Rabbi Mark Dratch (photo from Mark Dratch)
In the first of a series of articles on sexual harassment and violence in the Jewish community, the Jewish Independent speaks with Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice-president of the Rabbinical Council of America and founder of JSafe, the Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse Free Environment, about child abuse.
The “Me Too” movement was started more than 10 years ago to help survivors of sexual violence. Propelled by the hashtag #MeToo, the long-overdue public discussion about sexual harassment and violence against women has revealed that most women have at one point or other in their lives – and usually on more than one occasion – been belittled or threatened, harassed and/or assaulted.
It also has become clear that much abuse occurs – or first occurs – in childhood, and that such abuse is often perpetrated by individuals considered trustworthy, such as a family member, a family friend or someone in an authoritative role, like a teacher, coach or spiritual leader.
Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice-president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and founder of JSafe, the Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse Free Environment, first became acquainted with the issue when he was working as a pulpit rabbi.
“It was probably about 30 years ago,” he told the Independent. “When I was a young rabbi, I became aware of instances of child abuse in the Jewish community and I was very displeased – by the way the situations were being handled, by the way victims were being treated, by the way communities were in a state of denial … and that many of our institutions were not responding appropriately to the allegations. Victims were becoming re-victimized and we weren’t protecting the safety of victims in our community.”
In a paper on child abuse within the Orthodox community, Dratch argued that the then-status quo way of handling these cases was, in fact, based on misinterpretations of the spirit and letter of Jewish law. He addressed, for example, the notion that one must not speak ill of others and their actions, using the Torah to explain that, in instances of child abuse, this sanction does not apply. Taking it a step further, he showed that, in situations such as child abuse, people have an obligation to speak up. His paper was distributed to members of the RCA, and also to many Jewish child and family services agencies in the United States.
“People objected to calling the child protective agencies or civil authorities because of what was perceived to be a religious ban against reporting a fellow Jew to the civil authorities,” said Dratch. “So, I advocated very strongly and proved that it’s not the case – that there’s an obligation to call and work hard to share that information, and to establish community policies that advocate the importance of reporting. There is a whole host of other Jewish values that are good and appropriate but, when they’re misapplied, they can be very harmful.
“I started to get more and more involved in the issue and became aware of more issues. I became involved in organizations in the Jewish community, the general community and the interfaith community that dealt with issues of child abuse.
“This was a period of education for me in terms of the nature of the incidents, but also various responses, and I have been involved ever since,” he said. “Also, for a number of years, I’ve been involved in trying to educate the community and address the objections people have … trying to advocate for policy and to change attitudes. Over the 30 years or so, we see that the community is in a very different place than it was then.”
Thanks to movements like #MeToo, many survivors have become less fearful of speaking out. “Many of them had felt that, somehow, the stereotype that this doesn’t happen in the Jewish community further alienated them and made it difficult for them to acknowledge the abuse,” said Dratch.
Although he admitted we still have a long way to go, Dratch said he feels that the topic is now more common in community discussions. He also said there are now more supports in place for survivors to come forward and get the help they need from the community. As well, more institutions are developing policies of prevention and response in regards to child abuse.
“I think we are now way beyond the situation where there was denial that this was happening,” said Dratch. “We’re way beyond a situation where the community denies that it has any responsibility in prevention and such.”
According to Dratch, the RCA has been a leader in this field, giving rabbis the tools to respond appropriately if complaints of child abuse come up.
“We serve as a resource to our rabbis looking for guidance on how to handle specific situations that may arise in their communities,” said Dratch. “And, we’ve also evolved our mechanisms for holding our rabbis accountable if there are complaints against them for boundary violations or abuse.”
With respect to the Orthodox community, Dratch has found that the number of females victimized is generally lower than that of males, while numbers in the general community indicate that females are more likely targets of child abuse than males. He attributes the difference as likely being due to the increased segregation of the sexes in Orthodox communities.
“The larger culture, in the Jewish and Orthodox community, has enabled and empowered people to come forward and share their complaints and seek justice,” said Dratch. “We will continue to look for ways to educate our rabbis and our communities, and to make our communities and institutions safer.”
While Dratch deals mostly with the Orthodox community, in previous years, he has been involved with the entire spectrum of the Jewish community. In his view, the phenomenon of abuse does not discriminate between observant and non-observant.
“It doesn’t discriminate at all,” he said. “And we have an obligation, as individuals and as a community, to be there for every member of our larger community. Many people who are involved in these things think that we are no different than the general community. It’s really hard to know what our numbers are. My position is that even one is too many. And we certainly have many more than one victim.”
According to Dratch, in the general community – Jewish and non-Jewish together – one out of seven boys and one out of three or four girls become victims of child abuse.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.