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It’s not a sin to stand up against abuse, say Jewish leaders

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Understanding, confronting, and reporting sexual abuse is difficult and painful for any community. Leaders tend to want to close ranks and cover up any impropriety. Survivors of abuse battle to have their voices heard, and fear the consequences. And the South African Jewish community is no exception.

These are some of the key messages emerging from a community webinar hosted by South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein on Monday, 17 January, titled “Sexual abuse: let’s talk openly”.

Renowned American rabbi and psychotherapist Dr Tzvi Hersh Weinreb said we must normalise conversations about abuse. Today, it’s no longer a taboo subject compared to 30 years ago. He mentioned a ground breaking book by the late Rabbi Dr Abraham Twerski written in the 1990s about domestic violence in the Jewish community, called The shame borne in silence. This shame and silence endures.

“All communities have the tendency to hush things up,” said Weinreb. “They prefer not to see ugly things, and hope it will all go away.”

“We don’t want to sully our souls,” Weinreb continued. “But our souls are put into a body which faces material, physical, and sexual challenges and struggles throughout life.” People face temptations all the time, some of which cannot be denied or ignored. They have to be confronted to overcome them.

Dr David Pelcovitz, a veteran American psychologist and observant Jew, said, “We need to talk about [sexual abuse]. We need to shine light on places where there is darkness. It’s natural to want to recoil.” He stressed the critical importance of empowering victims and survivors, and said abuse was usually committed by someone known to the victim, especially within families.

Pelcovitz said parents need to develop a balance when speaking to their children about sexual abuse. They should tread between creating anxiety, building trust, nurturing self-esteem, and spurring action if required. He praised the South African Jewish community’s abuse-prevention programmes.

An abuse survivor often lacks confidence, particularly when facing defensive leaders and community members who want to bury the issue. Survivors need to feel safe, valued, and empowered to stop the cycle of abuse. “It’s not a sin to stand up,” Weinreb said. “People’s lives are at stake.”

The Torah promotes pikuach nefesh, the halachic principle that the preservation of human life takes precedence over almost all other religious rules. It also warns in Leviticus, “Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa” (Don’t stand by the blood of your neighbour), interpreted as an instruction not to be indifferent about what happens to other people. Both injunctions point to intervention against evil actions like sexual abuse. They provide a halachic framework for dealing with this issue.

The community needs to provide an environment of support, understanding, respect, and empathy, Goldstein said. By law, abuse must be reported to the authorities.

Resilience is extremely important in recovering from abuse. Pelcovitz said the three core elements of resilience are someone who cares; belief beyond the self; and chesed (kindness), helping others. He encouraged mindfulness to protect our children in an age of distraction. “There’s no greater protection than being there, eye to eye, heart to heart, to give them focus and courage. Nothing matters more,” he said.

The webinar concluded by highlighting two organisations in the South African Jewish community devoted to combatting abuse. Advocate Liza Segal is chairperson of the Abuse Review Board, set up by the chief rabbi in 2017 as a port of call for community members not satisfied with how organisations have handled complaints.

Rebbetzin Wendy Hendler and Rozanne Sack head up Koleinu SA (Our Voice), established in 2014. They were both abused by a religious doctor in the Johannesburg Jewish community, and felt largely alone, not believed, and censured for supposedly “conducting a witch hunt”. Koleinu SA runs anti-abuse educational programmes at Jewish schools and shuls, a helpline, and provides support for victims. The helpline receives hundreds of calls, including reports of abuse by older children of younger siblings. Calls to Koleinu are treated in strict confidence. Koleinu draws on a strong support network of experts, including attorney Ian Levitt and child protection consultant Luke Lamprecht.

Though there’s a lack of trust in the police and justice system in South Africa, “we use what we have and try to fix its flaws”, said Hendler. “Abuse can stop only by reporting it. We can no longer turn a blind eye. We can all do better. We need to make this a space where perpetrators feel unwelcome and scared.”

Abuse cuts across every fault line in South Africa, from the poorest communities to the most affluent. No community is immune. “We must talk openly about this problem,” said Goldstein. “We must air the ugly issues. By shining light, we begin the process of making the world safer. We have incredible child protection organisations as the first port of call.”

  • The Koleinu SA Helpline is 011 264 0341. Its website is koleinusa.co.za

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