In My Own Words: The unspeakable

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The request came in an e-mail: the person asked if I would review the book “Chosen: A Memoir of Stolen Boyhood” by Stephen Mills, which tells of how Mills was sexually abused by the director of the Jewish summer camp he attended. The person who wrote the e-mail mentioned first-hand knowledge of this type of abuse. I looked up Mills’ memoir online and realized I’d seen it before and thought the subject matter too painful to read. That made me pause because I realized I also hadn’t asked for a copy of “When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture” by Dr. Elana Sztokman for similar reasons: it would be painful to read and the subject matter is controversial because people prefer to believe rabbis and other community leaders can’t be abusers. 

That was when I realized that, even if I don’t read those books, I need to draw the Jewish community’s attention to the topic because it’s not only an important one, but one that has needs to be addressed in a public forum. Too often those who were abused are treated as if they’d done something shameful, rather than having had something horrific done to them. Too many people prefer to hide their heads and/or refuse to believe that pedophiles and sexual abusers exist in the Jewish community. Let’s be clear: they do exist and have done irrefutable harm to those they have abused. 

Unfortunately, many communities have also harmed these victims: they’ve called the accusers liars. They have denigrated them and, at times, threatened their families with repercussions if they went public. Even worse, rather than make abusers face the legal consequences of their actions, those in power have simply given them new positions or moved them to different communities, thus allowing the abuse to continue. The result is that many of these children never recover; this is especially true for male children, many of whom are too embarrassed and ashamed to admit what happened to them. 

While not to deny the pain women/girls feel after being abused, our culture further denigrates boys/young men who are abused. For them to admit this abuse takes even more effort because male/male abuse is considered such a disgrace that even if parents believe their child, they may also be too ashamed to admit what happened in a public forum.

I can understand minorities not wanting to air their dirty laundry in public. Too often when one Jew does something wrong, all Jews are blamed for that person’s actions. When Jews were oppressed, the principle of mesirah ruled: that principle meant that Jews were forbidden from handing over Jewish offenders to secular authorities. In the past, that was to prevent them from being given harsher punishments than non-Jews would have received. However, there is no excuse for that in the United States because Jews have equal protection under the law. It might be different if rabbinic authorities worked to stop the abusers, but that has not been the case. Rabbinic authorities have not only not punished abusers, they have forbidden people from going to civil authorities to arrest someone, which might prevent other children from being abused.

A large part of the problem is that these authorities can’t fathom how someone learned in Torah could possibly be a pedophile or sexually abuse someone. But, as hard as this is for people to accept, Torah learning does not stop people from acting unacceptably: that includes lying, cheating, adultery and sexual abuse. Torah study and learning are considered important because they should lead us to appropriate behavior. But all we have to do is look at the biblical prophets to see there have been similar problems for centuries: the prophets chastised the Israelites, saying God does not want their sacrifices if they don’t follow God’s other laws, the laws focusing on how they should treat each other. The same is true today: God does not want our study and our prayers if we abuse the vulnerable in our community. Remember, on Yom Kippur, God does not forgive sins between human and human until we have made restitution or asked forgiveness from those we have wronged.

Unfortunately, this is not a new issue. While doing some research for this column, I came across an article published in the New York Jewish Week in 2012. Written by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, it discusses the problem of rabbinic authorities in New York City who required their communities to ask their rabbi for permission to go to the police to report abusers. This permission was rarely given, something Rabbi Hammerman condemns as going against Jewish principles, especially since few did anything to stop the abusers. (To read the article, click here.) Too many excuses were made and too many young people were forced to live a nightmare because their words were not believed and their pain was ignored. 

Those who are willing to write about their experiences and who work to stop abusers are to be commended. But the work is not for them alone: the measure of our worth is how we treat their reports. Do we believe them? Do we stop abusers before they can do more harm? Do we create spaces where those abused are allowed to talk and heal without being accused of having done something wrong? Will we stop lauding those who abuse because they are in positions of authority? Are we willing to step out of our comfort zone to help protect the innocent and stand up to the powerful? If we don’t, then we need to confess our own sins: we stood idly by at a time our law commands us to act, to protect the young and the innocent. Then we, too, are guilty.