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Child sexual abuse must be addressed: Orthodox rabbis

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Rabbi Michael Whitman

Twenty-one rabbis in Canada are among 300 Orthodox rabbis who have signed a strongly -worded warning of the necessity to respond in a forthright manner to sexual abuse of children in the Orthodox Jewish community.

Released in August, the proclamation was prompted by victims’ suicides “committed as a direct result of child sexual abuse,” as well as other physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual consequences.

Ignoring abuse allegations, shaming accusers and not bringing suspected incidents to the attention of secular authorities is immoral and contrary to Jewish law, they say.

The rabbis, who are mainly from the United States and Israel, acknowledge that perpetrators include family members, teachers, counsellors, youth leaders, professionals and rabbis.

“This abuse has caused and continues to cause immeasurable harm to the victims, their families, and our entire community; it can destroy lives,” they state.

The signatories recognize that their communities “could have responded in more responsible and sensitive ways to help victims and to hold perpetrators accountable.”

READ: CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE IN COMMUNITY RAMPANT, AUDIENCE TOLD

“Reasonable suspicions” of all forms of child abuse and neglect should be reported directly and promptly to civil authorities, they say. There is no need to seek rabbinic approval first.

“We decry the use of Jewish law or the invocation of communal interests as a tool to silence victims or witnesses from reporting abuse,” the proclamation reads. “Regardless of the standing of the abusers, accusers and their family members must be treated in an accepting, nonjudgmental manner so that they feel safe and can therefore speak frankly and fully.”

Rabbi Michael Whitman of Montreal’s Adath Israel Synagogue told The CJN that he hopes the proclamation will send a clear message that this is an issue the community must take very seriously and be open about. He wants this unprecedented statement to give victims the confidence to come forward.

“I have been very vocal about this for many years,” he said, but added that protecting the confidentiality of victims means that usually many cases are never made known.

In his 15 years in Montreal, Rabbi Whitman said he has publicly spoken out about two or three cases. “I’ve been involved more privately, through Batshaw [Youth and Family Centres], [Agence] Ometz and other professionals, helping one on one.”

The main point is that “we should never hide abuse, never excuse it.”

The signatories call upon all synagogues and schools to adopt sexual abuse prevention policies. These may include screening potential employees, ensuring that an adult is not alone with children unless there is a “reasonable and immediate possibility of being seen,” and establishing rules on unacceptable touching.

The rabbis also want children to be taught about sexual safety, “even though no child is responsible for preventing sexual abuse; that is the responsibility of every adult and the entire community.”

The other Canadian signatories are, from Montreal, rabbis David Kadoch; Mark Fishman and Mordechai Zeitz, respectively, rabbi and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Tikvah; Moshe Jablon, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Ora, and Howard Joseph, rabbi emeritus of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue; and from Toronto, Yechiel Goldreich; Seth Grauer, rosh yeshiva of Bnei Akiva Schools; Charles Grysman, Zichron Yisroel Congregation of Associated Hebrew Schools; Benjamin Hecht, Nishma; Elie Karfunkel, Forest Hill Jewish Centre; Daniel Korobkin, Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto; Moshe Stern, rabbi emeritus, Shaarei Tefillah Congregation; Chaim Strauchler, Shaarei Shomayim Congregation, and Mordechai Torczyner, Yeshiva University Torah MiTzion Beit Midrash Zichron Dov; Nevo Zuckerman, Beth Jacob Congregation of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.; from Ottawa, Reuven Bulka, Congregation Machzikei Hadas; Howard Finkelstein, Congregation Beth Tivkah;  and Ari Galandauer, Young Israel of Ottawa; Daniel Friedman of Beth Israel Synagogue in Edmonton; and Yakov Kerzner of Congregation Beth Israel in Halifax.

Among the prominent signatories are: Rabbis Elchanan Adler and other roshei yeshiva of Yeshiva University’s theological seminary; Eli Ciner, principal of the Frisch School in Teaneck, N.J.; Mark Dratch, executive vice-president of the Rabbinical Council of America; and Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division.