Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The New Generation: How young adult hassidim are changing

The New Generation: How young adult hassidim are changing
by Vicki Polin
Examiner - June 26, 2012

It’s hard to believe that a month has passed since the historic rally in Queens where over 500 Jewish survivors of sexual abuse and their supporters joined forces in protest outside of Citi Field. Their goal was to shine a very bright light on the plight of ultra-orthodox Jewish children growing up in hassdic communities in which their civil rights have been taken away from them by rabbinic leaders. These are the very same religious leaders who organized a rally to control the lives of their followers by reiterating their ban of the internet. 

The survivors historic “Asifa” (gathering) against child sexual abuse was created as a reaction to the chassidic communities gathering of an estimated 60,000 mostly hasidic men and boys, which filled Citi Field in Queens for the highly publicized, mandated to attend program.Attempting to ban the internet is nothing new to the Jewish orthodox world. The first rabbinic round began back in 2005 when the cases of rabbis Marc Gafni (AKA: Mordechai Gafni, Mordechai Winiarz), J. Hershy Worch and Mordecai Tendler broke –– and bloggers Jewish Whistleblower, Jewish Survivors of Sexual Abuse Speak Out, New Hempstead News, The Committee For Rabbinic Integrity and organization, The Awareness Center were building momentum in educating the orthodox world of the prominence that sexual abuse had in their communities and the ramifications it has on its people.

One can only guess that over the last seven years since rabbonim started censoring and banning the internet in the homes of ultra-orthodox Jewish followers, and the estimated 3 million dollars spent were spent on the more recent Asifa against the internet that hassidic leaders are feeling they are loosing control of the monopoly they had over the lives of their followers. Why else would they spent so much money and demanded that every hasidic male over the age of thirteen attend the Asifa?

The chassidic leaders newest actions has brought about another new wave of activists who are demanding accountability from their leaders. This fourth wave of advocates include Ari Mandel, his brother Eli and Chanie Friedman. All three are a part of the OTD (Off The Derech) community, which is made up of individuals who grew up orthodox and chose to move into the secular lifestyle.

Ari Mandel is dedicated to protecting chassidic children
Twenty-nine year old, Ari Mandel describes himself as “the leader of the pack . . . King of the hell raisers”. Eight weeks prior to the survivors rally, child molestation and the frum community was way down on the list of important things in his life. Ari had left the ultra-orthodox world back in 2006. 
The following year he joined the United States Army. Mandel stated he joined the military for a multitude of reasons, but mostly because he wanted to go to college, and was up for an adventure. What’s amazing about Ari’s desire to be educated is that having a secular education of any kind is frowned upon in the hasidic world. A world in which most do not know how to read or write in English, even though they are going to schools in the USA. As Ari stated, “I’m not the same human being I was 10 years ago. I taught myself to read and write.”

Ari Mandel during his years living in the chassidic community
When Ari Mandel returned back to civilian life, he began to look back at his chasidic roots. About nine weeks ago he went to his sisters home for shabbos dinner (Jewish sabbath). During a conversation that evening he learned that one of his cousins attempted suicide at the age of 15, after being sexually abused by a camp counselor. During that meal he learned about the internet ban and the gathering being organized by chasidic leaders. With all his anger and energy, Ari knew he had to do something, stating “I was at the right place at the right time perfect storm.” Right after shabbos, he signed himself on to Facebook, while thinking to himself “Where’s the rabbinic Asifa (gathering) about child molestation?” 

Once online, Ari started to talk to his Facebook friend, Chanie Friedman. During their conversation Chanie suggested in jest that they should protest the rabbis. A light went off in Ari head and started organizing. Within 12 hours after creating a special page on Facebook for a rally –– “everything thing exploded.” Over night there were over 10,000 invites to the group. Ari pulled in his younger brother Eli for help, along with Motie Weiss and Sue Donim to help organize an event much bigger then Ari could have ever imagined. 

Ari Mandel believes that this protest rally was so successful because, he and his partners have all walked away from the chasidic lifestyle, yet know it inside out. If they were still part of the community they wouldn’t have been able to pull it off. Not only would they have been threatened and kicked out of shul (synagogue), their children would have been kicked out of camp and school. Ari currently works part time for the government.

Eli Mandel, Activist for children's rights
Twenty-seven year old, Eli Mandel is very proud of his big brother Ari for putting together the protest rally, “internet is not the problem”. Eli, who is an observant Jew and currently lives in Cleveland, stated that “in the early stages we weren’t that focused on child abuse as being the main point . . . We also were considering focusing in on the fact that all too often hasidic families don’t stick together when a child no longer doesn’t want to stay religious or if their religious views differ then their parents." Eli stated it was his idea to keep the groups focus on child molestation within their community. 

Eli didn’t realize that his cousin was being molested when he got involved it wasn’t until a few weeks later that his brother Ari, disclosed to him what had happened. Eli’s younger cousin, at the age of 15 overdosed on drugs in an attempt to kill himself. This knowledge made him really want to put everything he had in doing what he could to protect other kids from his cousins fate. 

One of the Mandel’s younger brother’s was also at the rally at citi field. With his parents blessing, the third Mandel brother missed a day of school to be a part of this landmark event. When he returned to school the next day he learned his rosh yeshiva (principal of the school) gave a lecture to his classmates regarding the harm his older brother Ari was doing to the Jewish people, by organizing such a rally. As soon their mother learned about what happened she dis-enrolled her son from the school stating “we don’t have to put up with this crap.”

Eli went on to explain that the whole dynamic of the OTD movement is made up of mostly of individuals who walked away from ultra-orthodox world. Some of the individuals who originally helped to organizer the initial rally were angry and wanted to make drastic changes in the frum world, and not involve other movements of Judaism. Each person came to the rally from various different types of experiences and had their own personal reasons to be there. 

Eli, went on to say, “I’m still frum, yet not like how I grew up. Ari’s friend said I didn’t know Ari had a brother that’s still frum. I’m not chassidic... There were way to many problems within the community . . . An example is like the way they tried to cover things up like in the murder of Leiby Kletsky.” I also think it’s ridiculous to have to go to a rabbi for everything. . . I really didn’t know much about the issue of sexual abuse, yet the Institutional power structure gets me very angry.”
"I was talking to one of the rabbis Cleveland, he told me that if a young man is a molester he would tell the offender to go to the mikvah, it would help with with his problems. This rav is an American gadol (a rabbi’s rabbi). I’ve been very fortunate to be a member of a synagogue that is very supportive of what I’m doing. I come to New York from Cleveland for each of the rallies with the blessing of my rabbi.

Eli Mandel protesting outside of Citi Field
"In the future, our groups goals include having Agudath Israel of America to change their policies when it comes to dealing with law enforcement, to ensure all schools do criminal background checks on all employees at schools, camps and anywhere else children are present...Our main goal for now is not to allow survivors of sexual abuse to be victimized again and to show our support to them in courtrooms.” 

"I am the director of a program within Jewish Family services in Cleveland called, Mesila (providing a path to financial stability). My organization provides financial education to adults, we basically teach budgeting. During seminars I pull out a picture of an ostrich with head in sand, to make a point about the importance of budgeting I’d like to do the same thing with the frum community, when it comes to many topics, including sexual abuse. It’s obvious they are too afraid to look.” 

"I wear my yarmulke with pride. At the rally at Citi Field various frum men came up to me telling me that they really wanted to stand along side me if they could. These men fear they would be retaliated against if they did. One rabbi said that he was even symathetic to the cause, yet stated wasn’t in a personal place to stand beside the protesters at this time...Let’s not open that can of worms.”

Chanie Friedman, mother, student and activist for the rights of children
Chanie Friedman is a thirty-four year old divorced mother of two and a full time student. Recently she finished her associates degree in fine arts, and is hoping to transfer to Columbia College to continue her studies She sends her kids go to public school, yet her nieces and nephews attend frum schools. She worries about her relatives, fearing that one of them could be abused. 

Chanie grew up in the hasidic community of Crown Heights and started leaving the observant world when she was around the age of sixteen or seventeen. 

Chanie’s parents were baal teshuvas (BT’s), and because of that she always had ties to the secular world. Chanie shared that growing up that she wasn’t “super sheltered” and that unlike most girls growing up in Crown Heights, she “was raised to speak up for herself.”

Because Chanie’s parents were BTs she was exposed to the idea of independent thinking.

“Growing up I didn’t make trouble, so I didn’t get in trouble. I attended all of the major chabad school in Crown Heights." 

Chanie Friedman and Ari Mandel at the Brooklyn DA's Office
Chanie originally met Ari Mandel in OTD circles. While talking on the internet both Ari and Chanie became outraged at all the money and time the rabbonim were spending on banning the internet while ignoring the fact that hasidic children were being abused. 

"I’ve always been outspoken about this for years." Chanie also stated that she never thought she would get involved with something like a protest rally, yet everything just seemed to happen and it was the perfect moment for it. “Once you come to a point and realize what’s going on, you can’t really NOT get involved . . . with the politics, the double speak . . . .it’s amazing and shocking but I’m getting immune to it.

Chanie went on to say that “I’m the younger crowd that is changing, more aware and more enlightened . . . So much you hear from rabbonim that an alleged child molester has changed or being watched . . . you know that’s not the truth and something has to be done to protect children.”

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