We Can’t Look Away Anymore

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Written by L.

Editor’s Note: Trigger Warning: The following post has been identified by the Jewrotica staff as containing content that may be triggering for some readers. This type of content may include sexual assault, questionable consent, abuse of any kind, self-harm, or violence.

Rated PG

We Can’t Look Away Anymore
Rabbi Freundel’s crime reminds us of the importance of speaking out

When I was in middle school, there was a running joke amongst all the girls: “Don’t spend time alone with the cantor! He’ll touch you!” We talked about his wandering hands matter-of-factly and without protest. It didn’t occur to us to speak up; his behavior was the status quo, as much a part of our bat mitzvah lessons as writing a d’var torah. Our cantor was a fixture in the community who taught at the local Jewish day school and the weekly Hebrew school, along with his regular cantorial duties—there was simply no avoiding him.

He started on me when I was ten, luring me into his office with promises of candy. After a few weeks of sitting on his lap, kissing his cheek when he asked me to and listening to his sweet-talk in exchange for a few chocolate bars, I saw the look on my mother’s face when I left his office. Her discomfort and fear removed any doubt I’d had that how the cantor treated young girls was serious and wrong—not a joke at all. My parents talked it over and decided that what he had done to me wasn’t “enough.” His behavior was undoubtedly creepy, but not illegal. My mother forbade me from going into his office alone and that was supposed to be the end of things.

I don’t blame my parents for this decision. I agreed then (and still do now) that nothing would have come from this particular complaint. As a family, we left it up to somebody else to come forward—someone with “real” evidence. Several years later, one family did. A girl had suffered what could be legally defined as sexual abuse at the hands of our religious leader. Looking back now, I’m nauseated by the implications of my family’s decision. Though I’m not exactly sure what could have been done differently, I’ll never stop wishing we had done something to save that girl—and who knows how many others—from being victimized by the cantor.

I wonder how many people in communities like mine have similar stories. On October 13th, Washington D.C. Rabbi Barry Freundel was arrested for planting video cameras in the dressing room of his community’s Mikvah. Freundel, a prominent rabbi who was on the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, oversaw thirteen rabbinical courts around the U.S. and was deemed an aficionado on kashrut and conversion, was videotaping women as they undressed to prepare for ritual immersion. As I read the many articles and blog posts that immediately sprang up on the subject, the tone of the authors and quoted community members felt extremely familiar to me. For years, they had felt uncomfortable. They had felt that Freundel’s behavior was inappropriate—especially towards female conversion students. They had been nervous to come forward, but sure that somebody eventually would. It turns out that Freundel actually had been investigated twice by the RCA: once in 2012 for his “inappropriate role” in overseeing conversions, and once in 2013 for travelling on a train with a woman who was not his wife. Neither investigation led to any disciplinary action. But I wonder…if Freundel’s behavior was improper enough to lead to two separate accusations, how many people were looking the other way? How much “non-evidence” had accumulated? How long ago could he have been stopped?

The Jewish community has developed a chronic back problem from all its time spent turning away from confrontation and uncomfortable situations. My hometown’s story is a perfect example of this tendency. Once the accusations against the cantor finally came out, our community learned that he had similarly abused a young congregant at his previous synagogue. Instead of prosecuting, they agreed to keep quiet and give him a good recommendation if he left town. They sent him to us, turning their backs. They enabled him to gain a new position of power where he would continue to educate children.

I cannot presume to know what any other survivor is going through. Abuse affects people differently; each survivor has her or his own story that no one else can claim to fully understand. That being said, there is a large community of Jews out there who share a pain—who are bonded to each other by experience. Their pain must be acknowledged and honored. I will always feel responsible for what happened to the girls who came after me in that cantor’s office. I can’t shake the certainty that there are those like me in D.C. (and in communities worldwide) who wish they had spoken up sooner. Who feel responsible for how long the abuse lasted in their communities. Who knew that something was wrong, but held their tongues in fear and discomfort. If we continue to turn away from questionable behavior, over time our backs will break from twisting for so long. Our aches will become irreversible, our pain permanent. Personally, I intend to be my own chiropractor. I refuse to look the other way anymore.

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  • Dirty Di

    Dear L,
    Unfortunately, the amount of girls who has been through that situation is innumerable. Recently I read some statistic that said that 90% of females has been victim of some kind of sexual harassment.
    I understand what you say because unfortunately, we had a similar situation in our school. As far as I know, our teacher never abused anybody, at least not in my school, but it was as you describe. I remember there were a few complaints (my friends and I among them), but the school authorities figured the same as your parents: it’s not enough to actually do anything about it.
    Now, this was almost 15 years ago, there wasn’t much awareness as today about the subject, but in hindsight, I also think we could’ve done more, and they should’ve done more.
    The problem at the time was, as you said, that we thought about it as a common behavior, mostly because nobody taught us better. Our complaints were feeble because we didn’t really know what exactly we were complaining about, and when we did complain, adults simply dismissed us with a nod.
    I don’t think a 12 year-old can be expected to speak out as an abuse victim, and that’s what has to change. We need to stop viewing this as normal, but most of all, we need to teach children that not only it’s not normal, but it’s a crime and shouldn’t be happening.