Guest Post by Asher Lovy
As anyone who has the misfortune of being a survivor knows, being able to say the words “I am a survivor of sexual abuse” is quite possibly the hardest part of moving forward. The enormity of that statement and its ramifications for any survivor’s future are always overwhelming, and the courage required to come forward would rival that of Arthur’s bravest knights. It gets even harder when you’re frum and still living in a frum (observant) community because of the stigma associated with sexual abuse. Typically victims are dismissed as liars, besmirched by their communities, and ostracized. At best they’re told to let it go either because it will damage their chances for a shidduch (marriage match), or because the abuser has a family who doesn’t deserve to be hurt. Regardless of the reason, institutionalized silence is a major part of being a frum survivor, and that makes it so much harder to come forward.
For the past fifteen years, there have been those in the Jewish community who fought back against the stigma and have made significant progress. We’ve gotten to the point where, while it may not be common table talk, the subject of sexual abuse is known and the community is aware that it has a problem it must address. Although it isn’t much, even Yeshivas under the leadership of Agudath Israel of America (aka Agudah) are inviting awareness and prevention programs in to address the problem. We’re approaching a point, especially given the recent victories for survivors, where to come forward as a survivor will no longer be as hard as it once was. We’re not quite there yet. We still have minds to change at places like Hebrew Theological College’s Blitstein Institute in Chicago.
A few days ago, a friend of mine posted on her Facebook wall,
I’m a survivor of sexual abuse. This is not a new thing. I’ve been a survivor as long as you’ve known me. Are you going to change your opinion of me just because three evil people took advantage of me? Are you embarrassed of me? Are you willing to share our story? Let’s see who my real friends are.
She received this response today from Dean Esther Shkop.
I received an anonymous phone call last night with a message from one of your “friends” on Facebook, who expressed great consternation and concern that you have chosen to publicize to “friends” (regardless of their age, sincerity and level of intimacy) your history of sexual abuse. Your public Facebook page is troubling enough, as is your Google history [which are open to the whole world]. It is troubling primarily because you have chosen to identify yourself by your pathology. You no longer appear as a full human – but rather as “case study” of a young woman warped by her childhood experiences, and is thus identified wholly by that past.
I am not asking you to deny your pain. I am asking you to exercise a measure of discretion, and develop a plan to go beyond your past towards healing. You seem too intent on wallowing in the past, and drawing sick attention to yourself for all of the wrong reasons.
At the same, you identify yourself as a student of Hebrew Theological College, and by association besmirch your peers as well as yourself.
This misuse of social media is definitely a violation of the HTC Personal Conduct Policy (see page 17 in the Student Handbook). Consequently, the HTC Administration is putting you on formal notice that all inappropriate materials should be removed from your Facebook page forthwith – both on the front page and the back pages.
If you have questions about what is and is not appropriate, feel free to come to speak to me or Mrs. Lipshitz.Sincerely, Esther M. Shkop, Ph.D. Dean, Machon Torani L’Banot Blitstein Institute of Hebrew Theological College 2606 West Touhy Avenue Chicago, IL 60645 773-973-0241
Later, Dr. Shkop claimed that she was simply looking out for this survivor’s best interests. In my experience as both a survivor and someone who is very involved with survivors, silence serves no one but the abuser. When I first started coming out about some of my story, I remember that the response was overwhelming. For two months, people kept finding the courage to come forward with their own stories. That’s why coming out is so important, because there are so many people, so many survivors, who live with the misconception that they are all alone, and that no one cares. Much of what keeps a survivor silent is the idea that even if he or she is believed, which is unlikely, no one will care; that their situation is so freakish, so unheard of, that there couldn’t possibly be other people out there experiencing the same thing who would believe them and care about them.
When my friend came out about being a survivor, she was trying to give hope and strength to all those survivors who are still too afraid and feeling too alone to come forward with their own abuse. She was trying to tell them that yes, there are other people out there who survived the same thing, that it is not only possible to survive but to thrive and transcend your past. So many people need to hear that simple message, and the more people there are spreading that hope, the more people there are like my friend, the sooner we will be able to bring an end to the silence that binds survivors in their pain and insecurity.
What institutions like Hebrew Theological College should be doing is supporting survivors who come forward, and celebrating the fact that they feel safe enough to entrust the world with that part of them. Responses such as the one quoted above are what hold us back from progress. I remember having a similar conversation with my grandmother when I published my first article about my past. She told me that there really was no need for me to say anything; that I should just get over it; that if I was dead set on saying something I should remain anonymous; that there was no need to air my dirty laundry in public and that nothing could be gained from it. I’ve come a long way in my journey to healing and I still have a very long way to go, but I know for a fact that the first and most important step I took was publishing that first article.
I hope that for my friend, being able to come out is just as important a step in her journey. I hope that people like Dr. Shkop are never able to keep her from being able to transcend her past, or from helping other people do the same. I hope that at the very least, Dr. Shkop comes away from this whole situation understanding why coming forward doesn’t make one simply a “case study” or a specimen ofpathology, and that being associated with a survivor who feels comfortable and safe enough to come forward will besmirch neither her name nor the name of her institution. I hope that she comes to understand that moving forward from a history of abuse never involves silence. Who knows, Dr. Shkop may yet see the error of her ways and become a vocal advocate for survivors of childhood sexual abuse? Stranger things have happened in the past.