Friday, April 03, 2009

New book takes on sexual abuse in the Jewish community

New book takes on sexual abuse in the Jewish community
By Vladimir Shvorin
The Jewish Advocate - April 3, 2009

When allegations of sexual abuse by a cantor first surfaced at Temple Beth Am of Randolph in 2003, the local Jewish community was shocked. But the incident was also a reminder that the crime of sexual abuse is not bound by religion or culture, according to Amy Neustein, Ph.D., a sociologist and the editor of "Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities and Child Sex Scandals," just released through Brandeis University Press.
"[Sexual abuse] isn't more or less frequent in the Jewish community than in the non-Jewish population," said Neustein. "I feel very sanguine about the fact that the Jewish community is starting to acknowledge this, and the fear of community shame, which made people want to sweep things like this under the rug, is subsiding. [These incidents] can bring shame to communities because the victim is the embodiment of the community's dereliction of their duties."
"Tempest in the Temple" includes a collection of essays by 15 practicing rabbis, educators, pastoral counselors, sociologists, psychotherapists and legal advocates for sexual abuse victims. The first section, "When the Vow Breaks," examines cases of abuse by Jewish clergy members. "Sacrificing Victims," the second section, discusses the ramifications in the Jewish community and how that community may unknowingly propagate the cover-up of abuse. The final section, "Let Me Know the Way," suggests ways in which the Jewish community can overcome such incidents.
Psychotherapist Vicki Polin, founder of The Awareness Center, the Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault, said that statistics on sexual abuse within the Jewish community run parallel to rates of abuse within the broader population. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, some 78,000 cases of child sexual abuse were substantiated in 2006.
The rates of abuse for the population at large are even more alarming: one in six American women and one in 33 American men have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC states that the statistics likely fall short of the real numbers because many abuse victims do not come forward to report the incident.
The issue is compounded, Polin said, in allegations of sexual abuse in religious circles. Many fear social stigma, especially when the incident involves community leaders. And addressing the matter can be especially trying on victims, as institutions sometimes act to suppress the issue.
"Victims are fearful," said Polin. "[Jews] who are not observant are more likely to go to the police and get the help they need right away. In the Orthodox world, if it's mainstream Orthodox, they won't go to secular authorities. They will usually try to take care of it quietly."
But that was not the case at the Conservative Temple Beth Am, according to the congregation's rabbi, Loel Weiss. Weiss wrote the first chapter of "Tempest in the Temple" and described the fallout that occurred after the congregation's former cantor, Robert D. Shapiro, was convicted of sexually abusing a mentally retarded woman in her late 20s. The victim was said to have the brain capacity of a 5- to 7-year-old child. Shapiro was ordered to pay $8.4 million in a verdict for the family.
"It was not a story that was confidential or hidden," said Weiss. "We had no way of investigating the allegations, nor did we have the expertise necessary to investigate. So we needed to get authorities involved to make these decisions for us. Every step of the way, we were honest and up front with the congregation and community. We felt that the way we handled it was a paradigm for others in the Jewish community."
"Tempest in the Temple" is part of a larger series titled "American Jewish History, Culture, and Life," which is edited by Brandeis Professor of American Jewish History Jonathan Sarna. Sarna was pleased to include a book that addresses a relatively unexplored issue in the Jewish community in the series.

"This book deals with an important, and in some ways, troubling aspect of American Jewish life," said Sarna. "We sent it out to several readers who felt that the subject had for too long been ignored and needed to be properly understood and examined. In the book, a wide range of writers from many different places really opened up a subject that had never been opened up before in this way. And on that basis, I was very glad to see the book appear in our series."

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