Sexual abuse is not unique to any specific community. Secrecy, shame, stigma and fear pervade all sectors of society, including secular college campuses, as in Jerry Sandusky‘s case, and the halls of religious schools as in abuse survivor Joel Engelman‘s case. The issue needs to be openly discussed in every community.
The Orthodox-Jewish community in Crown Heights candidly confronted sexual abuse on June 10 when a forum was held to address the need to continue implementing rigorous policies in schools and camps and the need to report crime directly to the police.
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, clergy abuse lawyer Irwin Zalkin, civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel, Rabbi Yosef Blau of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Zvi Gluck of “Our Place” and a local survivor and advocate Mordechai Feinstein were all members of the panel.
Discussion ranged from highlighting the Crown Heights Rabbinical Court ruling, which required that abuse be reported to the police, to schools implementing rigorous background checks on all employees and volunteers.
Despite the fact that the event had zero connection to the case of 1,000 Haredi men in Williamsburg rallying behind the accused pedophile Nechemya Weberman, media outlets chose to make that connection. Lucy Yang of ABC7, for example, conflated Crown Heights’ combating of sexual abuse with the Webberman case. Conflating the Crown Heights Jewish community to the members of the Orthodox Williamsburg Satmar sect that organized the Webberman fundraiser is tantamount to comparing mainstream Mormons like Mitt Romney with Mormon Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs. It lacks nuance and is inaccurate. They are different sects and different communities.
This lack of nuance and attempt to lump all Orthodox Jews into the same category is also reflected by the commonly used pejorative prefix “ultra” when referring to all Orthodox Jews, and even when referring to Orthodox Jews that require reporting abuse. The NY Post for instance reported how “members of the city’s ultra Orthodox Jewish community heckled Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes yesterday over his handling of sex-abuse cases…” Even victim advocates decrying Hyne’s policy of not disclosing names of Jewish Orthodox sex offenders are evidently “ultra” in this context.
What makes an Orthodox Jew “ultra”? Is it the black fedora, long beard, kippah head covering, or black suit? Even extremist sects like the Branch Davidian’s are not referred to with the prefix “ultra.” That would be as absurd as calling a Pentecostal “ultra-Catholic” or “ultra-Evangelical” or calling a non-Orthodox sect “ultra-Reform” or “ultra-Conservative.”
For the sake of accuracy and not marginalizing people by name alone, Orthodox Jewish sects should be called by their real sect names, whether they are Satmar, Belz, Bobov, Ger, Karlin, Skver or any other. Or as a whole they should be called by the term “traditional,” which more accurately reflects an unbiased characterization. This would certainly make it easier for people to distinguish between the widespread variance between the different sects when it comes to reporting sexual abuse and reflect a neutral descriptor of religious Jews.
There are a plethora of modern Orthodox rabbis and Chabad rabbis, for example, who unequivocally require that suspected or actual sexual abuse be reported directly to the police. Likewise there are rabbis from various sects that discourage reporting sexual abuse directly to the police. This wide variation would be better captured if Orthodox Jews were described accurately.