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Tackling the Sexual Abuse Taboo among Religious Jews

Jerusalem conference on ‘Creating Safe Communities, Creating Hope’

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews gathered in a conference in Jerusalem on this week to learn about a taboo subject – domestic violence and sexual abuse in their closed communities.

Organized by the Tahel Crisis Center for Religious Women and Children, the conference, titled “Creating Safe Communities, Creating Hope,” tackled issues that most Orthodox Jews avoid dealing with. About 120 speakers from Israel and 15 other countries, gathered at Jerusalem’s Crown Plaza Hotel to disseminate to the more than 500 participants, mainly Orthodox Jews, how to build safe environments and communities for their children; and how to deal with high-profile cases involving various forms of abuse.
Speaking to The Media Line, Debbie Gross, the director of Tahel, explained that when the organization first began to educate religious people about sexual abuse, “people didn’t know the term, now the situation has really changed and religious people, including rabbis, want to know all about sexual abuse and educate their children in order to prevent it.”

Gross reported that sexual abuse against children in Israel is growing. “Most of the complaints that come to Tahel concern children, of both genders.” However, Gross pointed out that in the religious communities, it is much easier for male offenders to harass boys since, in most environments, males and females are separated. “They separate males and females at schools and it’s, therefore, more likely that a male teacher abuses a male student.”

Established in 1993, the Tahel center has organized programs to aid the victims of abuse through social and emotional-support courses in ultra-Orthodox and other institutions in Israel, Johannesburg, Sydney, Melbourne and London. The center has instituted a telephone helpline for religious Jews where victims or their families can share their experiences and ask for help.

During this year, Tahel received more than 2,300 calls from religious people seeking help. “The calls are increasing,” Gross stated. She noted that the press has played a big role in raising awareness and supporting their cause.

Helise Pollack, a former welfare officer from Ramat Beit Shemesh, an Orthodox community west of Jerusalem, who dealt with children who had experienced sexual abuse, pointed out to The Media Line that abuse against children is a worldwide curse, that “it doesn’t matter how rich or poor, religious or not religious, it happens everywhere.” However, “there are certain closed communities where it seems to happen more and occurs in some sort of chain reaction one after the other.”

Pollack stressed the need to bring awareness to these communities, explaining that, “once upon a time, Orthodox Jews thought that no one would sexually abuse their children, so they let their children out without supervision to play – now people are more aware that it could happen.”

Despite increased awareness and more of a willingness to seek proper help for victims of abuse, ultra-Orthodox communities still tend to avoid reporting abuse to the authorities. In 2013, the help centers for victims of sexual abuse in Israel received 40,000 calls, the vast majority (87%) of the victims of the abuse were female. Among these calls, 8,637 were new callers, reflecting a rise of 12% compared to previous years.

“In Israel, sexual assault among religious communities is more taboo than any other place, because religious people are less open to change,” Gross asserted.