Sexual Abuse in Orthodox Jewish Synagogues
Rabbi abuse is a serious and under-reported problem in the U.S., especially in the case of child victims.
Nobody should have to live with sexual abuse under any circumstances but when it happens within a place of worship like a synagogue, it is especially distasteful.
Perpetrators should be brought to account and, most importantly, victims helped to recover from their ordeal, regardless of how long ago it occurred.
Fortunately, in recent times, changes to the law have made it easier for victims of sexual abuse in many areas of the country to come forward and get justice for past crimes.
As lawyers who present such victims, Andreozzi + Foote is committed to providing a compassionate ear and a passionate pursuit of justice on your behalf.
Synagogue sexual abuse cases
One of the most difficult aspects of synagogue sexual abuse to come to terms with is that the victims are often children – boys and girls.
This may also make it more difficult to prove.
Rabbis are generally seen as learned leaders in the community, who are ordained because they have studied the Jewish texts and Jewish law in depth. They often teach and are heads of schools, preside over legal cases, and are looked upon to protect the values of the Jewish community. Some lead prayers in synagogues and take on roles as counselors to their congregations.
They are not considered capable of committing crimes by many in the community, least of all against children. Unfortunately, the words of children are often dismissed against the words of a respected leader.
The notion that “this sort of thing doesn’t happen here” is widespread within the Jewish community, just like with other religious organizations involved in high-profile sexual abuse cases.
Recent studies and court cases have clearly demonstrated that some rabbis have abused their position of trust and respect. Now, as more crimes come to light in public lawsuits, more people are waking up to the fact that sexual abuse has happened and does happen in synagogues.
Rabbi sexual abuse and an increase in reported cases
In recent years, details of rabbi sexual abuse against vulnerable boys, girls, young adults, and mature victims have started to enter the public domain.
A study in 2007 showed that 26 percent of Orthodox female study participants had experienced sexual abuse. These claims were most prevalent among ultra-Orthodox women.
In 2018, the Jerusalem Post reported on a study that showed that individuals who left the Orthodox Jewish community were more than four times as likely to have been molested as children than in the general population.
It also noted that those who left the community were more likely to report the abuse, suggesting that there could be additional unreported cases within the community.
In 2019, a lawsuit was filed by 38 former students (teenage boys) of an Orthodox Jewish school in New York City, who claimed that they suffered sexual abuse from two prominent rabbis over a period of three decades in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
What makes this case even worse is that the school in question was aware of the abuse and took no action. In fact, one of the rabbis in question was initially promoted before being moved on to another school in Florida.
This is a common occurrence in such cases, where the institution harbors sexual abuse rather than addressing the problem.
How does sexual abuse by rabbis affect the victims?
In many sexual abuse cases, the effects on the victim seem to have taken second place to the effects on the reputation of the institution or on the rabbi accused of the abuse.
Every sexual abuse victim processes their experiences differ according to their age and upbringing, the nature and duration of the abuse, the support they received at the time from family and community leaders, and so on.
It is fair to say that almost all victims suffer negative personal consequences as a direct result of their abuse and many have carried the experiences with them for decades.
We know from victim testimony just how traumatizing the ordeal can be, often causing victims to question their faith and experience difficulties in forming close relationships. Unfortunately, some complainants have been driven to drastic measures like attempting to take their own lives.
Victims who come forward with sexual abuse claims against rabbis sometimes face further abuse from the Orthodox Jewish community that is meant to be protecting them. This can take the form of physical threats, harassment, bribes, ex-communication from the temple, and property damage.
Why is no action taken against sexual abuse within the community?
As noted already, the Orthodox Jewish community is not alone in closing ranks when it perceives a threat. Minorities are accustomed to being treated as “outsiders” and this can help to build a “siege mentality”.
So, it is an all-too-common-occurrence that institutions in communities where people accused of wrongdoing attempt to cover up the crime or move the alleged perpetrator elsewhere so that it is no longer their problem.
This silence only serves to propagate such crimes and prolong the victims’ suffering.
Synagogues, school officials, and the community at large may take no action against accused sexual abusers because the individuals who are aware of the abuse may fear the repercussions of going to secular authorities. The standard approach in Orthodox Judaism is usually to go to the rabbi before the police.
Social stigma, potential loss of reputation, not knowing where to turn to, and the reluctance for Orthodox Jews to accuse other Orthodox Jews of crimes all play a role in keeping victims and the community silent, even when faced with the evidence.
These factors, alongside the ease of dismissing a child’s words against the words of a powerful community leader help to protect the perpetrators rather than the victims.
For survivors of sexual abuse in Jewish synagogues
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