By Aliza BasMenachem
At the Jewish Community Watch meeting Rosh Chodesh Iyar at the Monsey Crowne Plaza Hotel, Rabbi YY Jacobson apologized. He apologized for being uninformed, undereducated, and lacking know how. In the past, when people reached out to him, he was not aware of the plague of sexual child abuse. And with his apology came the unconditional, unwavering commitment to stand by victims and help them change darkness to light. He declared a new dawn is coming. No longer will the community be deaf to cries and silent cries. We need to bring light to every soul. For the child who has seen darkness, we will double our efforts.
Rabbi Jacobson quoted the Chumash, “They believed in Hashem and Moshe His servant.” The Tizkas Hatzadik (ch. 154) explains that Moshe represents every Jew, we must believe in every Jew. When we believe in our children – they will believe in themselves. We can connect with our inner Moshe – and split the sea. Hashem will be with us as we transform abuse – and the innocence of our children will shine.
There were hundreds of people in the audience. I was one of them. I attended was because I realized my own ignorance in this field. I left feeling much more informed – and aware that there is still so much to learn. I took home a copy of their handout entitled, “Raising Safe Kids – A Parents Guide.” It is an excellent resource. There are so many questions to be answered. So many cries to be heard. So many hearts to be comforted. So many personalities to build and re-build.
It can be frightening going to a meeting of this kind. You don’t know what you are going to hear. The word ‘abuse’ is tossed around today and applied to an array of scenarios. But I found hearing about child sexual abuse to be scary. You might hear something that hurts you to the core and you won’t be able to forget it. And you will know that the child it happened to cannot forget it either. Only you know you are responding to hearing about it – but it actually happened to someone – when they were a child.
I do not believe a person can go through life without encountering child sexual abuse in one form or another. The statistics are 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys. I presume that is for life changing incidents. For the rest of us, it’s part of growing up. Like running into the street. All kids do it once. Most come back to the sidewalk and get a shouting or a slap, together with a hug of relief. Others are seriously damaged. Some die. But unlike the child who runs into the street, the sexually abused child is not easily diagnosed as to the severity of the incident. That’s part of the challenge. It’s great that 20 years later they come forward – but how can we help the same day it happens? JCW is about preventing that day from happening – through education, awareness and uncovering what some people would prefer covered up.
Trauma Psychologist who works with JCW, Dr. Norman Goldwasser came from Miami to speak at this event. He opened his presentation by sincerely thanking everyone for attending. Then he went on to explain how trauma halts the normal flow of processing information and an incident can remain strong in a child’s memory loaded with emotion. Even one incident can damage a child for life. But more often the abuse goes on for years. Abuse results in tampering with a child’s self-identity. They feel isolated, alone, depressed. They lose their perception of self-worth. Victims feel guilty thinking that they have caused their own loss of innocence. They suffer from self-degradation for not being about to speak about it. Sexual abuse ruins a child’s chance for healthy, meaningful, relationships. It can generate a fear that refuses to subside, creating flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety disorders. It confuses sexual identity and orientation.
But last night I kept hearing the word dignity. Not letting the molester win. Changing the darkness to light. Not to blame or to bash but to fix. Living with dignity.
Where is Hashem in all this? During his presentation, JCW founder and director, Meyer Seewald said, “Hashem wants you to be OK.” And he gave examples of stories of survivors returning to Torah and Mitzvos.
Victims of child sexual abuse have a pattern of rebelling against Torah. Sometimes they find consolation in alcohol or drugs. When JCW steps in and tells their survivors that they have a purpose in this life. That they were wronged but they have the strength to see the new day that Rabbi Jacobson spoke about. When these young people – and not so young people – see they are not alone and they have support – they step back onto the stage of a balanced, healthy life – they tend to re-embrace Torah observance.
Rabbi Jacobson stated that JCW is not about anger and revenge, it’s about healing. Survivor, and the evening’s skillful host, Eli Nash, spoke about a sensitive topic. On the internet they post perpetrators on a Wall of Shame. They know that once a name is posted that person will be chastised and his family may suffer. That is not their goal. They understand the perpetrator is also suffering. But their goal is to protect children – and therefore they must choose the child’s safety over the perpetrator’s circumstance.
Once posted, JCW does not encourage harassment. There is a middle ground between remaining silent and being hostile. Perpetrators of this kind do tend to repeat their crime. They need to be exposed so that children can be protected. There is no excuse to remain silent. So once a name has been posted, the potential for saving children has been activated. Additional harassment is not for the purpose of saving children – and is therefore not on the JCW agenda. In fact, it is discouraged. The mode of operation is dignity with the goal of helping victims. Harassment does not fit into the JCW guidelines.
JCW is run by survivors who are passionate about stopping the plague of child sexual abuse. They work in tandem with professionals. It seems to me to be a good partnership. Meyer admitted that he is not perfect and JCW is not perfect. They welcome feedback and constructive criticism.
Sexual child abuse is such an insidious crime. The perpetrator knows how to lure the child to privacy – or is trusted with the child by the family. There are no witnesses. If the child will make an accusation, the adult will deny the testimony and marvel at the child’s imagination. In some cases the child will be punished. If the family believes their child and they make an accusation, the family may be ostracized.
Local police officer, Omar Olayan, addressed the audience. He gave a brief summary of the process when a crime of this sort is reported. I think it would take the frightening edge off of this part of the process when you know a little of what you are facing. The officer instructed the audience not to coach the child on what to say. The people who interview the children can tell right away if the child was told to remember to say something or if the child is answering by themselves. From my own experience I would say that this is the way to test if a perpetrator is being falsely accused. Let me explain. If a father beats a child until he needs to go to the hospital – the father would tell the child to say someone else did it. A good interviewer will know that the child has been told to say something by someone else. So even if you are coaching your child to say the truth – stop. You don’t want to confuse things. The child knows. You want him/her answering. Not repeating what he/she was told.
There were other speakers as well. Including moving words from the prominent, globally recognized, Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald, who has been active for decades protecting children.
Meyer Seewald showed a video clip of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He had gone to the Ohel in the afternoon to get a Brocha for the event. Inside the Ohel complex, Meyer watched the JEM video that was playing. The Rebbe was speaking right to him. Meyer knew he had to get a copy to show at the event. To help out, a friend of his went to the JEM office, but was told that access to the storage had already been locked up for the day. But Meir needed the video. That footage was meant to be shown that evening. Meyer’s friend responded to the office representative that he would pick the lock. (Now you get the idea of how JCW operates. They are not discouraged by locked doors or locked hearts.) The friend and JEM rep went to examine the locked door and – when something is meant to be there is no stopping it – I am not making this up – it turned out the person who locked up had left the key in the keyhole. Hence, as I said, we watched the video clip. And it really was appropriate.
To follow is an edited transcript of the English subtitles from the video:
“What is really being done for the Jewish child on your street corner? On the block of your Shul and study hall? You are preoccupied with lofty matters but it does nothing for the child. He continues to drift with the influences of the streets. And from day to day his spiritual well-being worsens – for a child must be trained in his youth – and every day that passes when the child is in confusion, it becomes more difficult to redirect him to an orderly lifestyle.
“There are Rabbis, teachers, educators, G-d fearing laymen, public activists, etc. No one is Heaven forbid completely inactive. They are all occupied with Torah and Mitzvos. But there are hundreds of thousands of children – every single one of them more precious than gold – …How can this continue? …Why is everyone preoccupied with everything else, and this critical issue is brushed aside to the corner? And when they are pressured on the issue, they respond with a sigh, they convene a meeting, draft a resolution… You must do something with the child. You are preoccupied? Surely, if G-d was able to designate time for all your other matters, He will certainly give you the time to rescue a Jewish child. Each person according to the best of his ability – how much more if you can rescue tens of Jewish children? … We need action!”
It is my hope that Meyer and Eli and all the speakers who educated us at the evening in Monsey, and all activists at JCW – including those souls brave enough to tell their stories to let others know that they are not alone – it is my hope that they all take encouragement from the Rebbe’s concern and know they are answering the Rebbe’s call.
One Mitzvah brings another. Surely the message to make our communities safe for children will be taken up by more and more people as the JCW message reaches further and deeper.
I showed this article to Meyer. He asked me to include this message to survivors:
You are not alone. It is safe to come forward. We believe you. And we believe in you.