In 2021, there was a national enquiry in to child protection, which included a specific report on faith based organizations. In recent years there have also been well documented instances of bullying and lack of safeguarding such as those reported on Everyones Invited which specifically involved pupils at the major Jewish secondary schools in England. These events need to be considered within the wider history of abuse in orthodox religious schools such as the allegations at Yeshiva University High School.
It is clear that many schools in the Jewish world, both currently and historically have failed their pupils and permitted a culture of abuse by teachers and a culture of bullying amongst pupils, with serious consequences for the mental health of generations of students. I myself was subject to significant verbal bullying by fellow pupils and witnessed many incidents of inappropriate and abusive behavior by teachers towards pupils. Just to mention one example, I remember when I was 12 or 13 witnessing a teacher lift a pupil a few desks away from me from sitting to standing by pulling on their ear, all the time berating them about some no doubt irrelevant issue.
Unfortunately, although such direct examples of abuse by teachers may now not be so prevalent, and no doubt much has improved compared to the 1980s, the allegations against Jewish schools in recent years indicate that there remains a failure by senior leaders and the community to create truly safe environments for our children. This is clearly a worry for all of us. What are the solutions?
I think that despite the publicity, there remains within the community a reluctance to actually face up to what has and what is going on. One example is sites which actually, albeit unintentionally, engage in a kind of macho glorification of historic abuse, such as https://melchettmike.wordpress.com/ a site set up and run by ex-Hasmonean pupil Michael Isaacson. This site has posts recounting instances of historic abusive behavior within the school in the 1980s and 1990s, recounted in a jokey way that almost celebrates them.
Of course, in one sense, such sites are just a way for people to get together and remember their schooldays. However, they also follow the trend, seen throughout the Jewish community, whether Haredi or modern orthodox, to try and cover up what has really gone on – to treat it, even when it is out in the open, as though it was not really that important. This is a dangerous trend, one clearly identified by the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse report on faith organizations in the UK, whereby abuse and lack of appropriate safeguarding is either ignored, swept under the carpet, or not treated with sufficient seriousness. Sites like the one mentioned here, as with other similar ones, no doubt act as a way of “sublimating” the very difficult historic abusive events that the contributors either experienced or witnessed. It is the school, teachers and community leaders at the time who were responsible for what happened. However, as adults who saw what went on in the past, we have our own responsibility – particularly as parents, but also as community leaders now ourselves, to label it for what it was – abuse and bullying. It is only in this way that as a community we can move forward to create schools and other spaces for our children that are truly safe and nurturing.