When the office of a prominent rosh yeshiva (dean of a religious academy) calls and asks for input in writing a letter to address the Chaim Walder sex abuse case and support victims, the answer is that no letter about supporting victims should be written without the input of victims. And when the Rosh Yeshiva calls personally and asks you to bring some victims to speak to him, you hit the phones and two cars full of Haredi survivors show up at the office of the Rosh Yeshiva.
And so this week I found myself in one of the most intense meetings I’ve ever participated in.
I hesitated before sharing this experience publicly. First, this really wasn’t about me or my thoughts and feelings. And second, there is a part of me that is still struggling with such deep frustration that such a meeting is even necessary. Now? In 2022 when survivors have been trying to make their voices heard for decades? Is this exploitation? Must we parade our most horrific nightmares and bloodiest memories for the privilege of simply being… heard?
So why did I write it? Because over the last week I’ve seen things that I’ve never seen in the ten years I’ve been doing this work. A dam has broken and suddenly, an entire community is reeling in trauma, swamped with this newfound information that those of us who work in this field have been trying for years to get everyone to pay attention to.
In recent days, people haven’t stopped talking about abuse. And yet, somehow it still feels like survivors’ voices are absent. There is so much talk about “believing victims” but it’s also on us, as a community, to make sure victims have the resources and support needed to come forward to begin with, to share without being shamed, to access mental health help, and to press charges and make any efforts necessary to take their abuser off the streets and away from other vulnerable people. Instead, too often, the dialogue allows victims of abuse to feel like second-class citizens, judges victims as being “too angry” for reasonable conversation and insists on conducting conversations about abuse without those who have the most to contribute.
So I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the seven survivors who rearranged their schedules to make their voices heard in a space where survivors’ voices are so desperately needed. And I am awed with the knowledge that up until recently, most of these particular survivors would never have dreamed of being able to share their stories out loud. That night I listened to them as they each spoke clearly, in vivid detail, about the travesties they survived and the communities who failed and abandoned them. They said it all loudly, clearly, and without shame, even when their voices shook and the tears flowed.
I sat there listening to stories of rape, incest, molestation, devastation, cover-up, intimidation. There were moments when my heart physically hurt with the pressure of holding that much pain. That pressure was tangible in everyone in the room, in the tears and the collective deep breaths you could hear us all taking as we all tried to hold the weight of that much horror in one place.
But alongside and with the pain, there was an electric current of inspiration made up of goodness, courage, perseverance, and deep faith that is frankly not of this world. They spoke of belief in God that is wholly divorced from the darkness and pain that human beings are capable of wrecking against each other, even, or sometimes especially, the humans who claim to represent Him.
As one survivor said, I feel like I’m having a dream. I was abused by a Rosh Yeshiva and all of the rabbanim in my community threw me out, and I don’t think I ever could have imagined that any Rosh Yeshiva would want to hear me or what I have to say.
I won’t begin to claim this fixed anything. But those survivors’ voices were loud and unequivocal, and I have hope that the echoes of those voices will be reflected, somewhere, somehow, in the decision-making that goes on behind closed doors, in asefa meetings and on daises where voices of survivors have always been absent.
If there was ever a time for the Haredi community to allow survivors to take over and write the next chapter, it must be now. Magnify survivors’ voices – our communities will be safer, healthier, and more just for it.