Sunday, September 30, 2007

Activity on Child Molestation in the Jewish Community: Overblown or Barely Existent?

The Jewish Observer recently published an article by David Mandel, CEO of OHEL Children's Home and Family Services, regarding developments on child abuse in the Agudath Israel of America's community (link). The bottom line is: very little.

I'm no expert on this area but I've done some poking around and asking questions. What I've learned was best described by King Shlomo in Koheles (1:18): "ויוסיף דעת יוסיף מכאוב -- he who increases knowledge increases sorrow" (cf. Metzudas David). There is almost nothing being done when so much can be accomplished with relatively little effort.

Agudath Israel and Torah U'Mesorah have some non-binding guidelines that leave everything up to a school's principal and involve no transparency. Here's a hypothetical scenario: what if a principal thinks that it is in his best interest to keep an incident quiet? Or what if he is good friends with the perpetrator and refuses to believe that the incident happened? Here's what happens: nothing. And other parents in the school never find out about the incident.

Click here to read moreAnd there is currently no pressure on yeshivas to adopt even these weak guidelines!

Mandel writes: "Several yeshivas that wanted to hold seminars on safety and prevention from unwanted touch were reluctant to do so lest they be perceived as engaging in sex education or worse, stigmatizing themselves as a school with a problem." That is precisely where Agudath Israel can make a substantial difference. It is certainly true that the organization has little real power and that the yeshivas do not need to listen to a word that the organization or its Council of Torah Sages says. However, a public announcement in the form of a "Kol Koreh" signed by leading Torah scholars will greatly help yeshivas who want to hold seminars on safety etc. They will be able to point to the "Kol Koreh", wrap themselves in a mantle of religiosity and say, "Of course we are doing this. The question is why any other school isn't?"

According to Mandel's article, there are adult education workshops but where? How many? Why are they only publicized after the fact in self-congratulatory articles?

Mandel writes: "Several Batei Dinim have been established in major Jewish communities across the country to deal specifically with allegations of child and adolescent molestation." One would think that it would be in the public's best interest to know the names of the batei dinim so that when and if a situation arises the public can go to those batei dinim that have been properly trained for this issue. Specifically, which dayanim were trained and what did this training consist of? I strongly suspect that the training given to members of these batei dinim is woefully inadequate. Not to mention the key question: did those who trained these dayanim have adequate training themselves? A vague statement like Mandel's only yields less confidence that adequate steps are being taken.

You wouldn't know this from reading the article but there is now a central database of yeshiva offenders so that a teacher who abuses children cannot simply move to another community and abuse other children. But do many people know about it? Is there any transparency in how it is being managed? Once again, a central organization is telling us to trust them because they have everything under control. However, once you've dropped the ball you have to provide assurances that you are doing things the right way. A major part of that is transparency.

Not only does this article signify Agudath Israel's unwillingness to do anything significant about this issue, it has stymied other efforts. What principal will adopt someone else's proposals when he can simply take Torah U'Mesorah's policies, that leave him entirely in control, and say that he's simply following the Gedolim? The Jewish Observer article has essentially ended all independent work on this issue in the Yeshiva community. All so that they can say that they've done something without actually doing anything

Additionally, Agudath Israel had an issue that energized young adults and could have been used to mobilize them and get them involved in trying to help. The graying movement could use some young blood but, by doing nothing to solve this problem, they've alienated an entire generation. It is beyond me how anyone who is willing to take the time to learn about the community and get involved, can read this Jewish Observer article and be satisfied. What this article tells people like me is simple: the three-initial blogger is right that our community is incapable of responsibly handling this issue. And is there any issue that can possibly be more important? We are talking about the physical safety of our children (the grandchildren of the aging Agudath Israel population)! If we can't take the relatively simple steps that are necessary, what's the point of the existence of these organizations? Filing another legal brief about gay marriage? Is that supposed to get us excited enough to get involved?

The Gemara (Menachos 27b) points out that in the four species we take on Sukkos, two produce fruit (esrog and lulav/date tree) and two do not (hadas and aravah). Only when all four are grouped together can one fulfill the mitzvah. The Machzor Vitri (364, quoted in Mossaf Rashi to Chullin 92a) connects this to another Gemara (Chullin 92a) that compares four types of people in the community to a vine: the branches are wealthy people (ba'alei batim) who support the community, clusters of grape are the Torah scholars, leaves are the working class (amei ha-aretz, as per Rashi's explanation) and small branches are people empty of Torah and mitzvos. The Gemara says that the clusters, the talmidei chakhamim, must prayer for the leaves, the working people, because without them there would not be any community. So too, the Machzor Vitri says, the species that produce fruit are the talmidei chakhamim who must be united together with the working people.

Why, though, does the Gemara in Chullin single out the working class for whom the Torah scholars must pray? Shouldn't they pray for everyone? I would suggest that, of course, the talmidei chakhamim will pray for the wealthy ba'alei batim. Without them there can be no shuls, yeshivas, chesed organizations, etc. And, of course, the talmidei chakhamim will make every effort on behalf of the people "at risk" and try to bring them back into the fold. But what about the average people, the silent majority of the community who lack the wealth to make major contributions and spend their time faithfully raising their family as best as they can? They tend to get lost in the shuffle. That is why the Gemara emphasizes that they, too, require attention. Talmidei chakhamim cannot cater to the wealthy and those with special needs while neglecting their main constituency.

I think that this is a lesson that can use reinforcing today. We are being taken for granted and our needs are being ignored. Do not take our support for granted!

(Note that comments on this will be carefully edited. Please do not list any accusations or malign any individual or organization. If you have a serious accusation, call the police.)

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