We knew. We knew that Mendel* was an abusive husband and parent. His family lived a secluded and very private life, his children home schooled, and his wife barely went out. When they needed assistance from the community it was provided, but those helping were not allowed inside the house to bring food. When they did go in, they were shocked at the living conditions, which reflected far worse than poverty.
But for a long time, we did nothing. Mendel was a very frum man, from a respected family. People made excuses for him, or said that what happened in his home was his business.
We knew. We knew about the way Yossi* abused his children – physically and emotionally. It was no surprise how troublesome his children were at school. Some dealt drugs or committed violent crimes within the community. Yet we all sat by and did nothing.
We made excuses for Yossi. “He was a strict parent”, said some. “He’s a troublemaker, why should we help him?” said others. From time to time Rabbis would get involved to “handle things internally”, because that’s how we did things back then. Some members of the community reached out to help his children after they left home. But little changed; these interventions were just a case of putting a band-aid on a festering sore.
There are several inter-related cultural drivers within our community that stand as an impediment to us effectively dealing with domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and other social issues.
1. Relationship with civil authorities. For thousands of years, Jewish communities lived in a constant state of persecution from hostile non-Jewish governments. Without basic rights, property could be seized at any time, people could be thrown into prison and denied natural justice, and corrupt officials regularly used blackmail and extortion. In this context, the laws of mesirah – the prohibition against reporting a fellow Jew to civil authorities – were established, and the mistrust of any non-Jewish authority was deeply ingrained in our culture.
2. The illusion of perfection. Where family, breeding and continuity are so central to society, the goal of making a shidduch with a “good family” became essential. Anyone who wasn’t perfect was instantly tainted and relegated to a “B-class” shidduch (or none at all). Problems like domestic or sexual abuse, disability and mental illness were swept under the carpet rather than dealt with. Parents would even stay together “for the sake of the family” rather than smear the family name with divorce.
3. The culture of silence. Against a context of antisemitism, where the “airing of our dirty laundry” gave our enemies additional fodder against us, and as a corollary of the distrust of civil authorities, communities dealt with problems internally. Rabbis were considered experts to deal with any social issues that would normally be the realm of professionals. Going public with any our failings would be considered a Chilul Hashem – desecration of God’s name.
These days, we are fortunate to live in secular democracies where human rights are a pillar of a set of values that are largely consistent with our own. It’s high time we revisit some of these cultural drivers and move on from attitudes that are not just irrelevant but actually damaging.
We don’t live in the shtetls of Eastern Europe any more. Many Orthodox communities live a Torah-observant life balanced with integration into contemporary society. The culture has certainly changed over the last thirty years, but we’ve not done enough. And in some very insular, Haredi communities, these cultural elements are sadly alive and well.
Today is White Ribbon Day, when men stand up to put an end to men’s violence against women. The program engages boys and men to lead social change. In our community, the cultures and attitudes that allow violence against women to continue are the same ones that facilitate physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of children – at the hands of their own family members and others.
We now have an understanding of the disastrous consequences of domestic abuse. Abused women can themselves become abusers, and children in such families learn that violence is how problems are solved. Abused children are deliberately targeted by sexual predators, who can identify them as “easy prey”. The cycle continues and gets worse.
Eventually, some people tried to reach out to Mendel’s wife, helping her move into a shelter and get away from an abusive situation. But that did not last, and the situation remains unresolved.
With Yossi’s family, his abuse set off a chain reaction that magnified the original problem with the passage of time. While some of his children were able to make lives for themselves – often remaining estranged – others remain deeply damaged by the combination of consequences.
We failed Mendel’s family. We failed Yossi’s family. We failed the many other families in our community that suffer from social problems. This pattern has repeated itself in Jewish communities here and around the world. We have stood by while our neighbours have suffered, perhaps in breach of Vayikra 19:16. If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to protect a child – indeed to be vigilant in protecting the vulnerable within our community. Violence against women is unacceptable. Violence against children is unacceptable. These are immutable. Non-negotiable.
Outsiders condemning our community and drawing long-bow generalisations are like an angry lynch mob standing outside the gates screaming:
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
While their condemnation may be valid, it’s important to note that culture change happens slowly, and happens from within.
Having witnessed the disastrous consequences of inaction, we must look inward to understand the aspects of our culture that contributed. The laws of teshuva mandate that we must collectively and individually acknowledge this, and resolve to change our approach, from the top down. This has already started to happen. We don’t need to tear down institutions or abandon our rich traditions to make the changes necessary.
For culture to change we all to see and feel the progress. When families are helped and perpetrators are punished we need to celebrate it. When our institutions take steps and act with strength we need to celebrate it. These are all positive steps in the right direction and must be encouraged.
By addressing the attitudes and culture that have prevented us from adequately protecting the vulnerable in our communities, we can make our communities safer, and make this an issue that unites our diverse community, rather than one that divides us.
* Names and details have been changed to protect identities.