Putting sexual violence and abuse center stage

Orthodox communities now requesting students educated about sexual violence, says Tahel crisis center founder Debbie Gross.

Raphael Poch ,

Debbie Gross at Tahel Conference
Debbie Gross at Tahel Conference
Eliran Aharon

There has been a dramatic change over the past three decades with regard to how the Jewish community, and more specifically the Orthodox Jewish community, deals with the after effects and trauma of sexual violence and abuse. This change is not only taking place in the Modern-Orthodox world, but also in the Ultra-Orthodox (haredi) world.

Debbie Gross, founder and director of religious women crisis center Tahel told Arutz Sheva, that this is due to the work that Tahel and other organizations have been doing.  

“25 years ago, no one was talking about domestic violence and sexual abuse in the Orthodox community. We saw last year that people were talking about it. That is due to our work. So we created a conference about it.”

Tahel’s conference last year was attended by over 650 people from around the world. Gross said that the major aspect of last year’s conference was idea sharing and cooperation.

This year, the tactic is about training community leaders of all sorts on how to properly deal with as well as prevent situations of sexual abuse and assault from happening.

The conference, which took place this week at the Ramada Hotel in Jerusalem, had a number of different tracks suited to a variety of people.

There were tracks for lay people who could learn how to better protect their communities, and there were tracks for lawyers, Rabbis, and mental health professionals.

People came from all over the world to teach, to learn and to share ideas, but most of all to get trained in order to enable themselves to be able to deal with sexual violence and abuse cases, should they come up.

The fact that people came from all over the world posed a challenge of language to the conference. Tahel solved the problem by using simultaneous translation at the conference, which is available in Hebrew and English.

“We are finding that when rabbis and community leaders are trained they don’t keep issues of sexual abuse quiet. When they learn the laws and they learn how to intervene then we are seeing a change,” said Gross.

One of the biggest changes within the Ultra-Orthodox community that Tahel has seen in the past few years, is the willingness as well as the invitations, to come and give lectures and prepare protocols for Ultra-Orthodox schools in Israel and the US.

“Rabbis are now letting us give lectures and build protocols for schools even in cheder’s talmud torahs and beit yaakov schools,” explained Gross.

Gross encourages the individuals to build a grass roots response team and to force their communities to deal with the issues of sexual violence and sexual abuse by having their leaders get trained with regards to the proper responses.

When a victim doesn’t get a proper response it can have very detrimental affects. “Often it takes a long process for a victim of sexual violence or abuse to tell someone what happened. Many times when the person opens up, they are told to be quiet in order to not make waves or get their family in trouble. So the victim stays quiet for even longer. But then something happens and the attacker becomes a big figure, a Rabbi or a Knesset member, and then the victim just can’t stay quiet any longer,” said Gross.   

According to Gross, women who speak out about a previous sexual assault case are not doing so out of revenge, but rather, they are doing so because as a victim feels that they can no longer stay silent. “It’s not a revenge issue. The victim sees the person who hurt them and hurt other people becoming a leader, and they can’t accept that. There is an idea in the conference that says, I don’t speak because I have the power to speak, I speak because I no longer have the power to be silent.”

Debbie Gross, is the Founder and Director of of Tahel organization. She is a psychologist and social worker by trade, and previous winner of the Jerusalem Ot award, and the Jerusalem Foundation’s Teddy Kollek award for Public Leadership and Excellence. She is a higlhy sought-after speaker. In the past she has helped tens of communities deal with issues of sexual assault and abuse, and has personally helped tens of victims find comfort.

Tahel, is a crisis support center for women and children who suffer from sexual violence and abuse in the Orthodox community, and was founded in 1993, in an effort to help women who were in a time of crisis. The organization maintains a national emergency hotline that answers any woman or child, religious as well as ultra-Orthodox across the country. The organization also provides legal support throughout the legal process and accompanies victims to the hospital, Police, court and other locations that they need to go.

In addition, the organization has trauma therapy for adults as well as children, and sessions that teach how to recognize and prevent someone from assaulting or abusing another individual.

In 2010 the organization developed models and lessons to help teach residents of Sderot to deal with and eventually free themselves from the adverse affects of trauma.

From there the organization expanded to become a national center for all, with regard to dealing with trauma and abuse within the family, and treats victims for trauma and stress related issues.