Sex Abuse Scandals and Ultra-Orthodox Jews: Is the Internet the Problem?
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.