A new book, “Breaking the Silence: Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community” (Ktav), addresses the disturbing, complex, and mostly hidden issue of child abuse in Orthodox Jewish communities.
In the Jewish community, “there’s a sense of secrecy, a sense of shame, as it contradicts the values of the community,” said Dr. David Pelcovitz, the book’s co-editor with David Mandel.
In the Orthodox community, said Pelcovitz, “there’s a tremendous emphasis on respecting authority. Kids may not want to disclose. And there is difficulty in handing in one of your own.”
After practicing psychology for more than two decades, in 2004 Pelcovitz became special assistant to Yeshiva University’s President Richard Joel, as well as professor of psychology and education at YU’s Azrieli Graduate School. There he teaches psychology, psychosocial issues in the Jewish Community, and pastoral psychology courses that are required for rabbinic students. “In the yeshivish world, people are more likely to go to the rabbi,” said Pelcovitz. “Many rabbis tell me they spend about 50 percent of their time doing pastoral work. They need to know how to intervene in an informed way.”
An expert on trauma, child abuse, and parenting, Pelcovitz worked with Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services for many years, where he got to know Mandel, the chief executive officer of Ohel.
“We were looking for a resource that parents, educators, and therapists could go to in terms of prevention and if something already happened,” said Pelcovitz. “Before the book I had done a fair amount of speaking to parents on how to talk to their kids about abuse.”
“Dr. Pelcovitz has trained rabbis for Project S.A.R.A.H. over many years,” said Esther East, director of Jewish Family Services of the Jewish Federation of Greated Clifton/Passaic. “His professional credentials and his [understanding of the Jewish community] are wonderful resources for us.”
“In Israel there is some research,” said Pelcovitz. “[Sexual abuse] is not clearly overrepresented in one segment of the population vs. another.
“However, he added, “in a more insular community there is more difficulty talking about sexually related issues.” In addition, “the more to the right you get, the more difficult it is to deal with secular authority.”
This is true outside the Jewish community as well, he noted. “Private school teachers have a harder time reporting [abuse] than public school teachers,” Pelcovitz said. “If the abuser is a member of your own social class, then it’s harder to see and it’s harder to act on.”
The book is “designed to be a toolbox for various members of the community – how to deal with it in a culturally sensitive, yet informed way,” said Pelcovitz. “In a general context, the book should raise awareness of the problem, help people realize that this is something that can be dealt with, and that there are practical approaches to prevention. And hopefully, in the rare cases of abuse, provide mechanisms for intervention.”
The book is divided into four sections: “The Voice of Abuse” documents experiences of men and women who were abused as children. The chapters emphasize that children who were abused are survivors, rather than victims. A chapter by Gavriel Fagin, a social worker at Ohel, addresses questions such as “Is there anything anyone could have told you that would have prepared you to avoid being abused?”
The second section, “Prevention and Intervention Programs,” addresses what can be done at the parent, school, and community level to prevent abuse. Dr. Susan Schulman’s chapter, “Unwanted Touch: A Preventive Approach for Parents,” describes the issue as it relates to preschoolers, children ages 6 to 11, and adolescents. “The abuser is usually a familiar adult,” notes Schulman, a pediatrician. She presents graphic descriptions of cases involving child abuse. “I am uncomfortable writing about the actual abuse, and I am sure that you will be uncomfortable reading about it,” she writes, “but the children who went through these experiences deserve to have you know exactly what happened.”
The third section, “Halachic and Legal Perspectives – Insights and Misconceptions,” provides an overview of how Jewish law views and handles abuse. Ohel Rabbi Dovid Cohen, Rabbi Mark Dratch, founder of JSafe (Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse Free Environment), and Adam Lancer, a lawyer who serves as general counsel for Ohel, grapple with the issue of the investigation of abuse and the reporting of abusers to secular authorities. “The book says unequivocally – very clearly -that if there’s a suspected abuse, the law is that one has to report it,” said Pelcovitz.
“There are chapters for therapists to help them understand how to address these issues and the unique needs of the Orthodox community,” said Pelcovitz of the last section, “Psychological Analysis and Treatment of Victims and Offenders.” In one chapter, he writes about how victims should be treated. The long-term impact of childhood sexual abuse can be viewed as a type of post-traumatic stress disorder, manifesting many of the same symptoms of classic PTSD, writes Pelcovitz. Topics in that chapter include incest, stigmatization, and feelings of betrayal. Other chapters in that section, by social workers Barry Horowitz and Hillel Sternstein, deal with treating adolescent and adult offenders.
The final chapter, by Isaac Schechter, addresses how various parties in Jewish communities across the spectrum can help prevent sexual abuse. “Developmentally appropriate and culturally sensitive education to this issue is not a derision of the fundamental principle of tznius (modesty) but rather an affirmation of it,” writes Schechter, a psychologist who serves chasidic Jews in New York’s Rockland County.
“Anything that shines the light on what’s happening has to be a good thing,” said Pelcovitz. “There have been real improvements in the community. On the whole it’s painful, but it’s been necessary….
“I think that all parents should talk to their children about the issue, without frightening them. There is a doable, step-by-step approach that does not have to frighten them at all. It should be done as early as preschool,” he concluded. “Just as you talk about water safety, it’s important to talk about touch.”