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It’s a sin to remain silent – report abuse

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Letters/Discussion Forums

I recently came across a poster on an Orthodox Jewish website that said something like, “Don’t do anything that you don’t want others to find out about.” Its message is simple: be respectful. Behave morally. Don’t hurt. Be kind.

I mention this in response to Rebbetzin Wendy Hendler’s recent article in the SA Jewish Report titled ‘Men also face gender-based violence’, specifically in relation to her reference to the barriers that we Jews put up in our community regarding lashon hara or mesirah (one Jew handing over another Jew to secular authorities).

If these laws are preventing our Jewish community from calling out abusers, it indicates that most people don’t fully understand them, and have taken laws regarding speech too far and in the wrong direction.

They were meant to create atmospheres of shalom, and guide us regarding speech, what is acceptable to talk about and what’s not. It’s better to discuss the words of the Torah than talk disparagingly about the Rebbetzin’s new sheitel. Use speech to elevate the world.

The laws of speech were never meant to protect abusers, nor to pressurise victims into remaining silent. To think that we cannot speak out against an abuser is distorted. Abusers have shattered and poisoned any atmosphere of shalom that speech laws were meant to facilitate.

Getting back to the website message, I want to say firstly: it’s true. If your actions embarrass you it’s often an indication you did something wrong. The remedy for that is to not do wrong things.

Secondly, seeing this message on an Orthodox Jewish website was a breath of fresh air, because we Orthodox Jews are so used to emphasising the laws of lashon hara that some people may be too scared to talk about anyone or anything at all, even abuse. This idea is out of control. We have extended the umbrella of lashon hara too far, and included things it wasn’t meant to include.

To the contrary, there are certain harmful aspects of individual behaviour that we must expose. It is a sin to remain silent. It is pikuach nefesh – the mitzvah of ‘saving a life’ – which Rebbetzin Hendler also echoes when she says, “For victims, child sexual abuse is akin to being a living murder victim.”

The bottom line is: report abuse. And teach your children to report abuse too.

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Letters/Discussion Forums

Rabbinate’s silence allows abusers to flourish

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A few years ago, I read in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) about a schism in a small American synagogue, and saw red. Rabbi XYZ had recently joined this congregation as a member after a stint in prison. Half of the shul objected to having him in the shul and having their children near him, the other half felt that he had served his sentence, and should be forgiven and welcomed back.

I was incensed. In 1989, the Cape Town synagogue to which I belonged had sent the same Rabbi XYZ packing after discovering that he had been sexually abusing their children. He had arrived some months before from New York, with glowing references about his abilities and his vast Talmudic knowledge. The New York rabbis who had composed those references knew what they were doing, and knew what he had done, and thought South Africa would be far enough away to avoid exposure. Our chief rabbi then ensured that no other South African synagogue would employ him, in spite of those references.

The implication of the JTA article was that for more than 20 years afterwards, Rabbi XYZ had moved from shul to shul in America, accompanied by glowing references from rabbis who thought it more important to keep quiet and take care of their own than to protect children from a known sexual predator until finally, some principled congregational leaders ignored mesira (reporting the conduct of another Jew to a non-rabbinic authority), and he was charged and sentenced to prison.

The Catholic Church has been rightfully condemned for protecting sexual abusers in its fold. Unfortunately, hiding behind the notion of lashon harah (derogatory speech about a person) and the unwillingness to admit wrongdoing among their colleagues, our rabbinate often does the same. Surely it should be as important to protect our children as it is to protect the reputation of rabbinical rascals?

When the scandal about Chaim Walder broke, many Israeli Haredi authorities chose to attack the journalists who had exposed him and caution against the harm of gossip, rather than focus on the pain of the victims and the culture of silence that had shielded the sexual perpetrator for years.

We are grateful to the SA Jewish Report for not conforming to the culture of silence, and for its willingness to publish articles like those from Rabbi Thurgood, Rozanne Sack, and Wendy Hendler, and to organisations like Koleinu SA, which take action to ensure that monsters like Rabbi XYZ will be exposed in South Africa and victims of abuse will be protected and supported.

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Antisemites don’t discriminate between Jews, neither should we

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I learnt about what was going on at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, in the United States (US) late on Saturday, 15 January, from a Facebook post made by one of the rabbis at Temple Israel in Cape Town, of which I’m a member.

What became clear as the nightmare played itself out over hours – for us through the night in real time, for others, after Shabbat ended and they became aware of what was going on – is that the people of Israel, the global Jewish community, were with Rabbi Cytron-Walker and his three congregants as their captivity wore on. Jews of every denomination felt this in their gut. They shared each other’s posts of prayer and then release. This is who we are. This is am Yisrael!

Let’s remember this as we move onward. Let’s remember as we collectively pray for the healing of the four who endured the horror as hostages many kilometres away (in our case and that of others who are outside of the US), or not so far away – that we are all bonded as a people. That our differences of prayer style and interpretation didn’t matter over the hours of their captivity.

It didn’t matter if we called ourselves reform, conservative, orthodox, reconstructionist, renewal, or secular – terrorism and antisemitism know no boundary and don’t discriminate unequally. What mattered is that our people were once again victimised at the hands of a madman. We’re better together than divided, and we must learn from this. We cannot help the world to heal in our quest for tikkun olam if we don’t repair these rifts within.

We cannot afford to come together over victimisation only, we must come together over the love of each other, and respect for each other. All who call themselves Jews felt the anguish experienced by Congregation Beth Israel. No one checked pedigree.

Congregation Beth Israel literally means the house of the people Israel – and that’s what we are – am Yisrael – the Jewish people. It’s also how we must act.

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Looking for Bessie

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I’m seeking the whereabouts of Bessie Taurog, a junior primary school teacher and art teacher at King David Primary School Linksfield in the 1960s.

Please help me to find out what became of her. Email arnoldjlevy@gmail.com.

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