When I was 16 years old and had just received my learner’s permit to drive, I was asked by a graduate student at my yeshiva if I’d like to drive his automobile. Like all teens with this newfound power, I jumped at the opportunity. The student sat in the passenger seat.
At some point during the drive, the owner of the car put his hand on my lap, saying he wanted to be close to the steering wheel in case I lost control. I accepted his explanation. A few minutes later his hand moved up to my groin. I stopped the car abruptly, turned to him and yelled: “If you don’t move your *&%^4 hand now, I’m going to beat the #+=% out of you.” He did.
I never reported this incident to the yeshiva authorities. I didn’t because I thought I had dealt with it properly and that was the end of it. I didn’t consider I had been sexually accosted at all. It seemed to me that what the yeshiva student had done to me was a momentary act of physical trespassing, almost insignificant, and to make a big fuss over it would simply be dramatizing the issue.
The problem with my silence, however, was that this person went on to sexually abuse a number of other Jewish students, and years later was arrested, charged with sexual assault, found guilty and sentenced to home arrest. Is it possible I could have partially prevented harm to others?
Recently, two Jewish educators who taught and supervised in the Canadian Jewish school system were arrested on similar charges. While they had both been fired from their respective schools, it seems that those who were aware of the men’s behaviour remained quiet.
I understand why silence is often the choice of those in the know for two reasons: coming forward might ostracize the person involved from the community, and, in addition, there is a Jewish imperative of not turning a fellow Jew into the authorities. However, silence in this case allowed these two teachers to move on to other schools and continue acting out their illness.
The positive news is the Jewish world is going through somewhat of a reformation in this area. We are beginning to recognize and accept that there are Jewish teachers, rabbis, rebbes, tutors, etc., who do molest their students, our children. Organizations and committees are cropping up in the Jewish world whose mandate it is to offer families and children a safe place where they can express the details of sexual abuse perpetrated against them and receive help.
The culture of shuttling off teachers who sexually abuse students to another school and/or Israel is slowly starting to change. We have begun to speak out about the effects of sexual molestation on children and teens, such as living a life of depression or, in some cases, suicide.
As we go through these changes, we must take every step possible to help innocent young people in the Jewish community who have been harmed by individuals, schools and organizations meant to protect them, for example, by budgeting for their healing. Similarly, we must offer help to the perpetrators of sexual assault so they can learn how to stop their sexual deviance.
And of equal importance, our leadership must aggressively and authentically offer apologies over and over to those who have suffered terribly because of our silence. Our rabbis, principals, teachers and anyone who knew better, must ask forgiveness of those children they did not protect and often sentenced to a life of sadness and mistrust of the Jewish world and those in charge.
I’m sorry for my silence.
Reach Avrum Rosensweig at Avrum.firstname.lastname@example.org