National Child Abuse prevention month, authorized by Congress in 1983, has evolved into a yearlong effort to promote strengthening families, parenting skills, and preventing child abuse. April is also sexual assault awareness month. Last week, US Vice President Joe Biden called on schools, from Kindergarten to University level, to take steps to address the problem of sexual violence.
For the Jewish community, very often, the first step in combating child abuse is overcoming the perception that abuse is hardly a problem in Jewish families and institutions. The Jewish media have been instrumental in this task. In 1985, Response magazine told us: Family Violence: Silence Isn't Golden Anymore and Lilith magazine ran Jewish Community Urged to Deal with Wife Abuse. In 1990, Moment magazine published Sharon Lowenstein's Confronting Sexual Abuse in Jewish Families together with Yitz Greenberg's response, Rabbis Can Help by Speaking Out. In 2000, Gary Rosenblatt of the Jewish Week brought to light allegations of abuse by Rabbi Bernard Lanner, then director of regions of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the Orthodox youth movement. Lanner had worked with and supervised teenagers for more than three decades. This piece caused a major uproar which Rosenblatt reflects on both the next month, and then again in 2010, when he narrates the struggles and successes over the past decade to put the subject of abuse on the communal agenda. And in 2007, JTA ran a series of articles on the problem of abuse and denial in Jewish communities, including Inside the eruv:Are some Orthodox discreet or closing their eyes? and Wayward clergy by the numbers: Is it rampant or an aberration? That same year, Hillel together with Jewish Women International called attention to Jews Who Abuse: Dating Violence on Campus.
In recent years, Jewish religious thinkers have begun to apply halachic thinking to the problem of abuse. Since 1992, Mark Dratch, of JSafe, has been writing about these issues with such pieces as The Physical, Sexual and Emotional Abuse of Children, Few Are Guilty, but All Are Responsible: The Obligations to Help Survivors of Abuse, and Sexual Abuse and Marital Rape. Also noteworthy is Israeli and American Organizational Responses to Wife Abuse Among the Orthodox (2010), a qualitative and quantitative comparative survey of the organizations that support abused women and their clientele. Here, sociologist Roberta Rosenberg Faber finds that more so than in the past, Orthodox women acknowledge the existence of abuse within their communities, while individual women are more likely to seek help.
In 2010, Yeshiva University's Institute for University-School Partnership undertook a study on how Jewish primary and secondary schools are addressing issues of abuse in general. InDay Schools Focus on Combating Abuse, Gary Rosenblatt finds encouraging the high response rate and willingness to address the issue. Still, only a fifth of schools offer staff training in recognizing and addressing abuse, and prospects for collaboration are challenged further by intra-community distrust. For example, Ben Hirsch of Survivors for Justice "questioned whether [haredi and chassidic] schools would cooperate with a program sponsored by Yeshiva University, which is viewed as too liberal in those circles."
Reaching beyond the Jewish community for the help of state regulation and law enforcement is one way around community boundaries. Last year, the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children formed a partnership with the Union of Orthodox Synagogues, the Rabbinical Council of America, the Rabbinical Alliance of America, and JSafe, to declare a national Jewish chlid abuse prevention week. At the heart of that partnership is the ongoing effort to lobby the New York state legislature to impose the same child safety regulations on private religious schools as it currently does on public schools, including measures such as mandatory fingerprinting of school employees and volunteers, as well as mandatory reporting of suspected abuse.
A helpful overview of the history of the study of abuse in the Jewish community can be found in Carol Goodman Kaufman's Domestic Violence and the Jewish Community: The Literature Expands (2010), as well as in Marcia Cohn Spiegel's comprehensive Bibliography of Domestic and Sexual Violence in the Jewish Community (2004). The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance has collected resources that provide information both about the scope of the problem and about community, and Jewish Women International just released Embracing Justice: Guide for Jewish Clergy on Domestic Abuse. BJPA offers over 80 resources dealing with abuse, including the issue of elder abuse in our communities.
For those dealing more immediately with the specter of abuse, immediate resources for help include Shalom Task Force's free hotline, JWI's directory of domestic violence resources, and the Jewish Child Care Association's Child Abuse booklet.
With best wishes,
Prof. Steven M. Cohen
Director, Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner