The ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jewish community in Israel and abroad has largely avoided discussion of sex for many decades. Many even in their late teens or very-early 20s get married after being brought together by a professional matchmaker and a few short meetings, learning about sexual relations just a few weeks from a rabbi or female counsellor.
As a result of their “innocence, there have been numerous reports of sexual abuse by rabbis and other male adults in ritual baths and yeshivot, even some cult groups in which “very observant religious leaders” assemble a harem of women who produce many children.
One of the most shocking stories recently was when the founder of the voluntary Israeli organization Zaka (the Disaster Victim Identification group) – who as a young man was anti-Zionist, organized violent demonstrations and then turned into a highly respected pro-Zionist activist who was nearly awarded the Israel Prize, was uncovered by the press as an alleged rapist and molester that the insular community refused to report to the authorities for decades. A month ago, he attempted suicide and has suffered severe brain damage.
But the absolute silence is coming to an end. A new study from Tel Aviv University (TAU) reveals a significant change over the past decade in the haredi community’s attitudes toward sexual abuse – after many years of silencing and concealment, covering up and repressing the issue.
The study, conducted by Dr. Sara Zalcberg of TAU’s religious studies program in the Entin Faculty of Humanities, was presented at the “Haredi Society in Israel” conference of Shandong University (one of the oldest and prestigious universities in China, it was founded in 1901) and TAU’s Joint Institute for Israel and Judaism Studies.
Zalcberg said that “deep processes occurring in this sector over the past few years as a result of exposure to the media and to higher education, point to a rise in awareness of the consequences of sexual abuse for its victims, as well as the need for therapeutic intervention and prevention of future abuse.”
“The study’s findings indicate a trend of significant change in the haredi society’s attitude toward sexual abuse,” she continued. “About a decade ago, many of the victims in this sector were not even aware of the fact that they had been sexually abused; Many parents didn’t know that sexual abuse of children even existed. Haredi society as a whole was characterized by a three-way culture of silence – involving the victim, his/her family and the community and leadership. According to our study’s findings, this ‘conspiracy of silence’ has gradually weakened in recent years, with evidence for a significant rise in both awareness and discourse regarding sexual abuse and its consequences.”
The study was based on interviews with professionals working with the haredi population, including cases of sexual abuse, as well as activists involved in community safety, parents of children who had been sexually abused and a woman who had been sexually abused herself when she was a child.
According to Zalcberg, the study has identified a gradual process, starting with the exposure of the haredi sector to the job market, education and the virtual world, alongside the emergence of grassroots activism from inside haredi society. These have engendered a growing openness in discourse about sexuality, the body and intimacy, as well as an increase in the numbers of therapeutic and welfare professionals coming from the community – ultimately generating the first cracks in the high walls of reluctance to admit and address sexual abuse in Haredi society.”
The team found that the changes are manifested in several ways. First, a growing and unprecedented use of the online arena, including WhatsApp and Facebook, for discussing and addressing sexual abuse. One interviewee in the study noted: “The haredi sector is exposed to the Internet, and once exposed to it they are exposed to everything. Information is more accessible.”
A social worker in an ultra-Orthodox city added: “Haredi women in the therapeutic professions use the Internet to disseminate information about sexual abuse, safety and therapy, and so the haredi community learns about the issue.”
The study also identifies change among families and parents of victims, reflected in the demand for prevention workshops that provide tools for recognizing and preventing sexual aggression. The supreme value of defending the community against any outside influence or criticism is being replaced by care for the welfare of families and children. This change has also led to a conceptual shift in a large portion of the haredi leadership, who now recognize the abuse and its victims and promote the connection with welfare authorities.
Zalcberg stresses that the change can be discerned even in the more insular and conservative groups within haredi society. As Chezi, a haredi social worker working with the ultra-Orthodox haredi population in one of the social services, commented: “We see more openness even in the conservative community. Hassidic communities that usually don’t turn to us to the social services now come when there’s a case of sexual abuse. They understand that this is a serious matter.”
At the same time, as the study points out, despite the significant processes taking place in haredi society, there are still considerable gaps in both awareness and addressing the phenomenon and its consequences. “Despite the change taking place in haredi society with regard to discussing and addressing sexual abuse, a great deal more still needs to be changed,” Zalcberg concluded. “Both discourse and awareness should be enhanced, preventive measures must be advanced, and the rates of reporting abuse and asking for professional intervention should be increased. There is urgent need for mapping families and communities who don’t have sufficient access to information and services, and for promoting specifically tailored responses.”