“Hebrew Theological School Apologizes to Sexual Abuse Survivor Put on Notice” appears here with the permission of Chaim Levin who first posted it on his blog, Gotta Give ‘Em Hope.
Last Thursday, Kaylie* (a pseudonym) was placed on notice for misconduct at Hebrew Theological College for disclosing on Facebook that she is a survivor of sexual abuse. She had felt that she must stand against the attitude that survivors are defective. Ironically, her dean declared very coldly as result that Kaylie* thus appeared “less than human”, “besmirching” her peers and school, and ordered Kaylie’s* silence under the threat of expulsion. After an outcry against her insensitive, outrageous remarks to and action against Kaylie*, Dean Esther Shkop of Hebrew Theological College’s Torani L’Banot school offered an apology yesterday, as well as hope that things will be different in the future:
Over the last number of difficult days, regret and a stirring sadness have overtaken me because of the insensitive and harsh email I recently sent you. I ask for your mechila [forgiveness] and extend you my deepest apology.
Inasmuch as [Torani L’Banot] has always endeavored to provide all of our students with full academic, emotional, and spiritual support – taking into account the variety of life experiences – it has become clear to me that we must do a better job in creating both the appropriate environment and the systems necessary to support our students in their greatest hour of need. I do maintain our position that it is not in keeping with the standards of Tznius [modesty] and fundamentally unsafe to post intimate information about oneself and others on social media. [Torani L’Banot], therefore, provides a private and safe forum for support and guidance.
We know that the Almighty places tests before us not only to draw closer to the Creator of the World, but to bolster our capabilities in improving the lives of His children, particularly those that are in great pain and in need of our help and support. We will be assembling the expertise needed to make recommendations to the Board and to me on the resources and support systems we must improve to serve our cherished students to the fullest extent of our capability.
We as Jewish educators of young adults are on the front-line of life’s many challenges. Tragically, the scourge of sexual abuse and misconduct has not spared the Orthodox community and its precious children. We, therefore, must continue to be an institution that sets the standard in helping and supporting our students as they demonstrate the bravery and fortitude required for the healing process. This is the test the Ribbono Shel O’lam [Lord of the Universe] has clearly put before me in the wake of my private email to you.
Dr. Esther M. Shkop
Dr Shkop’s largely impersonal, boilerplate email may be lacking clarification of policy, unequivocal rescission of disciplinary action and, more importantly, complete disavowal of the suggestion that being sexually abused or talking about it reflects negatively on the survivor and is somehow indecency. However, it does offer a personal apology and the promise of better resources and support for students in general. Dr Shkop has recognized the damaging power of her earlier words, attitudes and actions and undertaken that she and the school will respond appropriately in the future. It takes courage to recognize wrongdoing and great conviction to avoid it in the future.
Dr Shkop’s courage and conviction here is a fitting and inspiring response to Kaylie’s* own. Despite negative comments and insults hurled her way, first by her dean, then by commentators who had read nothing more than that she dared admit that she had been sexually abused, Kaylie* has remained strong and steadfast, delivering a very important message: we cannot and will not be silent about sexual abuse or our communities’ reactions to the topic and survivors.
Kaylie* will continue to take a stand against sexual abuse and mistreatment of survivors, both on facebook and her new blog, Kaylie, doing her whistling. She is relieved that her academic career is no longer threatened. On this experience, Kaylie* reflects:
I’ve been told to keep quiet for as long as I can remember. My rapist told me not to tell. I could not, but I needed to. That night, I stood in front of my father and tried to tell him what had happened — tried to find some way to explain what went on while he and my mother weren’t home. I had no way to explain what my rapist had done. I could not put terms to the body parts, and no one ever warned me that what had happened was wrong. I only knew that my rapist had tried to manipulate me into stripping for him by telling me he would give me eight dollars and that, after he raped me, he did not pay up. I told my father that I was owed eight dollars… but I could not explain why. I was 7, and these were things that were not talked about.
That silence, that tugging feeling of anguish in my throat with no words to set it free, has stayed with me for years. I was told to not tell my parents. When I finally started speaking about any of the pain within me, I was told to not talk about it to others.
Over the years, I have made a tremendous amount of progress with my therapist. There are many organizations that can help survivors, but they can only help the ones they know about. What about the ones they do not know about? Who will help them? They can only be helped once they reached out… and they can only reach out when they know it is possible to. I came out because I had been one of the girls which were under the radar. They had no way of knowing about me. They have no way about knowing about so many. That’s why I came out.
I was shocked because of the underlying message of the first email — that we, as survivors, are somehow the bad ones. That was the very same attitude I had taken a stand against in coming out as a survivor; it breeds silence and allows the attitude to fester from the silent anguish inside victims. This pain and the fear of being expelled from college was what drove me to contact Chaim Levin.
By bringing public attention to what was happening at school, I hoped that this attitude might be reexamined and that I would be able to remain in a school which I had come to truly love. HTC is a wonderful place — the faculty is professional while retaining a level of friendliness towards the students, and every single professor is genuinely interested in the welfare and the progress of the students, as is Dr. Shkop.
The choice Dr. Shkop made when she emailed me her beautiful apology was a wise one — she put her institution at the forefront of schools taking steps to protect and support survivors of sexual abuse. I greatly admire her strength in admitting to her mistakes, and I am very happy we were able to reach a détente. The compromises we both made were not necessarily enormous, but the ripple effect of her actions will, God willing, make an effect which is more than enormous. Pain and darkness can only be fought with a passion for the light, and that passion is something Dr. Shkop exudes in abundance. The darkness every survivor has lived in can only last so long, and, with every step forward, another bit of pain is alchemized into something truly precious — hope.