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Our Culture of Silence Must Change

December 1, 2013 – 9:48 am20 Comments

By David Werdiger:

Editor’s notes:

. Due to technical difficulties, we were unable to publish this piece as scheduled, last Monday – White Ribbon Day. We therefore post it today.

. NB: This publication does not endorse the entirety of this piece. Certain assertions regarding family violence rendering children more vulnerable to sexual abuse could be construed as victim blaming.

domestic violence2

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 writer and public speaker, a director of Australian Jewish Funders, and a director of a number of technology businesses including KISS Mobile and Billing Bureau. You can connect with David on LinkedInFacebookTwitter, or Google+

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  • Daniel Levy says:

    WerdDoggyD, you write:

    “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?”

    Do you understand how ridiculous and insulting it is to compare Manny Waks and Tzedek (we all know which ‘outsiders’ you are referring to) to a lynch mob? Lynch mobs were white supremacists rounding up black people to hang from a tree.

    And you want to bring those connotations to an organisation desperately trying to save children in your community from harm?

    Great comparison. Excellent analogy. A+++++++ would read your feckless victim-blaming again.

    Interestingly, Manny and his family are only outsiders because of the disgusting way in which he and his family were treated by your community. They are outsiders of your own making because of disgraceful bullying like yours.

    Everything you do is for show. You want to appear like you support victims of abuse. You want to appear fair-minded and good. But you just cannot help yourself. Eventually, as with every single thing you do, say or write, your self-serving greediness must shine through. You just have to try to sink the boot in to Manny in any way you can, while paying perfunctory (if not insulting) lip service to the victims he tries so valiantly to help.

    How disgustingly parochial of you to say “culture change happens slowly. don’t tear down our institutions and traditions!”

    There are so many things wrong with this I do not know where to begin.

    1) This is a strawman. Nobody has EVER SAID they want to tear down Yeshiva or the Orthodox community or ANYTHING of the sort. This is a logical fallacy you are using to smear good people. This has never been their goal. This is a classic misdirect to get people to stop focussing on the real issue at hand. And it’s quite frankly disgusting.

    2) Let’s assume for just one moment you’re correct. SO WHAT?! You should WANT your institutions and traditions torn to shreds if it means CHILDREN STOP BEING RAPED. You are implying that your traditions are more important than the safety of your children.

    You weren’t abused as a child. You didn’t have your innocence and (in some cases) your mental health ripped from you and then have it covered up and be so callously bullied for trying to speak out about it.

    So it’s fine for you to say “we just need time!”

    Those victims need the change to happen NOW. So get out of the way and let this progress happen so no more children are made to suffer like so many have. It’s enough already. This is bigger than you, this is more important than your god-damn religion.

    GET OVER YOURSELF and leave this to the people whose vested interest in this scourge is to GET RID OF IT and not protect the reputations of the animals who covered it up.

  • Daniel Levy says:

    There should be another disclaimer, by the way, that Werdiger’s family is a long-time financial donor to Yeshiva and has a family member sitting on the board. Thus, it should (very sadly) come as no shock that David Werdiger is attempting to discredit Manny’s attempts to bring justice to Yeshiva victims.

    Editor: This comment has been edited to remove potentially defamatory content.

  • Joe in Australia says:

    I don’t think it’s victim blaming to acknowledge that

    Abused children are deliberately targeted by sexual predators, who can identify them as “easy prey”; quite the opposite.

    I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area, but I have done some reading and David Werdiger’s observation is consistent with current research. As a paper published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies puts it:

    Child abuse and neglect is most likely to arise from the interaction of numerous risk factors [….] There is also evidence that the cumulative effects of exposure to multiple risks strongly influences negative child outcomes and maltreatment […] (my emphases)

    I’m older than Manny, younger than his father, and I don’t know anything about their home. None the less, I didn’t get the impression that David Werdiger was calling them out. Even if this particular risk factor were relevant to him (I have no idea whether that is the case) I can’t see any reason why Manny or anyone else would want the association between family violence and child vulnerability to be hushed up. We have had enough silence, and this is not about any one person, or any one family.

  • Joe in Australia says:

    Huh. That paper’s link didn’t come through. Here it is:
    Risk and protective factors for child abuse and neglect

    And if *that* doesn’t work: http://www.aifs.gov.au/cfca/pubs/factsheets/a143921/

  • Sunshine says:

    Amaxing. The man who surreptitiously donated to a school that covers up child rape has the check to write this.

    Secondly to use violence against women as an opportunity to once again point fingers a at a man who has done more for abuse than he has?

    How disgraceful but expected

  • letters in the age says:

    Daniel Levy is correct on many points with his sophisticated “rant” about hypocrisy within the community.

    I would also say that using Manny’s experience and activism to further ones own ideological interest isn’t fair or nice either.

    Food for thought.#

  • Reuvain says:

    Editor – “assertions regarding family violence rendering children more vulnerable to sexual abuse could be construed as victim blaming”. How is that victim blaming? It’s not the victim’s fault that they were abused twice! Are you saying that the government research paper saying the same thing is also victim blaming?

  • Joe in Australia says:

    Sunshine, I presume that most parents with kids in the Yeshiva/Beth Rivka system are donors to at least some extent. I certainly am. In any event, I can’t see any finger-pointing in David Werdiger’s article; maybe you could tell us what you find offensive?

  • Sunshine says:

    Sorry thought I was clear.

    A man who is vocal along with his offspring, that the way in which Manny and Tzedek are putting Yeshiva and other criminals behind bars doesn’t suit him, writes a sanctimonious “I should have done something article’

    So David go do something then.

    Nothing is stopping you speaking up about the cases you know about, go to the police, report your rabbis and community….


  • Joe in Australia says:

    I think anyone who cares about domestic abuse or the social integrity of Melbourne’s Jewish community would welcome David’s call to arms. I can’t understand why you would want to frame everything as a way of scoring points between Manny (yay!) and the Yeshiva Center (boo!)

  • It is disappointing that these discussions omit considering the Halahca and the Torah, in short Gd is not part of this discussion.

    This is a disaster certainly for the victims, but in global terms it indicates an erosion of the very foundations that our religion culture and heritage are built upon, our Torah. Our institutions and our leaders have trampled upon the Torah, some actively some passively. Their members their supporters and their admirers have been unable or unwilling to ensure that their leaders have abided the Torah we are pledged and sworn to.

    It appears that somehow our fealty to HKBH has been diverted to the organisation and the institution – the brand and the tribe. If it is good for the institution – then it MUST be good for Gd. A sort of modern day Golden Calf, the people bowed and prayed, to the user-defined image of Gd they made.

    And so many years ago HKBH took away the Beis Hamikdash: we worshipped there but we did not worship HKBH – we worshipped something else. That’s why our enemies brought idols into the Beis Hamikdash. It symbolised what we were doing. We were worshipping idols, painted in the user-defined colours of whatever we thought looked like authentic orthodox Yiddishkeit.

    And although we say we want Moshiach now, we have not packed our bags, we are still [quite happy] in exile, we have not yet learned from our mistakes. But we will. As our Sages say, when Achashverosh empowered Haman, the Jews learned a lesson that many of Gd’s prophets had been unable to instill. Haman succeeded where Gd failed to accomplish.

    It is indeed a time for action.

    Joseph’s brothers never requested forgiveness from him. Our Sages linked this with the torture and death of the ten martyrs in the famous and moving liturgy. Wrongs must be righted. Burying the wrongs or sending them overseas, does not open a new page. Gd waits for us to pursue righteousness and justice.

  • TheSadducee says:

    With all due respect Rabbi – the Romans destroyed the Temple due to religious extremists, not Hashem due to idolatry and/or a low level of faith.

    It is also quite scandalous to suggest that sages like R ben Zakkai and other tannaim, who worshipped at the Temple, permitted idolatry of the kind that you describe.

    Do you also know how bizarre and out of touch it sounds when you refer to ‘authentic orthodox Yiddishkeit’ and the Temple?

  • I am stating the position held by those who are doing the abusing -I am speaking to them with the symbols they preach by.

    we can debate our varying perspectives some other time

  • and am also I suspect on the same wavelength as David Werdiger

  • Joe says:

    Not sure of your point regarding the absence of G-d, Halacha or the Torah. I think you will find that this is the reason we have communities across the globe continually following the same path. They are all guided by the Torah and Halacha or the lack their of

    these issues do not have their own tractates or even a clear definition or instruction set, showing how much of a non event they are in Torah terms. Our current leaders in the Litvish and Chassidic worlds are overwhelmed a society around them write and rewrite normative behavioral rules while the community clings to the Halachic concept of Moser as their predecessors did without recognizing fundamental shifts that the Torah doesn’t even consider.

    Our Torah discusses at length the adulteress and mentions the homosexual but their is nothing said of the pedophile and the consequences thereof…. The Torah concept of spousal abuse also does not correlate to the modern definitions society has evolved to in the 21 century.

    It is only in recent years that we have had a handful of courageous rabbis who have been willing to take the responsibility and chart a new course, calling for immediate police involvement.
    In doing this they look at the issue purely from the modern point of view of the outcome with pain and suffering defining the need to act in a modern responsible way.

    To insinuate that the current generation is going against the ways of the Torah and Halachah is absurd in this instance. Sadly they are following the same age of path as previous generations in Torah and Halachah. All our community leaders need to think differently, instead of th
    Inking the old fashioned way that the act itself can’t be ‘bad’ in Torah terms as they dont get a mention they need to look at it mpfrom the point of view of cause and effect….a new approach

  • The absence of G-d, Halacha or the Torah is at the foundation of all sin. We agree that the actions and inactions that are at the heart of the matter we are discussing is all sinful.

    But my point is not so much the analysis of the ommissions and the activities, but at the protests that are now being aired, be they genuine or disingenuous – these protests ignore G-d, Halacha or His Torah.

    These issues and also far more subtle forms of abuse and manipulation are very much a significant part of our Halachic traditions. Our culture, that demands the strictest care be applied to normal everyday speech, and is super sensitive to the harmful and painful effects it can cause, is certainly highly attuned and most vigorously opposed to the sort of abuse we are discussing here.

    The concept of Moser as it is used in our context, is nothing more that a pretext. It refers in its original context to those who save themselves from paying tax, or cut any other deal with the government or other power that seeks to extort, by dobbing in someone else.

    The Torah says plenty about coercion, be it within the framework of marriage or outside of it. Although it is true that these definitions do not match modern definitions of the 21 century. They are far stricter.

    This can be see from those courageous rabbis who are true to our traditions, who have been willing to take the responsibility and chart a new course. That does sometimes call for immediate police involvement, but sometimes that is not immediate enough and so alternative approaches are pursued.

    These rabbis are most certainly going against the establishment with great courage and personal sacrifice, but they are driven by their devotion to Torah and Halachah.

  • Sunshine says:

    Rabbi you do go on. But would you mind then denouncing the child abuse and cover ups by your colleagues across the globe so we can see where you stand?

    Waiting for you now because David hasn’t reported anyone yet . Or helped get grid of those who protect abusers, which mashes his article laughable.

    Anyone can write an article DW supporters. It’s not as easy to actually do what you say

  • I am flattered by your implied suggestion, Sunshine, that you believe that my protest actually carries weight amongst the “establishment rabbis”

    As for my credentials and sincerity – well you know how I have fought for the Halacha in theory and in practice and the sort of nonsense that has been ineffectually thrown in my direction.

  • Sunshine says:

    So you won’t say.

    Enough said

    Disgusting but expected

  • issac brott says:

    Meir Rabi…a bold voice in the dessert .Wear thick socks…the hyenas are nipping at your heals.

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