Warding off assault
Warding off assaultPhoto: iStock

Israel is periodically convulsed by revelations of sexual harassment, assaults, and abuse perpetrated by high-profile, highly esteemed haredi Jews. For example, in 2021, Yehuda Meshi Zahav and Rabbi Chaim Walder were exposed for having sexually abused and assaulted women and male and female minors for decades. Zahav was famous for having founded the emergency rescue service ZAKA, and Walder was a beloved children’s book author, therapist, and radio personality. Their sexual crimes, as well those perpetrated by other haredi leaders, have traditionally been covered up by their peers driven by a misguided need to “protect” the reputation of the community as a whole and an inability to deal with the horrid topic.

Malka Leifer, Australian haredi girls’ school principal, ran to Israel in 2008 to escape prosecution when over 70 cases of decades-long abuses were disclosed. It took until 2018 to extradite her because Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and fellow Gur Hasid manipulated the system in an attempt to prevent her return to Australia. Last month, an Australian court convicted her for her offenses.

It is not only famous perpetrators of sexual crimes who benefit from cover-ups but also sex abuse by lesser-known rabbis and teachers, family members, and by neighbors. This is common to all sectors of the population, and each particular sector has had to confront the societal norms that keep the lid on these crimes. This began in the late 1970s for the secular population, and even then, secular kibbutzim, not knowing how to deal with the repercussions of abuse disclosures, hushed things up until the law forced them to report cases to the police. Now they have detailed blueprints for how to respond as a community to new disclosures of abuse.

The haredi sector began much later to acknowledge abuse. That means that they are still developing the means for responding to new cases. I spoke with Dorit Balshan, 48, social worker and former child protection worker, in order to understand what it is like working with the haredi sector and if there have been changes over the years. Dorit served as director of a center for abused children and was a northern regional child protection supervisor. She began working with haredi communities in 2008. I spoke with her on Zoom.

I asked Dorit to tell me how she began working with the haredi community. She first asked me to define haredi, but I left that to her.

There is no one haredi community. I belong to the National Religious sector, and I have one son who has the sidelocks characteristic of the haredi and a very high level of observance -- so there are many similarities and differences among the religious communities, and that is perhaps the opening stance one needs to take: to deeply understand before whom one is sitting. One can be an expert in one community and know nothing about another. We have to come with a lot of humility and openness to learn.

We need to regard interventions with the community as individual therapy – the community also has fears and a past history with a set of beliefs and values. When I face new clients, I need to start from zero because I need to become familiar with them -- learn how sexual abuse affects them specifically – how they understand it, same for the community. To define myself as an expert in religious communities is to set myself up for failure.

How did it go at the beginning?

It began when the Social Welfare Ministry opened the sex abuse center for children in 2008 in the north with me as director. When there was a report of abuse, the welfare service would refer it to us, and key leaders in the community would call me to check us out. They would ask questions, and, at the same time, I would meet people in the school and meet the leaders and gradually got to the higher-ups.

The fact that I am religious doesn’t mean I am acceptable to them because I am not one of their particular community, and I will never be their “brand” of religiosity.

They may be afraid that I would expose them outside the community. Maybe I will do harm as I do not know them. They know that there is mandated reporting, but if we go in with the police, many circles of hurt result. They are also aware that if the abuse is within the family, it may cause the breakdown of the family.

Why is this more problematic for the religious family than the secular family?

It’s not more problematic, but before intervening with each family, each community, we have to get an in-depth understanding about them – what are their strengths, fears, beliefs, and values – and then, how do we find ways to work together?

The first stage is building trust, letting them know me as a person. I worked with a municipal rabbi, and we would argue. After we had developed trust in each other, we were able to disagree and get angry at each other.

I remember one of the debates I had with him. He told me I am breaking up families. ‘However you look at it,’ he said, ‘you are breaking up families.’ You have no way to intervene without breaking up the family. I asked him if he thinks a family in which there is abuse is not a family already broken up? We are reorganizing them, I told him. They are broken from the start. We go in and mirror reality, and it is a harsh and shocking reality, and we see if it is possible to rehabilitate the family and if each individual, each at a different pace.

I asked him what he thinks is the proper intervention for a murderer. And the Torah defines rape as murder, I continued. To him, it was clear then: prison.

After trust had been established, we developed a course for the religious and community leaders about the impact of sexual abuse and other aspects about the topic. We used a collaborative process in which we decided together on the topics to cover and they were responsible for deciding who would participate in the course, and we were responsible for the content.

We began an eight-session training with about 40 participants from the largest community in the city. It took place in a large hall with a mechitza (a room divider) with men on one side and women on the other. The lecturer stood in the middle – remember, we are talking about sexual issues, something men and women do not talk about together. We taught them about child sexual abuse and on interventions when abuse is disclosed.

Were you able to talk openly about sexuality?

At the beginning, I was very sensitive to the language we used and at the same time, it was important to be clear.

For example, it is important to know what was done to the child because one child can say he was sexually abused when he was, in fact, kicked, whereas another child, a 4-year-old that I treated, for example, was anally raped and she said her brothers kicked her. Participants needed to understand this.

When we are treating individuals, we do not worry about what words we use, but when you are standing in front of a group of rabbis, rabbis’ wives, school principals, and other non-clinicians, you cannot use the direct language you can use with therapists.

I brought the rabbi from Modi’in who is part of their community forum on sexual abuse to one of the sessions [Dorit smiles broadly and laughs] and he did not talk in clean language. He just talked. He shook them up, I remember, he really shook them up. But he could do that. He could speak without filters.

What happened after this course was over?

Good things that emerged from this:

When we finished the course, the city rabbi invited parents to hear a guest lecturer talk to them about the topic The need for religious therapists was recognized The group went to Modi’in Ilit to meet their forum and see what they do Afterward, we opened a course for therapists and the community provided rooms for therapy for free for anyone who needed it. The community maintained the therapy rooms. Other communities approached us after the city rabbi turned to communities that were not involved in the initial project.

There were a number of places that approached me and wanted to hear my recommendations for how they could begin, and they would go forward themselves – they built a forum of community leaders and included community members who were working in the police, lawyers, educators, and social workers. They visited other forums to learn from them.

One of the hardest things about sex abuse in the haredi community – sometimes the abuse itself is not the worst thing that happens, but the community response to disclosure. We can say to leaders of a community:

“You are such a supportive community. For example, the community organizes meals for the whole week throughout a shiva (intense seven-day mourning period); for a whole month after childbirth, the community takes care of the family’s meals, her other children, and cleaning the house.

But in cases of sexual abuse, community support disappears. The family is left on its own as if they are polluted; nobody helps them to continue to function. You say you are afraid families will fall apart if abuse is reported and they fall apart because they are abandoned. Instead, send them food, support them. If the father is in jail or there are interrogations, help them. It is a change of perspective – if we want to get rid of the act and the perpetrator, then just them, not everyone connected with it. The opposite –adopt them. That is the strength of the community.”

Here’s an example of how one community found a solution to a problem: our center got a report on Thursday evening of a little girl who was suspected of being abused in the home. Forensic interviewing could not be done over Shabbat and there was great fear that if she went home she would be abused again. We shared our concern and they simply arranged for a family from the community to invite the family over for Shabbat with them. That way everyone knew that the girl was safe until the next step could be taken.

In November, allegations came out against the influential Rabbi Tau and he was questioned at the beginning of April. He is not haredi, but a very important religious leader. Is there a difference from the community response to Tau compared with those exposed earlier?

Today, the only ones speaking out against the victims, something that used to be common, are those surrounding Tau. Two women are supporting the victims, the spiritual leader Rabbanit Carmit Feintuch is one.

There is a center for haredi victims of violence and there are rabbis who refer victims to the center, empower them, and encourage them. There will always be those who don’t. One of the characteristics of sexual abuse is minimalization, denial, and trying to explain extreme cases according to the dichotomy of yes/no, black/white, right/wrong. The right/wrong exists only in the room with the victim and the offender. There it is clear. What happens in the family and community is complex.

The way is still long. Each new case shakes everyone up. Today local forums handle the situation together and find support for both the victim’s family and the offender’s family, who also need help. The forum, Takana, shares learning among the communities. Forum Takana states clearly that the true blasphemy is covering up sexual crimes, not exposing them to the public.

How is it that Litzman protected Leifer and the community let that happen?

The fact that Litzman did what he did does not mean that his community agreed with it. He had lots of power and he did what he wanted. His behavior painted a whole sector of the population in one way and he prevented an entire community from acting as they may have preferred to act.

The support the victims received in Israel was from members of the Gur community. But when you have a minister with power, there is the problem. For a rabbi to come out against a government minister he would need power behind him because the minister can take budgets away from religious institutions. So it’s a grave problem.

There was an exception that provides a good example of how rabbis should respond. Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu did an amazing thing and he shows how to deal with the issue openly. His father was a Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel and he is now the Chief Rabbi of Tzfat and a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council in Jerusalem. He disclosed the story of Rabbi Ezra Sheinberg.

Sheinberg was an esteemed rabbi in Tzfat, and he and Rabbi Eliyahu had excellent relations. In 2015, reports of sexual abuse of women who consulted with Sheinberg began to come to Rabbi Eliyahu. As soon as the reports reached him, he, his wife, and a haredi therapist interviewed the women. He helped them report to the police and he distanced the rabbi until he was finally convicted and sentenced to prison. Rabbi Eliyahu made sure other victims were identified and the community rehabilitated.

It was very courageous for a rabbi at his level to lead such a process without fear – the criticism did not affect him. He was more concerned with attending to the voices of the victims.

There is a prayer on Rosh Hashanah that says – forgive us for going easy where we should have gone hard and going hard where we should have gone easy. If something is forbidden, it is forbidden, and if something is permissible it is permissible. That is the only dichotomy of importance here.