As I close my eyes I recall the feelings of shame, uncertainty, and terror of my surroundings.…I will never forget my first grade substitute [rebbe]…who would snap his belt in our faces and say, "I'll give you an injection for your infection." One day…I spoke out in class and he hit me with his belt. …I went home and told my parents…and they decided to… talk to him. Afterwards, [the substitute rebbe] came back to class, reached into his desk drawer and took out a marker. On the board he drew a straight line bent over at the top half and said, “If a tree is bent over to one side and you want to straighten it out, it’s not enough to just bend it straight because then it will just bend right back. In order to get it straight, you would have to bend it all the way to the left and then it will come back to the middle. So too, if a boy is laughing in class, it is not enough to make him stop laughing because he will just start laughing again. But if you make him cry then he will not laugh again.”
Guest Post: Surviving Bais Mikroh Of Monsey
Shlomo Silber • Special to FailedMessiah.com
My name is Shlomo Silber and I am a frum Jew living in Queens. I have a wonderful wife, two beautiful children and, God-willing, another one on the way. I love my job and the community I live in. Recently I have been going through the dilemma of trying to find a school for my older son and I find I am stuck with the hardest decision of my life. When I think of my yeshiva experience, my heart tightens in my chest as I recall those terrible memories.
I went to a couple of people and told them that I wanted to write an article, using my name, in which I would graphically state what was done to me with the hope that maybe it will raise awareness in our community and give strength to those suffering to open up, come forward and get help. I thought I would be supported and encouraged. I thought people would feel that it is a very brave and admirable thing that I am doing by sharing my pain and experiences. Yet the response I got was shocking. I was told they will ruin my business; they will threaten my family, or just get ready for the lawsuits. This was very disturbing to me considering I am just trying to spread a message of awareness to our community. What has become of us if we have this code of silence? And if that silence is broken, will the one who speaks be muzzled with whatever it takes?
I have been meaning to write this article for a long time but have always pushed it off. Yet with recent events leading up to the Asifa and hearing the outcry of so many children who are now adults who have been abused physically, emotionally and sexually, having seen exposes on TV of entire communities protecting people who hurt children, I thought it is time for me to stand up and speak out and if there will be repercussions then so be it. Someone has to support those downtrodden and abused souls who are just looking for closure and validation for what has happened to them so they can begin to heal. Minimizing this issue is like telling a Holocaust survivor that the Holocaust never happened or that they should, “Just get over it”. I know this is an extreme statement but unfortunately, it’s true. I get emotional just writing this, thinking back to the days when I was a scared, defenseless child who had no one to turn to. I am writing these events not so that I can defame the frum community, but so that we can rise as a community to protect our children. I also would like to shed light on what I feel are misguided solutions to these problems. It is very important to regulate our schools and to bring those responsible for the abuse to justice. But I would like to add one element- How do we as parents respond to the needs of our children, especially while they are dealing with emotional trauma? Most of the articles I have read are based on bringing the abusers to justice. I think this is very important and must be done, but ultimately we are the ones responsible for taking care of our children. We must make sure they are safe, always, and we must also show them that we trust them and will be there for them if something goes wrong. It is extremely important that our children feel they can trust their parents and that they won’t be punished if they open up with an issue they are having even if they are in the wrong.
It’s time for me to let you know what it was like growing up as a child in a “frum” household attending Bais Mikroh of Monsey. As I close my eyes I recall the feelings of shame, uncertainty, and terror of my surroundings. I remember walking down the halls of my new school, nervous about starting with a rebbe instead of a morah and meeting so many new kids. I will never forget my first grade substitute, Rabbi Rosengarten, who would snap his belt in our faces and say, "I'll give you an injection for your infection". One day with Rabbi Rosengarten I spoke out in class and he hit me with his belt. Later on that day I went home and told my parents about what had happened and they decided to come down the next day and talk to him. Afterwards, Rabbi Rosengarten came back to class, reached into his desk drawer and took out a marker. On the board he drew a straight line bent over at the top half and said, “If a tree is bent over to one side and you want to straighten it out, it’s not enough to just bend it straight because then it will just bend right back. In order to get it straight, you would have to bend it all the way to the left and then it will come back to the middle. So too, if a boy is laughing in class, it is not enough to make him stop laughing because he will just start laughing again. But if you make him cry then he will not laugh again”.
In second grade Rabbi Braun would hold our fingers together with one hand and hit the tips of our fingers with a piece of wood he kept in his desk solely for this purpose. One day I said something he considered chutzpahdik and was told to come to the front of the class to receive my punishment. Knowing what was coming I didn't go up, and so he started coming over to my seat. I tried to hide under my desk as he came nearer. Suddenly, I felt a stinging pain on my backside and my head jerked up slamming into the bottom of the desk where an exposed piece of metal cut into my head. When Rabbi Braun saw that blood was dripping down my face, he picked me up, ran me to the bathroom and held my head under the faucet. He then brought me back to class with no apology and continued teaching while I held a paper towel to my head. This time, I knew better than to tell my parents. About a week later at home, I bent over to pick something up and my yarmulke fell off. My mother gasped “What is that gash on your head?” I replied that I was playing at recess, fell on the wood chips, and cut my head. She said it looked like I should have gotten stitches; I shrugged and went on with my day.
The next year was no better. I had Rabbi Lamb and he would always make me sit on his lap while he tickled me. It seemed that when I was good I would get tickled, and if I was bad I would also get tickled, unless I was really bad. Then he would grab hold of both sides of my cheeks between his thumb and index finger and violently shake my head back and forth. I was not alone in this treatment. I recall many kids in my class getting the tickles and head shakes on a daily basis. By this point in my life I was far behind my peers academically and was struggling just to read Hebrew. I would spend most of my days in class daydreaming about being in another place. I was creative and had a strong imagination and yet there was no place for me. Not only was I ridiculed and hit by my Rebbeim but I was made fun of by my classmates for not being able to read Hebrew. No one ever stepped in to protect me. In class, whenever I was not daydreaming, I was praying that I would not be called on to read the next posuk.
Rabbi Lamb knew that I was struggling and so he called my parents. He told them about a friend that was a great Rebbe and was willing to tutor me at night for free. My parents thanked him and set up an appointment. His friend’s name was Rabbi Shafer. I remember my father bringing me to an empty Shul where Rabbi Shafer sat alone under a single dim light and smiled at me as I walked toward him. He told my father to pick me up in an hour. He sat me down, then he got up and locked the front door. He sat back down next to me, put his arm around me, and asked me to read from the Chumash for him. I began to read as he leaned over me. I was a little scared and read nervously for him. My father had gone home and told my mother that it was weird because there was nobody else in the Shul with him. My mother must have had a premonition and told my father to run back and get me. When my father came back to the Shul and the front door was locked he began to pound on the door. I remember being startled as Rabbi Shafer got up to see what the banging was about. My father came in and said we had to leave. I was too scared to ever go back, so my parents canceled my tutoring.
I was very excited to start fourth grade. Rabbi Halpert was a new rebbe and all the kids loved him. Rabbi Singer was the rebbe of the other class and we all knew him as the rebbe who smoked during recess. Rabbi Singer was our substitute rebbe when Rabbi Halpert didn’t come. That year baseball cards were the coolest thing and we would trade them at recess. I brought all of mine in an empty baby wipe container to show all the kids in class. Rabbi Singer came in and caught us trading cards and confiscated them. He told me they were “Goyish” and he was giving them to Rabbi Bodenheimer the principal.
In the middle of that year I got into a fight at school. They called my parents to come pick me up. I cried to my parents that it wasn’t my fault. My father said I was being Chutzpadik and hit me so hard it left a bruise below my eye. The next day I told the kids in my class that I had gotten into a fight with Goyim on my block and played myself up as a tough guy. As I came in from recess, Rabbi Halpert stopped me before I entered the classroom. He asked me “How did you get that bruise?” I started to blush and lowered my head. He asked me, “Did your father do this to you”? I mumbled yes. He replied “Good. A father only hits because he loves you. It must mean he really loves you”.
By the time I was ten, I knew that I would run as far away as I could from this lifestyle. I looked up to some of my friend’s brothers who were "off the derech" and would daydream about being like them some day. I would fantasize about having friends and actually being accepted by someone. I remember pleading with my parents to switch me out of my Yeshiva, but my mother would tell me that no yeshiva would ever accept me. I was a disaster at home; I was a disaster at school. The only positive recognition I ever got was when I acted out as the class clown. It came with a heavy price but to me it was worth it- it was the only time I felt like I actually existed.
In fifth grade, Rabbi Litmanowitz would tell me that a Goy could read better than me. That stung me worse than any smack I ever got.
That year my yeshiva hosted a Bar Mitzvah for a kid who lived in my neighborhood and I was invited. At the Bar Mitzvah I went upstairs with a couple of other kids to hang out in my classroom during the speeches. One of the kids, who happened to be the son of the Rabbi of the Shul I went to on Shabbos, took a marker and wrote a curse word on my Rebbi’s desk. The next day I was taken out of class by Rabbi Litmanowitz and my principle, Rabbi Bodenheimer. Rabbi Bodenheimer asked if I knew anything about what was written on Rabbi Litmanowitz’s desk. At first, I said no. Rabbi Bodenheimer called me a liar. After being interrogated for a while I figured, what have I got to lose? The kid was not even in my Yeshiva so what could even happen to him? I told them it was Rabbi Shweitzer’s son. I remember Rabbi Bodenheimer towering over me as he made an astonished face and asked, “Rabbi Shweitzer’s son?” I nodded my head yes. He told me to go to his office and wait for him while he talked to my rebbe. As I walked down the hall, I felt relieved that I actually wasn't the one in trouble this time. I waited for a couple of minutes outside his office. Rabbi Bodenheimer eventually came and motioned me to follow him into his office. I followed him in and instead of going to sit behind his desk, he closed the door and told me to take off my glasses. The second I removed my glasses, he slapped me hard across the face and told me what a liar I was and asked me how could I make up such horrible lies about a Tzadick’s son. I was suspended for a week for a crime I did not commit.
I was so broken and damaged by this point. I would come home after being in trouble and getting abused the entire day at school only to get screamed at and smacked by my parents. I would go up to my room take out my imitation Swiss army knife, carve symbols into my window sill, and curse up at God, my parents and my rabbeim. When I would get into an argument with my parents on Shabbos I would run up to my room and switch the lights on and off repeatedly thinking I was punishing God for giving me this horrible life.
In the middle of my fifth grade year I found out there was a "special" class and where kids went to 7/11 in their Rebbe’s car to get Slurpees. I went to Rabbi Bodenheimer and asked him if I could be put in the special class. He said to me, "Are you going to behave?" and I swore that I would.
Rabbi Menlowitz’s class was in a small room all the way at the end of the hall where the "computer room" was supposed to be. There were three other kids in the class and we would be told stories from the Parsha and then we would go in Rabbi Mendlowitz’s red Maxima to 7/11. We would get Slurpees and then go with him on whatever errands he had to run. We went shopping; we stopped by the occasional garage sale. Looking back I am shocked that no one's parents (least of all mine) were paying attention enough to take issue with the fact that we spent the day in school picking up our rebbi's dry cleaning. Even in this class, I was not safe. I remember there were days where when Rabbi Mendlowitz would come to class in a bad mood and if I talked Chutzpadik I would get a smack across the face and would not be able to go to 7/11 that day.
I wound up getting suspended a couple of weeks out of every year. It came to the point where as long as I didn't bother anybody in class or cause trouble I was completely ignored. My parents were concerned and took me to see a therapist. I was diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Ritalin. I remember the first day on the medication I paid so much attention in class my rebbe called my parents to tell them how good I was that day. I felt so terrible; I felt that the only way I could be good was if I took medicine that forced me to behave. I felt like I was crazy. Nobody ever asked me what was bothering me. Instead they just started medicating me so I could be handled. I started to pretend to take my pills and then just quit even pretending to take them. This sparked a feeling in me that I would suffer all throughout childhood and into adulthood. I was the “special kid" in the class, I was retarded. One Shabbos afternoon, my father was trying to learn with me. I was struggling to get the words out when he blurted out in frustration "Your sister reads better than you". He was referring to my younger sister, who was mentally disabled.
I was always labeled as a liar and a manipulator in school and at home. Even when I was telling the truth I was a “Shokran." Eventually I gave up trying to argue and defend myself. It was no use and if anything would get me into more trouble.
There was a kid in my class named Aryeh Krauss whose mother was diagnosed with cancer. I remember how my whole school would say tehillem for her. I became friends with Aryeh. One afternoon we decided to cut class together and hang out in the back of the school behind the fence. Once things quieted down and all the classes were in session, we jumped back over the fence that separated us from the house next door. We were on the swings when we decided to play a game by tying my left shoe lace to his right shoe lace and swinging together. We were laughing and swinging when the side emergency exit door opened and Rabbi Bodenheimer came through it and screamed “Get to my office now!” We had no chance to run and hide because our shoes were tied together. When we got off the swings Aryeh just took his right shoe off and walked in his sock. I walked over to the Rabbi’s office with my friend’s shoe still tied to mine. Rabbi Bodenheimer took Aryeh into his office first while I waited in the corridor. After a couple of minutes Aryeh came out and walked back to class without asking me for his shoe. Rabbi Bodenheimer signaled me to come in to his office. By this point I knew what was coming. Standing before him as he towered over me, he looked eight feet tall. He began to scream at me and tell me how Aryeh’s mother has "yenah machlah" (Cancer) and that by corrupting Aryeh I am making his mother sicker. He then told me in disgust to bend down and untie my shoe. I got down on one knee and began to untie the laces. The next thing I knew I was being struck from every side as Rabbi Bodenheimer smacked me with both hands and kicked me. I left his office that day a boy who was evil, retarded, and committing murder.
I was one of the older kids in my class and started putting on Teffilin at the end of 7th grade. I had been left back in pre-1A and was embarrassed by the public reminder that I was older than everybody else yet they all seemed smarter than me and could learn better. It’s such a shame that so many moments and milestones that I should have enjoyed and been proud of in my life I spent feeling embarrassed and ashamed. One day at Mincha I was talking to a kid next to me. Rabbi Gobbiof the eighth grade rebbe who was also in charge of davening decorum saw me talking and clopped on the Bimah telling the whole Yeshiva to stop davening. He called me up to the Bimah. Standing up there he screamed at me in front of the entire school. He said, “A bochur who puts on teffilin but has no respect for the keddusha of davening!” Then he looked at the rest of the Yeshiva who were now all staring at me and said loudly "BOCHORIM, THIS IS A PERAH ADAM!" I walked back to my seat smiling like I was proud of what had happened but inside I was dying. It wasn't soon after that I started day dreaming about taking my own life.
On the first day of eighth grade I was assigned to a desk in the corner of the room and was allowed to play video games as long as the sound was off and I didn't disturb any of the kids in my class. I don't remember what day it was exactly that I stopped caring and really started looking for the trouble I had been accused of making for all my years of elementary school. Maybe I'd lost my innocence the first time I'd been struck by a teacher when I was small and helpless; maybe it was the twentieth time. Maybe it was during those endless hours of playing Tetris in the corner in eighth grade while the sounds of my class learning and growing together around me danced tauntingly on the edge of my awareness. It doesn't really matter. In March of that year, I was thrown out of Bais Mikroh for good for a fight I got into. The kid's name was Menachem Garfinkel and I slammed his head into a cinder block wall, then threw his desk out of a second story window. I spent the end of my eighth grade year sitting in my house fantasizing about becoming a “Bum.”
My parents told me that I would be going to Adelphia for high school and that I had to promise not to make trouble. I lied to them without batting an eyelash. I knew that I had one destiny and that was to be the biggest "Bum" Monsey had ever seen. I started smoking cigarettes and drinking whenever I could get my hands on alcohol. There were some older kids who would go into Lakewood and shoplift. I would go with them and steal things that I didn't need, just giving the items away when I got back to the dorm. I was finally making friends. On the first night of Chanukah of my ninth grade year I was woken in the middle of the night by a couple of the cool tenth graders. They told me they were going to the Wawa on Rt. 9 to shoplift and they wanted me to join them.
For the record, two o'clock in the morning is not a good time for a couple of teenagers to walk in to an empty convenience store, not buy anything, and leave with their pockets so full that candy bars fall out of them at the door.
This was the first of my many arrests. All I could remember was sitting in the back seat of the police car and feeling that I had finally accomplished something. I was officially a "Bum" and it was the first time I felt accepted as a part of something. That night I was told to pack my bags and that was the last day I was ever in school.
To put it mildly, my parents did not react well to my early departure from high school. They screamed, they yelled, they threatened, they threw things and they hit me. I was fourteen years old and would soon be smoking marijuana, snorting cocaine and popping any combination of pills and alcohol I could get my hands on. I was thrown out of my house at fifteen. In the beginning, I would get calls from my parent’s friends and even a local Rav. I was told to get a haircut and to recognize how much I was making my parents suffer. My older brother’s friend once told me to continue to do what I was doing but to be more secretive about it so I don't embarrass everybody who knows me.
By sixteen, I had racked up five arrests. I became a drug mule for a “frum” drug dealer. I was sent to Amsterdam and brought back four hundred thousand dollars worth of ecstasy taped to my body with duct tape. When I got back the first time the drug dealer gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek and told me that I did a "Great job" and that I'm part of his "Family". He handed me eight thousand dollars cash saying, “Don’t worry; I already took out maaser.” He had also bought me a Tehillem for the trip and told me to read it the whole way back on the plane. He put me up in an apartment in New York City with his other "Family members," other kids who acted as his mules, and he kept us happy with a constant supply of drugs. A few months later the drug dealer got arrested and my world crumbled around me.
Somehow I wound up at a Kiruv Yeshivah and became "Shtark". I got a haircut, grew payos, and started learning three sedarim a day (even though I still had trouble reading Hebrew and had only been keeping Shabbos for about three weeks). I lived this way for a while but still felt a major void in my life no matter how frum I was or how much chessed I did. I knew God wanted to kill me for the sins I had done my whole life and I could not possibly learn enough to stave off his certain and imminent judgement. I would say tehillim the entire time I ever went anywhere in a car because I was sure that otherwise the car I was in would certainly get into an accident and I would die. A friend who had been in therapy was able to see that I was struggling and convinced me to go to therapy as well. When I discussed this with my Rosh Ha-yeshiva, he responded to the idea with opposition. Thankfully I had one rebbi who supported me and helped me make this brave decision and face the demons of my past. After many years of therapy, sorting through my life and facing the past, I have come to realize a lot of things about my life, about my childhood, and about the people who raised me. Most of all I realized that I am a person of self-worth and that I genuinely want to do good. This is what gives me the strength and courage to write to you about what I have experienced.
Unfortunately my story is not unique. Even from the relatively small group of friends and acquaintances I grew up with in Monsey there are many whose lives are still in shambles. It is our responsibility as parents to stand up for our children and listen to what they have to say. You may think that the Rabbis are to blame for my suffering. That is incorrect. Yes, they were terribly wrong in what they did and have no business being mechanchim, yet it all begins at home. I was compelled to write this article because I read so many articles with similar stories to mine and all the blame is placed on teachers, rabbeyim, gedolim, alcohol at kiddushim, and of course the latest one, the Internet. These things are certainly a danger to children, but that danger is exponentially greater to a child who is vulnerable due to a lack of self-worth- which is cultivated in the home. If I would have had the proper tools and felt safe at home, I would have come to my parents at the first sign of trouble. They would have protected me properly and helped me cope with what I was going through. This didn’t happen and the snowball effect of my situation brought me to some truly terrifying places. No school will ever be perfect and there will always be sickos out there looking to hurt our children physically, emotionally and sexually, no matter what community we are in. The only way to protect ourselves is from within. We must face our own demons and work on ourselves. Only then can we pass feelings of self-worth onto our children. My parents each have their issues and only started sorting them out when things started to go very wrong. They have come a long way and are great grandparents to my children but unfortunately, much damage has been done that could have been avoided. We are still slowly putting the pieces back together.
We need to educate our teachers, parents and community leaders about the warning signs of abuse of every form. We need to educate our children about sex (in the proper way for their age) and that their body is theirs and no one can abuse it ever, and if someone does they must know to come to you, the parent. They need to know that they will be listened to, believed, and that they will not get into trouble no matter what the circumstances are. Our children need to feel safe and protected.
After going through all this and sorting out all my issues (or at least the ones I have gotten to so far), I can’t imagine what would have happened had I not gotten help. I am really thankful to all those that have helped me realize the good within myself. I never knew what real happiness was until, through therapy, I started dealing with my real, internal issues. I think that it is important to get rid of the stigma that we don’t need help and all we have to do is not speak Loshon Hara, learn, daven and give Tzedaka. These are important things but we also have to appreciate the absolute necessity of dealing with the specific issues that we are having trouble with. Sometimes these issues can only be resolved with the help of professionals. Judaism is a beautiful way of life for some, but it is a daunting task for others; one filled with guilt and shame due to their upbringing. We have to stop pretending that we are a perfect people and that nothing is wrong with us or our communities. The only way that we will ever progress is if each and every one of us looks in the mirror and decides to confront the person staring back at them; to love the imperfections, accept the uncertainty, and accept the responsibility to make that person better. We must not judge one another. We should have nothing but respect for any person who admits to having demons and that they are working on accepting themselves for who they are right now and are striving to grow, on whatever level.
Trying to cover up the issues in our community and in ourselves is just foolish and will only backfire. I hope this article helps us come together and start taking the steps we need to accept ourselves, one another, and to start healing as individuals and as a people.