A Community's Shameful
Silence (01/28 - 02/3/2000)
Subject: Molesters in frum
Abuse Argument: Chicago's Orthodox
rabbis are defending their response to allegations of child molestation in
the Orthodox community (02/11/2000)
Darkness before dawn
Case of Rabbi
Avrohom Mondrowitz, M.Sc., Ph.D., L.N.H.A.
By Joseph Aaron and Golda Shira
It is a story more than 30 years old.
A story few wish to talk about and even fewer wish to hear about, a story of children being sexually abused by respected members of the community, a story of rabbinic leaders devoting more energy to keeping the story out of the public eye than making sure the perpetrator doesn't strike again, a story of victims feeling not only uncared for but feeling victimized over and over by not having what was done to them publicly acknowledged, by having to watch as their perpetrators walk around the community. It is a story of two many Jews not wanting to believe something like this could happen among Jews by Jews, a story of how their disbelief has allowed it to keep happening.
It is a story that goes back more than 30 years and a story that until very recently was continuing to go on, destroying lives.
It is not a very pretty story, but it is a story that is resulting in, if not a happy, at least, a productive, constructive ending. In the shameful silence coming to an end. In positive steps being taken. In a community coming face to face with reality and giving a face to all those who have
suffered in silence and searing pain.
And that is thanks to the work of tow very determined, very courageous, very caring women, women who would not just pretend it wasn't happening, wouldn't just sit back when others were doing nothing, wouldn't let ignorance of fear of shame be an answer. Two women who pushed and pushed community leaders to recognize and acknowledge how serious was the problem, to understand that
trying to keep it hidden was the very worst thing to do, who understood that protecting the victims was far more important than shielding the perpetrator, who understood that the only way to ensure there were no future victims was not to assume the problem would disappear but to address the problem head on.
|Debbie Hartman and Jo Brucks - Heroes/Women of Valor|
And right needed to be done for a very long time.
The story begins more than 30 years ago, when a respected well-known member of the Chicago's Orthodox community began sexually molesting young girls. Most were between the ages of 5 and 12. Each thought they were the only one. And so all kept quiet about what had happened to them.
Which is why it kept happening. Some Orthodox leaders knew about it bust said nothing, did nothing. Most members of the community heard the occasional whispered rumor but either didn't believe it or chose not to believe it.
And because each of the victims thought they were the only ones, they said nothing, in most cases blaming themselves, figuring they had done something wrong for this to happen to them.
It was about seven years ago that a community lecture on sexual abuse was canceled because it was decided it was "not relevant for the from community." When Bruck was told that by the event organizer, she said, "oh yes, it is." Hartman and Bruck, who are sisters, had a family member who was a victim of abuse.
Over lunch shortly after, Hartman mentioned the incident to the women she was with and said that, in fact, there was someone in the community who had abused young girls. "One of the women go very upset and said 'you must tell me who it is, you must tell me right now'. And then she told us that he done the same to her more than 20 years before.
Then, Hartman said, word began circulating in her shul that a child had also been victimized by the man, a kosher butcher. "I asked her parents if that was true," said Hartman, "and they said it was".
It was with that that Hartman began "shaking things up, talking about this, saying something had to be done." Once it became known she was talking about it, Hartman said she got calls from others who had also been victimized.
"I wasn't out looking for this and this in not something people want to share. But they had kept it buried for so long and when they found out they weren't alone, they needed to open up."
Indeed, Hartman tells of one woman who had been victimized when she was five years old "and hadn't told a soul until she told me, when she was thirty something. She had been festering inside of her for all those years and when she finally opened up the gates, it was like a flood of emotions."
Hartman isn't sure why this woman and others opened up to her. She is sure, however, why she listened and responded.
"One of my family members was hurt in a way they should not have been hurt and didn't tell anyone for a very long time. They didn't know how. No one should have to feel such pain, humiliation and degradation. No one should have to wait 30 years to be helped."
What made sure Hartman would begin a crusade to see that help was there, was when she was talking to a woman in shul who had just moved to Chicago from out of town and learned that the family was temporarily staying in the house of the perpetrator.
"I told her she needed to know that while the wife was nice, she had to be very careful about the husband. I thought she might get mad at me, tell me to mind my own business. Instead, she thanked me and said 'I couldn’t understand why he kept taking my daughter down to the van with him.' The woman came back a few minutes later and thanked me again.
"Needless to say they quickly moved out of that house. The truth is I was sick to my stomach having to tell her that, but I knew somebody had to say something'.
And do something about this man who had been molesting young girls in the community for more than 25 years.
Problem is no one was doing anything about it. Hartman and Bruck asked a therapist they knew to go to the community's leading rabbis and urge them to do something about the perpetrator. After much urging and pushing, the rabbis did finally call the man in. He admitted to having abused the young girls and promised to stop. Shocked that he so readily confessed, the rabbis told him to get counseling and instituted some minor restrictions on his activities.
And that was that.This story broke in the Chicago Jewish News a year after The Awareness Center started organizing. Unfortunately, it took a few years before anyone would name the offender in this case, along with several other names.Please note that there is no mention of the alleged offender Meyer Miller who was a Kosher Butch in Chicago. His alleged victims included alleged sex offender Dr. Rabbi, Avrohom Mondrowitz. For more information on this case, click here.
when he came up to get his ticket and one of his victims was working behind
the desk. She sees him and starts shaking, shaking and he's fine, he's having
And so Hartman and her sister went back to the rabbis and pushed more, pushed to have the rabbis "come up with more stringent rules and regulations on what he could and couldn't do. That he shouldn't be allowed to go to a bar mitzvah, weddings, any social events. So they finally did that. But other things that should have been done were not done. It was a year before his own family was told. Meanwhile, his oldest daughters were in outreach and would bring home girls and girls and girls every Shabbos. When what he had done became known in the community, his youngest daughter was still living in the house with him. She should have been in counseling, but he wouldn't allow it. Who the hell is he not to allow it. But nobody did anything about it."
The problem, says Hartman, was that this was an area that the community's leading rabbis were simply not prepared to handle properly.
"They're not educated in this. Which is understandable. When they were in school, no one ever sat down with them and said someday you're going to have to deal with sexual molestation and abuse."
Hartman doesn't blame them for not knowing, but she does blame them for not trying to know, for the community's rabbis not coming together and sitting down and figuring out how to deal with this.
They didn't do that, says Bruck, "because they don’t' want any part of it. They don't want to believe this happens. And so even when it was shown that it does happen, they say it was an isolated incident, that Jewish men don't behave like this, that it will not happen again."
Indeed, it was just in the last couple of months that it was discovered a teacher at one of Chicago's Orthodox day schools, a rabbi, had been sexually molesting students, mostly boys.
According to Marjorie Newman, a spokesman for the Department of Children and Family Services, their investigation found that at least nine students at the school, 8 boys and one girl, ages 10 to 14, were abused.
And there may be more. "We know it wasn't just this year," said Bruck. "He has taught there for many years. He also gave bar mitzvah lessons. One incident is bad enough", said Bruck, "but this is unbelievable.
When they learned of this second, current incidence of a respected community member sexually molesting children, Hartman and Bruck were determined things would be handled differently than they were seven years ago.
"When we came to them so many years ago, it would have been nice if they had gotten together and put into effect some sort of program, some sort of mechanism but they were not willing to do it, " said Hartman. "If they had, maybe what has happened wouldn't have, maybe one of these young men would have spoken up and said 'my rebbe is doing something that is wrong' and it would have been stopped earlier. They would have had a place to go, know there would be someone who would do something."
But because nothing was done then, Hartman and Bruck were adamant something be done now.
Incredibly, however, at first, they got basically the same king of response this time as they had last time from virtually all the rabbis in the Orthodox community.
"We went to several rabbis and nobody would step up and do anything," said Hartman.
"We approached every rav," adds Bruck. "They weren't surprised about it, they all knew about it and they all said no thanks, we don't want any involvement. They were not interested in dealing with it."
Which convinced the two sisters they had to go and talk to the community's leading halachic authority.
But wanting to make sure all aspects of the issue would be covered by those better versed in the area than they are, Hartman and Bruck asked a prominent rabbi, and Orthodox attorney and an Orthodox psychotherapist to go with them.
"They each said they'd let us know. But we never heard back from any of them. So we went ourselves."
"I told him I was not happy he didn't not get involved seven years ago and that he had to be involved this time," says Hartman. "I did not speak meekly but was adamant to get my point across. We explained to him, from a to z, how others had been victimized because things had not been put into place. He said he didn't know how to deal with it and we explained that wasn't an answer." And so Bruck and Harman spent hours explaining that pedophilia is a disease, explaining why it was so important the community be alerted that this goes on and had been going on, explaining the pain it causes its victims. They begged this rabbi to learn more, to do more. He said he would.
And, indeed, Hartman and Bruck are please that four rabbis, Rabbi Zev Cohen of Congregation Adas Yehurun, Rabbi Gedaliah Schwarts of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst of Agudath Israel of Illinois and Rabbi Avrohom Levin of Telshe Yeshiva have agreed to serve as the rabbinical advisory board of Project Shield, a new effort to more systematically deal with the issue of sexual abuse (see separate story).
Rabbi Cohen defends how the community's rabbis have dealt with the current perpetrator, saying he and three other rabbis have spent more than 300 hours on the case, forming a Beit Din to protect the victims by "confronting the perpetrator, making sure he was in counseling and issuing stringent guidelines to prevent any interactions with young boys." He says the community' should be proud of the "incredible amount of work that has been done to help the victims and their parents and ensure there are no future victims".
Rabbi Cohen adds that the community's rabbis should not be criticized in this instance and says that "if rabbis are not seen as strong in the eyes of the community, they don't have the ability to do anything and that doesn't benefit anyone."
Hartman and Bruck agree that Rabbi Cohen has been the most responsive rabbi in the community about this matter but not that not one rabbi, not even Cohen, has spoken from the pulpit about the issue. And that while he, and Rabbis Levin, Schwartz and Fuerst are trying to deal with the issue, the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis continue to do nothing.
"Our goal is to get the rabbis to work with us on this, not to read this article and get all upset," said Hartman. "Yes, a few rabbis have tried to do good and that's a big step and we are grateful, but we need more, we need a majority to get involved to protect our children.
"Some rabbis say they don't like the line that their attitude about this has been 'don't ask don't tell.' Well I'm sorry but that has been the majority of the rabbinical response."
And because that has been so, the rabbis have failed to let the community know about the issue.
"Why wasn't the community alerted about this school rebbe from the pulpit so that parents could take the necessary precautions," asks Hartman. "Why haven't rabbis gotten up in shul and said something?"
Indeed, Bruck confronted one rabbi and said, "you're the rabbi of a shul. Have you gotten up there and said anything to anyone? He said what do you want me to say? I used to go to his shul and he would talk about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, talk about O.J. Simpson. I said to him you can talk
about it with your children. So he said to me, "I'm up for suggestions. Please."
While Hartman is please the four rabbis have joined her efforts, she notes that they still have not sat down together as a group and talked about a plan of action. "And I understand that, they are very busy and have a lot of immediate things to deal with. But you can't wait until something else happens. We need the rabbis to be pro-active, to react now and plan now. We can't wait for later, we must prevent there from being a later."
She notes that one rabbi has said that because it happened in her family, she is over reacting to the situation. "No, I've under-reacted, I waited too long to do something, I should have done more seven years ago. The rabbis are talking now about the dangers of the Internet. Well they also need to talk
and educate about this danger."
While Hartman is hopeful they will, some still have their doubts. A therapist involved in the issue says that she put together a bunch of materials about child sexual abuse for the community's leading halachic authority to read and brought it to his house. "He said that he didn't want the material and that the guy's not going to do it again because he's a frum man."
Brucks notes the same king of silence has happened not only in the school where the incidents occurred but in all the Orthodox days schools. "They don't have a clue. Every school and ever principal was called and asked if someone could come in and talk to the parents, to the teachers, to the students and every single one said no, said they felt no one was talking about it and to do so would be to open up a Pandora's box.
"Even more amazing, they haven't even talked to the class whose members were molested."
Why? First and foremost, they don't want it getting out into the public world. The last thing they want is that people should know it happens in the frum community. Then there's the fact that people don't want to believe it happens. There are still lots of people who don't believe what the first perpetrator did is true or they say it's lashon hara (gossip) to talk about it. It's not an issue anyone wants to get involved with, it's easier to say it's a rumor, nobody can prove it. And so they just deny it".
The problem with the rabbis not publicly acknowledging what has occurred, says Hartman, is that it aids the feeling of "most people who don't believe the perpetrator is guilty. After all, up until this point he has been a respected person, so unless you have the facts, but the facts are supposed to be kept confidential to protect the victims and since no one wants to come out and say, 'yes I was sexually abused and this is exactly what happened to me,' you don't have the facts and so it is dismissed as hearsay. Those in the community who know the perpetrator, say they've never been molested so it's probably not true. That's the point. These perpetrators lead a double life so why believe this blind information when I know this guy, he's a nice frum man in our community."
And so the perpetrator gets away with his crime and the victims pay even more.
Indeed, the Department of Children and Family Services began its investigation because one o the boys molested at the school called their hotline to file charges against the rabbi and, says Hartman, "this kid is being persecuted. Kids in that class love their rebbe and so this victim is being penalized for pressing charges, his life is being made a living hell."
Beyond that, the rabbi is being protected to see that he stays out of jail and his story kept out of the newspapers.
Why are the rabbis working so hard to make sure he doesn't stand trail, let alone go to jail? "Because it didn't happen to their kids," said Bruck, "it's as simple as that." The perpetrator's attorney, Hal Garfinkel, refused to comment on any aspect of the case when called by the Chicago Jewish News.
Hartman says the community's fear of the story being public is putting the concern very much on the wrong thing. "I brought one of the victims, now grown up, to the office of one of the rabbis and he said he felt such rage he wanted to murder the perpetrator. The parents of another victim told the
rabbi they wanted to kill the man.
"When a victim voices these raw emotions, the rabbis should be shaking in their boots. But they did nothing, all they were focused on was keeping it out of the papers and the perpetrators out of jail. I finally said, 'are you guys waiting for someone to actually shoot the perpetrator how are you going to hide that from the newspapers?"
To not acknowledge what has gone on, says Bruck, "you destroy victims' lives over and over. Think about those who have poured their hearts out -- and yet who see nothing being done about it, who walk through the community and there the perpetrator is, go to the pizza shop and there he is, so they are victimized over and over again and the rabbinic reaction is nothing. The victims continue to be pained that it is not being publicly acknowledged
that what the perpetrator did was wrong. Meanwhile, the perpetrator, whose life isn't easy, but still he's managing to go to shul, his life goes on, people want to help his family."
Not that there shouldn't be compassion for his family, says Hartman, who calls them victims, too. "I know his wife, she's a very find young woman. Her life is over, her life is hell and will be forever, whether she stays with him or not. He destroyed lots of lives and you have to have sympathy for that. They have eight children. No one knows what goes on behind her closed doors, but I can guarantee, it ain't a pretty site and my heart goes out to her. She and her children are big victims in this."
But, says Harman, first and foremost are the victims this rabbi sexually abused. She calls them "the faceless victims."
"In the case of his family, the community knows who the victims are and so they want to do for them. But everyone seems to be forgetting the faceless victims, these innocent children who nobody knows, who are being left out to hang, to live with this pain the rest of their lives."
Which is why Hartman and Bruck believe it is so important people talk about this, know about it, that people let their rabbis know they expect them to act.
"I think it's pretty pathetic that the rabbis can't work together to protect our innocent children," says Hartman. She notes that the hot issue at the moment in Orthodox circles is something being labeled 'Children at Risk', referring to the increasing number of Orthodox youth who are leaving the community, often getting into drugs and other destructive behaviors.
"You have all the rabbis speaking from the pulpit about 'children at risk'. I think if someone did a little research to see how many of those children were sexually molested, it might be a pretty eye-opening experience. Children do not come from ice home and become so deep rooted in anger and frustration and so self-destructive unless something pretty horrible has happened to them.
"Everybody talks about the children, the children, being there for thechildren, well then when a child or their parent comes to you and say someone has really hurt my child, then do something about it. It's very nice to preach about 'children at risk' but helping children who are victims of sexual abuse is at the core and nobody is responding to it."
And there is no excuse for that, says Bruck. "This happens everywhere, in the every community. It doesn't happen more in the Orthodox community, actually it probably happens less, but it does happen."
Which is why Hartman and Bruck are doing what they're doing, saying what they're saying, because the truth is they wish they didn't have to.
"There is no question some will be unhappy this is being talked about publicly," says Bruck, "but it's either say nothing or say and do something to make things better. People don't want us to talk about it., but that's the only way something gets done."
This is something that goes to the heart of what all of us are supposed to be all about," adds Hartman. "Never in a million years did we think we'd be sitting here talking about this. I am part of this community. Every person in my family has dedicated themselves to being a responsible member of the community and to making it a better community. It is not our desire to tear it apart in any way, shape or form. Our goal is to unite it and make it better.
"Maybe 25 years ago, this kind of thing wasn't discussed. But we discuss it now. This is not going to disappear, not going to go away by itself. So you have to be ready to deal with it."
And you start to do that, she says, by "putting a face on it. We have to give it legitimacy, make it a reality, get our leaders and the community to take it seriously. We need the rabbis to sit down and get educated about it, understand the irreparable damage these perpetrators do to their victims.
"People want to believe they can trust their spiritual leaders to deal with this problem, but if nothing is done, this is a bomb waiting to explode in everyone's face."