Our Culture of Silence Must Change

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.

David Werdiger is a technology entrepreneur, writer, and public speaker. He’s involved in several not-for-profits at director and committee level, and has an interest in Jewish community, education, and continuity. You can connect with David on LinkedInFacebookTwitter, or Google+.

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  1. Well, David, I am having problems with your story.
    Long on morality posturing, incredibly short on suggestive backing “facts” .
    I am also a bit uncomfortable with the bias depiction of frum families.
    To be frank I don’t quite get how “Mendel” is a problem from your “details” Same with Yossi.
    A bit of meat on the bone, if you don’t mind.
    But what, really, remains for me unclear is the bit about the fact that ” we don’t live in the shtetls of Eastern Europe any more”.
    What precisely do you mean by that, because to me, at least, the Eastern European shtetl has that Shalom Aleichem splendour of true Yiddishkeit, the Kasrilifka of Tevie, Surele, Yossele and yes, Mendele. Are we speaking here the same language?
    Is yours a seriously researched sociological study, because I am very concerned about abuses in the Jewish fold.

    • Otto what are you talking about? It is not necessarily about specifics.

      By saying we don’t live the a shtetl any more, means we are not living in a small closeted world where we have to watch our every step for fear of persecution. I don’t think however we need to broadcast ‘misdeeds’ outside the Community either. I see this is fuel for antisemitism and feel we still need to maintain some of the ‘shtetl’ within the Community.

      • Shirlee

        I was very reserved in my comments.
        I fully agree with you about the ways we should present our community, in the broadest form, as not to be interpreted that our ethics are conducive to unwanted behaviour. You are right, these are the very tenets of antisemitism.
        I strongly believe that our values and respective practices are capable to deal with the most serious types of transgressions.
        While the “cases” presented in the article are symbolic of certain types of behaviour, abuses in Jewish families are very rare occurrences, particularly in religious families. What we seem to have in a disturbingly increasing manner are negative comments about Judaism voiced from within certain strands in the community. Some would have a disturbing aversion to serious religious observance to the point of arbitrarily and maliciously associating it with everything that could possibly compromise the segment of our community they dislike.

        I am convinced that I perceived correctly what is said about the shtetl in the above piece.
        It is the established canard of an “inward looking” community.

  2. @Otto:
    “abuses in Jewish families are very rare occurences, particularly in religious families”

    I am sorry to have to disappoint you, but from my experience as a criminal prosecutor in Israel, I must tell you that cases of domestic violence are by no means as rare in Orthodox families as we would all like to believe. The fact is, the Haredi community in Israel has the same “culture of silence” as elsewhere, and the same reticence when it comes to reporting such cases of abuse to the “secular” authorities. I have seen cases where orthodox women dropped charges against abusive husbands, so as not to damage the chances of their daughters making a good “shidduch”, I have seen sexual assault victims refuse to press charges for the same reason.
    It is perfectly true that the antisemites will use such cases to blacken the entire community, but that isn’t a sufficient excuse for ignoring them, sweeping them under the carpet, or dealing with them “within the community”. If crimes are committed, they have to be dealt with by the proper authorities. Any other course of action will, in any case, lead to accusations that “the Jews” cover up and protect their own just like the Roman Catholic Church. In short – the truth will out eventually and we’ll be taking flack whatever course of action we took. If it was up to me, I would prefer to take the flack, knowing that I had, at least, taken action to prevent the continuation of the abuse.

    • Shimona

      I am sure that you will agree that one must be at least circumspect when using relative terms such as “rare”. Points of reference must be established.
      In any familial environment there could be tensions which would be dealt with in various ways.
      The psychological profiles of the parties must be considered individually and association with matters, such as religious or ideological adherence kept very carefully in balance.
      I will give you a few examples of Jews I knew very well who abandoned religion completely, actually devout communists.
      Cases I knew incredibly well, practically unfolding under my very eyes.

      – authoritarian Jewish mother, strict and aggressive butchered to death with meat cleaver by 16 year old daughter. Mother Secretary to the President of the country, father secretary of the Comm. Party. They lived some 100 metres from my place.
      – Jewish father, after death of mother keeping 5 year old daughter for years in dark basement room of villa in the most exclusive area of Bucharest because 2nd wife did not like the child and child showing difficulties in learning. Father Chief of communist censorship/media.
      – Jewish father, deputy Finance minister, jailed for 7 years, comes out of jail and beats up ,nearly kills his only son, aged only 9 because he was disobedient with uncle while father in goal.Mother in mental institution. Son runs away from home and hides with other relatives. He has been living in Sydney for decades.

      and a few more, all cases of Jews who had nothing to do with Charedi, Shtetl, Mea Shearim, Bnei Brak etc.

      Further, the ethics of Judaism must be seen as a comprehensive set of ethical tenets, as I aluded to before. Reliance on one’s beliefs, as universal as Judaism is to those observing it in such profound manner, has been historically sufficiently convincing.
      For thousands of years it maintained a people who kept ethics and its institutions functioning to the effect of maintaining the quality of individuals, a community we must all be reliant upon, proud of its character.
      Incidence of transgression will be seen anywhere, but, as I insisted , the quantum determines the viability of an entire spiritual and practical system.
      Defining the entire system by irregular occurrences does not serve logic, and its existential manifestations.
      Courts will be busy with legal cases and one working within it will encounter ONLY the irregular, the illegal, the exception, otherwise, if crime is not an exception the whole society is an abysmal failure.

  3. Otto – I’m not quite sure what your point is. Obviously, all the numbers are “relative”, but since YOU are the one who first used the term “rare”, perhaps you should establish your own points of reference.
    I am well aware it isn’t only Haredim who commit abuse. Living in a society where almost 80% of the population is Jewish, I can tell you that I have also dealt with hundreds of cases of domestic abuse in secular Jewish families. And in Arab families (and I can tell you, their attitude to cooperating with the “Zionist” authorities is similar, in many aspects, to that of the Haredim).
    I am not saying that Haredim are MORE prone to committing acts of domestic abuse than any one else. But your statement, that “abuses in Jewish families are VERY RARE occurences, particularly in religious families”, simply has no basis in fact. It’s high time we disabused ourselves of this comfortable illusion.
    Furthermore, we don’t really know the true statistics, because – especially in cases of sexual abuse – often such crimes go unreported.

    • Shimona

      Thanks for your reply. It goes pretty close to elucidating the “rare”. Now we learn that the Charedim are not the only ones committing the discussed acts. In all previous comments they were the only ones mentioned, not to…. mention the associated causalities.
      The unreported cases would, sadly, have to be considered as non factual, they would be assumptions which cannot be attributed to any category that deals with facts reflected in statistics. If one relies on “assumed statistics” then we can expand the discussion. ( and to be fair such extensions may be considered if circumstantial factors carry high degrees of probability ).
      My assumption ( granted ) of rarity is intuitive, of course and I explained it by considering the values contained in Judaism and also the “mere” historicity of Judaism. It has survived as a viable ethical configuration longer than any other in the civilised world. The complexity of its survival, the incredible challenges it confronted, would warrant my “relative” confidence.
      Counter-intuitively, I would rely to a greater degree on statistics best found precisely in your line of work. Since you admitted that you “really (don’t) know the true statistics” and now include all other “classes” in the inventory, my “rare” assumption still has some legs.

      This could be a valuable opportunity for all concerned to dig deeper into the realm of real figures, exact quantum of incidence per specific groups and, then, engage in attracting public attention and respective institutional necessary changes.
      Shimona, you will have in me the loudest voice of support !!!