New York – There is an issue that has been on my mind for several years. It is an extremely sensitive topic and I tried writing about it many times but couldn’t find the right words with which to express what I wanted to say in a way that would be beneficial and adhere to standards of derech eretz and fairness.
I have discussed my predicament with many gedolim and they all encouraged me to write about it here in the Yated and said that Hashem would help me find the proper voice.
The sad fact is that children in our community are being abused by perpetrators who prey upon their innocence and our silence. We don’t have a count of how many people are hurt, but it is much larger than we realized, even a short time ago. There is no real debate about the catastrophic effects of abuse.
The innocence and purity of children is destroyed for life. The victims remain hurt, shamed and scarred. They suffer in silence, afraid to reveal their secret to anyone. They are hounded by feelings of guilt and embarrassment and live lives of tortured pain. The overwhelming majority of survivors suffer in silence, unless they are lucky enough to endure agonizing, arduous, expensive therapy. However, even a lifetime of therapy doesn’t ensure that the victim can ever be fully healthy again. Not every young victim’s psyche can be healed. Victims are much more likely to go off the derech, become addicted to drugs and lead a life of abusing themselves and others.
Let us be clear: For too long, we weren’t tuned in to these innocent victims’ stories and their pain. For too long, we weren’t sufficiently aware that this problem existed and thus were able to ignore the quiet pleas, the sad eyes, the pained lives, and the personalities withdrawn. We didn’t recognize the warning signs and thus largely ignored the phenomenon. Equally clear, this inattention was not a function of some high level conspiracy to harm people or cover up for criminals or abet nefarious activities. It was simply a function of a lack of education about a complex and highly sophisticated problem. It was a result of our leadership simply being unaware of the depths that such sordid people could sink to, and the extreme skill perpetrators exhibit in covering their tracks. And yes, it was undeniably a gezeirah, which, as so often is the case, claims innocent holy souls – bikroyvai Ekodeish.
I am all too aware that it is fashionable in certain circles to blame this all on our rabbinic leadership. These people have yet to explain why our rabbonim, who devote their lives to serving people, would want to hurt anyone. The days when being a rov or rosh yeshiva meant strictly paskening shailos or teaching Torah are long gone. Rabbonim routinely spend an overwhelming portion of their time dealing with every type of personal problem imaginable. I don’t have to elaborate on this now, but suffice it to say that it defies logic to accuse our most choshuve leaders, who exhibit much mesiras nefesh, of coldhearted indifference. As I said, the problem was a lack of understanding.
Those days are behind us. We understand our challenges now and we have to live up to them. There are many things we have to do to help prevent future cases. In fact, in recent years, much has been accomplished. It would probably surprise some of the critics to know that in the past five years, the Vaad Roshei Yeshivah of Torah Umesorah has devoted many meetings, encompassing scores of hours, to these issues. As one who regularly attends these meetings, I can tell you that no single subject has been discussed in greater length and depth, in excruciating detail, than preventing abuse. Many sophisticated guidelines and programs have been designed and disseminated in all our schools. Implementation has not been universal, but we have clearly begun to turn the tide in the school area. I will devote another article to detail some of these efforts. Today, I want to focus on the topic I began with – the innocent victims.
We almost never do anything for these victims. We look at them as small children. We don’t peer into their little hearts. We don’t follow up with them. We don’t do anything to assuage their piercing pain and harrowing hurt. Usually, we don’t know who the victims are, for their parents are petrified lest they be stigmatized for life.
They go through life distressed and tormented, and the fact that they think that we don’t care adds insult to injury and makes the wounds that much more difficult to heal. They think that if we would know what happened to them, we wouldn’t respond with compassion and love. They think that the world around them would turn a deaf ear to their cries and be uninterested in their stories.
So they go through life feeling isolated, betrayed and abandoned. It is about time that as a community we join together and shout out to them that we have been silent for too long. We have been oblivious for too long. And we are going to do something about it. This is what we say:
“We realize it wasn’t your fault. We realize you didn’t do anything wrong. We realize that you were singled out for punishment due to no fault of your own. We realize you were taken advantage of. We love you. We care about you. We are here for you. We will listen and we will hear. You are not alone.”
We have to get a message to the children who have been wronged that they don’t have to resort to drugs or worse to cleanse themselves and restore their self respect and self worth.
How do we get that message across? Neither by being quiet, nor by being shrill. First we strengthen those groups in our machane who are devoted to counseling and aiding victims. We tell the victims they are innocent; we feel their pain and are here to help them. We prove that by continuing to implement parent and community-wide education and prophylactic programs to prevent future horrors. Above all, we deliver the message by living lives of Torah – a Toras Chesed and Toras Emes – by being kind and compassionate to all. We do it by not embarrassing anyone and not jumping to conclusions about the reasons people act the way they do. We must conduct ourselves to all with true love and compassion. We should treat victims like brothers, without prejudice, never knowing what pain and hurt lies in their hearts, forcing them to act the way they do.
One thing is clear: silence is acquiescence. Silence permits the affliction to fester. We must be prepared to lift the veil off the more embarrassing goings-on in our communities so that we rid ourselves of evil and malice and the pain they cause. We will thus be preparing the world for the coming of Moshiach and the erasure of all tears.