Enough about the rabbis: What about their shunned victims?

When allegations of clergy sexual misconduct come to light, we often find that congregants, onlookers, and the media focus on the impact on the rabbi and community. People ask, How does the rabbi feel? Should he do a process of teshuva? How long should he pay for his mistakes? How will the community heal? 

As a society, we care about our institutions. We care about our leaders. But victims? At best, we wish them well, but we often don’t ask about their lives or what happens to them in the long term. And yet, the impact of clergy abuse is acute and lifelong. One the most destructive things that can happen to victims is the vicious act of shunning.

Yes, Shunning Happens in Jewish Community

Most people do not want to believe that shunning still occurs in this day and age. They might admit that Jehovah’s Witnesses practice disfellowshipping, and that under some circumstances, the Amish community will shun its members. But in general, they see shunning as an arcane throwback that takes place in communities very far removed from their own. They don’t understand that it happens even in liberal Jewish communities.

Before the clergy abuse began and unraveled my life, my social and spiritual life had been centered on my synagogue. But as soon as the situation came to light, the shunning commenced. My clergy person was an unordained spiritual leader whom everyone called Rabbi, and he had all the power and authority that came with that title.

At the very first synagogue board meeting to discuss the matter, one of the members of the board of directors said that the only solution was for me to leave the community and for the rabbi to remain as the leader of the synagogue.  In other words, the only solution was for me to be cast out. Others who were present remained silent — including the rabbi. There was not one iota of support for me at all.

Later on, some members of the board naysayed the idea of my being drummed out, but the die had been cast. Members of the shul would not speak to me in public. When I came to the synagogue, they would speak to the rabbi, but they would ignore me, even when I was standing right next to him, as though I weren’t there. I was no longer allowed to lead services, to teach, or to serve in the community. My former friends did not want to know me.

Once I had become sufficiently isolated, my fellow congregants found in me a ready scapegoat. People accused me of having seduced their rabbi. They accused me of conspiring to interfere with his calling. They accused me of forcing him to resign. At one point, the synagogue held three congregation-wide meetings for people to vent about what had happened.

I took care to absent myself from those meetings.

At first, I couldn’t believe that the shunning would last, so I stayed in the community. I thought that people would get over their reactions. I thought that it would be a temporary difficulty that I could endure until it was over.

How could I have imagined that people would collectively shut me out for over a decade? How could I have imagined that I would experience a complete social death? How could I have imagined that I would flee across the country, eleven years later, just to survive? I took it for granted that I would always have a community.

I no longer take it for granted at all. I look with wonder at the innocence of people who still have that easy confidence.

However, it is an indicator of my healing that I can say that I am not alone in the experience of being shunned. In fact, it is quite common for women victims of clergy abuse to experience shunning by their communities. According to an article by Debra Nussbaum Cohen, “when exploitation does occur, the women who come forward often find themselves ostracized by their religious community, “ a response that leaves them “isolated and in pain, alienated from the very Jewish community to which they had turned for spiritual sustenance.”

Moreover, according to a 2009 call by NOW to criminalize clergy sexual misconduct against adult women, shunning goes hand in hand with scapegoating: “Adult victims of clergy sexual exploitation are routinely blamed for this abuse and revictimized by the public, severely ostracized by their own congregations, and disbelieved by religious authority figures from whom they seek solace and protection, resulting in devastating social isolation and confusion.”

All of these words describe my experience perfectly. In fact, had I not found words like these, I would likely still be living an isolated life, believing that my situation was unique.

The Traumatic Impact of Shunning 

It would be difficult to overstate the psychological destruction that shunning creates. It is unlike any other form of violence I have ever experienced. I have worked very hard to overcome the physical abuse and sexual abuse of my childhood and, in many ways, I have succeeded. But the shunning laid me low.

For years, I believed that no one else had experienced the kind of social ostracism that I was suffering. I developed a sense of absolute uniqueness, a sense that I was utterly unlike other people — that I had lost what made me like other human beings. I felt disconnected from humanity, and I carried my isolation around with me everywhere I went. It was as though life had simply stopped, as though I’d fallen into a crater that everyone else knew to avoid — or at least, navigate around.

I believed that no one would ever want to know me again. After all, who would want to come into that crater to find me? After awhile, I was so isolated from other human beings that I no longer felt human.

I had good reason to feel as I did.

Shunning is nothing less than an assault on the humanity of its victims. According to a 2007 meta-analysis by Dr. Kipling Williams, an expert on ostracism, shunning threatens us by targeting four essential needs: the need for social belonging, the need for self-esteem, the need for control over one’s social existence, and the need for others to perceive that one’s existence is meaningful.

During the period in which I was shunned, each of these essential needs was under siege on a daily basis. Take a moment to imagine such basic human needs being under siege every day for more than ten years. It is more than most of us can bear to think about.

Dr. Williams writes that one of the most difficult things about coping with ostracism is that shunned individuals end up at war with themselves. If the needs for belonging and self-esteem are most threatened, victims will do their best to act in a way that pleases people, sometimes becoming vulnerable to further exploitation. Dr. Williams writes, “If relational needs (belonging and self-esteem) are most thwarted, then ostracized individuals will seek to fortify these needs by thinking, feeling, and behaving in a relatively prosocial manner.”

On the other hand,  if the needs for control and meaningful existence are threatened, victims can begin to act against their feelings of powerlessness and invisibility in ways that are negative to the people around them, becoming controlling and seeking to provoke a response. Again, from Dr. Williams: “If, however, efficacy and existence/recognition needs are most thwarted, ostracized individuals will attempt to fortify these needs, which in many instances may result in controlling, provocative, and even antisocial responses.”

If all of these needs are being threatened, victims will go back and forth between trying to make everything all right and rebelling against what is happening. The period of my shunning was a rollercoaster ride between those two extremes. Some days, I was trying desperately to please. Other days, I was beside myself with anger.

Needless to say, if the ostracism goes on for a protracted period of time, victims become exhausted by the necessity for conflicted responses and are at risk of simply giving up. We can begin to accept being alone. We can begin to accept feeling worthless. We can begin to accept feeling powerless. We can begin to accept that it will never end.

Accepting that kind of hopelessness is a perilous place to be.

What We Lose

To be shunned is to lose a sense of place — a sense that one has a piece of ground from which to live and to share living with others. We don’t even realize that we take that piece of ground for granted until it is ripped away from us. Being shunned is like being a refugee in your own land — visible, but without identity and without rights.

But being shunned is more than about losing a sense of place. It is also about losing time. Time isn’t just wasted. It is stolen. Shunning creates a void — a void similar to the one that opens up in the time between any protracted trauma and our hoped-for accountability from the world around us. As Elizabeth Bruenig writes so beautifully about the impact of trauma in the absence of justice:

It can be hard to develop in these lost years. People carry burdens all alone; they devote all their energies to bearing them. And while they do it, time goes missing. Where are the moments they were owed to give to joy and contemplation and love and learning? Inside the void. Time doesn’t stand still; history still unfolds. It just goes missing. A terrible thing happens, and seems somehow to keep happening, negating all of these things that should have happened instead.

All those years lost to clergy abuse. All those years lost to shunning. All those years. I often wonder, were they ever really mine?

For others who have known me, the story ended many years ago. But not for me. And not for so many of us. For so many of us, the story has never ended. For so many of us, our most important task is to find someone who will simply listen.

About the Author
Rachel Cohen is a survivor of clergy abuse in the Jewish community and the founder of Shema Koleinu, an organization dedicated to providing support and healing to Jewish adults abused by clergy. (To learn more about the work of Shema Koleinu, visit their website at www.shemakoleinu.net.) Rachel is currently enrolled in the Jewish Studies program at Gratz College, where she is working toward her third Master's degree.
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