Impact of child sexual abuse on Jewish identity

Child sexual abuse causes significant trauma and impairs a victim’s psychological, sexual, social and physiological development.

With the rise in disclosures of child sexual abuse within faith based organisations, and disclosures of intrafamilial sexual abuse in faith based communities, there needs to be more focus on the impacts on spiritual development and religious identity.

I am the CEO of Tzedek, Australia and have co-written this article with Renee who describes the impact of abuse on her Jewish identity, as a means of trying to reclaim what was so important to her. Her narrative is included in the article.

Many survivors have been disillusioned by spiritual institutions when religious authorities abused their position. Prompted by feelings of abandonment and rejection, many survivors denounce their religious observance, undermining their spiritual identity.

With the spotlight on faith based child sexual abuse, consideration needs to be given to its impact on spiritual, religious and cultural identity as this understanding can help the healing process for survivors.

The Jewish religion is complex and there are many ways to identify as a Jew.   Some are affiliated by religion and tradition, some by ties to Israel and Zionism, some through the Holocaust war experience and survival, some through personal history and others through ties to their local culture. No matter how one expresses their Jewishness, being a Jew creates a sense of belonging to a group and this membership helps to define one’s self. Connection to this community provides opportunities for socialisation and a sense of belonging.

When abuse occurs within a community, institution or family, how does this impact on ones sense of identity and belonging? Personal experiences and stressors can lead to struggles with ones connection to religious identity. This may occur at a number of levels: struggles with ones connection to G-d, such as feelings of fear of divine retribution or abandonment; tensions with community, family or leaders within institutions; and internal psychological struggles such as doubts about religious law or observance. Anecdotally, child sexual abuse survivors in the Jewish community have described struggles with all three.

Research also shows that people turn to religion as a way of coping with stressors. One study found that female survivors of child sexual abuse who followed a religious belief system were less symptomatic than those who did not practice any religion (Elliot 1994). Another study highlighted that female survivors of child sexual abuse reported that their religious beliefs helped them make meaning of their abuse experience in developing positive understandings and served them to free themselves of feelings of guilt and blame (Valentine & Feinauer 1993).

The existence of a spiritual or religious dimension should not be ignored in supporting survivors of child sexual abuse.

Survivors presenting to Tzedek have described the importance of seeking support from an organisation of their own faith. This has been important at a number of levels. Some have described the importance of being supported with their own specific religious identity. Some have expressed doubts about their level of observance. Others have grappled with dealing with the aftermath of the abuse with regard to cultural events and milestones: how to explain the absence of a family member at shabbat dinners or at a bar mitzvah, how to avoid someone at synagogue or how to cope with the loss of connection to cultural events.

Others have raised the impact of the Holocaust experience on how their own abuse is dealt with by family and community. One survivor described the lack of empathy from family who were Holocaust survivors, minimising the harm caused by the abuse when compared to their own trauma.

Renee reflected on the impact of sexual abuse on her Jewish identity which incorporates many of the themes discussed.

I never left the Jewish community. I honestly tried to function in it as best as I could until my mid 20’s. It was however a hostile and frightening environment for me to manoeuvre within.  From very early on in my life I experienced what I will call for now ‘uncomfortable situations’, which included events of embarrassment, humiliation and sexual abuse.
My personality after these events switched between people pleasing and outright rebellion. My rebellious nature was however the focus of family attention and I was labelled with many negative themes by those who were supposed to be looking after my welfare. Although I was exhibiting text book behaviour due the abuses, my mental health was never understood, questioned or attended to.
During my youth, the only real enjoyment that I found was a connection that I had to Yiddish and Hebrew songs, Yiddish poetry and Yiddish storytelling. I enjoyed performing in these mediums and being part of the continuum of keeping the songs and stories alive. I sang in choirs, in duets and solo. I also performed in many Yiddish language plays and recited poetry often at various ghetto commemoration ceremonies. This all ended for me as a teenager as the abuse manifested itself as an inability to connect properly with people and rendered me unable to be fully present and have access to this creative part of my life. I was in self destruct mode; there was no place in my heart to create beautiful spaces anymore.
When I reached 20 I met my now husband, who despite not being Jewish was perfect for me. He could get through to me. He was the first person that I could actually hear speak. He not only gave me unconditional love but guidance and support. He sensed that there was something wrong but never pressured me about it. It wasn’t until after our first child was 2 years of age that I started to have so many flashbacks and was in obvious mental distress that he began to ask questions and wouldn’t leave my side till I answered. He was the first person I came out to. I was terrified of him leaving me if he found out but he did the opposite and gave more unconditional love and support.
My family did not react in the same way to my disclosure.  I had already suffered much distress from the badgering I received from the entire family to leave my non Jewish partner and once again found myself at the end of a stick. My maternal grandmother and mother were the first to be told. My grandmother had been in a concentration camp during ww11 and responded with 7 words and I quote …”Worse things have happened. Forget about it”. I don’t recall my mother saying anything. She looked to her mother as to what she should do next. As the years went on I held to my truth and spoke to various family members. I was told again to move on with my life, called crazy, a liar, mental, an attention seeker, a story teller and a trouble maker. Not one family member ever said that they believed me and that they were sorry for what had happened to me. However in the last few years my mother and I have made some progress.
In the quest for survival, all thoughts of Judaism and my Jewish identity literally became irrelevant. I associated the community with abuse and wanted nothing to do with it. All that remained was the nostalgia of the performance art I had once been a part of so long ago.  It appeared in my mind like a dream from someone else’s life that had run its course and stopped dead.
Renee described  her recent attendance at a Jewish community festival, “In One Voice”. Renee had courageously stepped back into the Jewish community once again, with a new found confidence. Tzedek had given her a new understanding that her past was clouded by trauma. This reconnection was a new beginning in the healing process.

Moving forward, questions for the Jewish community are how do we support survivors whose spiritual or religious development has been hindered, who have been dislocated from a crucial part of their support network. It is also important to ask survivors what is important for the community to know about their perceptions toward religious, spiritual and cultural experience and what they need to move forward.

Elliott,. M. (1994). The impact of Christian faith on the prevalence and sequelae of sexual abuse. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 9(1), 95- 108.

Valentine, L. & Feinauer, L. L. (1993). Resilience factors associated with female survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 2/(3),216-224.

About the Author
Michelle Meyer has been the CEO for Tzedek for 12 months. She worked in sexual assault centres for 10 years. She completed her PhD in Restorative practices in child sexual abuse cases. She has extensive experience in Family Court work and child protection mediation.