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One of Us: A Searing Look at Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community

One of Us: A Searing Look at Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community

Exploring a number of issues that the much buzzed-about documentary raises.

by

One of Us portrays three stories - of Etty, Ari, and Luzer, all former Hasidic Jews who struggle mightily with their decision to leave their community – that are gut-wrenching. The enduring pain depicted in each one of the film’s protagonists pierces the heart and makes it difficult to watch. Etty’s legal struggle to maintain custody of her children, Ari’s battle with a life-threatening cocaine addiction, and Luzer’s desperate search to find a professional and social niche that will provide him with financial security and peace of mind – all of this torment and suffering come to the fore in One of Us.

A powerful undercurrent of these painful sagas is the abuse that all three suffered and the endemic rejection they felt from their community.

The common thread of the film’s three heart-breaking narratives has more to do with abuse than the Hasidic world from which they came. The film explicitly renders a vivid description of Etty having endured an abusive marriage for 12 years while having seven children and going through six years of post-partum-depression, and Ari having been sexually abused by a camp director when he was eight years old. In more oblique terms, Luzer references a childhood that was “very abusive” and being admitted at one point to a psychiatric institution as a result of his attempt to take his own life. The powerful and painful undercurrent, then, that this film accentuates through the sagas of Etty, Ari, and Luzer is abuse victimization and a subsequent endemic rejection by their community to the validity of their experiences with abuse and their right to have that abuse addressed in a comprehensive, forthright, and professional manner. Each protagonist in One of Us felt betrayed by their society.

Questions the Film Raises

Of course, it is not possible to voice an opinion on the stories of specific individuals with which one has no personal involvement. However, the overarching theme and message of One of Us raises a fundamental question about how Orthodox Jews view the issue of abuse. And that demands a response. The film bolsters a misconception that Orthodox Jews believe that it is absolutely forbidden to file complaints with the secular authorities, and that any and all issues must be handled strictly internally by the rabbinic and lay leadership, or worse, swept under the carpet and ignored. Is this, in fact, what fidelity to the Torah espouses?

The film raises additional questions. One of Us portrays Hasidic culture as a monolithic, mindless faith of exceedingly rigid strictures that requires blind acceptance of its values and behavioral mores. As Luzer puts it, “I know plenty of happy Hasidic people, and sometimes I wish I could just go along with it and not ask so many questions…but the more of a seeker you are, the more of a questioner you are, the more likely you are to leave.”

While we feel for Luzer’s struggle to find meaning and his inability to find it in the Hasidic world in which he grew up, it behooves us to ask: is this an accurate portrayal of the Torah belief system? Does the Torah itself demand a blind leap of faith?

Throughout the film, all three protagonists feel that their unhappiness with their Hasidic lifestyle leaves them with no option other than transmuting to a life of secular pursuit and values, that there are no alternatives within an Orthodox Jewish framework. Is this the reality? Does Orthodox Judaism not allow for individual expression and carving a unique path in one’s life within a Torah framework?

Child Sexual Abuse

Let’s begin with the issue of abuse. The recent issue of Dialogue, a journal under the auspices of Rabbi Aharon Feldman, dean of Ner Israel Rabbinical College and one of the leading rabbinic figures in American Orthodox Jewry, has a comprehensive article entitled Child Sexual Abuse in the Frum Community. Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky, dean of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington and lead author of the piece, interviewed more than a dozen experts in the field: psychiatrists, psychologists, rabbis, communal activists, pediatricians, and clinical directors. Core concerns such as prevalence, treatment options, and prevention models are discussed in great detail, as well as many of the communal barriers that exist. The topic of allegation handling and reporting is also addressed. To garner a full appreciation of the Torah’s approach to these important issues, the reader is strongly urged to procure a copy of the journal and read the complete article.

For our purposes here, we will quote the paragraph that addresses the issue of allegation handling and reporting which is most relevant to the topic at hand.

In addition to the requirements of the secular legal system, over the years more and more prominent Rabbonim and poskim [authorities in Jewish law] have signed and publicized their unequivocal support for contacting government authorities in instances of reasonable suspicion. Their reason is that child sexual abuse presents a serious danger which, according to some poskim, rises to the level of pikuach nefesh [life-threatening]. Accordingly, just as we would not hesitate to call the police if an axe-wielding criminal was loose, so should we not permit a child sexual abuse offender to be free to prey on children1.

This, of course, is not to suggest that we can just write off the film’s narrative of Etty’s Hasidic community rallying around her ex-husband and trying to silence and oust her. Although, as stated above, we certainly cannot voice an opinion on a specific story without firsthand knowledge of the people and particulars thereof, unfortunately such terrible things do sometimes happen. In fact, there is a large body of research that shows this is a widespread problem that crosses national, religious, and cultural divides.

U. Bronfenbrenner, in his landmark 1979 book, The Ecology of Human Development, identifies various levels of influence on human development, two of which he calls exo-system and macro-system. The exo-system includes the formal and informal structures such as neighborhood, community, and social networks; and the macro-system refers to cultural values and belief systems. In the 2010 edition of The Journal of The Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, R. Alaggia recorded the results of a study she conducted in regards to how we are to understand the disclosure process and barriers that exist thereto. This is of crucial importance since, as Alaggia notes, research is consistently pointing to terribly unacceptable levels of delay in child sexual abuse disclosure or complete non-disclosure. “Overall,” Alaggia reports, “participants described their communities as uncaring or unknowledgeable in how to handle their behaviors or their disclosures…women were equally as affected by a culture of sexist and patriarchal attitudes inhibiting their ability to disclose. They were more likely to fear being blamed and described feeling more responsibility for their victimization and for repercussions of telling.”

Jewish law has zero tolerance for sexual abuse. It is a life-threatening crime that must be appropriately dealt with by proper authorities.

This was a not a study of a particular culture, nationality or religion. Rather, participants were of a “diverse socio-economic background”. And Alaggia’s research is not a lone voice. Many more data confirm this point that society at large still has a great deal of work to do vis-a-vis how it responds to abuse that surfaces within its midst. For one to suggest that this problem does not exist within Orthodox Jewish society would be denying reality. However, to conclude on the basis of such egregious errors that they are representative of official, Orthodox Jewish outlook on the matter is equally indefensible.

Let us be clear: Jewish law has zero tolerance for sexual abuse. It is a life-threatening crime and there is never any justification for sweeping it under the carpet. And let us be equally clear regarding child sexual abuse in the religious community: it affects every segment of the community and there is still much work that needs to be done to raise awareness and tackle the challenges it presents effectively and rigorously.

Judaism: A Rational Basis for Belief

As far as the question of blind faith is concerned, one needs only to make mention of classic Jewish texts such as Judah Ha’Levi’s Kuzari, Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, and Saadia Gaon’s Book of Beliefs and Opinions that delve into the rational underpinnings of Jewish belief to demonstrate that Judaism is not a religion that shies away from rigorous questioning and debate. In Talmudic study, it is the excellent questioner who is lauded for his incisiveness.

Judaism is not a religion that shies away from rigorous questioning and debate.

The first of the Ten Commandments is the mitzvah “leydah Hashem” – to know that God exists. The pillar of Judaism is based on knowing, as opposed to an irrational and blind leap of faith which is based on emotion, not intellect.

Yes, there are individuals – perhaps even some who occupy pedagogical or leadership positions – that are not well-versed in the rigors of classic, Jewish theology and thus may balk at questions on the fundamentals of their faith. But this is certainly not the Torah ideal. It is truly tragic when those who want to honestly explore the basis of Jewish belief are shut down simply because they didn’t find the right individual with whom they could discuss their questions.

Many Avenues in Torah

Orthodox Judaism is not a monolithic entity. There exists a wide gamut of “colors and flavors” within authentic Torah Judaism. It is a shame that the three protagonists in the film felt that rejecting their Hasidic community meant rejecting Orthodox Judaism.

There exists a wide gamut of “colors and flavors” within authentic Torah Judaism.

Changing one’s community is fraught with challenges and difficulties, but with the right support system it is possible for seeking individuals to discover the specific approach that suits them best while continuing to embrace the tenets of Orthodox Judaism.

Organizations like Project Makom give critical guidance, community and support to searching Jews who are in transition and trying to find a suitable, welcoming religious community that they could call home.

One of Us ultimately conveys a distorted view of the Hasidic world by depicting a narrow focus on three horrific narratives of abuse without showing the greater context of the community that is nurturing, positive and inspiring. In fact, the Orthodox Jewish community has made tremendous strides over the past decades vis a vis awareness about abuse and all its horrifying ramifications. There is still much that needs to be done, though; and this film, despite its flaws, can serve as an impetus to redouble our efforts to confront abuse in the Jewish community, and to ensure that the core Torah values of individual security and safety, individual fulfillment and success, and encouraging and engaging in questioning and debate become as widely known as possible, so that no-one, child or adult, should have to suffer any longer.

Click here to order the issue of Dialogue that contains Rabbi Lopiansky’s article.

See also the most recent issue of Tradition, available online without charge at http://www.traditiononline.org/current-issue.html, which also focuses on this issue.

NOTES

1. Dialogue, Summer 5777/2017, No. 7, page 45

November 20, 2017

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 33

(22) Anonymous, November 28, 2017 1:20 AM

It is so shameful that any kind of abuse is permitted in Jewish communities, I also witnessed Elder Abuse where the culprits were grandchildren. Their wealth sheltered their sin; so no one would take action.

(21) Inna B., November 27, 2017 8:59 PM

Blatant Anti-Semitic Propaganda

With no disrespect to the victims of abuse of this "documentary", the fact is that this film is blatantly anti-semetic propaganda. If this film were truly intended to start an informed debate, it would have been presented in a more informative and multi-dimensional manner - showing (1) incidents of abuse, (2) Judaism's perpective, and (3) resources available in the Chassidic and othodox communities for dealing with such issues. Instead, this film makes it look like Jews accept and excuse abuse, which is not at all the case, as eloquently written by Rabbi Berman.

I wonder who (really) funded and produced this movie?

(20) Anonymous, November 23, 2017 5:39 PM

As if I need to be told what I can and can’t do in the case of child abuse. If I do much as smell anything related to this matter concerning someone close to me, I would do something about it. With or without the help of my community-I’m disgusted when I hear about religious communities bushing this under the rug. As religious as I am!

(19) Sara, November 22, 2017 8:20 AM

Calling their Bluff

I never comment but feel an urgent need to set the record straight. Little to no background checking or research was involved in this documentary. Those close to one of the individuals in particular know that the story told is absolute fabrication. Reminds me of Deborah Feldman and her infamous "chainsaw" story- my brother in law was on Hatzalah and took that call. He was THERE. It never happened remotely the way she told it.
Are there stories of abuse that are not dealt with properly? Unfortunately yes. But another point not mentioned in this article is that, from the point of view of our leadership, the idea was NEVER to sweep things under the rug, that was not the intent of rabbinic authorities even when they used to be more reluctant about alerting secular authorities. As Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky said "We used to think we could take care of this in-house." When it became clear that this plan wasn't sufficient or wasn't effective, the leading rabbis ruled almost unilaterally that legal action should be taken. (Including "right-wing" Orthodox eg, Rav Chaim Kanievsky). There was ALWAYS meant to be a proactive, protective approach. What a pity that some didn't, and perhaps still don't, understand the Torah's vision for dealing with this, as transmitted to us from our rabbis.

Ra-anan Elozory, November 22, 2017 8:03 PM

Sara!!! THANKS!!!

Sara!!! THANKS!!!

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