise, the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, www.RFRAperils.com, and statutes of limitations for child sex abuse, www.sol-reform.com. Professor Hamilton blogs at Hamilton and Griffin on Rights. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.