Sexual abuse of children in the Jewish community: difficult but important to face
Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities & Child Sex Scandals edited by Amy Neustein, Brandeis University Press, 2009, 272 pages, $35.
By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO—This is a difficult book to read, not only because it primarily is written for other academics, but because of the subject matter itself. While we are cognizant that there may be sexual offenders in the Jewish community, as there are in others, it’s difficult emotionally to accept that the people whom we trust most—our spiritual leaders—may make victims of our children.
Yet, not only does this occasionally occur, but in some cases religious institutions close ranks around the offenders, attempting to minimize their offenses or to marginalize their accusers. Something deep in the psyche sometimes militates against facing the truth, so deep that the process results in victims being emotionally re-traumatized.
Two of the essays were written for general audiences. One described the turmoil that overtook one congregation after a cantor was accused of engaging in predatory conduct towards his bar mitzvah students. Another described a writer’s efforts to shed sunlight on the case of a rabbi who fled to Israel to escape prosecution after details emerged of his alleged sexual misconduct with minors.
For comparative purposes, there also is an informative essay by a Catholic woman who founded an organization for former child victims of priests. Coupled with other essays in this book, the account of the Catholic experience leads inescapably to the conclusion that when under pressure, some religious institutions—whether Roman Catholic or Jewish—may stop being compassionate and switch, instead, to a mode of corporate self-preservation. One assumes that such situations also prevail among other religious groups.
Even journalists are taken to task in this book that asks how such matters are allowed to persist. Regrettably, too many journalists can be steered away from investigative stories –either because they think their readers will be offended, or because they simply can’t make the commitments of time and financial resources that covering such stories may require.
If the book’s authors had simply wrung their hands over child abuse in the Jewish community, they would have served little more purpose than the journalists they criticize. However, in the event that your congregation , or day school, or Jewish affinity group should somehow face such a situation, the book does offer some guidelines concerning making responsible inquiries into the situation, anticipating the inevitable fallout and polarization that might occur as a result of those inquiries, and working with police and prosecutors to help victims get justice, and thereby put them onto the road to recovery.
The authors do not dismiss sexual offenders as irredeemable; rather, they endeavor to differentiate among types and contexts of sexual offenses, and suggest that communities wanting to help rehabilitate the offenders understand the range of treatment programs.
While this book offers little in reading pleasure, it provides much in resources should a situation of sexual abuse by a leader in the Jewish community arise. It’s the kind of book that belongs on a communal library shelf, to be consulted as needed. Statistically, incidence of child abuse is likely to occur in the Jewish community at no less a rate than in the general community.
Harrison is editor of