Survey: Day Schools Facing Problem of Abuse

By Paul Berger

Published September 22, 2010, issue of October 01, 2010.
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Jewish day schools in the Modern Orthodox world are among those now taking significant steps against child abuse, a new survey by Yeshiva University shows.

The survey, the first of its kind, indicates that about 65% of the schools that responded have staff who, in the past five years, have been trained to deal with abuse. Fifty-seven percent of schools reported having put in place written policies regarding abuse. One-quarter have an oral policy. And, most significantly, 88% of the respondents agreed that Jewish religious law permits reporting child sexual abuse within the community to secular law enforcement authorities.

“Attitudes have changed dramatically,” said Rabbi Yosef Adler, the rosh yeshiva, or head, of Torah Academy of Bergen County, a school in Teaneck, N.J., that took part in the survey. “There is no doubt that there is a greater awareness and a greater willingness to act.”

The survey comes 10 years after the Modern Orthodox world was first shocked by a sexual abuse scandal involving Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a prominent Modern Orthodox youth leader, and by revelations about decades of inaction by other Orthodox rabbis who were told of his activities.

More than 40% of Jewish day schools contacted (135 out of 320) responded to the survey but the majority (about 65%) were Modern Orthodox. Questions remain about attitudes among other Jewish denominations, particularly the ultra-Orthodox. Only 5% of survey responses were from “yeshivish” schools, and just 1% from Hasidic schools.

The survey responses will help the university’s Institute for University-School Partnership shape its new Comprehensive Abuse Response Education program, which begins as a pilot scheme at five schools this year. The program’s goal is to improve Jewish schools’ ability to recognize and respond to child sexual, physical and psychological abuse.

The reporting of child sexual abuse within the Orthodox community has long been a contentious issue, particularly in the strictly Orthodox world. Some Orthodox rabbis claim that it violates mesirah, the prohibition against informing on a fellow Jew to secular authorities. But the survey results suggest that the Modern Orthodox world no longer feels that way.

Speaking at the Y.U. seminar at which the survey results were presented, Rabbi Yona Reiss, dean of the school’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, said that if a person is a “menace and is causing irreparable harm, that person can and certainly should be handed over to the local courts and criminal authorities for appropriate punishment.”

Even this summer, though, in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Lakewood, NJ., community leaders vilified a father who reported abuse allegations to the police. A flier was circulated, accusing him of desecrating God’s name and of making “a mockery of the Torah.” Leading Lakewood rabbis issued a proclamation that such cases ought to be referred to a beit din, or rabbinical court.

But Isaac Schechter, director of the Center for Applied Psychology at the Bikur Cholim health center in Monsey, N.Y., home to a large, strictly Orthodox community, cited indications that even in this sector, attitudes were changing. Schechter said had seen a 500% increase in the number of clients during the past five years, about 65% of whom are strictly Orthodox.

“I have helped many Hassidish heads of school make that call to Child Protective Services,” Schechter said.

Yakov Horowitz, founder and dean of Darchei Noam, a Monsey yeshiva, agreed. “I think things are much different now than they were even three years ago,” he said. “It’s been very painful with all the headlines, but there is an enormous amount of change.”

Advocates for survivors of sexual abuse within the Orthodox community were pleased by news of the survey. “To us, the most interesting part was that the study was actually done,” said Ben Hirsch, president of Survivors for Justice. “It is a sign of just how seriously this issue is now being taken, particularly by Modern Orthodox Jewish day schools.”

Nevertheless, the survey will prompt new areas of work. Although 79% of administrators expressed confidence in their ability to deal with abuse, only 44% agreed that the majority of their teachers and staff were confident. Only 38% of schools expressed confidence that CPS could deal effectively with cases.

Another big gap is the 60% of Jewish day schools contacted that did not respond to the survey. Scott Goldberg, director of Y.U.’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, which sponsored the study, stressed that the response was exceedingly strong for a survey of this kind.

Nevertheless, the omission was particularly striking given that only 56% of schools completing the survey responded to the question of whether they carried out background checks on employees (80% of those who answered did so in the affirmative).

Rabbi Yosef Blau, Y.U.’s mashgiach ruchani, or spiritual adviser, and a prominent advocate for survivors, said: “If a principal is busy and ignores a survey, you can’t prove anything. But if they bother answering a survey and leave an answer out, it’s obviously a delicate area.”

Despite this, Blau said that the survey and its results were an important and positive step. “The biggest problem I found over the years is the unwillingness to acknowledge there is problem in the first place,” Blau said. “But this problem is so out there in the news today that it becomes impossible to deny it.”

Contact Paul Berger at feedback@forward.com






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