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Rabbis finally break silence on sex abuse

    Alison Feit
    Alison Feit

    The portraits of the founders of psychoanalysis looked on with approval as rabbis joined mental health experts to discuss the problem of sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community.

    The groundbreaking event took place at the William Alanson White Institute, a top psychoanalytic training and treatment centre, on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

    The rabbis explained the halachic view of sexual abuse, mental health experts explained its psychological consequences, while survivors described lives traumatised by guilt, shame and betrayal.

    Dr Alison Feit, director of the Jewish Centre for Trauma and Recovery, told the 120 members of the audience: "For too long family and communal concerns have been prioritised over the needs of the victims.

    "Their pleas have been ignored while the perpetrators, often family members or respected leaders of the religious community, were allowed to continue their abusive behaviour. A culture of silence, accompanied by communal neglect, has compounded the survivor's initial trauma with a lasting sense of betrayal."

    “There is an ever-growing desire to deal with these problems and make sure that they do not recur.” - Alison Feit

    The conference provided a "safe haven" where participants were able to obtain integrated professional and rabbinical guidance.

    The rabbinical advice was both candid and clear. In response to the observation that allegations of abuse had been suppressed out of fear of communal disgrace (hilul hashem), Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn, author of Child and Domestic Abuse, responded: "Covering up is a much worse hilul hashem." Where a child is in danger, he noted that the halachic concept of pikuach nefesh (danger to an individual) mandates the - legally required - reporting of the situation to secular authorities.

    One survivor, an Orthodox woman in her 30s, who was abused by her brother in childhood, noted that the fear of impairing her other siblings' marriage prospects was a factor constraining her parents from taking effective action to end the sexual abuse that she suffered from her brother.

    Ms Feit, one of the leading forces behind the conference, believes that the community has begun to recognise the prevalence of the problem and its devastating psychological consequences.

    She said: "While there was universal denial in the past, the enthusiastic participation in the conference evidences an ever-growing desire in the community to deal with these problems and make sure they do not recur."

    Clinicians are getting a growing number of calls from victims who had remained silent for years, Ms Feit said. She added that it was not uncommon for mental health workers to receive phone calls from unrelated people complaining about the same individual.

    The problems are not unique to the US. The UK Jewish community "has the same issues and the same expertise", said Sarah Robinson, a social worker from London now working in Boro Park.

    "It's important they follow the lead of New York," she said.

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