Sex Abuse Scandals and Ultra-Orthodox Jews: Is the Internet the Problem?
Editor's Pick: This article is cross-posted from The Revealer, a publication of The Center for Religion and Media at New York University.
By Ayala Fader
On May 22, 2012, forty thousand ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and boys gathered at Citi Fields Stadium in Queens to listen to important rabbis rail against the dangers of the Internet. (There were separate places where the event was video-streamed for women, prohibited from mingling, at other sites in Brooklyn). The stadium bleachers were packed with bearded men and boys in traditional black and white clothing, many on their cell phones. The scoreboard was silent, but the jumbotron was alive with close ups of the rabbis’ faces, some crying, and English subtitles for Yiddish speeches. The goal of the asifa (gathering) was not to condemn the Internet, which has become indispensable for “business.” Rather, it was to promote the use of “kosher” filters to limit exposure and use. One rabbi claimed the Internet was more dangerous to Judaism than the Holocaust. Another called it “the nisoyan ha-dor (the test of this generation). All agreed that the Internet presented new challenges to Jews in the “Torah community,” threatening their very existence. The event received a tremendous amount of coverage in mainstream and Jewish presses.
Less publicized, though, was a counter-rally across the street from Citi Fields. Organized by Ari Mandel, an activist with a non-profit organization, Survivors for Justice, this counter-rally sought to bring attention, instead, to sexual abuse scandals in ultra-Orthodox communities and their cover-up, which had been broken in the New York Times just a few weeks earlier. The crowd of a few hundred included many former ultra-Orthodox Jews, those who have “gone OTD” (off the (path)), holding up signs and chanting, “The Internet is not the problem.” Actually, for many victims of sexual abuse, the Internet has been a literal lifesaver. As Mandel explained it, the Internet made it possible for victims to speak out, first anonymously and then more openly as they found other victims, spurring public activism and greater media attention.
Moral Authority and a Crisis of Leadership
These competing rallies are part of a much larger story, one about the struggle in the digital age over the moral authority of ultra-Orthodox rabbinic leadership to control the gedarim (gates) that keep the secular world at bay. Many in these communities call this “a crisis of emune (faith or trust in God)” and blame the Internet for corrupting Jewish souls. Prior to the early 2000s, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who wanted to explore forbidden ideas or ask questions had to go physically outside the community in search of newspapers, the radio, movies, or even, God forbid, the public library. The smart phone changed this, allowing exploration, questioning and even community building away from ultra-Orthodox surveillance (family, teachers, rebbes, etc.).
This new access to uncontrolled knowledge and people made cracks in the communal wall of silence that rabbinic leadership worked to maintain as the sex abuse allegations came out. The sex abuse scandals and their representation in the media highlight the surprisingly porous boundaries that have existed between nonliberal ultra-Orthodoxy and liberal democracy in the United States, which is based on Enlightenment principles of governance, include pluralism and tolerance, protection of individual rights, and the relegation of religion to the private sphere. Smartphones, though, are adding new challenges for ultra-Orthodox leadership, for as rabbinic leaders have tried to contain the scandals, they have further embroiled themselves with the police, the District Attorney’s office, the ultra-Orthodox victims (now grown up) and investigative journalists.
An Anthropologist’s Confession
When stories about the sexual abuse of children in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities began to come out, though, I confess I avoided them. Journalists reported that prominent rabbis molested young male students for years, then were simply transferred to other schools or that proven pedophiles were given light sentences. They documented witness intimidation that included social isolation of victims and their families: the community boycotted businesses owned by accusing families; their children were not allowed to enroll in yeshivas. There were offers of hush money and even threats of violence. Most disturbing, there was evidence that the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office was complicit in the sacrifice of young boys for the protection of ultra-Orthodox leadership’s moral authority.
Frankly, the cases upset me. Yet (like the good Jewish girl that I am) I also felt guilty. How could I keep avoiding these stories given that I am an anthropologist who has spent the past fifteen years studying first Hasidic childrearing and now the impact of new media in Brooklyn? Despite many of my own ethical disagreements with the women and children I worked with, I have, in articles and in my book, Mitzvah Girls, a study of alternative religious modernity among Hasidic mothers and daughters, tried my best to offer evenhanded and complex portraits. For example, though I admired so many mothers I met, I have also struggled to represent the unapologetic racism that adults expressed to children in their depictions of Gentiles in contrast to the “chosen people.” Similarly, I have tried to understand the moral reasoning behind how and why Hasidic Jews use the rights of citizenship to reject the values of the liberal state.
But the children’s sexual abuse scandals and their cover up felt different. I did not know how to write about or understand them, or even if “understanding” was a form of moral cowardice.
The Long View, 1990s-present
When I began conducting my research during the mid-nineties, there was not much talk about sexual abuse within the community, nor media coverage of it. In the press the ultra-Orthodox, especially Hasidic Jews, were portrayed in common stereotypes: either as sepia-tinged, quaint, pre-modern throwbacks or (told with secular schadenfreud) as hypocrites who, despite claims to piety, defrauded federal programs. From within the community, I heard a few rumors about the molestation of children, especially boys: the Satmar rebbe installed a shomer (guard) in the men’s mikveh (ritual bath) to prevent men from preying on boys; there were tales about the homoeroticism in boys’ yeshivas (think British public schools). Back then though, the most prominent issues I followed in the community were raising awareness about domestic abuse and providing services to children with disabilities who had previously been hidden away as genetic “problems” (a deal-breaker in arranged marriages).
However, in the early 2000s, the molestation stories began: on anonymous blogs and websites within the communities (e.g., Unpious.com, Failedmessiah.com), in The Jewish Week, in New York Magazine, The Forward, and finally this spring, in The New York Times. Everywhere I turned there was another outrageous case of community leaders protecting perpetrators–at the expense of victims. Why? Why only now has sexual abuse of ultra-Orthodox children become a focus of investigative reporting in the Jewish and mainstream presses? And how has the media attention impacted the communities?
Sex Abuse Scandals and the Press
Part of the answer is found in recent and prevalent national exposure of child abuse at morally fallible, powerful, sacred institutions. Media coverage of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandals was a transformative moment in journalism, historian Jonathan Sarna told me, which paved the way for reporting about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish cases. Other cases include the Boy Scouts, the Horace Mann School in New York, and the Penn State football scandal among others. All involve struggles over a great deal of money (potential legal battles, football programs, prestigious institutions), public perception, and the political power of some institutions to reject the authority of the legal system. In all of these cases, children were abused while responsible adults—priests, teachers, rabbis, coaches— looked away because of the high stakes for the institution.
The Catholic Church and the ultra-Orthodox community’s responses to the investigative journalism were similar, trafficking in knee-jerk stereotypes. The Church claimed the Boston Globe, which broke the abuse story, and the media more generally were “anti-Catholic.” Ultra-Orthodox newspapers like Der Yid lashed out at The Jewish Week and Times reporters, calling them anti-Semitic “Nazis” and “traitors to the Jewish people.” A reporter for a Jewish press who wished to remain anonymous told me that, other than these vituperative attacks on the non-Orthodox media, the ultra-Orthodox presses have been silent on the issue of sexual abuse.
While the majority of child sex abuse crimes–Jewish, Catholic, and other–were committed by older men against young boys in their care, in the ultra-Orthodox communities, there have also been cases of sexual abuse of girls. Due to strict gender segregation in these communities, the abuse occurs more often in homes than in yeshivas, either by male family members or relatives. I have even heard from several anonymous sources that rebellious young girls (and boys)—pathologized as “at risk” youth (at risk for leaving their communities)—are often required by the school to visit a “Torah therapist” from within the community who charges a great deal; there is at least one counselor who has a long history of sexually abusing his female clients and who is currently being prosecuted.
Similarly a fictional account, Hush, of a girl who witnessed the incestuous sexual abuse of her friend who eventually hangs herself, came out in 2010. First published pseudonymously by “Eishes Chayil” (woman of valor), the author recently went public as Judy Brown, speaking out after eight-year-old ultra-Orthodox Leiby Kletsky was murdered in Borough Park, Brooklyn, by an Orthodox Jewish man, Aron Levi, in July 2011. Levi, who had a history of mental illness, approached the little boy, who got lost walking home from day camp for the first time, and was seeking directions. Levi kidnapped the boy then drugged, killed, and dismembered him. He received a forty-year prison sentence this past August. The event stunned the neighborhood because the criminal was one of their own.
The majority of the sexual abuse cases publicized thus far, though, have been of older men preying on younger boys in yeshivas. This has opened the door to familiar liberal critiques of the consequences of “repression” of sexuality in non-liberal religious communities. Like the ultra-Orthodox presses’ response, these critiques also invoked stereotypes. For example, some claimed that “insular” or “closed” societies, particularly ones with gender segregation and codes of modesty, are ripe for sexual deviance. As one social services provider told me, “They (ultra-Orthodox children) don’t even have names for the body parts. Everything is tushy.” I too have documented that among Hasidic Jews there is very little discussion of the body and sexuality for children or even for young people preparing for marriage. However, there is no evidence of more–or less–abuse in non-liberal religious communities. The Penn State football program and the Horace Mann School had rampant, unchecked cases of sexual predators, yet are secular liberal institutions.
Ultra-Orthodox Power and the State
However, the consequences of the media coverage for ultra-Orthodox Jews have clearly been quite different than for the Catholic Church or many other institutions. It is worth noting that at least some at the New York Times knew about the allegations of sexual abuse as early as 2006, when community insiders offering evidence and contacts approached them. An anonymous source told me that this contact at the Times declined to take on the story because the paper feared being seen as targeting the community; they would only write about the story if an elected official or politician was implicated in covering-up the cases. So it was not until May, 2012, that The Times published two articles (May 9th and 10th) on Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes and his stymied efforts to prosecute sexual abuse among the ultra-Orthodox. The Times coverage made a big splash, impacting the visibility of the cases and putting pressure on Hynes’ office to step up its efforts to prosecute offenders.
More than anything else, The Times’ alleged decision to avoid targeting the community itself highlights the tremendous political influence of the ultra-Orthodox in New York. Politicians court them because community leaders are able to mobilize huge voting blocs: A rebbe or a prominent rabbi simply tells his followers whom to back and thousands in a community will turn out to vote as advised. Ultra-Orthodox leadership has built powerful alliances with city and state politicians who watch out for their interests, be it zoning laws (e.g., building new yeshivas, school bus lanes), access to state and federal programs (e.g., Headstart, food stamps) or in the sexual abuse cases, using their own rabbinical courts rather than the New York State legal system until 2009.
The power of the ultra-Orthodox communal leadership has led to preferential treatment at the city and state levels that is often framed in a pluralist discourse as abiding the “special cultural needs” of ultra-Orthodox Jews. The ultra-Orthodox leadership has invoked the Jewish concept of mesira (turning over)– the historical injunction against reporting a fellow Jew to a non-Jewish authority for a crime– to authenticate what amounts to a cover up. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis have claimed that involving the police in sexual abuse charges is mesira; until more recently they preferred their communities use their own rabbinic courts, which have historically handled civil disputes (e.g., divorce, marriage, custody, property), not criminal cases. These courts are not designed to prosecute sexual abuse cases. As The Times reporters Sharon Otterman and Ray Rivera noted (May 10, 2012), rabbinic courts do not have formal power to punish, subpoena or collect evidence. Some rabbis even refuse to hear testimony from women or children.
Many of the victims and a lot of the media have continued to challenge the validity of rabbinic courts decisions on management of sexual abuse, claiming that they merely bury charges, especially against prominent rabbis. In fact, one of the primary arguments made by victim activists has been that criminal cases must be brought before the New York State legal system and that using the rabbinic court is a violation of state law.
The Politics of Cultural Sensitivity
The DA office’s handling of sexual abuse allegations highlights political favoritism legitimated by “cultural sensitivity,” meaning a sensitivity to the unique beliefs and practices of ultra-Orthodox communities which require special treatment. In theory, this sounds good (especially to me, the anthropologist) but in actuality this has meant that the ultra-Orthodox leadership got to dictate much of the way the sexual abuse cases were handled. Perhaps this explains why, as Paul Berger at The Forward noted, DA Hynes admitted that for the first eighteen years he was in office he did very little to take on allegations of sexual abuse.
It was not until 2009 that the DA created a sexual abuse hotline, Kol Tsedek (Voice of Justice), advised by a “cultural liaison,” a Lubavitcher Hasidic woman who is a social worker. A source who works closely with the DA’s office told me this liaison has opened up lines of communication and made huge inroads in raising community consciousness about sexual abuse. Some others though have told me that too often the liaison has counseled victims to withdraw charges, especially if the accused is an important rabbi.
However, even in setting up the hotline, which has made an impact by increasing the number of yearly prosecutions from zero to between seventy to ninety (the exact number is disputed), the DA’s office has continued to bend to the wishes of Agudath Yisroel, the ultra-Orthodox leadership and policy organization that represents some sectors of the Hasidic world and most of the Yeshiva world. The Agudath, which is directed by a Counsel of Torah Sages as well as lay advisers, makes political, social and religious rulings for participating communities. In 2009 Hynes agreed to Agudath’s position that anyone who wishes to press charges must first receive permission from his or her rabbi or Hasidic rebbe and only then may they contact the police. The DA also agreed not to publish perpetrators’ names publicly, another Agudath position.
Hynes claims that he must continue to work through Agudath because the ultra-Orthodox are “worse than the mafia,” a reference to the community’s common practice of intimidating victims and meting out its own forms of justice. The press, especially Jewish presses like The Jewish Week and The Forward have taken activist roles. Paul Berger in The Forward (May 29, 2012) reported that they, along with other media outlets, filed a request under New York’s Freedom of Information Act for the release of the names of all those accused via the Kol Tzedek program. So far, the DA’s office has denied those requests.
Hynes claims that he can only protect the victims if he works with “cultural sensitivity.” And yet, do other perpetrators who go through the DA’s office get the same kind of culturally sensitive treatment? Are other communities or institutions able to set the terms of prosecution or withhold names of the accused? Clearly not. Only the politically powerful are able to use “culture” and insider “cultural liaisons” in order to protect the authority of communal leadership.
Why Is the Cover Up Tolerated?
How, I have to wonder, can the community stand for this cover up? I spent years in a Hasidic girls’ school and in Hasidic homes, where most children seemed cherished and protected. Indeed, there is much about Hasidic childrearing that is admirable. How and why would community leaders use their political power to put ultra-Orthodox children at risk?
I have a few theories that speak to the shifting relationship between the ultra-Orthodox leadership and the world in which they find themselves today. First, there are different values at work, values that are in direct conflict with the liberal state’s emphasis on the protection of the individual, especially the child. The good of the community–that is ultra-Orthodox Judaism–may trump individual suffering, especially when the crimes involve the taboo topics of sexuality and sexual deviance. I suspect this is generational as well, with older ultra-Orthodox Jews (those who are most often the community leaders) unfamiliar with and unwilling to engage the language of sexual abuse. One of the stark portraits drawn of Gentiles, especially for children, is of a lack of modesty and explicit sexuality. Such talk about sexuality is thus deemed goyish(Gentile) and not becoming for Jews.
Young Leiby Kletsky’s murder last year is a piece in this puzzle. As writers Shulem Deen onUnpious.com, Matthew Shaer of New York Magazine, Judy Brown at Jewish Week and others have noted, the community is so concerned with protecting its children from secular and goyishe popular culture that they often close their eyes to deviance and danger within. Not to mention that, more broadly, the moral universe children are taught includes black and white distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, moral and immoral. Immoral observant Jews rattle this universe.
Even the perception of sexual abuse victims, particularly those ultra-Orthodox who decide to leave their communities, is becoming less black and white. Many have gotten support at Footsteps, an organization founded by Malkie Schwartz in 2003. Footsteps helps those who break with their “insular” communities, offering “educational, vocational, and social” support for its members. This has helped to alter the perception among the ultra-Orthodox that those who leave their communities, especially those who were sexually abused, are what the community often calls “bums.” Seeing some who have left go on to college or become writers or even activists creates a more complex picture of those who choose another life over the “truth” of Orthodoxy.
Second, prosecution at the state level would open the door to potential law suits which would involve large sums of money, not to mention chillul hashem (desecration of God’s name, or besmirching the moral standing of the community before Gentiles). This fear of public exposure or shame can make for strange alliances. Catholic Bishops and ultra-Orthodox rabbis are the only two religious leaderships in Albany who continue to fight the extension of the statute of limitations for prosecution of sexual abuse crimes—from age twenty-four to age thirty. Both groups have a lot to lose.
Finally, a reporter for The Jewish Week who wished to remain anonymous offered me another, more cynical theory for the communal wall of silence, a silence which has failed ultra-Orthodox children. Rampant illegality facilitates much of ultra-Orthodox communal life, particularly the practiced use and misuse of government funding. I have written about ultra-Orthodox competing notions of citizenship in my book, Mitzvah Girls, that include using government resources to build up their own communities. Legally, many qualify for food stamps and welfare. There are, though, some who misuse government funding or violate tax laws. This is nothing new. When I was doing fieldwork, these kinds of white collar crimes were not unusual. There is little social sanction for those who commit them if they contribute to ultra-Orthodox charities, which most do. As a Hasidic friend once remarked, “That’s golus (diaspora),” meaning that shared space does not mean shared goals for citizenship and community; at the end of the day, ultra-Orthodox Jews are waiting for the messiah, not liberal democracy. However, if sexual abuse victims went directly to the police instead of to their rabbis, there could potentially be a flood of lawsuits, which would require legal investigation and public exposure of practices the community may want to keep quiet.
The media and victims have played a critical role in forcing the recent conversation that so many were once reluctant to have. Some within the community have begun to respond. There are dissenting voices and recent attempts to train the next generation differently. For example, there are some who do not agree with the prohibition against notifying the police and they speak out, though they often suffer intimidation and censorship for it.
The Orthodox press, Artscroll, published the first book of its kind, Let’s Stay Safe, in 2011. This popular picture book is designed to provide parents with a “tsanua (modest) way to speak to children about a broad range of safety matters.” Safety here goes from wearing helmets when bicycling to warning that “only your parents or a doctor can touch you in a private space that is covered by a bathing suit.” One page is especially poignant, clearly a response to the murder of Leiby Kletsky. If you are lost, the book directs readers, go ask “a cashier, a mommy or a policeman” for help. Gone is the assumption that any Orthodox Jew is a safe haven. I have also heard from a social services provider that there is a group of women visiting a bungalow colony in the Catskills this summer to raise awareness among the mothers there.
Maybe these “culturally sensitive” attempts from within the community will help. Ari Mandel, the activist, is cautiously optimistic that attitudes are changing as more and more victims speak up. And critically, more and more victims who step forward are believed by community members. Ultimately, the sexual abuse scandals and widespread use of the Internet are challenging the moral authority of ultra-Orthodox leadership, which has relied on hierarchy, silence and sometimes secrecy to fortify the gates around their communities. Those gates, never impermeable, have even more openings for the ongoing cultural and political exchanges between ultra-orthodox communities and everyone else. There are clearly changes on the horizon. And I’ve concluded that writing about these changes from a historical and cultural perspective is not, in the end, a form of moral cowardice. I believe it is my moral obligation.
Ayala Fader is a cultural and linguistic anthropologist who teaches at Fordham University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. She is the author of Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidi Jews in Brooklyn.
Editor's Pick: This article is cross-posted from The Revealer, a publication of The Center for Religion and Media at New York University.