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Ultra-Orthodox Take to Facebook To Fight Sex Abuse — and Taboo Against Reporting It

The scene captured by the surveillance camera shows an ultra-Orthodox man trying to force himself on a young boy in the narrow entrance of an apartment building.

It happened last month, on Purim, in the Israeli town of Bnei Brak. Within a few hours, the footage was posted on Facebook. Almost immediately, the assailant was identified, and two days later, he was under arrest. That would not have been the normal course of events 10 years ago, five years ago or even six months ago. But reporting sexual abuse is no longer as taboo as it once was in the ultra-Orthodox community, and among those who deserve credit for this change is a group of young Israeli crusaders fed up with the long-standing silence about such crimes in their midst.

Their newfound organization is aptly named Lo Tishtok (Thou Shalt Not Be Silent) — a reference to what they say is their unwritten 11th commandment. It was their organization that was first to receive the incriminating footage recorded on the surveillance camera, forwarded by an anonymous resident. “We immediately posted it on our Facebook group,” recounts Tzviki Fleishman, one of the founders of Lo Tishtok, “and asked that if anyone recognized the man in the picture to let us know. It didn’t take much time before someone identified him.”

But that’s when their special challenges began. Among Haredi Jews, Fleishman explains, those who report sexual crimes live in fear of being ostracized for serving as informers and maligning the community. “So we had to intervene with the police to ensure that the person who identified the assailant could maintain his anonymity,” he recounts. “Not only that, but he also refused to step foot inside the police station. So we had to bring an investigator to his house.”

Lo Tishtok began as a Facebook group last October and has since garnered close to 5,000 likes. Initially, it was meant to provide a safe forum for members of the ultra-Orthodox community wanting to hold discussions about what had hitherto been undiscussable. Today, the organization functions more as a support and counseling center for victims of sexual crimes. Currently run on a completely voluntary basis, Lo Tishtok is about to close a deal with a funding organization, its founders say, that would enable it to operate as a full-fledged non-profit.

The Israeli non-profit Tahel has for years provided support to religious victims of sexual abuse, but Lo Tishtok is the only organization in the world to date dedicated exclusively to the ultra-Orthodox community.

The four founders of Lo Tishtok defy common stereotypes linked to ultra-Orthodox Jews — women with large broods of children and men studying in yeshivas.

Fleishman, a 26-year-old Chabadnik with one child, is serving belatedly in the Israeli army while pursuing a degree in psychology.

Avigayil Karlinsky, a 27-year-old mother of two, just completed a seven-year stint as a programmer in the high-tech industry and is now studying for her bachelor’s in sociology.

Racheli Roshgold, a 29-year-old divorced mother of three who was raised in the Ger Hasidic sect, is employed as a gynecological nurse at a religious hospital and as a sex therapist at a private clinic that serves the ultra-Orthodox. A victim of sexual abuse herself, and one not ashamed to speak out about her ordeal as a child, Roshgold is a rarity in her community.

Yaakov Matan, a 30-year-old father of three, is employed as a counselor for troubled youth while studying for his degree in psychology.

All four were friends on Facebook when in October of last year, Karlinsky wrote a post that started it all. It was just after the latest wave of Palestinian stabbing attacks had started, and many Israelis were feeling loath to walk the streets. In her widely shared post, Karlinsky compared the vulnerability Israelis in general were feeling those days, men included, to what women experience on a daily basis. “A terrorist sticks a knife in the body,” she wrote. “A rapist sticks a knife in the soul.”

Fleishman had previously spent a few years living in New York, where he had become familiar with the activities of Jewish Community Watch, an organization that works with victims of child sexual abuse. “At the time, this organization had succeeded in ousting the principal of a religious school who had abused children, and all I could think was, wow, these people are really doing something huge,” he recalls. “I knew that when I got back to Israel I wanted to do something like that.” After reading her post, Fleishman reached out to Karlinsky and suggested they create an organization that would combat sex crimes in their own Israeli community. Karlinsky was game.

Their next move was to enlist Roshgold, who had considerable experience with sexual abuse cases in the ultra-Orthodox community through her various jobs. Matan, who had been briefly acquainted with Karlinsky and was quite shaken up by her post, asked to volunteer his services as well.

Since their Facebook page went live, says Fleishman, the group has been approached by “many dozens” of sexual abuse victims through private messages. To date, 10 police complaints have been filed on their behalf.

In some cases, those who reach out to Lo Tishtok are recent victims of abuse. In others, they are adults who have finally found the strength to talk about sexual abuse they suffered as children. The incidence of sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community, says Karlinsky, is not different from elsewhere, from what she and her partners have been able to ascertain. “But what is unique in the Haredi world is that boys are more likely to be victims than girls, and that’s because they’re easier prey. That is to say, they’re more likely to be in close range of potential abusers in the synagogue and yeshiva,” she says, because, with rare exceptions, the assailants are men who serve either as teachers, rabbis or both. These men have much less contact with girls in the ultra-Orthodox world, because girls are generally taught and mentored by women.

At times, the group intervenes to find police investigators sensitive to the particular challenges ultra-Orthodox Jews face when discussing a subject as taboo as sexual abuse. “We had a recent case of a woman who had been raped repeatedly by her brother-in-law, but who had finally gathered the courage to go to the police,” relates Fleishman. “The tone of the policewoman who questioned her, though, completely scared her off. We then approached a Haredi police investigator we knew, and once he was in the picture, this woman was willing to open up.”

Because of her professional experience, Roshgold is the first contact person for callers and is in charge of triage: She decides when a case should be referred to the police, the courts, medical personnel or psychologists. Sometimes, the victims are not seeking treatment or sanctions, but just an attentive ear, in which case she makes herself available to listen — and it can be at any time. “Even if it’s three in the morning, I’m there for them because I know if that’s when the need to speak strikes them, it’s important that I’m there to listen.”

The sexual abuse she suffered as a child, says Roshgold, left her terribly scarred. “But it has also given me the strength to help others,” she says, ”and working with other victims has helped cure the tormented little girl in me.”

Her parents are far from thrilled that this has become her new mission in life, she concedes, but that has not deterred her. “My mother always asks me why I need to talk about these things,” says Roshgold, “and I tell her it’s so that in a generation from now there won’t be any more parents who are embarrassed by daughters talking about such things. And besides that, I tell her, I’m not the one who should be embarrassed. It’s the person who did this to me who should.”

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