Opinion: As Charedim, We Must Take Responsibility For Ourselves

By Ben Hirsch, President, Survivors For Justice - Monday 18th March 2013

Since its formation in 2008, Survivors for Justice (SFJ) has learned of literally thousands of incidents of child sexual abuse in Charedi communities. While we lack formal studies - and despair of ever having them, given Charedi reluctance to allow such research - the anecdotal evidence is nonetheless persuasive that this represents only a small percentage of the total number of such cases. In light of our experience, we believe it incumbent upon those who would challenge this belief - and in some cases label us anti-Charedi for expressing it - to prove us wrong.

Few would argue we could find solutions to the problem of Charedi child sexual abuse without understanding of causes. Covering for and protecting child molesters - normative behaviour in the Charedi world today - plays a significant role; protecting molesters for decades has turned Charedi communities into safe havens for molesters and dangerous places for children.

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While we believe allegations of child sexual abuse must be reported directly to the police, we would be fooling ourselves to conclude this alone would solve the problem. It might be controversial, but we believe that unless the Charedi world adopts a different relationship to the outside world and a more enlightened approach to relations between the sexes and sexuality, sexually abusive behaviour towards children will continue at high rates, even if it becomes the norm to report molesters to the police.

Nothing I learned in yeshiva supports the ideal of almost total sex segregation espoused by many of today's Charedi rabbis. While not long ago, young ultra-Orthodox men and women mingled comfortably, developed relationships and married, today Charedim are taught it is sinful to interact with someone of the opposite sex in any way whatsoever. Dating for marriage, if it happens - most Chasidic marriages are arranged by matchmakers - is strictly controlled, and "bride" or "groom" classes, taken immediately prior to marriage, represents the sum total of sex education young Charedim receive. Even marital difficulties are dealt with by untrained rabbis - at times with disastrous results.

Is it any wonder that Charedim grow into adulthood with distorted views of relationships and sexuality? Does it really seem far-fetched to speculate that those lacking the opportunity for healthy sexual expression and growth may become distorted, expressing their sexuality through coercive or predatory behaviour?

Of course, sexually abusive behaviour is not caused by social conditions alone - there are people who sexually abuse children in every community. But there is a body of research suggesting that the more hierarchical, repressive and gender segregated a society is, the more likely its children are to experience abuse.

Charedi religious leaders have created pockets of medieval, autocratic sub-cultures that exist alongside the most open and educated societies in history. Socially engineered ignorance holds Charedim captive. Internet access, television and even secular newspapers and magazines are verboten. Secular education is severely limited.

And the human cost is staggering. Several hundred thousand Jewish people in the UK, America and Israel have been deprived - by design - of so much knowledge and education, and all but doomed to a life of poverty because their leaders fear that marketable skills would allow them the freedom to leave the community.
A cynically fabricated doctrine of persecution - preached relentlessly by Charedi rabbis to their captive audiences - serves to sow such distrust of government that parents readily accept rabbinic directives, which allow heinous crimes against their children to go unreported and perpetrators to remain free to harm children.

I daresay no strictly Orthodox sage of the 19th Century would recognise this strange evolution of Orthodox Judaism and would likely be shunned if they were alive to speak their minds. To defy today's Charedi rabbis is to risk losing synagogue membership, having children denied entry to community schools and great difficulty finding shidduchim - marriage partners - for one's children. This ensures almost absolute compliance with rabbinic dictates.

I am not arguing for these communities to adopt the norms of mainstream society - this is not realistic - but a greater openness to "outside" knowledge about child development and human sexuality and a genuine respect for laws of the land. This would require education and a shift away from the near-absolute control rabbis have over all matters within these communities.

A start would be for Charedi rabbis - most of whom lack secular education - to cede authority over mental health issues to professionals, and law enforcement issues to the police and courts.

We do not see this happening soon. Thus it is up to Charedim to stop trembling in fear of their rabbis and instead take responsibility for themselves and their children, and lead by example. One can only hope their rabbis will follow.

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