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Beth Din implores survivors of child abuse to come forward

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The Beth Din of South Africa this week issued a first-of-its-kind message urging survivors of child abuse not to be afraid to report cases which may lead to a breakthrough.

This signals a major step forward in acknowledging that there’s a problem with reporting cases in the community – something activists in the field have been lamenting for years.

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein acknowledged the Beth Din’s move and the halacha attached to it as “one of the most important weapons to protect current and future victims from being violated”.

The Beth Din said it was “aware of the reticence” that victims have of reporting molestation “due to the feared personal consequences”. It nevertheless “implored” victims to take “the difficult step” of reporting any such behaviour to a registered Child Protection Organisation (CPO).

“Such steps may not only ensure that the perpetrator is brought to justice, but will also prevent them from being able to continue such activities with even more victims,” the message read.

The unprecedented message, delivered by dayanim Rabbis Dovid Baddiel, Gideon Fox, Yoel Smith, and Matthew Liebenberg, came amid mounting pressure from the public for cases of this nature to be effectively and timeously addressed. This, together with many rumours of longstanding allegations of child abuse in the community, which remain secret due to fear of coming forward. There’s also the perception that crimes of abuse are being swept under the carpet by institutions and authorities.

The dayanim said further, “If the allegations are found to be credible and ultimately the perpetrator is incarcerated as a result, we wish to make it clear that this is in perfect alignment with Jewish law.

“Such people, who pose a real and ongoing threat to the community and who rely on our silence to continue their activities, are considered a threat to society as defined in the Shulchan Aruch, and one is therefore obligated to alert the authorities.”

Their message has been welcomed by child-abuse activists and members of the public desperate to see action in securing justice for victims of abuse.

“This is a bold, brave, proactive, and courageous move by the Beth Din”, said Rebbetzin Wendy Hendler and her partner, Rozanne Sack, who head up Koleinu SA, which runs anti-abuse educational programmes at Jewish schools and shuls, an anonymous helpline, and provides support for victims.

Said the chief rabbi, “This statement of the Beth Din, which represents the accepted international rabbinic view on this issue, is a vital part of our community’s fight against child abuse.”

The question is why now? Insiders say the move follows pressure globally following high-profile sexual-abuse cases; ongoing, effective training within the community around issues of abuse; as well as cases recently brought to its attention.

“There’s a general waking up in the world, and South Africa is following suit, which is a good thing. The impact of this will be amazing. It’s a massive step in the right direction,” said Hendler.

Fox told the SA Jewish Report that child abuse was a “scourge in the community”, and there had been a lot of discussion on this topic following international events. This had shone a light on local issues, and had started the process of “breaking the silence”.

“Victims are afraid to come forward, they are fearful of the potential implications for their families and on future shidduchim [matchmaking] should the matter go public. These are real and understandable concerns and we have to figure out how to assuage these fears to ensure they’re not victimised further,” he said.

“We want to encourage them to feel safe to come forward and lodge complaints where they exist.”

“It’s difficult to proceed when a victim doesn’t want to lay a charge. This allows the perpetrator to continue the abuse. We shouldn’t create a safe environment for people to perpetuate these crimes,” he said.

A general movement worldwide to encourage victims to come forward was sparked by a number of high-profile cases of abuse which have shone a light on child abuse and its handling.

Gut wrenching revelations exposed by Haaretz late last year of the abuse conducted by celebrated ultra-Orthodox Haredi author and therapist, the late Chaim Walder, rocked Orthodox communities worldwide. While Walder maintained an adored and beloved image for children, he sexually exploited girls for years, the Haaretz investigation revealed. On 27 December 2021, he committed suicide, leaving a gutted Haredi community bereft and in disarray over its response to allegations of sexual abuse.

Another earlier Haaretz investigation last year found that Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the celebrated ultra-Orthodox Israel Prize winner and founder of the Zaka rescue organisation, had for decades allegedly exploited his status, power, money, and even the organisation he headed to assault teenagers and children, boys and girls.

Abuse cases like these have spurred many in the community to stand up, calling on institutions to act effectively, with some in the South African community vowing to tolerate the silence no longer.

Dissatisfied and frustrated with communal and civil institutions and the slow pace at which cases of this nature progress, members of the community have turned to social media to spur some movement.

The Beth Din encourages victims to report incidents to CPOs such as the Johannesburg Chevrah Kadisha Community Services, Jewish Community Services Cape Town, or an organisation specialising in dealing with such matters such as the Teddy Bear Clinic.

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