Orthodox Jewish Child Abuse: Shattering a Traumatic Silence

When I first tried to write about abuse in our community, to use the words needed to describe what was happening to so many children, I was firmly told not to.
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When I was a little girl, I never spoke with strangers. Strangers would hurt us. Strangers were capable of great evil.

In the ultra-Orthodox world of Borough Park, friend and stranger were simple words to define. A friend was anyone who looked like us, religious Jews who wore traditional Orthodox garb, had beards and covered their heads with large black kippas. A stranger was anyone who did not. You could never confuse the two. Most importantly, strangers did not fear God.

The garb made the world a clear and safe place and taught us everything we needed to know about right and wrong. If you wore the garb you were right, if you did not you were wrong. As children, we always knew how lucky we were to be living in the insular world of Borough Park. In Borough Park, we could trust everyone. In Borough Park children could not be hurt.

Orthodox Jews were good; they were trustworthy and moral above all. If such a man offered you a ride home, you could always hop in and go. If such a man gave you a drink, you knew it was safe.

It was a good world, if only an illusion. It was a warm and secure place for a child to grow, except when it wasn't. Because in a world where trust was so total, so blind, it was that much easier to get hurt.

Three weeks ago, in Borough Park, 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky walked home from day camp. He got lost. He asked a man for directions. The man seemed safe. He wore a kippa. He did not wear jeans. One day later, the police found Leiby's feet in the man's freezer; his body was somewhere else.

The ultra-Orthodox world of Brooklyn came to a terrifying halt. Tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews froze in horror. They recoiled in shock. They gathered together, bound in their mind-bending grief, people weeping in the streets, asking the questions again and again.

How does such a thing happen? How does a Jew do such a thing? How, God, how?

For the hundreds of victims of sexual abuse who have lived through childhood in fear and silence, this is not a new question. They did not know the words sexual, abuse or molestation, but lived day after day through the raw horror of it, leaving old scars still bleeding like open wounds. How does a teacher, a counselor, an uncle, do such a thing? And why did nobody warn us about it, they ask.

I accidentally learned what the words molestation and rape meant at age 23, after telling a therapist I met about something I had witnessed happening to a friend when we were children. Suddenly I realized I had been talking to strangers all my life. After I started meeting with victims and speaking with therapists, I began to encounter the community's wall of denial. These are things Jews don't do, I was told. It was easy to say it was all a lie or just faulty memories of childhood.

When I first tried to write about abuse in our community, to use the words needed to describe what was happening to so many children, I was firmly told not to.

Some subjects are better left in silence, the rabbis said. Orthodox Jews did not need such words. Those were words for gentiles. We had built walls and had built them high; the outside world could never enter. But as the walls grew higher and wider, we forgot look inside, to see that the most dangerous enemy always grows from within.

The abusers, trusted men wearing traditional garb, had not killed their victims, after all. But they did not need to. Some victims, driven to despair by years of enforced silence and secret shame, killed themselves.

"What will it take for them to listen?" one young man, a victim of horrific abuse, once asked me. "What will it take for them to finally realize what they're doing to their own children?"

It took something unspeakable, something none of us even knew could happen: a murder so brutal, so uncomprehending, we still wake up each morning wondering that life dares go on. What do we teach our children now? How had our walls failed to protect us?

But things haven't come to this. They have always been like this because of that misplaced blind trust. Perhaps now it is time to see it, to crack wide open the secret box of words and give them to our children as weapons, as a promise that they will always know what is happening to them, and be able to describe it so they can ask for help. A world without words is not a safe and warm place; it is a dangerous one, where children become mute victims of torture.

Six months after my book, "Hush," came out, my publisher and I began receiving threats in the mail intended to intimidate us for daring to expose these unspeakable truths about my beloved community. The message was clear: I had violated the rule that said victims must protect the community from their own crimes. Now, I would pay.

For too long we have tiptoed around our flaws with fear and caution, pushing them into the shadows in hopes they will disappear. For too long, victims have been made to be the villains, and abuse was called loshon harah, evil talk. For too long, we have refused to honestly discuss the horrific possibilities, and in doing so allowed our children to fall victim to them. And for too long, I have allowed my own fear to make me part of a wall of silence -- guilty for what I had seen, guilty for what I had written.

I refuse to continue to allow that fear to force me into hiding over a book that should have been written long ago. I no longer want to be known only as Eishes Chayil when my name is Judy Brown. I must find the courage to stand with the victims who carry the burden of our silence for the rest of their lives.

I originally wrote my book under a pseudonym to protect my family and friends from community retribution, but so far we have only hurt ourselves. Maybe now, because of Leiby's tragedy, things will change. Maybe now, we will finally teach our children what we should have taught them years ago: morality has no garb.

Children have always gotten hurt in our world -- sometimes quickly, walking home from school, sometimes slowly, piece by piece, over years of abuse and terror. Perhaps we live in a world that is black and white, perhaps we want to keep it that way, but we must at least know that there is still a whole lot of gray in it, strangers live among friends and that such words, after all, are very complicated to define.

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