Does truth matter?
The Jewish Week has two op-eds on child sexual abuse. The one that I find problematic is written by Rabbi David Zwiebel, the executive VP of Agudath Israel of America:
Bill’s ‘Window’ Unfair, Yet More Must Be Done
Rabbi David Zwiebel, Special To The Jewish Week
As reported in these pages one week ago, a small group of protesters picketed this year’s annual dinner of Agudath Israel of America to show their displeasure with Agudath Israel’s opposition to the “Markey bill” — legislation pending in Albany that would, among other things, suspend for one year the statute of limitations in New York for any civil claims based on allegations of childhood sexual abuse.
The picketers handed out a one-page color flier bearing the logo of Agudath Israel, with the header “A message from Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President, Agudath Israel of America.” At the conclusion of the message appeared a photograph of said executive vice president — me — followed by the tagline: “Agudas Yisroel: Our children are our future.”
The purported message itself was quite an eye-opener. It described Agudath Israel’s opposition to the Markey bill as having been motivated by personal concern regarding potential legal claims the bill would allow to be brought against Agudath Israel itself and the yeshivot headed by the organization’s senior rabbinic leadership. It claimed, in classic first-person confessional prose, that “I have been ordered to work tirelessly with our partner in this holy mission, the Catholic Conference of New York State, to oppose this legislation. ... My job is to follow orders and I am obligated to obey ... or lose my job.”
As readers may have guessed, the message was fabricated. I never wrote it. It was materially false. It was a cheap shot.
And yet, in a certain sense, it was a welcome contribution.
Sexual abuse of children is an unspeakably terrible thing. And, to our great pain and chagrin, we in the Orthodox Jewish community have discovered over recent years that it is also apparently a far more common thing than any of us had ever imagined. Whether, as some claim, the problem is even greater in Orthodox circles than in broader society, whether it is just as bad or whether it is less prevalent, the bottom line is by now clear and undeniable: significant numbers of children growing up in Orthodox homes and attending Orthodox institutions are victims of sexual abuse.
It is also by now clear and undeniable that the scars left by such abuse are often deep and permanent, affecting victims’ social and emotional development, undermining their religious identification and observance, even leading to acts of self-destruction.
Once we could say we didn’t know. Now we know. And part of the reason we know is that victims and their advocates — like those who picketed our dinner — have made their voices heard. As I told a Jewish Week reporter last week, these people have a special claim on our attention and conscience.
But their brash indictment of our organizations and rabbinic leaders is both misguided and offensive.
As it became apparent that the problem of childhood sexual abuse in Orthodox circles was a serious one — both in scope and in severity — responsible rabbinic leaders began to assess and address the situation. With little fanfare, away from the media limelight, the Vaad Roshei Yeshiva (senior yeshiva deans) of Torah Umesorah – The National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, and the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages) of Agudath Israel, convened many meetings to discuss the problem and develop meaningful responses. This led, six years ago, to the publication by Torah Umesorah (with a strong assist from the professionals at Ohel) of internal school guidelines for preventing and dealing with abuse, including reporting to civil authorities when appropriate. Workshops on the topic are a regular feature of Torah Umesorah conventions.
Agudath Israel, similarly, has developed guidelines for Jewish summer camps, as well as for its year-round extracurricular youth programs.
The organizations have encouraged schools and camps to urge their parent bodies to talk to their children about inappropriate touch. They have encouraged institutions to perform background checks on all prospective employees, including a criminal records check, and have supported laws authorizing non-public schools to screen prospective employees through a state fingerprint checking system.
On the rabbinic front, halachic responsa have been published addressing the question of reporting cases of suspected abuse to the secular authorities. Special Jewish courts have been established in several Orthodox communities across the country to deal with allegations of abuse.
But yes, despite all this — and despite recognizing that yet additional steps need to be considered — Agudath Israel and Torah Umesorah oppose the Markey bill.
More precisely, we oppose one specific aspect of the Markey bill. As our organizations’ joint statement makes clear, we would not object to legislation designed to give victims greater recourse against their abusers. Our concern is with the bill’s potentially crippling real-world impact on Jewish schools, camps and synagogues — institutions that are the very lifeblood of our community — and their hard-pressed parent bodies and supporters who have no connection whatsoever to decades-old claims of abuse.
One can still maintain that, even so, it makes sense to suspend the statute of limitations for civil suits against institutions. Reasonable people can debate the issue. But opposition to the Markey bill’s “window” does not bespeak, as has been repeatedly and angrily charged by some of the bill’s proponents, lack of concern, God forbid, for victims.
No one at Agudath Israel or Torah Umesorah has ever insinuated that proponents of the bill don’t care about Jewish schools. We know that the bill’s proponents are well-meaning even if, in our view, they are not adequately weighing all the factors. We only wish they would extend to those of us who oppose the bill similar courtesy — or at least the courtesy of not disseminating fabricated “statements” designed to cast us and our community’s most revered rabbinic leaders in a poor light.
The picketers, though, are right. Our children are our future. They — and the schools that play such a central role in their Jewish development — are the most precious resources the Jewish community possesses. They deserve, both of them, our care and protection.
Rabbi David Zwiebel is executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America.
1. Every positive step Zwiebel mentions are voluntary. Haredi schools do not have to follow them. Many – perhaps most – do not. There is no penalty for failing to adopt these voluntary measures. Zwiebel omits this important fact.
The Markey Bill And Beyond: If The Rabbis Really Cared ...
Asher Lipner, Special To The Jewish Week
For years I was a proud, card-carrying member of Agudath Israel of America, a leading haredi communal organization; sadly, I have allowed my membership to lapse. But I, like many others, do not feel that I left the Agudah. Rather the Agudah has left us.
The Agudah has come out in opposition to the Child Victims Act, known as the “Markey Bill” in the New York State Legislature (its lead sponsor is Queens Assemblywoman Marge Markey). The bill would allow victims of childhood sexual abuse recourse toward obtaining justice against their abusers by providing a one-year “window” in which to file a civil lawsuit at any age, and would extend the statute of limitations for pressing criminal charges from age 23 to 28.
Many survivors of child abuse have been waiting for years in shame, pain and agony, hoping that one day our religious leaders would hear their cries and address their plight. Survivors were just beginning to feel empowered and accepted after recent media attention and political and communal statements calling attention to their suffering.
Courageously, some survivors were able to speak out, and there were those who traveled to Albany last month to lobby for passage of the Markey bill. Orthodox Jews stood together with Catholics and Protestants, blacks and whites, to support survivors of child abuse and to ensure protection for children in the future.
But we were deeply disappointed to learn, on the bus ride home, that the Agudah and Torah Umesorah, the National Association of Hebrew Day Schools, whom parents expect to promote child welfare and school safety, had come out against the bill.
One survivor of abuse from 29 years ago, a friend of mine, wondered aloud: “Does it take a situation where the children or grandchildren of the religious leadership are molested before they will finally start doing the right thing?”
The Agudah is concerned with yeshivas and other institutions becoming financially insolvent due to lawsuits, should Markey pass. But the only lawsuits that could possibly win are those against yeshivas that knowingly harbored molesters, not the vast majority of innocent institutions. Are we to believe that yeshivas that would enable the abuse of innocent Jewish children are, in the words of the Agudah and Torah Umersorah, the “lifeblood of our community?”
On the one hand, the Markey bill is not necessarily an absolute litmus test of whether the rabbis care or not about victims of sexual abuse. But the fact is that Agudah’s denunciation of the Child Victims Act marks the first time that the current gedolim (Torah sages) have acknowledged the problem of sexual abuse — and then only to focus on the institutions they are afraid will be financially hurt by it. As I have heard repeatedly from those who have suffered, this leads survivors of abuse to feel that the rabbis care more about the financial safety of their institutions than the physical, emotional and spiritual safety of the children.
Survivors of abuse wonder why the rabbis remained silent for so many years about this issue. Yated Neeman, the primary haredi newspaper, reported recently that the leading rabbis have been meeting to discuss the problem for at least five years. So why is it only now that they publicly admit that molestation exists in their community? And where is the apology to the victims for not protecting them all this time, for not believing them and for silencing their voices?
Why have these rabbinic leaders not openly endorsed the position paper of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children (www.jewishadvoctes.org), which calls for mandated reporting of suspicion of abuse by rabbis and teachers in yeshivas; mandated fingerprinting and background checks of all employees in yeshivas; mandated safety plans with full transparency and written instructions to parents; and mandated firing and punishment of employees for any sexual or physical abuse?
These actions should have begun already — voluntarily — even before legislation is enacted. It is a chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) that our yeshivas would need the government to legislate and enforce the fundamentals of our Torah. Enforcement of these values, which conform to halacha, would be easy enough for our leaders. Any school that does not provide for the safety of our children should be deemed as outside of Orthodoxy, as would be a school that sponsored a Tisha b’Av dance party or Yom Kippur banquet.
Surely if a school was found to be distributing treif lollipops it would soon be forced to shut its doors.
Why have the gedolim not yet signed a proclamation stating that both victims and witnesses of abuse must go to the police, as some rabbinic authorities have stated? Why have they fostered the misperception that it is forbidden to do so because of mesirah (the prohibition of reporting Jews to non-Jewish authorities)? Why do they not also clarify to the uninformed that sexual abuse is a sin and a crime whether there is sexual penetration or not — that it includes such mistreatment as fondling, coercing a child to touch an adult sexually, exhibitionism, voyeurism and even inappropriate sexual speech to a child?
If the rabbinic leaders are too afraid of damaging their own institutions to support the Markey bill, let them implement the above suggestions. That surely would go a long way toward reaching out to survivors and promoting healing and teshuva in our community.
Asher Lipner is vice president of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children and works as a therapist with survivors of abuse and their families.
There is a special place in hell for the Novominsker and his rabbinic colleagues. Before they get there, there is another special place they need to go: it's called federal penitentiary. That's where people who conspire to cover up crimes that violate the civil rights and safety of others go when they're prosecuted by the federal government under RICO.