It happened then, too: Child abuse in a synagogue 

I’ve written about my experience of clergy abuse as an adult. But that experience was not my first of being abused in a shul.

The first time, I was 4 years old, and it happened in a synagogue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I know the date — August 19, 1962 — because it happened on the day that my aunt and uncle were married. I was the flower girl at their wedding. The person who assaulted me was my father.

I remember being very nervous about being the flower girl. I remember being afraid that I would not know what to do. I remember that no one was particularly helpful along those lines.

But one of my most vivid memories of that day is sitting on a wooden floor before the wedding and screaming because I did not want the wedding photographer to take my picture. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was just my natural shyness. Perhaps it was my anxiety about the whole proceeding. Perhaps I just wanted to be left alone. I don’t know. I remember my aunts and uncles to the right of me, cooing their encouragement, but I was having none of it.

I have no memory of the wedding at all. The next thing I remember is sitting at the wedding reception between my parents. The photographer tried to take my picture again, and again, I started screaming.

The next thing I knew, my father had picked me up by the wrist and hauled me downstairs to the basement, where he began hitting me over, and over, and over.

He dragged me along the wooden floor until my shins burned. We must have been in the synagogue kitchen, because I remember seeing blurred rows of canned goods on shelves through my tears.

And then, an amazing thing happened: an elderly man tried to stop my father.

He was dressed up for the wedding, in a proper suit and tie. He looked at me. He had kind blue eyes. For a moment, I felt such comfort. It was as though his eyes had kissed me.

He gently said to my father, “She’s such a beautiful child. Why are you hitting her?”

My father replied with anger and disgust, “You have no idea what a brat she is!”

The man said nothing. And then my father dragged me away.

I have no memory of the assault after that point. I dissociated from what was happening. I have never completely dissociated since, despite physical and sexual abuse becoming an ongoing experience in my childhood. I have never been able to retrieve a memory of how long the assault went on, how it ended, or how I got out of that basement.

The next thing I remember is being in the synagogue sanctuary and burning with shame. At the same time, I felt like pure consciousness, as though I’d sprung the bounds of my body, and it was gone. I remember wondering whether the wedding had happened yet. I remember wondering where everyone was. I remember wondering why I was all alone in that sanctuary.

From that day forward, I was changed. I barely recognize myself in photographs before the assault. In those pictures, I look happy, confident, present. In the pictures after, I look like a ghost of my former self — sad, distracted, tentative.

In the photos before, I catch a glimpse of who I might have been. In the photos after, I see a wounded and terrified child.

For many years, I believed that my father had convinced the elderly man that I deserved to be assaulted — that his words had kept the man from further defending me. But now I realize that the man might very well have felt that my father was dangerous to him. He might have felt that he would be harmed himself.

That he defended me at all tells me how terrible the assault was. In 1962, child abuse was considered a private matter. It wasn’t even called “abuse.” It was just called “discipline.” In general, people did not comment or intervene. So the fact that a total stranger spoke up tells me that what he was witnessing, even by 1962 standards, was well beyond the bounds of how any parent should treat a child.

When I was growing up, I was told over and over again that Jewish men were different from other men and did not abuse their children. I was told that it simply couldn’t happen. And yet, what simply couldn’t happen was happening to me. The contradiction between the myth and the reality was immensely confusing to me.

So let’s be honest: Abuse happens in Jewish families as it does in other families. Abuse happens in synagogues, just as it does in churches, in mosques, in schools — in so many places in which we are supposed to find sanctuary.

It happens now. It happened then. I hope that, someday, it will not happen at all.

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 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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