A backlash has followed the decision by a group of rabbis to ban their followers from advertising, viewing or even patronizing the advertisers of an Orthodox Jewish news blog that reports on sexual abuse within their communities. Thirty six rabbis have condemned VosIzNeias.com as sinful, and the response has been sharp.
Some are outraged, others are cracking wise — yet most are wondering whether a ban by a group of rabbis of an Orthodox blog might not be the best thing for a community still wrestling with whether to take allegations of sexual abuse to the police or deal with them “in-house.”
“For many of the victims of abuse I know, the ban has created feelings of being re-traumatized,” Rabbi Asher Lipner told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “Most survivors feel that the community’s stifling their voices has been more damaging emotionally than the actual molestation they have suffered.”
Statistics show that only 16% of cases involving sex crimes against children are ever reported to law enforcement in the secular world, as opposed to what some believe is 1 or 2 percent among the Orthodox.
Many still adhere to the traditional approach, but other have increasingly called for a dedicated shift to criminal prosecutions in all instances.
It’s been a slow evolution, but even those in “ultra-Orthodox” communities in Brooklyn, Rockland County and at the Jersey Shore have begun to come forward. It’s not oversell to say this is a watershed moment in the history of the ultra-Orthodox community.Asher Lipner
This pleases those like Lipner, an abuse survivor and vice-president of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children, who says that “forbidden criticism of rabbis and immodest speech… have been used for years to silence victims,” which he says only “triggers flashbacks and reawakens feelings of betrayal.”
The movement has clearly rankled many community leaders, however.
Vos Iz Neias? (Yiddish for “What’s News?”) has won widespread acceptance and readership in the Hasidic and Yehiva communities — no mean feat, considering its frank and open discussion of convicted Jewish sex offenders and their crimes. Besides its own stories, it re-prints pieces from, among others, Newsday, The New York Times, The New York Post, and The Jewish Week.
“They report on everything — the good, the bad and the ugly,” Lipner told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “They have strict published rules of comment moderation, and they are seen as careful about being fair and balanced and not sensational.”
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis from Philadelphia to Europe don’t see it that way.
In a statement printed in Hebrew and posted in Orthodox neighborhoods, they said the site “airs dirty laundry in public” and “writes against officers and politicians…to ruin their reputations.”
Lipner contends the blog’s troubles come from trying to change a climate in which discussing child sexual abuse is more taboo than in general society.
Among the ultra-Orthodox, “religious and cultural norms frown upon any open discussion of sexual experiences for any reason as inherently immodest speech,” he explained. “Biblical laws against gossip and tale-bearing, known as ‘Lashon Harah,’ forbid spreading information about Jews committing crimes against other Jews.”
Scandal in the community is often considered a desecration of God’s name — what‘s known as a “Chillul Hashem” — while “criticizing the rabbis’ failure to keep children safe is seen as disrespectful to the authority of Torah sages,” Lipner told CLIFFVIEW PILOT .
Lipner is among those who argue that Jewish law not only permits “informing others of dangerous criminals in order to protect children” but actually sees it as a commandment to do the right thing.
“As we have seen in other faith communities, the cover-up of child molestation produces more of a scandal than the crime itself, and constitutes a much greater desecration” of God’s name, he said.
“As far as criticizing the mistakes of leaders, the Torah writes that students are not allowed to be afraid to speak up when their teachers err in deciding Torah law because such fear could lead to a distortion of the Truth of the Torah,” Lipner said. “Finally, being overly modest at a time when lives are at stake (in this case innocent children) is repeatedly referred to in the Talmud as being a ‘pious fool’.”
Between the Orthodox community’s two leading newspapers, Hamodia and Yated Ne’eman, “there has been only a total of one article on the topic ever,” Lipner told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “It was an open admission in Yated that there is a problem, and it came out at the same time that rabbinic leaders joined the Catholic Church in open opposition to the Child Victim’s Act,” which extends the statute of limitations for victims to report abuse.
“It is against this backdrop that child victim advocates have been striving for years to bring awareness and openness about this issue to the community in order to find ways to prevent this crime,” Lipner said.
Several blogs — among them, Theunorthodoxjew (UOJ), FailedMessiah and FrumFollies — have forcefully and eloquently addressed the troubles, and the silence surrounding them. Now comes the ban on Vos Iz Neias?
Beginning in 2008 with its coverage of New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind’s efforts to find solutions to child sex abuse, Vos Iz Neias? has reported on attempts by the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children and other rabbinic organizations to convince victims to go to the police, promoted the statute of limitations extension, and publicized events such as the recent first-ever National Jewish Week for the Prevention of Child Abuse.
While not condemning VIN, Shmarya Rosenberg, the publisher of FailedMessiah.com, notes that the blog is “very selective about the news it publishes.”
The site “censors out the names of most ultra-Orthodox criminals and pedophiles, and many stories go completely unreported,” Rosenberg told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “The conviction of Israel’s former president, an Orthodox Jew, on rape charges today is a good example of that.
“VIN means well, to be sure, but they could not exist if they reported the truth or allowed comments to report it, although the comments section is a little looser than than the actual articles posted.”
The comments area, according to Lipner, has “created a safe place for survivors to tell their stories anonymously in the comments section of its postings. Expressing their thoughts, feelings and ideas has been healing and empowering for the survivors, and it has also been quite an eye-opener for the community to learn how many of their own children have been hurt by this problem.”
By doing so, he told CLIFFVIEW PILOT , VIN has helped increase the number of Orthodox Jews reporting sex crimes against children to authorities, “thereby creating safer streets, schools and homes for Jewish children.”
Recently, Vos Iz Neias? reprinted a series of articles accusing New York AssemblymanVito Lopez, chairman of Brooklyn’s Democratic Party, of misusing funds. Lopez has close ties to many Hasidic rabbis.
Despite strong suspicions among those in the know that the ban was less about sexual abuse and more about politics, it’s unclear whether the Lopez coverage was the rabbis’ primary motivation.
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