I graduated with my master’s degree in social work when I was twenty-one years old, and a month later, I had my first job. I was a therapist at a group home for teenage boys with emotional and behavioral problems. These boys all came from inner city neighborhoods in Baltimore and D.C., and to say that they were a rough bunch would be an understatement.
On my first day of work, my supervisor walked me around the small campus to orient me to my new workplace and introduce me to my new coworkers. As I was leaving one room, I heard a coworker – a woman covered in tattoos and with an attitude that transmitted without words – say under her breath, “She won’t last.”
I did last, for about two and a half years, and only left once I accepted a different job, but I understood her knee-jerk reaction. First, I was white, and second, I was dressed like a Bais Yaakov girl. I did not look like I was cut out for this position.
Let me tell you a little bit about the next two and a half years. During that time, I witnessed more fights than I could count and helped break up my fair share of them. I called the police regularly and adjusted to a level of obscenity that was ridiculous. I was surprised to learn that teenage boys can be desperate for therapy, never having experienced someone who will listen to them openly and without judgement for forty-five minutes. I heard tales of abuse so horrible that they had made local and national headlines. I witnessed family interactions in court that were so heartbreaking and inhumane that I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. I saw children routinely failed by a system that was designed specifically to help them. And I saw abuse continue, from generation to generation, with no end in sight.
I cornered a boy holding a kitchen knife and shoved him backwards into a closet to prevent him from stabbing a peer. I was trained in adolescent sexual offense specific therapy, because too many of my boys had violated younger siblings after enduring abuse themselves. I sat with a boy who collapsed in the middle of the street and cried his eyes out because his mother had disconnected her phone – yet again – and disappeared from his life for the umpteenth time. I thwarted unwanted advances from Baltimore’s finest cops, and prayed that I wouldn’t ever encounter them in my own traffic or emergency situation. I testified in family court about the effects of repeated and horrific abuse and then dealt with the backlash of teenage boys who just wanted to live with their families, no matter how brutal the conditions were.
I witnessed a lot. I heard a lot. I learned more than I could have possibly anticipated and became a better trauma therapist for it. I loved these boys and referred to them as “my kids”, confusing anyone who didn’t understand how I could have a dozen teenagers at my age. And I tell you all of this not to convince you that I’m a bada$$, (although if that’s what you want to take from this, don’t let me stop you!), but to give you some context for why I get infuriated when religious people respond to the abuses and injustices of the religious community with, “But this stuff happens everywhere.”
Because I know – more than most – just how bad it can get in the ‘outside’ world. I have dedicated my career to working with this country’s most underprivileged populations. I have witnessed this ugliness from a front row seat and continuously do my part to make some sort of change.
But this response is inadequate, and quite frankly, a copout. It’s an admission of failure and an attempt to mitigate that failure by comparing it to other, more dramatic, failures. Is that what we’ve come to? Have we reached a point where the religious community wants to fall back on saying that our problems are a least less horrible than in other communities?
That’s a shameful response. And one that I cannot accept.
To people who tell me, “Shoshana, this stuff happens everywhere. Abuse and neglect and cover-ups and abuses of power… doesn’t it happen everywhere?”
To that I respond, I don’t care. I don’t care what is happening in the rest of the world. I don’t care how miserable the rest of the society is, I care about my Jewish brothers and sisters. I hold us to a higher standard. And I hold the religious community to the highest standard of all because they purport to live by that highest standard. On other blog posts, people have commented that religious observance does not equal moral superiority, or something of that variety, and I would agree, although the religious community doesn’t only pride themselves on religious observance. They are quite proud of their moral high ground as well. And I’ll allow them that, but I won’t allow the responsibility-deflecting response of, “It happens everywhere.”
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t be morally superior and then want to be compared to inner city America, where abuse is rampant. You can’t even compare yourself to the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church, or even middle class, Christian America, because you believe that you are the Chosen People. With that belief, you have accepted a higher standard for yourself.
So let’s take that response off the table. You can no longer respond to the preventable tragedies in the Orthodox community with, “It happens everywhere.”
How will you respond now?
What will you do?
How will you stand up for justice?
How will you protect victims?
How will you act, as a child of God, to ensure that our brothers and sisters are okay?
Let’s come up with some answers, and let’s get to work.
And yes, I do have some answer. Stay tuned.