An abuse victim goes public, and suggests some communal reforms.
My name is David Cheifetz and I am a victim of childhood sex abuse in a Jewish institution.
There. I have said it. After more than 30 years I have shared the dark secret that has haunted my soul.
I was 13 years old, attending sleep-away camp at Camp Dora Golding, an all-boys Orthodox camp that some of you still send your sons to. I was befriended by a 28-year-old member of the rabbinic staff. Over the course of a week he sexually abused me repeatedly. When the activity was exposed, I was summoned to the camp director’s office and forced to confront the assailant. Then I was summarily sent home, as if it were I who had committed the crime. The camp never even told my parents why I was being sent home. They were just advised to pick me up at the Greyhound terminal at New York’s Port Authority.
I do not know if the perpetrator was ever fired; to the best of my knowledge he was never reported to legal authorities. I understand that he went on to a long career in Jewish education, and based on whispers on the Internet, probably continued targeting young Jewish boys within the walls of Jewish educational institutions. [Camp Dora Golding officials did not respond to repeated attempts for comment on the author’s allegations.]
When I arrived home, I was not given a hero’s welcome. I was also not given a victim’s welcome. I was never sent to a psychiatrist or a psychologist or even a pediatrician. The bitter secret was locked away, barely thought of or spoken of over the next 30-plus years. I did once share the incident with my yeshiva high school principal who insisted, “No, Duvid, he could not have been a rabbi. Rabbis never do such things.”
The Orthodox community is going through its Catholic Church moment: All elements of the community, from the chasidic to the Modern Orthodox, are being inundated by reported cases of sexual abuse of minors. Each of these incidents is characterized not just by accusations of sexual abuse, but by accompanying allegations of systematic cover-ups — incidents hidden or swept under the rug, in some cases (such as the Weberman case) with allegations of extreme financial and social pressures brought to bear on the victims and their families.
But, as my experience reflects, such behaviors of the abusers and of those that protect them are not new. It is not that Orthodox groups and institutions advocate pedophilia. It is that the Orthodox community is unwilling to address this “inconvenient truth.” Instead of confronting this scourge, many members the community have taken on a “circle the wagons” mentality, perhaps to protect their friends, perhaps to protect their institutions. But in all of this, what is forgotten is the victim.
I know. I was a forgotten victim. But I will no longer remain silent or silenced.
And what happens with these child sex abusers when they are ignored, or allowed to continue working within the community? Research shows that they are serial offenders, they tend to hunt out their prey and commit their despicable crimes again and again. Such is the nature of pedophiles. In the Catholic Church. In the Boy Scouts. And in the Orthodox community.
I look with sadness at my own story. I look at all the unanswered questions surrounding the Baruch Lanner case and the full investigative report conducted by the Orthodox Union that was never released, a study led by Richard Joel, now the president of Yeshiva University. Will there be a full release of the current investigation at YU’s boys’ high school involving its former principal, George Finkelstein. I listen to the voices in the ultra-Orthodox community citing mesirah — the notion that one Jew cannot hand over another Jew to the non-Jewish authorities — a remnant of medieval fear of hostile gentile governments. Thankfully that is an anachronism in our current society. These lingering questions and troubling observations take away any belief, any faith that the Orthodox community as a whole is able to reform itself.
I ask you: how many times in recent months has your congregational rabbi delivered a sermon on the travesty that is sexual abuse of minors in our community? It is headline news, but how many rabbis have raised their voices to increase awareness or called for fundamental change? I worry when rabbis are more prepared to discuss nuclear fusion and complex geopolitical machinations than they are to discuss the despicable sex crimes that are happening in our own Jewish educational institutions.
If change will not come from the inside, then it must come from the outside. And so I am speaking up and encouraging the thousands of other victims of childhood sexual abuse in our community to do the same.
I am also encouraging everyone to withhold financial support from every institution suspected of ignoring or covering up sexual abuse activities in their midst. There are plenty of other important causes and institutions that can benefit from your generosity.
But that is only a start. In order for the Jewish community to seriously address this scourge it must embrace real reforms. I believe necessary reforms include:
♦The establishment of an independent ombudsman sensitive to the needs of the Jewish community, with programs in every major educational institution. Too many rabbis have been hesitant to advise victims and their families to report abuses to the police, to social service agencies, or to the local district attorney. Or they have been outright complicit in cover-ups. So a central, independently funded ombudsman program (preferably funded by a foundation, and not reliant on the financial pressures of communal mood swings) must exist for victims and their families. The ombudsman will work with legal authorities and social service agencies and the schools to investigate all credible allegations and use its voice and power to pursue and bring pedophiles and their supporters to justice.
♦The institution of mandatory training programs for schools and summer camps — leaders, administrators, teachers and counselors — of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. (Isolated programs already exist, but are only in place in limited instances.)
♦The institution of criminal background checks for all school leaders, teachers, administrators and camp staff.
♦The establishments of a “one strike you are out” policy, and the immediate suspension of anyone facing a credible accusation, pending a detailed investigation.
♦The establishment of protocols that penalize not only sex offenders, but those who knowingly ignore, protect and enable their behaviors. These people should be held liable on both criminal and civil levels. And they should certainly not be allowed to work in schools, camps, or other Jewish educational institutions. They too should be held accountable.
Speaking as a survivor, I bear scars that will be with me for life. I wish I did not have that unique set of perspectives. But sadly, the Orthodox community has progressed very little since 1979.
We face a demon in our midst, a cancer that will not go away without harsh measures. The Orthodox community can keep Shabbat and pray three times a day; its members can keep kosher and learn Torah day and night. But that means nothing if the community remains deaf to the cries of the past and future victims, and is ultimately complicit in the atrocities committed against our children and grandchildren.
David Cheifetz is a resident of Teaneck, N.J.