Family & Education

Yehudis Fletcher: speaking out on sex and marriage

Yehudis Fletcher campaigns against ignorance and abuse in her Charedi community - after she courageously gave evidence against a man who assaulted her


Would you like to have sex with somebody you’ve never touched before? Because that’s what young Charedi men and women experience on their wedding night. They go from first touch to penetration in one go.”

There are other things that concern Yehudis Fletcher about the Charedi community into which she was born 32 years ago and of which she still counts herself a member, but it’s fair to say that the silence that so often surrounds sexual matters is at the top of the list. Her own story makes it clear why that is.

She’s concerned about the lack of secular education. She is concerned about lack of autonomy — sexual and in general. She’s concerned about the benefit fraud she describes as “the norm” in the community and which she argues proper schooling would curtail. And she’s concerned about the cover-up of child sexual abuse.

When it comes to child abuse Fletcher knows, terribly, first-hand of which she speaks. From the age of 15 to 16 she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by the notorious Charedi paedophile Todros Grynhaus whom she helped put behind bars in May 2015.

When she turned to the Manchester Beth Din for help, handing over excerpts from the diaries she wrote during the period of her abuse and a collection of objects that probably contained her abuser’s DNA, she says the rabbinical court did nothing with her evidence. And then refused to return the items. When I contacted the Manchester Beth Din last week, trustee Rabbi Dovid Eisenberg said that the items had been given to its then registrar Rabbi Yehuda Brodie who died in June 2015, a month after Grynhaus’s trial. “Those claims could be right or they could be wrong. I don’t know that anybody can comment other than Rabbi Brodie who isn’t with us any more.”

Some would turn their back on a world that had failed them so dreadfully. Others might admit defeat and, cowed, not speak out again. But Fletcher has channelled her horrific experiences into social and political activism to empower others in a community “I was born into and which no one gets to throw me out of.”

The rabbi’s daughter — her father Michael Fletcher was minister of Queens Park Hebrew Congregation in Glasgow — is an advisor for Migdal Emunah, a charity to support Jewish victims of sexual abuse. She’s been an ambassador for Jofa UK, the Orthodox feminist organisation: “my experience led me naturally to feminism.” She is a graduate of the London School of Jewish Studies’ Susie Bradfield women’s leadership programme, as well as a UJIA leadership course. She is studying social policy at the University of Salford in what she describes as her “first experience of formal education”. And she now wears trousers. “My values and ethics haven’t changed, but my world view has broadened. Community leaders say Charedi women choose to only wear skirts and dresses. Well, I choose not to.”

And last year she co-founded Nahamu, the UK’s first think-tank to tackle religious extremism in the Jewish community. Board members include David Toube, director of policy at Quilliam, the world’s first counter-extremism organisation, and human rights barrister Adam Wagner is their advisor. This month Nahamu marks its first anniversary.

“Systemic harm is taking place in the Charedi community and it has nothing to do with the religion I love and practise,” she tells me.

“It’s happening because of cultural norms that have developed over many years and which have as much to do with Judaism as Islam has to do with Islamism.”

Nahamu, translating roughly as comfort, sees its role as advocatory. When troubled members of the Charedi community get in touch, Nahamu steers them to organisations such as the Forced Marriage Unit and Karma Nirvana, the human rights charity supporting victims of honour-based abuse and forced marriage. It provides government bodies with information about the cultural issues and religious conflicts pertaining to the strictly Orthodox community. And this year it will start offering legal analyses of halachic texts to help Charedim extricate themselves from seemingly intractable situations.

“They say people choose to submit to rabbinic authority. Well, we want to give people the tools to think critically. And knowing what we do about certain rabbis, we have questions about the halachic status of these rabbis’ authority.”

Crucially, the think-tank confronts what it sees as the failings of the community’s overall framework and not the individuals within it, many of whom Fletcher says are ethical and kind. “I’m talking about things no one in Stamford Hill will deny with a straight face. About the fact that most of our girls get married at the age of 18 and almost never go to university. About the fact people get sucked into a criminal lifestyle of claiming benefits and working off the books. And that we are proud of the fact our children aren’t taught about sex, and also that we censor our own texts.

“My community has dictums that tell us what to do, what to think, which questions we can ask and which we must not. This has nothing to do with faith and everything to do with controlling minds. Why is the internet banned? For the same reason books are burned. To stop the spread of ideas. This is why it is right to talk of Jewish extremism.”

This extremism includes not automatically reporting crimes to the police. “The rav is always the first port of call,” she says. “Now, sometimes he will say: report this crime to the police. But sometimes he won’t.” She cites the case of Rabbi Padwa (head of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations), recorded on a hidden camera for Channel Four’s Dispatches in 2013, saying it was “mesira”, forbidden, to report a suspected Jewish sex offender to a non-Jewish authority.

This anniversary month also sees the launch of Nahamu’s first position paper on forced marriage.

“We are absolutely not saying every simchah is a forced marriage,” she says. “But we are saying it is crucial to differentiate between an arranged and forced marriage. We are not sitting on the fence.”

She doesn’t want the mainstream Jewish community to sit on the fence either. “For some reason it’s become acceptable for mainstream Jews to look away from the Charedim, to ignore people they know are going through things they themselves wouldn’t like to experience, and to do nothing about it. Or to say, well, we have organisations like Jewish Women’s Aid, and that’s enough.

“Well, I’m saying this. Don’t dismiss Charedim. They are people like you. Some are introverted, some are extroverted. Some are happy, some are not. Some have aspirations, and some challenge themselves to meet those aspirations and when they do, and this involves leaving the Charedi world, the United Synagogue, the Board, the Jewish Leadership Council and the other communal bodies should be there with practical support so they can lead a full but different Jewish life. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh: Jews have a responsibility to each other.”

She knows why many of us look the other way. “Moderates have this great fear of appearing judgemental. Well, you know what else people fear? Being raped. And I can tell you that being raped is a lot is more uncomfortable than being judged. I question these people who somehow think sexual autonomy is something they are entitled to but I am not. I call it a racism of lower expectations.”

She questions those who believe that publicly condemning bad behaviour in the Jewish community contributes to antisemitism in society at large. “Antisemites are responsible for antisemitism, not Jews. When there is a terrorist attack we wait for moderate Muslims to condemn it. The same rules must apply to our community. Silence is compliance. If we were washing our dirty laundry in public on a regular basis, it wouldn’t pile up.”

And the pile is high, she says. Troubled and confused male and female Charedim, of all ages, contact the organisation at a rate of one a week.

“We have started the conversation about forced marriage in the Jewish community. There is no shame in admitting this problem. The shame is in denying that there is a problem.”

Unorthodox, the hugely successful Netflix drama depicting a Chasidic girl leaving her marriage, helped get the conversation going, she says. “It was a gift, not least because it was released during lockdown — so many people have watched it. You can pick holes in some aspects of its portrayal of Charedi life but I will say again and again until everyone who cares has heard, those wedding night scenes are real. In my community young people are expected to have sex with someone they may not have even spoken to since their first meeting, which could be as long as a year ago. It is nothing less than marital rape.”

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