exploring the concerns of the South african jewish community
Rozanne Sack and Wendy Hendler, co-founders of Koleinu SA, write about the challenges of confronting sexual abuse against males in the South African Jewish community.
Koleinu SA spotlights male sexual abuse in the Jewish community
David*, a member of the Johannesburg Jewish community, is a survivor of early childhood sexual abuse. He is one of very few men to come forward and report his abuse to Koleinu SA. For victims of sexual abuse, especially those from smaller communities such as ours, where the perpetrator is usually well known to the victim and an active member of the community, reporting sexual abuse is inhibited by both fear and shame.
Founded in 2012, Koleinu SA was established as a helpline for victims of abuse in the South African Jewish Community. It has since grown to become an advocacy and training organisation in the areas of gender-based violence (GBV) and child sexual abuse. Although Koleinu SA’s helpline has taken hundreds of calls over the past eight years, the vast majority have been from women. Not because GBV and sexual abuse does not happen to men and boys in the Jewish community. Rather, because of the compounded shame and humiliation that male victims experience. We have some understanding of the huge barriers that women and girls have to overcome in order to come forward. For males it is doubly difficult. Most will suffer lifelong consequences and carry their secret to the grave.
As with female victims of abuse, men are also likely to experience both physiological and psychological trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, flashbacks and difficulty focusing on and completing tasks. However, due to gendered socialization, men find it far more difficult to talk about their experiences and receive the necessary help. This phenomenon was highlighted in a recent Koleinu SA webinar, “Uncovering the truth about male sexual abuse in our community”. One of the speakers, Manny Waks, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and CEO of VoiCSA, an Israel-based organisation combating child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community, asserts that part of the challenge that victims face is that, for the most part, the perpetrator can continue to abuse their victims with impunity, knowing that victims are highly unlikely to report their abuse.
Physiological consequences are common for survivors of sexual abuse. David’s anxiety manifests as stomach issues, which seriously impede the quality of his life. For others, there may be different health issues, such as diabetes, heart problems and even an increased risk for cancer. Some symptoms are distinctive to male victims – the tendency to be more aggressive and hostile rather than fearful, downplaying the severity of their abuse and displays of deep anger when they feel threatened or betrayed. Research on the link between childhood abuse and physiological and psychological damage is unequivocal – the damage lasts long into adulthood and often has devastating consequences.
"The recent emergence of abuse allegations across Jewish religious denominations exposes the extent of the scourge of sexual abuse in the Jewish world".
Difficult interpersonal dynamics are common in survivors. Although David has a girlfriend, he thinks he might be gay. He is aware that as a child his body reacted to the pleasurable stimulation by his abuser and he now questions his sexuality. This doubt is causing him immense confusion. Whereas this can be hugely challenging for any male victim, for an observant Jew it may be even more difficult to grapple with such confusion.
As the male archetype is of someone who is strong and capable and able to defend themselves, David berates himself for being weak and for having “allowed it to happen”. This, of course, is never true. David, like other survivors, was groomed by a master manipulator who targeted him and then very carefully took him through all the stages of grooming: building a relationship with him by giving him lots of attention and gifts, isolating him from family and friends, touching him in passing to test his response, touching him more intentionally and, finally, molesting him, all the while telling him that he loved him.
There is no specific profile of a typical offender. As in the case of Waks, whose abusers worked within positions of authority in the Australian ultra-Orthodox community, perpetrators are often in a position of authority and trust. Waks comments “perpetrators come from all walks of life … and cross every segment of society. No one is spared from the potential of being a victim. What does make a difference is the level of vulnerability of the victim”.
Male sexual abuse is massively underreported. As such, it is hard to gauge accurate statistics. Having said that, we know that South Africa, including the South African Jewish community (religious and secular), reflects statistics found in communities across the globe, which, on average, indicates that 1 in 7 males will experience some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime. The recent emergence of abuse allegations across Jewish religious denominations (see here, here and here) exposes the extent of the scourge of sexual abuse in the Jewish world.
The vulnerability of victims, to which Waks refers, is evident in David’s experience. David battled in silence for many years before he found the strength to tell his parents about his abuse. He was brought up in a religious, Orthodox Jewish family and was instilled with the values of respecting his elders and not speaking loshon horah (saying bad things about others which may damage their reputation). This is viewed as a terrible sin in Judaism. He is also well aware of the prohibition in Judaism of mesirah – not handing a fellow Jew over to the secular courts. David finally decided to speak to his rabbi about a “friend” who was concerned about contravening these injunctions in speaking out. His rabbi correctly informed him that these principles do not apply in cases of child sexual abuse. He referenced Rabbi Noach Oelbaum who quoted the Tzitz Eliezer, a major halachic decisor from the past century (1925 – 2006), who stated unequivocally that when it comes to child abuse, whether physical or sexual, it is permitted to report such cases to the secular authorities in order to stop the abuse or prevent it from recurring. Even if the perpetrator will suffer severe consequences, one needs to first and foremost protect the child. We now know that there is a link between child sexual abuse and suicide. One of the highest values in Judaism is pikuach nefesh (saving a life). We need to report these cases immediately and directly to the police. David was fortunate. Not all rabbis would necessarily have given him this permission. This is a complex issue and requires the rabbi to have studied this in-depth and to have gained specific knowledge.
"... community members’ response to disclosure is often unsupportive. With David, when he found the courage to disclose his abuse, a community leader told him that no one would believe him".
All victims of sexual abuse in our community, whether female or male, struggle to speak out. Most never do and silently suffer throughout their lives. Further, community members’ response to disclosure is often unsupportive. With David, when he found the courage to disclose his abuse, a community leader told him that no one would believe him. If he tried to make a case, it would be his word against the perpetrator’s, who was a prominent and well-respected member of the community. In addition to this, he had no tangible evidence. He was told that if this became public knowledge in the community, his prospects of finding a shidduch (a relationship match) would be severely impacted. He was also warned about destroying the perpetrator’s life by this supposed loshon hora. Further, he was intimidated and threatened by some prominent members of the Jewish community who were afraid of losing the communal support that this perpetrator provided. Waks, who publicly disclosed his abuse in 2011 and has been a victims' advocate since that time, affirms the prevalence of this experience and the challenge it poses for survivors to speak out, “many in the community were aware [my] abuse was going on, but everyone remained silent. In some cases, it was actively covered up”.
Not being believed in the face of a disclosure is referred to as “secondary traumatization”. For David, and for many others, this has been even worse to deal with than the actual sexual abuse. It is clear that unless there is unequivocal support across our community, it is unlikely that abuse will be exposed and perpetrators brought to justice. As Koleinu SA, one of the many challenges we face is the – understandable – hesitancy of victims to report their abuse. In our experience, the only known case in our community was that of the Frankel 8. According to Luke Lamprecht, a child protection and development specialist who does extensive work within the Jewish community, reporting of abuse started to increase before Covid, however over the past two years there has been a complete retraction with no cases being reported, despite there being active cases in the community.
Koleinu SA is currently working on a case where a member of the community has been accused of molesting adolescent boys over many years. The victims who have come forward to Koleinu SA are too scared to disclose publicly, primarily, for fear of exposure in the community. We have struggled for months to make a breakthrough but the fear and shame is too overwhelming. For example, by giving these underage boys cigarettes and alcohol, he bound them to secrecy for committing minor offences. If they fear the repercussions of disclosing these minor violations to their parents, how much more would they fear exposure of the abuse in the broader Jewish community.
Through this article we hope to change the perception that male sexual abuse does not happen in our community. This perception precludes us from providing any forum where male survivors can safely come forward. In a recent statement issued by Yeshiva World News, in response to allegations against famous children’s author, Chaim Walder, they reiterate that “A victim of abuse is akin to being a living murder victim. It is a life sentence of many issues that plague victims daily throughout their lives”.
In conclusion, we wish to leave the readers with a very strong and important message. If you are a victim of abuse, what happened to you was not your fault. You are not alone and there are people who will believe and support you. Do not suffer in silence and do not allow the abuse to define your life going forward. Organisations like ours are committed to holding perpetrators to account and brought to justice.
*Not his real name
Rozanne Sack & Wendy Hendler are the co-founders of Koleinu SA, a helpline and advocacy organization for victims of gender-based violence and child abuse in the Jewish and wider community.