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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sexual abuse: the Orthodox Jewish community's devastating secret

Two days after his wedding, Mordechai Borger, 24, an Orthodox Jew, left his bride sleeping in their Brooklyn hotel room, went out onto the seventh floor balcony and leapt to his death.

The New York Post reported that this deeply pious young man was tormented by memories of being molested as a teenager at a yeshiva (an all-male religious college) and had killed himself after confessing to his new wife (who, incidentally, had been introduced by a “matchmaker”) that the mental scars made a physical relationship with her deeply problematic.

It ended a year in which a trickle of disturbing cases of sexual abuse among Orthodox Jews in the US, England and Israel began to filter into the public domain. But the heat really turned up on the simmering scandal last week, when the Israeli Rabbi Mordechai “Motti” Elon was accused of abuse. The police are now investigating.

Far from being the rabbi of an obscure Hasidic sect, the charismatic Elon is a high-profile leader, educator and media personality, representing the more mainstream religious Zionists and former head of the renown HaKotel (Western Wall) Yeshiva. He comes from a family of high achievers in law, politics and academia that has drawn comparisons with the Kennedy clan.

Like the Roman Catholics in Ireland and the USA before them, Orthodox Jewish parents cannot help but start to question the absolute trust they place in their untouchable religious leaders and teachers.

The blogsphere is alive with claims that at many yeshivas – cut off from the outside world and where celibacy among the unwed is demanded – sexual predators are exploiting their power over impressionable boys and young men. To date, it appears that abusers have had a free run, thanks to the impenetrable conspiracy of silence.

Within the Orthodox Jewish world the power to crush the unpalatable truth is reinforced by the strongly held belief that the close-knit community is undermined dangerously by “lashon hara“ (evil tongue).

Victims are trapped by shame and the knowledge that to speak out that they, and their families, would become pariahs – marriage, study and work opportunities would be ruined – with the implicit threat that to go to the authorities could result in someone being condemned as a “moser” (a traitor).

As with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the mechanism to preserve a wholesome public image has meant abusers and paedophiles have been protected, excused and shuffled from community to community.

But for the victims some measures are finally being developed that may ease their terrible torment and offer them justice. Indeed, Rabbi Elon’s alleged crimes were exposed by Takana, a religious Zionist forum working against sexual misconduct by rabbis and teachers. Its role is allow the victims to report their abuse within the comfort zone of the community itself and not have to face the consequences alone.

In Brooklyn, New York, home of the largest Orthodox Jewish community outside Israel, a recently founded team of prosecutors, counsellors and religious leaders is working to combat sexual abuse, and there are 25 cases currently being investigated by the District Attorney – up from virtually zero.

But few believe this is anything but the tip of an iceberg which will move heaven and earth to avoid being cracked, and for Mordechai Borger it remains too little, too late.

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