Text of June 30, 2013 address on “Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community” by David Cheifetz to the Annual Conference of the largest orthodox rabbinical organization in the world, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).
I want to thank the RCA for giving me the opportunity to share my story. If we could magically transport back in time by one year, I would not be here. If you were to tell me then that I would: decide to face the abuse in my history; decide to come out publically about it in an article; decide to serve as some sort of an advocate on the topic, I would have politely suggested that you were smoking something.
But a lot happens in a year. On Pesach, the Jewish Week published an article written by me where I came out as a victim of sexual abuse in a Jewish institution. And I am now working to try to create an organization to address the plague that is sexual abuse of children in our Jewish community.
I would like to share my journey – how I came to go public with my story — in the hope that it will help educate and sensitize members of this esteemed group to the scourge that is destroying the lives of countless children and adults.
But before I tell you my story, I want to share a couple of words, infamous words in a gathering like this, two words: Baruch Lanner.
My story begins very simply, in a camp called Dora Golding. I was thirteen years old. There was a senior member of the staff, a rabbi who I choose not to name, who befriended me. He even took me bowling on visitor’s day when my parents were unable to come up to visit.
One night, I think it was a Saturday night; he took me for a walk in the camp. He dared me to drink beer with him, and the 13 year old show off that I was, I did. He then sexually abused me, and did again a few more times over subsequent days.
At the end of the week I shared what was happening with a bunkmate, swearing him to secrecy. He did the responsible thing and may have saved my life – He reported the incident to the counselor, who reported the incident to the Camp Director, and a man named David Himber. I was summoned to the office of David Himber, forced to confront the person who violated me, and encouraged to go home. My story was never doubted. I was sent home because it is easier to punish the victim than it is to punish the perpetrator.
I believe that no one ever called the police. I believe that no one ever reported the incident to the Jewish Federation, a major funder of the camp. I believe that he was quietly let go at the end of the summer, because the camp had rachmunas [pity] on him and his poor pregnant wife. And I know that he went on to teach for 30 years at an all-boys Yeshiva. God only knows how many children he molested.
To be honest, I did not spend all that much time thinking about my experience of being sexually abused. I went to high school. I played a lot of basketball. I went to Israel for a year. I went to college, and later graduate school. I got married and had kids. And I built a career, “a normal life.”
Every so often I would recall my experience, as if it was something I once saw in an intense movie. On several occasions I quietly shared my experience with others in whispers, typically when I found out that their child had been abused, as if to reassure them that people can move on with their lives. Look at me!
And then something happened about ten months ago. I was triggered. What does that mean? You have a trigger event when someone is forced to confront their memories and experiences. It can cause extreme anxiety and the inability to function. It can cause depression. It can cause insomnia and memory flashbacks of the traumatic moments. It can lead to alcohol and substance abuse. In extreme cases, it can lead to suicide.
There is a different term that is used for these symptoms, one that we are all familiar with from the news: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), often associated with soldiers returning from war zones.
For me, the trigger was something that I read, written by a friend, who herself had been abused in the Chassidic community. This set me on a downward spiral. But, fortunately, I was already seeing a therapist for stress associated with being in the “sandwich generation”. Dealing with a dying parent and normal teenage rebellion has its benefits: It left me in a position where I had someone to speak with.
When I think back, I think that some symptoms of abuse had been with me all along. I have had insomnia my whole life. Statistically, I am more likely to die younger than my peers who were never abused. Thank you Camp Dora Golding!
When I first started to deal with my abuse in the fall, it was very personal, a very private issue. But then I became absorbed in current events of the past year.
I found myself following the Weberman trial very closely. And once, during a discussion, a friend — a Satmar guy who is not at all closed minded — questioned the veracity of the victim. Yet it was obvious to me, and to other abuse victims, that Weberman was guilty. And so I learned from that experience that our minds cannot process the obvious when it comes to issues like abuse. There is true cognitive dissonance. Our brains are wired to respect authority, to subscribe to the hierarchy. The data is all there. But unless you are a member of this terrible fraternity, or are truly familiar with the issue, it is difficult to put one plus one together, to make two.
At that point I told a group of friends that I am a victim, and one pulled me aside and asked, in all sincerity. “How is it possible? You are so normal?”
Well, we victims are normal – we are your friends, your brothers, your sisters, and your children. We are just scarred for life.
But this was Williamsburg, which is like Mars for most people in this room. And then the accusations about YU came out. Now, everyone of my generation had heard George Finkelstein stories. We have no doubts about them. So this did not impact me. But what did trigger me was a local Rabbi in Teaneck, not my rabbi, who wrote a blog post that said, more or less, that if a person is violated, they should go to the police. But if it is past the statute of limitations, it is their moral responsibility not to go to the police.
And here I was, less than a mile away, dealing with the psychological trauma of something horrendous that had been done to me over thirty years ago. Of course George Finkelstein and the like have the right to defend themselves in court. But do I, a victim, not have the right to tell my story? Do I not have the right to seek justice? Do I not have the right to try to protect others?
Then I saw a video on the Internet of a Chabad rabbi named Manis Freidman, secretly taped, who said that sexual abuse during childhood should be forgotten, that it was no worse than having had diarrhea. Is this the Torah’s perspective on sexual abuse?
And finally, I received a call from an old friend – a casual friend, not someone I had spent a lot of time with. He was a veteran of the Boruch Lanner case. He told me the intimate details of Baruch Lanner’s crimes, of the cover-ups, of the 1989 beit din (rabbinical court) that more or less exonerated Boruch Lanner, of the subsequent abuses, and of the OU (Orthodox Union) report of 2000. There were so many people involved, so many “respected” figures at YU and the OU. So many vested interests, that it took a newspaper article researched over two years to expose Boruch Lanner.
And here is the sad truth: I first heard of Boruch Lanner when I was a student in Israel. Until 1984 I had never heard of him. I had never been to New Jersey, except to travel from Queens to Monsey. One of his former New Jersey NCSY colleagues mentioned that there was a charismatic leader who sexually abused girls and physically abused boys. I asked him why the OU and the NCSY did not do anything, and I got the shoulder shrug. I got the “ich vais… (Do I know)?”
So, after learning of the extent of the cover-.ups in the Lanner case, I had a personal epiphany: Organizations are completely incapable of reforming themselves.
- This is true in the case of the Catholic Church.
- This is true in the case of the Boy Scouts.
- This is true of the OU.
- This is true of Satmar and Lakewood.
- And it is true of Yeshiva University.
It is not that these organizations necessarily support abuse. But they are naturally protective of their organizational reputations and their positions of prestige. And they are protective of their friends of many years. So they enter a “circle the wagons” mode. And the people that get forgotten along the way or are shunned or ostracized are the victims.
And so, my thinking went, if these organizations are incapable of changing from the inside, then reform must come from the outside. And that reform will be driven by financial pressure of donors, by public pressure in the press, by legal action, or by legislation. And the only thing that will catalyze these external pressures is if victims speak out. And who am I to point the finger at other victims for not speaking out if I was not willing to speak out myself?
And so, I decided to write an article and speak up as a victim.
And so, if we return to the broad experience of the Jewish community, our community in particular, especially in light of the lessons from the Baruch Lanner case, we have to ask ourselves One Key Question:
How is it possible that in light of the Baruch Lanner experience, abuses are still taking place?
How is it possible that there are still rabbis, including in the Modern Orthodox world, that are suggesting that victims not go straight to the police? That believe that allegations be should be reviewed by rabbinic panels before being sent to the police?
I would like to share with you one actual quote from the infamous 1989 Baruch Lanner Bais Din report:
We now turn to the issue of violence. Baruch Lanner readily admitted to incidents of “kneeing” his students and NCSYers. He insisted, however, that this physical contact was never designed to hurt anyone and was all done in the spirit of horseplay. Of the many people who testified in regard to this item, including victims of the conduct, most agreed with Baruch Lanner’s assessment.
Several victims of this conduct, including XXXXXXXXXX viewed it very negatively. We note, however, that all those who took this latter position either disliked Baruch Lanner in general and or were disaffected with the NCSY organization.
The charge that Baruch Lanner engaged in sexual innuendo in his interaction with female students and female NCSYers was found to be baseless.
Eichah? How is it possible that the current principal of MTA, YU’s high school, regularly hosts Baruch Lanner in his shul, and even had him in his home at a community open house on Purim this year, as an honored guest, at the same time that YU is diligently investigating the accusations about George Finkelstein and others?
How is it possible that after Weberman was found guilty of rape and sexual torture, that the OU issued and then recanted a statement praising the outcome of the Weberman case?
How is it possible that one of the top Poskim of the OU, a Rosh Yeshiva at Torah Vodaas, engaged in intimidation of the accuser of Yosef Kolko by slandering the child’s father, and that even after Kolko admitted his guilt, continues to declare Kolko’s innocence? And yet that senior Posek remains in his role in the OU? Is money in our community so much more important than the safety of our children? Zu Torah VeZu Sechorah?
Eichah? How is it that 34 years after I was abused and shunned in Camp Dora Golding we continue to suffer the same problems?
So since going public as a victim, I have been working with a few people to develop an organization that will:
- Focus on case management, helping victims and their families navigate social services, the police, legal issues, and their own communities
- And engage in public advocacy building awareness of the issue, and help drive the overall cultural change that must take place in the Jewish community in the coming years.
What does cultural change mean for you as members of the RCA?
- If someone comes to you as a rabbi and asks you a shailah (question) of whether to repeat shmoneh esrey because he forgot to say mashiv haruach, you are qualified to give an answer
- But if that same person comes to you and reports that he is having chest pains, you are not qualified to give a diagnosis, and must send him to a doctor
- If someone comes to you with a shailah about whether his chicken has been properly slaughtered, you may be qualified to give a psak (ruling)if you are familiar with the right sugyas (sections of Jewish law).
- But if someone comes to you to get advice on how to launch a rocket ship to the moon, you are not qualified to give an answer
- And if someone comes to you and says that he or she was molested, was sexually abused, or was physically abused, you are NOT qualified to assess whether the accusation is credible. Even if the accused perpetrator is a rabbi or a camp counselor or a teacher or a member of your shul or some other member of the community. Do not be dan lekav zchuss (give the benefit of the doubt) for the perpetrators. Be dan lekav zchuss for the victims. You must tell the victim to go to the police, and maybe even take him or her there yourself. And even if you have a psychology degree or a psychiatry degree or a degree in social work, you are still not qualified to make that assessment, because you are nogayah bedavar (have a conflict of interest).
- Victims must go straight to the police.
- And what, if on the outside chance, the accusation is not true? Well, reputations can be repaired. But take it from me: The scars of abuse will last a lifetime.
One last thought I would like to leave you with: One of the outcomes from the 1989 Bais Din was that Baruch Lanner was sent to therapy. This is a pattern that has been repeated again and again and again, and misses the point. People want to have rachmunus (pity or mercy) on the perpetrators and treat them. But this did not stop Baruch Lanner from abusing girls and boys over the next decade.
As rabbis, as communal leaders, DO NOT have rachmunas on the perpetrators. Have rachmunas on the victims. Because perpetrators are typically serial offenders, and you can almost guarantee that for as many victims of a single perpetrator you are aware of, there are five or ten times as many that you are not aware of. And every chance that the perpetrator has he will be cultivating his next victim. Take it from me: I too was cultivated.
Do not have rachmunus on the perpetrators. Have rachmunus on the victims.