Combating child abuse in Israel
Little by little, gaining trust in Israel’s Haredi communities
By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer
TEL AVIV — Rabbi Menachem Mordoff, 48, sees his work as an opportunity to save lives.
“We have a 5-year-old who sexually abused five children in his kindergarten. Five years old,” Mordoff says. “And his mother says, ‘The girls in the kindergarten, when I was a kid, did to me exactly what he is doing now.’”
Mordoff is one of six Haredi (fervently-Orthodox) counselors out of a total of 50 on the staff of the non-profit ELI: The Israel Association For Child Protection. The six work with clients from the Haredi world.
In an interview with The Observer through a translator, Mordoff described how over the past six years, the Haredi counselors have gained the trust of some Haredi communities in Israel to break cycles of child abuse.
A resident of Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv, Mordoff, his wife and two children are members of the Orot Hatorah national religious movement.
He says child abuse in Israel’s Haredi communities is basically at the same level as in Israel’s non-Haredi population, but it takes more time to reveal it in the Haredi world; the victims don’t always understand what’s being done to them.
“(There’s) a lot of not being exposed to any sexual education or to television,” Mordoff says.
The rabbi has been a counselor with ELI for three years. He studied family therapy and was a student at ELI’s college. He says it is unusual for someone in the Haredi community to become a family therapist.
“When I started, I talked to a friend of mine who is a rabbi,” Mordoff says. “He said there is no need for such a thing. While giving therapy in my community, I met the issue of child abuse.”
Mordoff says the trauma that’s specific to Haredim is when the perpetrator comes from within.
“How can it be that a person of ours is a perpetrator?” He explains. “Many times the resistance comes from the fact that we are a closed community and we don’t want anybody to penetrate and see what’s going on within the community. These communities are known or consider themselves to have high morals and values, and their self-esteem is very high and could not allow themselves that this kind of thing will happen there.”
Another obstacle, he says, is that members of a Haredi community might not know how to classify what has happened.
“For instance, if a girl was raped, is it considered to be a rape or is it because the girl behaved herself in a way — so they are not sure who is to be blamed. And then it’s very easy to blame the victim.”
Dr. Hanita Zimrin, the first person to receive a Ph.D. in social work in Israel, founded ELI in 1979. Last year, ELI’s therapists treated 3,910 abused children and their family members; 82 percent of the cases in therapy comprised sexual abuse victims and their families. ELI maintains a safe house, a school-based social outreach and prevention program, its training college, and programs for children with special needs, new immigrants, and Arab populations in Israel.
Even before factoring in the challenges of penetrating Haredi communities, ELI must overcome concerns families have about their privacy, and the social and legal ramifications that surround abuse.
During ELI’s early years, people would call its hotline and say, “I need help, but what would happen if I come?” When counselors would say they were required to report their names, potential clients would hang up.
“Now this is something that we succeeded to put on the Israeli law, that when a family is in therapy and we know the therapy would be ruined if a report is being done, we have a committee that has the authority to say, ‘let’s call the police, make a report, but it won’t go on the computer, as long as the therapy continues successfully,’” Zimrin says. “The committee is composed of our social worker, a DA, and a policeman. So it’s an official authority which allows the ability to really go on with the therapeutic intervention, and we call the process the Shadow of the Law.”
Now, Zimrin says, ELI asks callers not to reveal their names, to come to the offices without counselors knowing their identities.
“We make a call to child protective services and say we have a case and we’ll know in a few weeks or months from now who this person is in this case,” she says.
She adds that in the absence of legal evidence that can take the perpetrator away, the ability for ELI’s counselors to say, “we see you, we watch you, and the moment you do something we’ll know and we’ll report, creates a kind of protection.”
The first step ELI’s counselors take when they start therapy is to protect the child so the abuse will not go on.
“Sometimes it’s not easy because the perpetrator is a part of the family,” Mordoff says.
Even if the family does report the case to the police, the perpetrator can come back.
“If this perpetrator is the father, you want to send him to jail,” Zimrin says. “He deserves to be in jail and sometimes the child, the victim, needs to see that justice was done. Except for after three years, he’s back home. And he’s still the father or the brother or the uncle. I always say there is no good decision or bad decision: there is bad or worse. And we need to find the better of these.”
Mordoff adds that when ELI counselors assess that the family is unable to protect a child, they will remove the child from the home.
“Usually we believe in the ability of the family to heal itself, but not always,” he says. “In those families where the background is not stable, where the family is falling apart not because of the abuse but before, it is quite seldom that you can rehabilitate these families. Sometimes it’s not that we can mend the family but we can try to break the cycle from happening in the next generation.”
ELI also provides counseling for the perpetrators but counselors can’t provide therapy for all those involved in a case.
“Many times this is because you are not able to,” Mordoff says. “Many times it’s because the victim would not accept you as a therapist if he knows you are also the therapist of the perpetrator.”
Even with Shadow of the Law legislation, Mordoff says gaining trust in the Haredi community is always difficult.
“They always start out suspicious,” he says.
He talks of a child who volunteers with Save The Animals in Tel Aviv. This child told him the only creature that loves him is the dog he takes care of.
“There are some children that it’s easier for me to gain their trust because I am coming from the same community,” Mordoff says.
“What I do is I go and speak to the rabbi of the community, to the spiritual authority as well as to the parents, to gain their trust before I can gain the child’s trust.”
He also sees physical and mental abuse cases, but few cases of neglect among the Haredim.
Zimrin agrees. “One of the reasons you see less neglect in those families is because they have a big support system and everybody sees what’s happening.”
Mordoff says ELI has established a network of connections and approval with the highest rabbinic authorities in Israel’s Haredi communities.
“We have letters of approval,” he says. “So sometimes you see resistance from the lower level but you do have the support from the higher level.”
Most perpetrators in the Haredi community, Mordoff says, are men, “except because there is a gender separation in this community, we see men who abuse boys and women who abuse girls. You would see a lot of same-gender abuse in the institutions, you know, like boarding schools of girls or boarding schools of boys: you see the elder abusing the younger in the same gender.”
He also notes that often the sexual abuse is intergenerational. Once the therapy with an abused child evolves, Mordoff realizes that one of the parents was abused as a child as well.
When calls come to ELI’s hotline from the Haredi community, Mordoff says, most often they are now from a representative calling on behalf of a rabbi.
“The secular families would call the police, us, welfare,” Zimrin says. “The Orthodox would call the rabbi and would obey whatever he would have to say. That’s why we are building this connection with the rabbis, because the mother would go to the rabbi.”
In other words, if their rabbi insists on ELI’s services, a family can’t say no.
Mordoff leads family therapy sessions but not with girls individually. Women who provide therapy for ELI’s Haredi clients are permitted to work with boys until they are 12.
ELI started its work with Israel’s Haredi communities in 2008 following a case in the Lubavitch community of Kfar Chabad.
“There was a rabbi, a melamed (teacher) who was a pedophile,” Zimrin says. “And we were invited to treat it. It wasn’t that easy. They didn’t want us to talk about sexual abuse and we said if we are not allowed to say ‘sex’ we are not coming. This guy abused more than 100 children. It took years before we succeeded to gain their trust. We gave expert testimony in the court against this melamed. We succeeded to prove 29 cases, and he got 29 years in jail.”
Zimrin says ELI now presents musicals to the children in Kfar Chabad about prevention.
“And in order to work there, we took the musical to the rabbinical authorities in Kfar Chabad and we translated it, if you can say, to the right terms and now we have two separate musicals, one for boys and one for girls which goes on in their educational system.”
A week before this interview, Mordoff completed teaching a 60-hour course for Haredi kindergarten teachers to show them how to identify indicators of abuse and what to do once they identify them.
“They knew it existed but they did not know it existed in their community,” he says.
Whenever Mordoff would give an example of a symptom of abuse, a teacher would say, “But this is exactly what I had in the kindergarten.”
“What Menachem did not say is how many fights he has in his community in order to work here. He is a brave person,” Zimrin says. “And he has the support of his rabbi.”
A challenge specific to closed societies such as Haredim, Zimrin adds, is that of the extended family within each community.
“And the entire community is split into those who support the victim and those who support the perpetrator, “ she says. “So the work that we do has to do with the individual, with the family, as in other cases, but with the community at large.”
When there are reports of abuse within a Haredi family, Mordoff says, the parents feel that they have to sacrifice someone, either the victim or the perpetrator.
“This is what we’re trying to cope with, that they do not have to sacrifice,” he says.
Another significant problem, Zimrin says, is that perpetrators in the Haredi world are expelled to other Haredi communities rather than treated.
“The perpetrator will be sent from B’nai Brak to Brooklyn,” she says. “From Brooklyn to Jerusalem. And we do have cases of pedophiles right now: we have pedophiles in Jerusalem, a group of pedophiles who are imported from Brooklyn, and they have to deal with them here.
“So the community takes the problem and puts it away. This is (what happens to) the perpetrator. Except for this is what happens for the victims as well. A victim in this community will be taken out of school. And there is another issue which we have to take care of: the siblings will not get a good shiddach (match). So what we need to do is to be very careful as to how we touch it.”
A few weeks later, with rockets flying in from Gaza, ELI will double its clients’ therapy sessions.
In an email, Zimrin explains that their abuse clients are much more sensitive to the pressures all Israelis now face. “Children in the process of therapy might have a regression to their prior trauma. In addition we try to help the parent and give them tools to cope with this situation.”