Ruth Nemzoff

This column is co-authored by Eliana Padwa, a junior at Brandeis University.

Question: I am startled by recent revelations of serious sexual misconduct within New York Orthodox schools. In my small Jewish community, it is normal for children to sleep over at rabbis’ houses or to learn with them one-on-one. My two sons especially prize this alone time with their mentors; my older son still maintains a close tie with his bar mitzvah tutor, and my youngest son has been excitedly returning from his first lessons. For both of them, this time allows them to feel special and explore their own Jewish identities – it is their first time not being one of a crowd.

Should I stop these lessons, or worry that this is so prevalent? My sons seem happy, but is their comfortable relationship coming at the cost of a classmate? They are safe, I hope, but what if a classmate picks the wrong rabbi for their one-on-ones? I don’t want to be part of a culture that enables that!

Answer: Parenting in 2019 is full of potential danger. Maybe it always was – your kids’ coach, your Boy Scout mentor, even a teacher might be predatory. That said, most people are not predators. Sexual misconduct exists beyond “New York Orthodox schools,” but what is really shameful is that a single predator had worked in multiple New York Orthodox schools. He learned how students interacted with each other by gaining their trust, and used online aliases to solicit inappropriate photographs from them, according to the Jewish Week. He learned the mechanisms of the Jewish world, and exploited those for his own purposes. Dishearteningly, an alum from his first school wrote in Kveller that she was not surprised; she spoke about how growing up, “There were always inappropriate teachers, rabbi, sleep-away camp counselors and advisors.” Her school had denied any knowledge, and she feels that school culture allowed inappropriate behavior to be ignored. Most teachers are not predators, but there are predators all over. Unequivocally, Jewish organizations must declare that not only will this behavior not be tolerated, but it will be exposed.

One of the greatest things about the Jewish world is the closeness: We have a millenia-long tradition of learning in pairs, both student-student and student-mentor. The modern community has also created extensive networks for itself. From a young age, many children are sent to local Hebrew schools and daycare centers, and to camps or youth groups. There, they meet their contemporaries across the country. Culturally, this leads to a large community and to a norm of trusting our children with others. Parents are accustomed to sending kids on shabbatonim, Shabbat experiences, staffed by strangers. In this community, it’s not weird to trust your children with a rabbi you know, or for them to have Instagram followers from all over the country. I value these norms and think we should protect them. It does take a village to raise a child.

For your children, the web allows these wide networks to flourish and develop far outside of their original context, and for years beyond their involvement in youth programming. I’m sure every adult on Facebook has been added by a random high school friend or two. For young people, every middle school friend is still a Facebook friend. For kids who take part in national Jewish programs, those social media connections double or triple in size. This is both valuable and risky. The value is obvious – we send our kids to Jewish institutions so that they will develop lifelong connections. We should appreciate that the web allows them to maintain them.

However, there are risks. Having wide networks means it’s easy for a stranger or two to slip in. What adult hasn’t seen a name and thought, “Hmm, where do I know them from?” For kids, this is exacerbated by the volume of people that they’ve met briefly, or may have been on a shabbaton with years ago, or who seem to have a lot of friends in common. It’s customary to think, “Yeah, I’m sure I know them somehow.”

Despite the new risks, predation is not new. Jewish women were sex trafficked from the shetl by Zwi Midgal, an organization of men who built trust with fathers by demonstrating their Jewish knowledge. Once they were seen as nice Jewish boys by a community, they promised men they would bring their daughters to a better life in Argentina – instead sold the girls into sex slavery. Zwi Migdal used the same technique as many modern predators: build the community’s trust by demonstrating your Jewish knowledge and connections, and then exploit individuals. Now, the promises might be mentorship or a shabbaton, not free transport to the New World, but the behaviors are similar. 

Then and now, the solution is not to destroy trust within the community, but instead to expose the behavior, better community norms and teach our children the skills to protect themselves.

To continue enjoying a thriving community on and off line, we must be even more careful about creating positive communal practices. Behavior that feels “off” must not be kept under wraps, but instead investigated immediately. This begins with school culture. If teachers note that one of their own seems to treat students abnormally, they should not look away. For example, if a rabbi tends to single out certain students for extra mentoring or care, especially if there is a recognizable gender pattern, that must be scrutinized. Dress code enforcement should also be done with extreme care. While modest, religious and formal dress may be valuable to a school’s environment, it can lead to unwanted scrutiny of children’s bodies. 

We can use social-emotional learning to help children identify their own feelings of discomfort and to share them freely and immediately, without shame. Beginning in preschool, we teach children that sometimes when they’re angry and having a tantrum, they really are disappointed or frustrated or bored or sad. Over time, they can begin to distinguish the difference on their own and focus on solving the problem rather than throwing a tantrum. We teach them to talk about how they feel – not only can students identify their own feelings, but they learn that expressing them freely is socially acceptable and encouraged.

We also teach children to recognize the difference between a touch and a hit, and we can expand that to distinguishing different types of touch. “Inappropriate touch” doesn’t have to just mean violence. By talking about various behaviors, we show kids that the same action can feel different depending on the person or situation. A tight hug might be cozy from your best friend, but uncomfortable from an acquaintance. It’s subtle, yet we all feel the difference. 

Jewish education can be especially beneficial in this regard. Every story in Genesis and Exodus is about people – how they feel, how they treat each other. Educators can incorporate conversations about emotions and expression in their classrooms! Simple questions, such as, “How might Isaac have felt here?” and “What do you think Ishmael did?” can help students explore the complexities of human emotion and behavior. 

While we don’t want to get hysterical and think everyone is a predator, we do need to be realistic. We do need to prepare our children without scaring them. By teaching young children that feelings are always legitimate and that sharing is welcomed, they will be more easily able to share feelings of discomfort – even if they cannot explain them. We cannot control fate. Bad things will happen. But we can lessen the reality of sexual predation by helping our children recognize the methods used by the predator and by trusting their own feelings of discomfort, and by every community member being accountable and speaking up when someone’s behavior causes them concern. Prepare, don’t scare. If we are proactive in prevention, we can enjoy the positives of our lifestyle.

If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to publisher@americanisraelite.com

(1) comment

HazelJLeighton

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