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March 5, 2013 12:22 pm

School Dean Suppresses Sexual Abuse Discussion Under Pretext of Religious Modesty

avatar by Eliyahu Federman

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An abuse victim. Photo: Mike Knapek.

“I do maintain our position that it is not in keeping with the standards of Tznius [modesty] and fundamentally unsafe to post intimate information about oneself and others on social media.” – Esther M. Shkop, Ph.D., Dean, Machon Torani L’Banot.

An 18-year-old student (referred to under the pseudonym “Kaylie”) at the Blitstein Institute of Hebrew Theological College poured her heart out on Facebook:

I’m a survivor of sexual abuse … I’ve been a survivor as long as you’ve known me … Are you embarrassed of me? Are you willing to share our story? Let’s see who my real friends are.

Kaylie then posted a meme “Wanna know who your real friends are? Just go public about being sexually abused as a child … and see who stands behind you.”

Kaylie’s dean, Dr. Esther M. Shkop, demonstrated she was no real friend. In an e-mail published by Jewish LGBTQ activist Chaim Levin, Dean Shkop maliciously accuses Kaylie of defining herself as a “case study” and appearing less human because she dared talk publicly about her abuse. Shkop continues the demeaning, insensitive, and threatening diatribe by accusing Kaylie of violating modesty rules on page 17 of the schools “Personal Conduct Policy.”

Page 17 of the Student Handbook states: “As members of a Torah-observant community and institution, students are expected to comport themselves in full accordance with the laws and ethos of tznius as delineated in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). Tznius, generally defined as modesty, implies much more. It connotes humility, concealment, reserve, privacy, and inwardness.”

To her credit, Shkop then issued an apology to the student:

Over the last number of difficult days, regret and a stirring sadness have overtaken me because of the insensitive and harsh email I recently sent you. I ask for your mechila [forgiveness] and extend you my deepest apology.

Along with her apology and retraction of what she defined as her insensitive statement, the dean goes on to justify the claim that Kaylie’s openness about being sexual abused is immodest:

I do maintain our position that it is not in keeping with the standards of Tznius [modesty] and fundamentally unsafe to post intimate information about oneself and others on social media.

The Talmud relays a story of a student that hid under his teacher’s bed to learn how his teacher was being intimate with his wife. The student commented on the inappropriate language of his teacher to which his teacher exclaimed, “Get out! It’s not proper (for you to be here)!” To which the student replied, “It is Torah — and study it I must.”

In contemporary society, the student might be accused of voyeurism — but this story illustrates the need to rise above the taboos of discussing sexuality. There is nothing shameful, sinful or obscene about having candid conversations about the subject, particularly in the context of educating the public on sexual abuse or survivors telling their stories.

Maintaining Jewish standards of modesty does not conflict with the right to discuss sexual abuse openly and candidly. Tzniut concerns laws related to modesty of both dress and behavior — when dealing with normal, healthy interactions — not when informing the public on the dangers of sexual abuse and certainly not when sexual abuse survivors talk openly about their experiences.

Kaylie should be applauded for refusing to suffer in silence and publicly battling the shame and stigma associated with being abused. While Dean Shkop should be applauded for owning up and apologizing, she should be ashamed of her attempt at misapplying Jewish modesty laws to justify suppression of open and candid discussions of sexual abuse.

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  • Molly

    The educator could have made the point that the Dean could have told the student body, that if any student has like issues that the Dean’s office is open and made some commitment to appropriate support and follow through if needed.

    This was a missed opportunity – Tznius or any law does not over-ride a commiment to morality ego justice.

  • Lawrence Kulak

    without the details of the abuse and what recourse this child was given to reporting them we cannot act as either Judge or Jury with reference to the Dean or this child. It is quite possible that this Dean was trying to protect this child from ‘overexposing’ herself and incurring more stigma than she might have already attracted. If so, then she certainly has the backing of the Torah. But again, we don’t know the facts becaue so little about them is said in this obviously biased article.

  • Mendel

    @Eli Federman: the message you convey from the Talmud is blatant am aratzus. See Moreh Nevuchim (vol3:8), the Rambam’s peirush on the Torah (Bereishis 33:5), and Sefer Hamspik (ch. kvishas hakoichos v’hamasim)from the Rambam’s son. What the Rambam and his son wrote was in regard to a man and his wife. Certainly what they write would be of stricter measure when sharing intimate matters on the internet via social network.

  • Jerry Hersch

    A good article Eliyahu.. It is never immodest to expose a great wrong.
    Openness leads to greater understanding and empathy -just as in discussion and disputation of Talmud it can only strengthen.
    Openness about all facets in human life.

  • Gavin

    Of course, an apology that has a “but” tagged onto the end of it, is not really an apology after all.

    I cannot believe that one should be tznius about sexual abuse, I am presuming here, that “Kaylie” has explored all other avenues, in order that she might find some closure/support.