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On the Rabbi's Knee

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Is molestation more common in the Orthodox Jewish community than it is elsewhere? There are no reliable statistics on the subject—molestation often goes unreported, even in relatively liberal communities—but there’s reason to believe the answer to that question might be yes. “I wasn’t even looking for it, and the amazing thing was how often it would just come up,” says Hella Winston, whose recent book, Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, examines ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn through the eyes of some dissident members who struggle with the dictates of the community. “I heard more from men than from women. What was really shocking was how many boys—so many boys—have had this experience. People I’ve interviewed have told me every Hasidic kid has heard about this happening to someone.”

There are some who believe the repression in the ultra-Orthodox community can foster abuse. Sex before marriage in Hasidic life is strictly forbidden (unmarried men and women are barely allowed to look at one another), and even within marriage, sex is tightly regulated (couples aren’t allowed to have sex, for instance, during menstruation and the week after). As Winston notes, fathers can’t attend their daughters’ school plays, “as the sound of women singing can lead to uncontrollable male sexual arousal.” In a world of Paris Hilton videos and Victoria’s Secret billboards, there are few outlets for an Orthodox man with compulsions the community refuses to acknowledge even exist. The repression, some say, creates a fertile environment for deviance.

Taboos against reporting sexual abuse don’t just promote silence—they may also encourage molesters. Besides the general prohibition against talking about sex, there is also the shondah factor—the overwhelming concern with shame (a child who makes an abuse claim can be thought to bring shame on his whole family). Then there’s the prohibition against lashon hara, or “evil speech”; the thinking is that virtually any public complaint about another person amounts to slander. There is shalom bayit, or the mandate to maintain peaceful domestic relations; many women and children have been made to feel that it’s their responsibility to maintain harmony by not turning in their abusers. There’s the notion of Chillul Hashem—desecrating God’s name. This can be invoked if you say anything bad about the community at all. Finally, there is mesira, or the suspicion of secular authorities.

The beit dins are hardly an effective mechanism for dealing with abuse. Given the choice between going after sexual abusers and protecting the community from scrutiny by outsiders, victims’ advocates say, religious authorities protect the community almost every time. “They don’t have investigative bodies,” says Rabbi Yosef Blau, a Yeshiva University adviser who has spoken out about other abuse cases. “They don’t do DNA evidence.” There’s one ancient Jewish legal theory that the testimony of a mentally ill man is more highly regarded than the testimony of a woman. And if beit dins fail a victim, there is no appeal. “We’re not accountable to anyone,” says Mark Dratch, a modern-Orthodox rabbi who chaired a task force on rabbinical improprieties for the Rabbinical Council of America. “Even the Catholic Church supposedly has more of a structure for accountability than us. If we don’t have the training to deal with a victim who comes to us for help, we have the potential to make them a victim again.”

The Brooklyn district attorney’s office insists it aggressively pursues sex-abuse cases in the Orthodox community, and D.A. Charles Hynes has been commended for launching Project Eden, a Hasidic-sanctioned program that reaches out to ultra-Orthodox victims of domestic violence. “There is nothing different about the way we handle cases in any community, whether they be sex abuse, homicide, or any other crime,” says Hynes spokesman Jerry Schmetterer. It bears noting, however, that for months, Hynes’s office resisted New York’s requests for information on Project Eden, and still won’t speak in detail about how they handle sex-abuse cases in the Orthodox community. Victims’ advocates have long argued that Hynes’s office simply doesn’t actively go after abusers in the community, and that when complaints do come their way, they’re often too quick to defer to the ruling of a beit din. “I’ve never seen any district attorney do this with the Catholics,” says Amy Neustein, perhaps this issue’s best-known cause célèbre, who in 1986 claimed that her 6-year-old daughter was being sexually abused by her husband, only to have the child taken out of her custody forever. “The beit dins are hijacking the whole justice system.”

Newsday recently uncovered a document, purported to be from the State Department, suggesting that Hynes has all but dropped the Mondrowitz case—ceasing to prod the State Department in its extradition battle. Hynes denies this. “Our position has always been that were Mondrowitz to return to the United States, we would prosecute him for his heinous crimes,” says Rhonnie Jaus, chief of Hynes’s sex-crimes bureau. Now that there’s a civil case against Kolko, are they pursuing a criminal investigation? “We look into cases all the time that are beyond the statute of limitations to see if there are any cases that fall within the statute,” Jaus says. “That’s what happened with the priest investigations.” No Kolko investigation has yet been launched.


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